The Last Poets interview

This story first appeared in Zigzag in July 1985. Heralding the vacuous indie haircuts nestling inside, the best-forgotten Spear Of Destiny were on the cover but I managed to convince my editor to let me interview The Last Poets, then in the UK to claim their place in the evolution of hiphop but largely an unknown entity beyond their hardcore following. I’d been a fan for 15 years after reading about their first album in the US underground press then tracking it down. Plus, of course, ‘Wake Up Niggers’ appeared in Performance, sending out its vehemently anti-apathy warning over bare congas; worlds apart but somehow fitting perfectly with Mick Jagger and James Fox’s approaching identity collision.

Through diligent detective work I managed to track down all five of the influential ’70s albums that laid the blueprints for hiphop the following decade; The Last Poets, This Is Madness, Chastisement, At Last and Delights Of The Garden, plus Hustlers Convention, Jalal’s trail-blazing Blaxploitation movie-on-record that remains a coveted masterpiece of the era.

Today The Last Poets go out as returning original members Abiodun Oyewole, whose enforced absence came when he was jailed for robbing the Ku Klux Klan after 1970’s debut album was released, and Umar Bin Hassen, who vanished into drugs hell for a couple of decades. In recent times the pair accused fellow original member Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, the razor-sharp street poet who defined the seminal 70s albums, invented jazzoetry on 1972’s Chastisement and predicted gangsta on Hustlers Convention, a tale of being a street hustler looking for stardom and back royalties. There’s obviously some bad blood in the Poet’s long and fractious history but no mention is made of Suliaman El-Hadi, the other key Poet on four of the ‘70s albums. He partnered Jalal in the Poets until he passed away in 1995, when the Poets’ mantle was grabbed back by the current pair, who probably thought they had over 20 years of lost time to make up.

Back in 1985, I was lucky enough to witness Jalal and Suliaman captivate the Shaw Theatre on Euston Road and slaughter Dingwall’s Dancehall with the poems they’d contributed to the Poets and some from Oh My People, the album they’d just recorded with Bill Laswell. Through a healthy relationship with Celluloid Records, I managed to secure an afternoon with Jalal and Suliaman at their London hotel. As I say in the piece, it remains one of the most revealing, rewarding and riveting interviews I had done in my ten years on the job. 32 years later that still applies.

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As I write there’s a song about Vietnam at number one (Paul Hardcastle’s ‘19’) and rap is being used to advertise deodorant. Fifteen years ago The Last Poets were rapping when everyone else was napping; “spreading the news by way of the blues” and spoagraphics (the spoken pictures that forerun today’s ‘The Message’ rants and even the idle boasts of young pretenders). The five albums The Last Poets released in the seventies are the original rap attack.

The Last Poets today are founder member Jalal Mansur Nuriddin and Suliaman El-Hadi, who recite over the Afro-jazz pulsings of Jamal (bass) and Abu Mustapha (congas). Four recent London concerts showed the years hadn’t dulled their percussive poetry as buried classics unfolded with burning relevance, quietly insidious yet awesomely sharp; winning over press, trendies, old hippies and young b-boys with their quiet intensity.

I spent an afternoon with Jalal who, instead of the expected black-intense clenched fist of the records, was warm and soft-spoken; committed, passionate and without doubt still the sharpest dude on the block. Sometimes he speaks in rhyme, sometimes with a tinge of bitterness as he sees the movement he started get diluted, commercialised and be very successful for cheap plagiarists. It was one of the longest and definitely the most inspiring interviews I’ve done in nearly ten years of writing for Zigzag.

Little has been written about Jalal’s pre-Poets years and gut-experiences. You have to go back to Catholic school and the torture-rack…

“I never done poetry at school because we was taught the classics, all traditional European poetry.”

Conditioning?

“Right, it’s he who’s in authority that legitimises what’s right or wrong. They programme the children when their minds are fresh and brainwash them. There were several attempts to brainwash me. I went to Catholic school in Brooklyn because my mother thought I would get a better education. That was what I call spiritual slavery. They have a thing called the Spanking Machine; when you got out of line they put you on this table with four nuns on each corner and stretch you out like an X.

“I always had my head on my shoulders because when you graduated you had to go onstage and get your diploma. Every time you took a bow your cap fell off. I put my hand on my head and kept my cap on. I’ve tried to keep my head on my shoulders ever since.”

Jalal then went to state school. “There was less formality, but that was cool with me ‘cos that was more my speed. You didn’t have to learn if you didn’t want to. I learnt how to read, write, add, subtract, multiply and divide. The rest of the stuff they was teaching was bullshit. So I took the best and left the rest. I never really finished a formal education. I got my education on the street. The only school where I finished was Streetology. And I got a PHD in Streetology.”

Then came a stint in the US paratroops (like Hendrix before him). “Military indoctrination. I learnt the machinations of oppression. Robotics. School was the romantics, services was the robotics.” At the time Vietnam was gorging itself on America’s youth. Jalal sussed his time was coming when they started showing him jungle films but he valued life, limb and sanity. Better a stint in jail (the usual fate for what were called consciousness objectors, who also included Sun Ra).

“Jail toasts was my roots as far as rap was concerned; jail toasts and ‘the dozens’. It was called your spiel. ‘I was born in the jungle with a gun in my hand…I’m bad, I’m the jungle man; That’s my spiel, man!’ It was like developing one’s ego in an enforced inferiority complex scene. Expounding one’s virtues, basically.”

Out of jail, Jalal, then called Alafia Pudim (and for the first four Last Poets albums), settled in Harlem’s raw jungle law reality; the seething, angry ghetto where crime or drugs were the only escape. In the volatile political climate of the time – Malcolm X, riots in LA’s Watts ghetto, police shooting demonstrators at Ohio’s Kent State University – it was obvious talk was giving way to direct action. The Black Panthers were emerging and everyone had their claws out.

In 1968, Jalal hitched up with the East Wind poetry workshop in Harlem. “At that time there was a collective black consciousness; a banding together. There were a total of eight of us altogether and we became The Last Poets. The other guys dropped out, copped out or we kicked ‘em out. (Suliaman and I) are the last of The Last Poets.”

The name came from South African poet Little Willie Copaseely, who wrote that this was the last age of poets before guns took their place. The Poets played on the corner and in buildings for a dollar a head. Alan Douglas was a jazz producer who knew Jimi Hendrix and later doctored unreleased songs by the guitarist for controversial release. Involving himself in the new black consciousness, Douglas heard of the Poets, sought them out on 125th Street and offered to release an album on his Douglas label.

First blood on vinyl: Released in 1970, The Last Poets came swooping down like a savage black bat on the blissed-out face of a generation still congratulating itself on Woodstock but already shaken back to reality by the Manson murders, Altamont and escalating horror in Vietnam. The Last Poets were here to mess up the party, jeer at their own race’s stereotyped complacency and warn those white men who’d pushed their faces in the shit for too long.

When the revolution comes: At this time the Poets consisted of Jalal,

Ben Hassan (sic) and Abiodun Oyewole, backed by Nilija’s Afro-trance congas. The Last Poets still sounds like a seething bursting cage that isn’t able to contain its collection of the most harrowingly intense harangues ever released, coursing with rage and pointing fingers like gun barrels. Jalal’s tracks include ‘On The Subway’’s unsettling account of a white man who gets on the wrong train and ends up in Harlem, ‘Jones Coming Down’ addressing a drug addict’s desperation and self-explanatory ‘Wake Up Niggers’. Abiodun’s best tracks include scene-setting opener ‘Run Nigger’ and the insidious chant of ‘New York New York’, while Umar throws down the ominous challenges of ‘Niggers Are Scared of Revolution’ and ‘When The Revolution Comes’.

“Our combined ages were a hundred years so you were really listening to a hundred years of oppression, being spat out like a snake spits out venom,” states Jalal.

It sounds like it built up then exploded, I venture.

“Right. The actuality. Basically that was the sum total of my lifetime experience, because oppressions bring about mental imbalances, which translate into negative emotions, which resides in the pit of the stomach. That’s why you get that expression, ‘I can feel it in my gut’. Cancer.”

The Last Poets sold 800,000 by word of mouth; enough to propel it into the national top ten and bring Rolling Stone a-sniffing (They’d already been in Creem). The exposure given by ‘Wake Up Niggers’ appearing on the soundtrack of Performance was a major reason so many white people got to know about the Poets that year.

The Poets went on tour, minus Abiodun, who was sent down and not heard of again until he re-emerged as The Last Poet last year on a 12-inch called ‘Super Horror Show’, that ironically plundered ‘The Message’ that he’d helped create.

Jalal, Omar and Nilaja released This Is Madness in 1971 as a ferocious consolidation of the first album. Jalal describes it as “a composite sketch of life during the Johnson and Nixon administrations” and Vietnam taking his brothers’ lives for “some fantasy cause” when things needed fixing at home. The anti-white stance was stronger in Jalal’s ‘White Man’s Got A God Complex’ and the mood of Omar’s ‘Time’, ‘Black People What Y’All Gon’ Do’ and title track is ugly and threatening. Even if it wasn’t a surprise attack, This is Madness showed the Poets could comment on the world in general with the robotic-prophetic cold truth of Jalal’s classic ‘Mean Machine’ (‘Automatic push-button remote control/Synthetic genetics command your soul’), although his ‘True Blues’ and astonishing ‘O.D.’, a graphic account of heroin death that was released as a single, were still rooted firmly on the Harlem streets.

By now the Poets, having upset the era’s cosy protest complacency, found their Big Apple-cart under close scrutiny from the authorities. Street protests could be silenced by violence but the Last Poets were going around the nation’s venues with danger flaring from their lips. Jalal recalls being in LA and suddenly pushed against a wall before a police shotgun kissed his ear with wanton hate-lust. He used his military experience to suss the cop’s mental wavelength and talk his way out of having his brains blown out as one soldier to another.

Omar then departed to join a religious sect down south. Enter Suliaman El-Hadi, a jazz drummer performing Poets-plateau poetry to his own conga accompaniment. Jalal heard about Suliaman, tracked him down on the corner and heard the poems that would appear on the third Last Poets album, Chastisement.

“I was gassed,” says Jalal. “The Last Poets were a lump of coal that had fused into a diamond. I heard he was a good poet who would complement our work. I heard his stuff and said ‘Yeah!’”

Suliaman is a stately forty-eight and has been a Muslim for thirty-two years. He can still recall the hardships that shaped his attitude: cracked sidewalks in a rundown street; strangers you called Mister calling his mother by her first name and demanding weekly payments, helping his mother – a former track star – clean flats for fifteen cents a day; his father made redundant from his job at the Ford plant because he couldn’t afford to uproot a seven-strong family to move to New York state and getting a gold watch for 25 years’ service; going to the Korean war with the US Air Force; being roughed up and spread-eagled by a shotgun-toting cop the day he came home from the war because he was breaking a ten o’clock curfew designed to keep teenagers off the street.

“Incidents like that serve to shape your attitudes,” he says. “It didn’t mean a thing I’d just come back from the war.” Suliaman talks about living in the shadow of slavery with no choice but hard labour jobs; “slavery with fringe benefits”. No training and fifty per cent of black youth unemployed in America. His early poems are as hard-line anti-oppression as anything the Poets did before.

Suliaman continues this protest on Chastisement, providing the album’s hardest-hitting tracks, including ‘Before The White Man Came’ and ‘Black Soldier’. Jalal celebrates the birth of Jazzoetry, a heady marriage between cool jazz roots (Bird, Miles, Coltrane) and the Poets’ spoken pictures (spoagraphics). Jon Hart’s bass, backing singers and tenor saxophonist Sam Harkness appear on the ten-minute chant instrumental Tribute to Obabi, that opens the album and shows something different was now afoot. ‘Jazzoetry’ and ‘Bird’s Word’ (in tribute to Charlie Parker) consolidate the new style that’s proving highly influential in London’s club scene. Jalal first used the hiphop rhyming meter so often heard now on ‘E Pluribus Unum’ and ‘Lone Ranger’ back in 1972 (“It wouldn’t be so bad but they didn’t give me no credit”).

Breaking the rules, schooling the fools; “On Chastisement we stretched out and brought in other musicians because of the nature of Jazzoetry. We was still evolving, still growing… .”

The jazz all but took over on 1974’s At Last and its wailing wall of freeform blowing from New York loft jazz luminaries such as altoist Claude Williams, tenor man Brother Juice, pianist Casa Burak, Exuma bassist Duke Cleamons and drummer Philip King. There was still bleak protest on Jalal’s ‘Death Row’, Umar’s ‘Uncle Sam’s Lament’ and Suliaman’s The Courtroom’ but the boundaries were being pushed with sky-line horns, splintering piano and brush-drums. “That album was all us reciting poetry over freeform jazz,” explains Jalal. “The musicians were playing what we were saying and the poetry matched the music.”

In between these two albums, Jalal called himself Lightnin’ Rod and made the brilliant Hustlers Convention (“the first movie on record”). Enrolling a bevy of musicians, such as Kool and the Gang and guitarist Eric Gale, plus sound effects like sirens and dancehall buzz, Jalal tells the tale of a pool-room hustle which ends in a shoot-out and prison. It goes back to jail toasts and the sticky street situations he lived to tell the tale of after. Although I managed to track one down, Hutlers is very rare, which is probably why Melle Mel thought it would be safe to totally lift the title segment for his own album (and claim the publishing).

“Hah!” is Jalal’ bitter response. “They thought it would be like taking candy from a baby. You can take a lollipop from a baby hand but the baby got a kung fu grip on the lollipop stick. ‘Hey, this baby’s strong, I got to take the lollipop and the baby too!’ They made a mistake by taking the credit, especially as they never asked me, never got my permission, never gave me a dime. I’ll deal with him later. He can run but he can’t hide. I’ll get justice.”

Does Jalal keep in contact with his old pals from the running days?

“Well most of my contemporaries are now dead,” he sighs. “Very few people I grew up with are still alive. If the dope didn’t get ‘em, the wine did. If the wine didn’t get ‘em, the police did and they’re in jail.”

Who else tried to break into the dangerous territory stalked by the Poets?

“New York’s Universal Messengers and LA’s Watts Prophets both made albums then vanished. That’s it.”

In 1974, Nilaja, who apart from being a master-drummer was a master of voodoo, left the Poets and joined the Yoruba religious sect. He later died. There wasn’t another Poets album until 1977’s Delights Of The Garden. It took that long to get together.

The album appeared on Douglas through Casablanca, home of Donna Summer and Parliament, as part of a major jazz package the label had handed over. The album poked out briefly through the punk the Poets had also predicted (by relaying street messages by any means necessary), showing them reverting to a bare bones fist of a sound, and sank to become the rarest of all their albums. Now matured, it’s certainly their most listenable record, though no less charged as respected session drummer Bernard Purdie underpins a growling bass and the congas of new recruit Abu Mustapha (who’s still there today). It hits home with a vengeance.

“Our best work is on that album,” says Jalal, which could be why they do every song live except ‘Ho Chi Minh’. Side one is Suliaman’s, including the inspiring ‘Blessed Are Those Who Struggle’, controversial press-baiting ‘The Pill’ and ‘It’s A Trip’ (“being poor, being black, being under attack”). Side two is Jalal’s masterpiece; the near 20-minute three-part ‘Beyonder’. Over 66 verses (!) and an insistent pulse that quickens and ebbs, he takes all the voice-parts to relate his story of post-nuclear life and a humanoid who is brought back to save the survivors and ends up being saved himself.

And at the Shaw Theatre they did it all live! I was stunned. How do you remember all those words, Jalal?

“If you love something you know it by heart. I love my work so I know it by heart.”

Throughout the Poets’ career the backgrounds might change and the punch become subtler but the message remains the same.

“Nothing will change unless you physically change it with your own hand. First, you got to change yourself, then you can change that which is around you. You take all the garbage that’s been dumped out by the back window, clean that up, then you can plant some vegetables. You got to clean up all the garbage in your mind instead of staying high, cos then you’re LOW.”

Jalal then reels off a verse from ‘E Pluribus Unum’. I could repeat reams of words to illustrate the sharpness of their oral dagger, but that seems to best sum up their “spreading the news by way of the blues.”

Around the time of Delights, the Poets toured Europe, including London. Then nothing was heard from them until last year. 1977 to 1984 are the mystery years but, basically, they couldn’t get a record deal so they continued gigging. A lot of the shows were in prisons – “maximum and minimum security” – until they got banned for being too inflammatory. Jalal learned acupuncture and helped his community. He still treats people as a freelance.

Meanwhile, rap emerged. Some remembered the originator and Poets albums started selling for vast sums. Celluloid house producer Bill Laswell sought them out with an idea for something new.

In 1982, Jalal hooked up with Brooklyn musician Howie Young and laid down ‘Long Enough’, a hard repression rant set against mainline killer funk. It appeared in January 1984 on the independent Kiwi label, polished up for hopeful mass consumption.

Meanwhile, the apocalypse of The Last Poets’ initial burning missile hasn’t dulled over fifteen years, just gone up on the collectors’ market. The intrepid crossover missionaries at Celluloid Records have decided to make all five Poets albums available again, starting with the first, recently second album This Is Madness, and soon also including the seminal Hustlers Convention. What’s more, Laswell, Jalal and Suliaman started work on a new album of songs that had been in the works since the ‘70s. Jalal came over last September and did the Wag Club with pickup backup. It was starting again…

As an interesting diversion, Celluloid released ‘Doriella Du Fontaine’, lifted from a late ‘60s jam session between Jalal, Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Miles. Over Jimi’s silvery funk riffing, Jalal animatedly recites a scuzzy street story from the world of Hustler’s Convention.

By 1969, Jimi was feeling quite guilty that he’d forsaken his black roots to become a white man’s pop star. He played a free gig in Harlem and started hanging out with various ghetto fighters who saw the potential value of his support. He met Jalal, they hit it off and Jimi recorded some radio commercials for the first Last Poets album.

“Hendrix was trying to get back to his roots,” recalls Jalal. “He could see he had to. The roots was severed and he was out of contact with his people. He had alienated them – not on purpose, but he got swept along by his popularity with white people. When I met him he appreciated what the Poets did because it reinforced his back roots, but he did not want to step out of that being a black pop star appreciated by whites. He was surrounded. He communicated to me with his eyes; ‘Help!’ We had a handshake which went like this (demonstrates the high five finger -twisting). All the brothers knew how to do it but he didn’t, so I taught him.”

Jalal says Hendrix was happy “just jamming”. Another track appears from this session on the Jazzoetry compilation – the funereal original version of ‘O.D.’ with Buddy Miles on organ. It appeared in more usual Poets style on This Is Madness and was their only single coupled with the afore-mentioned ‘On The Subway’.

Next step in the Poets’ re-entry was Jalal’s behemoth teamup with Grandmixer DST on a reworking of ‘Mean Machine’, “whose automatic tomorrow is now today”. It’s road-drill beatbox and overload-intensity made for the heaviest hiphop yet (I love to play it at goth-epicentre the Batcave).

Oh My People was the first Last Poets album for eight years, a brilliantly subtle hybrid of Bill Laswell’s sparse production machinations, their traditional rhythms and positive statements. The Poets now hit you in the head, heart and feet but can still shake you cold.

Jalal is also readying a book of past work called Vibes Of The Scribes (Selected Poems Of The Last Poets), a portrait-in-poetry of drummer Art Blakey and the full written biography of the Poets (“because this thing is going from the womb to the tomb”). He also appears on ‘Stellmarina’ on Working Week’s new album.

Then there’s the next Poets album, which will be “the last word in our records; it’ll say it all” and possibly a single with Afrika Bambaataa, “because he has respect for the Poets being the foundation of so-called rap, which to us is being a Spoet. We were billed as Godfathers of Rap, but that’s his title. I guess we’re the…sages.”

If the Poets have “protection by projection”, rap is still a headless chicken, says Jalal. “Rap has nowhere to go but in circles, no direction but back. They don’t know what to think, they lack sufficient information. They can rap but they can’t read or write.”

Jalal is twice as disparaging about the big bucks showbiz fraternity with their egos, wealth-flaunting and escape music. He says he’s rich too; “in spirit”. He never sold his ass in a shiny suit. “I never made any money in fifteen years. I told the truth.” He’s now 40 and has seven children, the oldest fifteen, the youngest six months.

By now we’re in Pizzaland and Wham gush out of the speakers in shorts and suntans.

“It isn’t food for thought so I can’t eat it,” snorts Jalal. “People have two heads – one up here and one down there in their behinds. If it just gets you down there then you’ve got your mind in your behind. These people are into show business. We’re not into show business. We show – that’s our business. To enlighten, not entertain.”

At the Shaw they kicked off with ‘Jones Coming Down’. I wonder if Jalal is aware of the new relevance of this poem in this time of smack attacks?

“Yes, it’s the power of that reality. If you don’t change something it don’t change itself. You’re not going to change something by wishing it away. The dope traders don’t have to pay taxes and it gets into the country because people are getting paid off. They insult your intelligence. That’s what we’re bringing to the forefronts of people’s minds; don’t allow your intelligence to be insulted. Don’t accept lies or follow lies.”

Jalal’s seen ‘On The Subway’ gain new relevance too; a claustrophobic train confrontation of silent stares, by the time the guard cheerfully announces “Next stop 125th Street” you feel his sweat and accelerating panic, exacerbated by the Poets imitating the subway’s metronomic click-clack. Recently, John Goetz blew away four would-be muggers on the New York subway and became a John Wayne-style hero until he was indicted for attempted murder. Get your guns!

“That’s really the situation I was describing. Kill at will. Shoot first and ask questions later. The situation is like the Roman Empire falling down. The homeless and the roamless are one and the same. Hollywood glamorises street life but the reality is different. It’s bordering on a point of hopelessness. The situation was serious but it’s like a disease. It’s more serious now than it was then.”

Maybe now the time has come for the Last Poets.

 

–KN