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Last Poets - The Last Poets / This Is Madness

When I wrote the liner notes to this Charly Records' reissue in 2011 I still hadn't interviewed the Last Poets and any insights I did have were due to producer Alan Douglas, whose recall of these initial recording sessions proved invaluable. Thanks to him I'd first heard the Poets in 1970, on the Performance soundtrack. Like most other people I was shocked at the directness of what they were saying, but spellbound by their use of language and imagery. I've remained a fan of theirs ever since.

With their incendiary brand of jazz, poetry and polemics, the Last Poets were well named. Their Armageddon raps, accompanied by relentless, African style drumming, coincided with seismic shifts in American society, and invoked renewed examination of how “400 years of physical, mental and spiritual slavery” had condemned their fellow African-Americans to life as second-class citizens.

They formed on May 19th1968, just weeks after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King – an event that spelt the end of an important phase in the Civil Rights movement and ignited widespread rioting as centuries’ old feelings of anger and frustration spiralled out of control. May 19th was Malcolm X’s birthday and three years earlier he too, had been gunned down and killed for his political activities.

“Malcolm X was our pathway to revolutionary understanding,” explains Abiodun Oyewole. “This man never stopped trying to develop and recognise the best of himself. He was self-determined. Malcolm was saying we need to be more and we heard that. And he said it better than anybody ever said it. He made things clear to us. So all we wanted to do was to be disciples of Malcolm in a sense, using poetry to illuminate the same values that he planted in our heads.”

Advocates of black power such as Malcolm X, the Nation Of Islam and Black Panthers had brought revolutionary fervour to the struggle for racial equality and as the thirst for change spilled over into the streets of America new voices began to be heard, replacing the more conciliatory tones of Southern Baptist tradition. Inspired by Alex Haley’s Roots, many African-Americans sought to reconnect with their African heritage. Oyewole himself had attended a Yoruba temple in Harlem, where he abandoned his slave name Charles Davis and learnt of ancient Gods. Whilst not a founder member, he witnessed the Poets’ conception as they were galvanised by news footage of the student unrest at Howard University in Washington, and then drew inspiration from jazz vocalist Eddie Jefferson, writer Leroy Jones (Amiri Baraka) and South African revolutionary poet / activist Keorapetse Kgositsile, who was teaching and performing in New York at the time. It was he who warned that, "When the moment hatches in time's womb there will be no art talk. The only poem you will hear will be the spear point pivoted in the punctured marrow of the villain.... Therefore we are the last poets of the world."

The Poets’ original line-up included Gylan Kain, David Nelson and Felipe Luciano, who later formed a Latino political organisation called the Young Lords. In time to come, this trio will record separately as The Original Last Poets.Back in 1968/69, one of their favourite hangout places was the newly opened recreation centre in Mount Morris Park, just south of 125th Street. It was there, in the shadow cast by the distinctive watchtower, where they honed their craft and gave shape to their revolutionary vision. Soon, Oyewole will replace David Nelson and the group continue to evolve after basing themselves at a Harlem writers' workshop known as East Wind. A friend of Nelson’s had started a clothing enterprise called New Breed, which specialised in African style clothing. He would invite jazz musicians such as Pharaoh Sanders and Leon Thomas to perform at his fashion shows, and the Poets also made regular appearances, dressed in their dashikis and Afros. Black unity was high on the agenda yet the Poets were almost consumed by internal strife and before long only Oyewole remained. He recruited Umar Bin Hassan, a conga player named Nilaja Obabi and thenJalal Mansur Nuriddin, who none of the others liked at first. Jalal was a former US Army paratrooper who’d refused to fight in Vietnam, and had only recently been freed from prison. Also known as Alafia Pudim – even “Larry,” by some – he’ll also record as Lightnin’ Rod and was renowned for constantly talking in rhyme. It’s this line-up that’s now considered definitive after they performed on the group's 1970 self-titled debut.

Jason Ankeny has written that, "With their politically charged raps, taut rhythms and dedication to raising African-American consciousness, the Last Poets almost single-handedly laid the groundwork for the emergence of hip-hop." But whilst they may have been first to record, the Poets certainly weren’t alone. In Los Angeles, the Watts Prophets were preparing to make a poetry album called Black Voices, expressing similar sentiments. This West coast aggregate had become politicised after the 1965 riots and like the Last Poets, wrote lyrics steeped in “anger, blood and tears.” They too, drew inspiration from the work of jazz musicians like Archie Shepp and Max Roach, as well as the same roll call of radical black literary figures. Gil Scott Heron was another who’ll adopt “a black fist raised in song” on his debut album A New Black Poet: Small Talk At 125thAnd Lenox – a set again released in 1970, and that contained the original cut of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

Together, these three acts will drink deep from the ancient wellspring of African oral tradition and help lay the foundations of modern-day hip-hop and yet none of them were concerned with stardom or riches, but what KRS 1 would later term “edutainment.” This made them outcasts – rebels who spoke the truth as they saw it and who used their music as a vehicle in keeping their revolutionary aims and methods alive. The Last Poets were most radical of all. To describe them as uncompromising is an understatement, and nor were they averse to aiming barbs at their own people. Is there any song more scathing, or that strips the African-American psyche barer than Niggers Are Scared Of Revolution? In reclaiming the word “nigger,” the Poets snatched back one of their oppressors’ main weapons and in doing so, empowered themselves and an entire nation. In Oyewole’s own words they set out “to de-niggerfy black people” and wage war against the fear and ignorance that still informed much of collective black consciousness.

“With the Poets, we were angry and we had something to say,” he recalls. “We addressed the language. We just put it right in front of your face and we parented the hip-hop generation, I can't deny that. I worked with a lot of them and they have the same rage and I understand that but there was a movement back then with the Panthers and other organisations, trying to secure human rights for the community. We had these guidelines and guard-rails...”

Their rhymes had focus and a direction. They were working in a purposeful way and record producer Alan Douglas understood this from the minute he saw a short clip of them performing on PSB. All that remained was for him to convince the Poets they should make records. This was in November 1969. Douglas was a seasoned operator who’d ran United Artists’ jazz catalogue in the early sixties and worked with the likes of Duke Ellington, Charlie Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Max Roach. He was currently working with guitarist John McLaughlin and had a circle of friends that included Miles Davis, Timothy Leary and Jimi Hendrix, who’ll later play on Jamal’s Doriella Du Fontaine – a delightful mix of jive storytelling and funky guitar that’ll prove the ultimate “jail toast.”

After convincing them of his motives, Douglas took the Poets to Impact Sound Studio in Manhattan, where engineer Danfort Griffith was charged with the task of getting their chants down on tape. Douglas has described them as being “very confrontational, constantly. That was part of the game and that was okay because I was used to that.

“That first record, it was just what they were doing on street corners and that’s where I heard them,” he explains. “I saw them on television at first, liked what they were doing and got in contact with them and they made me come up to 137th Street to this old, rundown basketball court on the corner of Lenox Avenue. I just stood there listening to it and then took them into the studio where we got it straight down on tape.

“If you look at their poetry you’ll find they incorporated certain of Malcolm X’s speeches into their pieces or if not necessarily the words themselves, then the ideas. The thing is, nobody can teach you to be a poet. You’re either a poet or you’re not but these guys had all either spent some time in jail or had close associates with other people who had so they knew about that experience and then it developed into what we call jail toasts. Whilst they were in prison, they heard fellow inmates talking about their lives outside of jail and stories about pimps, junkies, whores and what have you, so they took that form and turned it into protest based on the words of Malcolm X. In that sense, what the Last Poets did was original, and helped to open up American blacks to different influences.”

That first album marked a pivotal moment in the history of popular music, and it demanded attention right from the start. The Last Poets didn’t concern themselves with begging the white man for favours or talk of integration. They addressed their messages directly to fellow African-Americans, and in a language these people dared only speak among themselves. This meant they often spoke of their oppressors with thinly veiled contempt, yet they were even-handed with it. They’d simply tell it like it is, no matter who was in their sights. “Niggers do a lot of shooting,” they mock, before delivering the put-down. “They shoot off their mouths...” Also, who could forget the line in When The Revolution Comes, where they say “some of you will catch it on TV, with chicken hanging from your mouths...”

They can be scathing at times and yet we’re not talking about self-hatred here, but tough love. Their goal was to politicise the black community, not dismiss or ridicule it and yet by the same token, time was running out. “Wake up niggers or we’re all dead.” This was the track that set rock fans’ ears alight on the soundtrack to Performance – a film starring Mick Jagger, and an essay in rock star decadence that couldn’t have been further removed from the Poets’ own embattled lifestyles. First they pour scorn on quasi-intellectuals “rapping about the Big Apple and you ain’t never had a bite.” The picture they paint of New York is one of grim, urban desolation – a city characterised by roach infested tenements, chronic unemployment, drug abuse, poverty and violence. “You the living dead,” they chant, before deriding New York’s “synthetic avenues” and dismissing the Statue Of Liberty as “a prostitute.” It’s a lament that will later echo in the rhymes of so many gangster rappers, except the Last Poets got there first. Those droning counter-harmonies can put you in a spell as Jalal’s urgent lead tells of “vampire eyes wondering who you are.” Even the music is a war cry, as the drums pound out those insistent rhythms.

It’s an album masquerading as a movie. Listen to Jones Comin’ Down, which tells the story of a strung-out junkie, doubled over with pain and plotting to steal his girlfriend’s welfare cheque. Then there’s Two Little Boys – a tale of fatherless juveniles high on drugs, their faces puffed up and with eyes popping out their skulls. “Have you seen the sickness of our people?” the Poets ask, before warning their brothers and sisters not to become lost in intellectual pursuits, but to take responsibility for what needs doing right in front of their faces, and in their own communities. Always, they touch upon a nerve where African-American life is concerned because whilst Black Thighs is a celebration of black sexuality, Gashman is littered with orgasmic moans and delivers a stinging retort to those who value sex over revolution. “Wake up niggers or we’re all through.”

Ultimately, and for all their fiery rhetoric, the Last Poets pointed the way forwards to a world built upon the bedrock of black self-determination on that first album, even if their central vision was laced with realism because “until then, you know and I know that niggers will party and bullshit and party and bullshit and party...”

At just over half an hour it’s short by even 1970 standards and yet there’s an intensity within the grooves that burns so fiercely, it seems to last three times as long. Over time, The Last Poets will sell half a million copies, despite an almost total lack of promotion. It wasn’t banned as such, although they’ll be investigated by the US counter intelligence programme COINTELPRO soon enough. It’s just that most DJs and journalists ignored it and probably hoped it would go away.

“It didn’t get any airplay,” confirms Alan Douglas. “It was all word of mouth within the black community and then news began to spread from there. It was a very political, thought provoking recording. It made black people think about themselves and it was done in a very sincere way. It was just straight out true feelings, talking about all the things that had been hidden from people for years and years.

“For their next album, we took out an ad in Rolling Stone which said, ‘If you’re white, this record will scare the shit out of you. If you’re white, this record will scare the nigger out of you.’ Unfortunately by the time of the second record, the group had already broken up and there was just the two of them, so it wasn’t quite the same thing. One of them went to jail,” he reflects. “I wanted to wait for him before making the record but he got too long a sentence and CBS were on our case, wanting us to make another record so we did it knowing they might never get back together again. Which they did of course....”

If the Last Poets’ message had been lessened in any way by Abiodun Oyewole’s absence, you wouldn’t know it from listening to This Is Madness. The album opens with True Blues, which is another searing indictment of the treatment African Americans have received from their former slave-masters. Jalal’s uncompromising rhetoric can also be heard on Mean Machine (later adapted by Jamaican dee-jay Big Youth), The White Man’s Got A God Complex and O. D, which paints a harrowing picture of drug dependency whilst simultaneously paying tribute to jazz icons like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. The reality in that track cuts like a knife. More than just a cry from the heart, it’s a clinical dissection of the pain and despair that’s stalked some of America’s greatest musicians in pursuit of the lost chord.

As inner conflicts and problems with the law threatened to tear the Poets apart, Jalal stayed close to Douglas, who produced his solo album Hustler’s Convention, recorded under the name of Lightnin’ Rod. This extraordinary album, “rapped” over a dizzying fusion of jazz, funk and rock, tells the story of a gambling convention populated by a cast of larger-than-life characters that wouldn’t seem at all out of place in a Chester Himes’ novel but who would have been all too familiar to members of the black community during the very early seventies, when “black exploitation” films like Cotton Comes To Harlem and Shaft were all the rage.

“We called him Lightnin’ Rod because he was a Muslim and we didn’t want to upset anyone from that religion unnecessarily,” explains Alan Douglas. “We did the Hustlers Convention and then another track called Doriella Du Fontaine. Jalal had come to see me and I told him to go out in the studio and see Buddy Miles, who was sat there on drums. They started into Doriella Du Fontaine but then Jimi Hendrix walked in and made everyone stop so he could go in with them and play on it, so that all happened by accident.”

Doriella Du Fontaine is a wonderful amalgamation of jive storytelling and funky guitar. Douglas had met Hendrix at Woodstock and the pair had become close friends. Jimi, who’ll die within a year of this recording, plays mainly rhythm guitar on Doriella Du Fontaine, but not even the presence of a legendary rock star can detract from another captivating demonstration of the jail toaster’s art by Jalal, whose tale of a high-class prostitute is so rich in detail, it’s cinema for the ears and mind.

Like the majority of other tracks on this collection, Jalal’s work encapsulates a chapter in history that will never be repeated. It was a time when brave souls like the Poets, armed with truth and righteous indignation, were fearless enough to assert their own cultural imperatives and had the skills to turn verse into word, sound and power. The Last Poets will make plenty of other recordings over the years, but it’s doubtful they will ever match the intensity of those gathered here.

John Masouri


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