Revolutionary rap pioneers
“The Last Poets were the first real hardcore rappers.”
Those who believe that there are no second acts in American lives ought to consider the career of post-apocalyptic urban griots The Last Poets. Hailed for the fiery intensity of their politics and their poetry from the moment they emerged in the late Sixties, The Last Poets spit forth a series of brilliant albums in the Seventies, split up and nearly guttered out in the Eighties, and have re-emerged in the Nineties into the embrace of a new generation of word-intoxicated rappers who recognize that the Poets’ fire and intelligence are more necessary than ever. For the first time in over twenty years, original members Umar Bin Hassan and Abiodun Oyewole (aka Dune) reunited under The Last Poets banner and released HOLY TERROR, an album as vital and relevant today as any work by the Poets in the 70’s. Produced by Bill Laswell, HOLY TERROR features additional lyrics and vocals by Grandmaster Melle Mel, and fat, funky grooves from Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell. The album also features a bonus remix track with guest vocals by George Clinton.
Born on Malcolm X Day in 1968, The Last Poets took their name from a poem by South African poet Willie Kgositsile, who posited the necessity of putting aside poetry in the face of looming revolution. “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,” he wrote. “Therefore we are the last poets of the world.” They established their reputation with their first two albums, THE LAST POETS (1970) (which included “Niggers are Scared of Revolution”) and THIS IS MADNESS (1971), both of which are recognized today as classics.
The personal history of the group comprises “a tangled story,” as the Washington Post’s David Mills has noted. “Seven men in all have recorded as The Last Poets, though never at the same moment. They have feuded among themselves almost from the beginning.” After feuds splintered the original group in the mid-seventies, both Umar and Dune turned to the streets. Dune traveled to the South where he took Willie Kgositsile’s message to heart. He put down the pen and picked up a gun, and soon found himself convicted for armed robbery. “I thought being a Last Poet was being a fake revolutionary,” he said of his motivation at the time. “I wanted to be a real revolutionary.” He served four years in a North Carolina prison, eventually returning to New York where he has spent the last fifteen years as a creative writing consultant to the New York City school system. Umar, meanwhile, spent years battling crack cocaine addiction in cities up and down the East Coast. Responding to the current generation of rappers’ renewed regard for the spoken word, Umar and Dune reunited for the first time under Umar’s name to make BE BOP OR BE DEAD for Laswell’s Axiom label in 1993.
HOLY TERROR is a worthy addition to The Last Poets’ canon. The Poets tackle everything from the reality and the legacy of slavery (“Homesick” and “Pelourinho”) to the horrors of cocaine (“Men-tality”) to a sympathetic but chilling portrait of today’s young black men (“Black Rage”) to a self-help chant (“If We Only Knew What We Could DO”) and a celebration of funk (“Funk”) that manages to expand the definition of the term to include virtually every enjoyable human activity. Grandmaster Melle Mel lends his powerful writing and rapping to three tracks (“Homesick”, “men-tality” and “Funk”), while driving rhythms are provided courtesy of Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell, in partnership with Senegalese drummer Aiyb Dieng and bassist Laswell. After hearing the finished album, George Clinton offered to add his inimitable vocals to the fray, and Laswell immediately organized a remix session of the song “Homesick.” The resulting bonus track, “Black and Strong (Homesick),” features Melle Mel and percussionist Don “Babatunde” Eaton (who joins the Poets in live performance).
The re-emergence of The Last Poets has not only helped today’s young scholars to put the contributions of the Poets into historical perspective, it has allowed young rappers, poets, and movie makers to work with these living masters, who may indeed be (as Motorbooty’s Mike Rubin put it) “older than Old School [but who] still have a timely message to impart to the new-jack generation.” They performed in John Singleton’s “Poetic Justice” (1993), and played 13 dates on the Lollapalooza tour during the summer of 1994. They updated and re-recorded “This Is Madness” with Pharoah Sanders, a track featured on STOLEN MOMENTS (RED, HOT & COOL), and AIDS-awareness album aimed at the black community, which was named 1994 Album of the Year by Time magazine.
Now in their fifties, Umar and Dune feel on top of their form. “I’m older, wiser and a little sharper,” says Umar. “I’ve learned a lot of things about human nature and about myself. Day by day I love a little more and I have a little more to say.” For his part, Dune says: “We’re no more ‘godfathers of spoken word’ than the man on the moon; it comes in a package from the motherland. But we accept there is work out there that we can do. People need to see a focal point, a beacon, and we don’t have no problem with shining. We don’t walk away from the fight.”
Asked recently whether he thought there is more madness today than when The Last Poets started, Umar said, “Much more. ‘Niggers Are Scared of Revolution’ is more relevant now than it was in 1969.” Gesturing with his arm as if to encompass the entire landscape of contemporary American society, he concluded, “If this ain’t madness, what is?”