The Last Poets: Pure & Potent / "Allowing us to both descend into and transcend the limits of an established reality"
A mind-bending experience. This is the phrase that aptly describes an encounter with the Last Poets. They boil an intoxicating intellectual and political brew atop a flame fanned by poetry and music, spitting their dope ass rhymes over the djembe drum’s cadenced don-ba-dum-dum, don-ba-dum-dum, don-ba-dum-dum. They respond to our innate physiological need for that which is pure, like water. Yet they tend to our acquired taste for that which is potent, acting as a psychotropic agent by allowing us to both descend into and transcend the limits of an established reality. Our chapped skin absorbs their words, which are stripped of the superficiality sprinkled on the saccharine falsities that lace most of the blank music on Billboard magazine’s ‘Top __________’ (fill in the blank) charts. We stumble away from their 151-proof wisdom incensed and inspired.
The Last Poets formed in 1968 on Malcom X’s birthday -- May 19 -- during a festival in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park. The group’s line-up was fluid at its inception; however, Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, Umar Bin Hassan, and Nilaja emerged as core members. Suliaman El Hadi and others were later additions to the group, which, over the years, also weathered a number of subtractions amid a sea of controversies. The Poets’ name grew out South African literary giant and activist Keorapetse Willie Kgositsile’s incendiary battle cry, “Toward a Walk in the Sun”:
“...THE WIND YOU HEAR IS THE BIRTH OF MEMORY. WHEN THE MOMENT HATCHES IN TIME'S WOMB THERE WILL BE NO ART TALK. THE ONLY POEM YOU WILL HEAR WILL BE THE SPEARPOINT PIVOTED IN THE PUNCTURED MARROW OF THE VILLAIN; THE TIMELESS NATIVE SON DANCING LIKE CRAZY TO THE RETRIEVED RHYTHMS OF DESIRE FADING INTO MEMORY. THEREFORE, WE ARE THE LAST POETS OF THE WORLD.” (source)
The Last Poets’ eponymous debut was released in 1970, and a parched Black audience clamored to drink from the oasis that they (re)presented. Oyewole elaborates on the group’s origins and the jolt caused by their first album in the following excerpt from an interview with Jason Gross and John Grady of Perfect Sound Forever magazine. Writer and satirist Darius James acknowledges this impact on Black America’s consciousness in his book, That’s Blaxploitation! Roots of the Baadasssss ‘Tude (Rated X by an All-Whyte Jury):
“In 1970 the Last Poets released their first album and dropped a bomb on Black Amerikkka’s turntables. Muthafuckas ran f’cover. Nobody was ready. Had em scared o’ revolution. Scared o’ the whyte man’s god complex. Scared o’ subways. Scared o’ each other. Scared o’ themselves. And scared o’ that totem of onanistic worship -- the eagle-clawed Amerikkkan greenback! The rhetoric made you mad. The drums made you pop your fingers. And the poetry made you sail on the cushions of a fine hashish high. Most importantly, they made you think and kept you ‘correct’ on a revolutionary level. We all connected. ‘Cause it was a Black communal thing. Like the good vibes and paper plate of red-peppered potato salad at a neighborhood barbecue. The words and the rhythms were relevant. We joined together around the peace pipe and the drum. And when it came to the rhythms of the drums, the drums said, ‘Check your tired-ass ideology at the door.’” (source)
Take a sip of “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution,” one among the many memorable offerings on the classic album:
Niggers are somewhere fucking
Try to be nice to them, they fuck over you
Niggers don’t realize while they doin’ all this fucking
They’re getting fucked around
And when they do realize it’s too late
So niggers just get fucked up
Niggers talk about fucking
Fuckin’ that, fuckin’ this, fuckin’ yours, fuckin’ my sis
Not knowing what they’re fucking for
They ain’t fucking for love and appreciation
Just fucking to be fucking.
Niggers fuck white thighs, black thighs, yellow thighs, brown thighs
Niggers fuck ankles when they run out of thighs
Niggers fuck Sally, Linda, and Sue
And if you don’t watch out
Niggers will fuck you!
Niggers would fuck ‘Fuck’ if it could be fucked
But when it comes to fucking for revolutionary causes
Niggers say ‘Fuck revolution!’
Niggers are scared of revolution
We’ve been getting fucked up off that Last Poets shit for years. In the tradition of Curtis Mayfield and Gill Scott-Heron, the Poets have been quenching our collective thirst for four decades, and counting. Every gulp of their verbal absinthe sears away the layers that cloud that which is raw, and exposes that which is real -- and therefore, timeless. Cheers.
The Last Poets: Abiodun Oyewole Interview
(SOURCE: Perfect Sound Forever)
PSF: What kind of alcohol would say your work is, then?
AO: (laughs) Cognac. Cognac because I do know how to weave the metaphors together into a journey and intoxicate you, to a degree. Just to make you so drunk that you can’t drive. It’s strong, I know it. Some people may need to drink some juice or water afterwards. I remember this one line from ‘Black Rage’ that was aired on New York Undercover with this line ‘So you became GI Joe/killing your family/not the enemy/a human gun/made and manufactured in/the United Snakes of America’ It came off the screen like you could see all the rattlesnakes coming right at you. That’s what I’m talking about. I’m not going to fake it on you. I’m going to give it to you. That’s the Last Poets’ trademark. To undress language and make it naked. Look at that butt, all the cellulite, everything.
PSF: What kind of influences did you have with music before you started the Last Poets?
AO: I always liked jazz. My folks had a lot of albums. My mother liked gospel. Mahalia Jackson was, without doubt, the crown jewel. I heard a lot of her. Ella Fitzgerald was in the house too and Sarah Vaughn and Count Basie and Duke Elligton. We were definitely glued to the tube when Sammy Davis was singing. When the Twist came out with Chubby Checker, that was a big deal. My mother was twisting, my father was twisting. I was trying to twist. Music was a part of everything. My first transistor had a little extension that I could put in my ear and listen to when I went to sleep. I listened to Curtis Mayfield and the Temptations and that whole Motown thing. I was in love with all of that. And I liked Johnny Mathis. I won talent shows imitating Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole. Mathis was one of my favorites: I used to sing ‘Twelfth of Never’ to death, trying to pick up girls! All of that, I’m sure, helped nurture the poetry in me.
My father was very political in terms of what was happening. Our first real political experience happened from other Black people. We lived on a block where there was one other Black family who was from Jamaica. My mother wanted to make friends and sent Christmas cards to everyone. These people sent a Christmas card back from Jamaica -- I’ll never forget that. They were really upset that we came on the block and upset everything because now they weren’t the only ones. They hated us. It was really deep. It lasted for years. But I understand what prejudice had done to them so now we were getting some residuals based on how they were treated. Now they were treating others the same way, their own kind.
I was fortunate in high school to have an English teacher named Mr. Richstone. Two of the books that impressed me the most were Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Patton and The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. He asked us to define what The Old Man and the Sea was about in our own words. I thought it was a metaphor for Jesus Christ. He said that he never read a paper that was more radical than that. I said that it was a Christ fixation that he had. Duane Jones, who also taught at that high school, was another important influence on me. He taught me similes and metaphors and I was a wiz at that stuff. He began a very good friend. He was also in The Night of the Living Dead -- he saved some people in the movie and the townspeople think he’s a zombie so they shoot him dead. He really helped me to get into the technical aspects of poetry and getting me to appreciate it.
At first, I was into Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot and Lawrence Ferlighetti. Then I started getting into the Black poetry. Langston Hughes especially. I saw a performance of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis doing his poetry and that’s what really opened me up. It was so unreal, so lyrical. They made it live. You could feel it, it became drama as opposed to words on a page. That had a lot of influence on me, involving myself with the Last Poets.
Another big influence was my mother. One Sunday she had me practice the Lord’s Prayer in the basement of our house. She wanted me to say it loud enough for her to hear it in the kitchen, which was upstairs but she didn’t want me to yell. She said ‘throw your voice.’ So I developed whatever big voice I have from that. I learned how to project. When that Easter Sunday came and the Reverend put the microphone up to my face, my mother said ‘That boy does not need a mic, take it away.’ There was a thousand people there and they ALL heard me. Twenty years later, people would still come up to me and say ‘that’s the Davis’ boy that sang on Easter Sunday!’ All of that had some influence on my poetry with my whole desire to recite and say it. I do appreciate the fact that people can also read it and get a lot out of it too.
Amiri Baraka was unquestionably a major influence. He was taking strides outside the boundaries. He was bold about it. I liked that. He had a sense of music because he knew the musicians and it always came out in his work. He was sipping the right brew with the right cats. I enjoyed him tremendously. He was a major influence and a true mentor of the Last Poets.
Personal influences were David Nelson and Gylan Kain (the original Last Poets) because I was the baby in the group. Kain was the greatest, most intense poet I’d ever heard in my life, especially dealing with the subject of ‘niggers’ and how he made that it clear how detrimental it was for us to follow that pattern. He broke it down and dealt with it honestly and richly. A lot of people like to deal with things in a nasty way but he dealt with it richly:
Walk around Harlem
Took about a minute
Heard a voice cry out
‘Niggers got rhythm’
My head spun around
The people had deserted
From that moment in time
Harlem became a desert
From that moment in time
Harlem IS a desert
Dow Jones went up
One point three
Harlem no change
That’s MASTERFUL stuff. Then David Nelson, he had a whole other thing happening. It was his spirit. You could feel that in the way that he pronounced and the way he presented his words. They were the true teachers to me because I was the kid in the group. I didn’t have the poetry skills then but I did get better as time went on. I’m a good student.
PSF: What was it that gave the Last Poets a political edge?
AO: It was definitely the times. We were born May 19, 1968, Malcolm X day. We were dealing with Malcolm’s ideas and his whole concept of self-determination and Black Nationalism. We wanted to be the voice of that. That was the impetus of our existence. I really could not buy Martin Luther King’s program. The idea that we wanted to sit next to them in a luncheonette or a bathroom. You got to build your own toilet. Don’t beg anybody for your friendship. You be who you are. You be respectful onto yourself and every living thing around you. You let them know that you’re not having that and you do not include them in the category of respect. That goes for any race, sex or religion.
People assume that the Last Poets are all Muslims but I’m not. ‘They must be Muslim because they speak that Black talk.’ Get out of here! I respect Muslims. Some people don’t respect me because I’m not Muslim and that’s insane. I can’t relate to that. We got through these experiences with the idea that we have to please somebody other than ourselves. My whole life, I’ve understood that if I can’t please myself, I can’t please anybody. That’s basic. That’s who I am.
With the politics, the (Black) Panthers had a lot to do with that time. But the real platform, just for the record, for the politics of the Poets came from New Breed. New Breed was a Black clothing enterprise, started by a guy named Jason. Jason provided us with space even before we had the East Wing, which became the space for the Last Poets. He provided us with gigs because he would have fashion shows. His clothing enterprise made popular the dashiki. He designed, made and manufactured the dashiki and popularized it throughout the whole East coast. He would have Pharaoh Sanders, Leon Thomas and the Last Poets performing. Beautiful women would come out with this huge afros and these African garbs. We were all in love with a whole bunch of different models. But the politics, the self-determination of that was fostered big time by then. We were that poetic, political voice. David had a direct investment in New Breed so he and Jason were close. Our relation fizzled out after we found our own space.
PSF: How did the Last Poets get into music?
AO: We started out with this chant ‘are you ready niggers?’ because I wanted to affirm that we weren’t coming on as three separate poets. We were at David’s house and we developed this presentation of how we were going to go on stage. We tried singing ‘Ooh Baby Baby’ but that wasn’t going to work. The park was crowded (where they did the show) and I didn’t want to look foolish. I heard a chant at Howard University where they were trying to get rid of the Dean, who they thought was a real Uncle Tom. That was one of the chants I heard one TV and it freaked me out. So when we came out for the show, we came out singing that and everyone in the park started chanting that. We had some drummers on the stage so the drum became a nature part. The brother’s name was named Hakim who was up there with us. After that, we searched for a conga player to work with us just to have the voice and the drums. I would always sing because that was always my thing especially as a kid. That was always a part of the Last Poets, which gave it a certain amount of flavor. Even in the years after the Poets, I always had jazz with me. When I go away, if there’s music at a hotel, I’ll usually sing along. I used to sing with anything on the radio, like ‘dreaaaaam, dream, dream, dream’ with the Everly Brothers. I got heavily into jazz like John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders. Then hanging out with Albert Ayler and Sun Ra’s Arkestra, all of this started giving me some kind of vibe. Also getting the chance to meet Dexter Gordon and meeting Miles and knowing (in a raspy voice) ‘that he talked like that for real.’ It was just being in Harlem, because it has so many juices and jewels of culture. Imagination of the day. I had a chance to be here at a real prime time. That’s what helped me get into poetry.
PSF: Was there any precedent for the rapping that the Poets were doing?
AO: Eddie Jefferson and Oscar Davis, those guys were rappers. They had rap insinuations, innuendos that I would have never thought of. There’s a lot that can contribute to the concept. I think what happened is that the Last Poets really played an important part because of the rhyming schemes that a lot of people used. The rhyming schemes that Jalal used was contagious- that was the stuff that captured the imaginations of a lot of folks. The Sugarhill Gang took to another place with fun and games. But Jalal did ‘Hustler’s Convention.’ That the first time that that kind of idiom had been played up so much. It was heard and it was passed on. But you could away with not saying very much also.
Jalal actually almost didn’t get into the group. Nobody liked him. EVERYTHING he said was all in rhymes. All the damn time. He didn’t talk to you unless it was a fucking rhyme. But I’m a Pisces and I’m really tolerant. When no else thought he should be part of the Last Poets, I put him into the group because I wanted to fulfill the trinity. It was always three Poets. After David Nelson left, it was Gylan Kain and Felipe Luciano with me. Felipe and I had a ball. We took it to some other place. That was a POWERFUL group. Felipe brought the Puerto Rican contingent into it so we had a whole other force. Then Kain left and Felipe started the Young Lords, his own little political organization. Felipe left to become an actor. Umar always wanted to be in the Last Poets so he got his opportunity. Larry (who later became Jalal) was always bending my ear. He always had a poem. Arrogant too but I never let none of that phase me. I thought he was good. I never knew anybody who could rhyme EVERYTHING. I figured it was worth something. It made sense- I mean it wasn’t silly or stupid rhymes. I think, though he’s done some despicable things later on, that his genius is without question. I honestly believe that it was his genius that sparked the minds of these young rappers. ‘It’s gotta rhyme, if it doesn’t rhyme, it ain’t fine.’
Every poet knows or should know that when you rhyme, you’re creating a picket fence. Now you are a slave to the rhythm you created. With a poet, if you feel like flying, you fly. You’re not encased to the ground. There’s a contrived thing happening when everything rhymes. When you deal with poetry, there’s a freedom of responsibility of being able to fly away and still be contained. That’s the beauty of poetry. You can leave the nest. You can go far away. But somehow the nest is always there- you never lose sight. The rapper, he stays at the nest and makes a mess of it. He’s stuck there. There’s been some very slick things said in rhyme. There’s no question. I rhyme things myself and I’d be the last person to say that you can’t make a PROFOUND statement in rhyme. There are some great poets do rhyme.
But with the Poets, we were angry and we had something to say. We addressed the language. We just put it right in front of your face. We parented to 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. There was a movement back then with the Panthers and other organizations, trying to secure human rights for the community. We had these guidelines and guard rails. These kids don’t have these guard rails. The rage is going every which way. It’s self-destructive. The whole second coming of the Last Poets is to re-establish those guard rails. Otherwise, you’ll all fly off the cliff and be dead and there’s no real significance here. I love these kids.
Look at Tupac -- he was a genius. His writing skills were good. His delivery was good. He had a look. Just like James Dean, he’s gone. Rebel without a cause. There is a cause and we know that. The cause is a place that will allow us to grow without this rage eating us up inside. It’s been dominating our existence as opposed to us being able to direct it. I’ve been able to control my frenzy so I can teach and I can write poetry. I can work with it like a blacksmith. But a lot of young people don’t know about that. They haven’t traveled this far. They may not be able to understand what I’m saying yet but I’m there to give them an idea. If they’re willing to listen, then we can make some progress.
I look forward to these gatherings, these shows. We are dealing with a thirsty, hungry bunch of people from all races. We have this major period of neglect here, with all of these little toys that keep us from nurturing. You got your video games, you got TV, you got the Internet. You have so many different things that have nothing to do with ‘You got me and I got you.’ That’s all that matters.
I think this whole Hip Hop thing is very vital because it could be a big jolt of positivity. It’s been given a lot of bad publicity. But it can grow and develop into something beautiful. I don’t know what the beginnings of bebop were but I’m sure there were a lot of dark stories there too.
PSF: Another part of the Last Poets that influenced rap was the fact that you were a group. A poet is usually thought of as someone who stands alone.
AO: That was very unusual. We wanted have a collective of men, different heads, with everybody not thinking the same but our ideologies are similar enough for us to get on the stage. We knew that was a test. That proved to be beyond everything else, the biggest test. That’s why we broke up. That’s why we had different members.
PSF: How did your ideas about revolution change?
AO: Back then, I wanted to see everything burned and people hanged. I wanted to see riots. The one thing that stopped me in my tracks was this guy speaking at one of our forums. ‘You can’t really be a revolutionary until you know the kind of world that you want your kid to live in.’ Man, that messed me up. I had no idea. I wasn’t into Marx and Lenin like some other radical people. But these people were looking for another concept. But what he said put me on a mission to try to understand what I liked about the life I was living and what I didn’t like. I realized that we all opted to let someone else order things for us, through this electoral governmental bullshit. They would think ‘these saps are paying us to make them.’ Black people were easy targets for a lot of this bullshit. Now, my whole thing is, we have to see how we can be the greatest part of us, which is the healing part of us. This self-empowerment mode is where I’m at. I’d rather that folks learn how to save themselves before they kill themselves. That’s what I’m trying to do. (source / full text)
“Niggers Are Scared of Revolution”
From the Documentary Made in Amerikkka
Hip Hop, Culture, and Business
(...yeah, we see you, LL Cool J, looking mad young.)
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