Emerging from the Black Power era of the late Sixties and early Seventies, experimenting with street poetry and percussive sound, the music of Harlem's Last Poets helped lay the groundwork for hip-hop. The intense Black Nationalist fare of their 1970 self-titled debut was not only politically explosive – it's most famous tracks include "When the Revolution Comes" and "Niggers Are Scared of Revolution" – it was also nationally popular, peaking at Number 29 on the Billboard album charts and ultimately winding up as inspiration or samples for Notorious B.I.G. ("Party & Bullshit"), Digable Planets ("Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat"), N.W.A. ("100 Miles and Runnin'") and more.
The Last Poets shuffled through members and made multiple albums – including the 1971 masterpiece This is Madness – before splitting in the late Seventies. They have since reformed multiple times to record and expose new generations to their vivid, incendiary style of jazzoetry through international tours or appearances on songs like Common's Grammy nominated "The Corner." The group now consists of two members from their groundbreaking Seventies line-up – Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan Hassan – alongside percussionist Don Babatunde.
They recently completed Understand What Black Is, their first album since 1997. The album, due May 18th, is a mellow, reggae-inflected gem that finds the Poets have grown into wise elders who still call out attention to injustice. One of the tracks, Hassan's "North East West South," is a heartfelt dedication to the late Prince, who was a fan. Another standout, "She Is," finds Hassan calling back to Biggie, who launched his career by interpolating the Poets then died about four years later at the age of 24. When asked about how it feels to survive when so many black pioneers have passed away, Hassan answered, "We've been blessed, man."
In an interview, the Last Poets talked about their legacy as proto-hip-hop pioneers and playing basketball with the Wu-Tang Clan.
How do you feel about being known as the predecessors to hip-hop?
Umar Bin Hassan: Well, we ourselves didn't determine that. Some of the young people, people in record companies and certain publicists gave us that term. We didn't call ourselves that, but we came into being, and it came after us. So we accepted it as an honor because we are proud to notice so many of the young brothers are into hip-hop who started it like Jay-Z, Run-DMC, and of course Public Enemy. We accept that as an honor and as an entrustment that a lot of them respect what we brought to them to carry on. We're happy about that.
At the same time, hip-hop has grown increasingly commercial. In a lot of ways, hip-hop seems like a reflection of some of the things you warn about in your songs.
Bin Hassan: Yes, like I said, we respect some of them. But we don't respect all of it. We don't respect all of the things it has come to be, like the calling of bitches, and the things about "gatting" each other down in the streets. We don't go for the violence against each other because it's something that we did not talk about or did not propagate. We talked about trying to learn from each other, and be kind and appreciate one another. So all that gangster stuff and gangster rap, we never appreciated that or showed anything towards that because that's what who we were not. We were trying to tell some of the young brothers and sisters, don't let that be what this is all about, or even let it all be about money. Try and make sure that you're really trying to share some love with people who need some help, some guidance, and some consideration for just trying to be human beings.
On "She Is" from your new album, you have a line about the "tragic magic of hip-hop" and you give a shout-out to the Notorious B.I.G.
Bin Hassan: Yes, because that's the form [that the lineage] comes to, the music that we've made, throughout the history in the South, the field calls and chants, and the gospel singers. Hip-hop is a part of all that. It came from all that. It came from the Last Poets. I'm sorry that it took such a tragic turn for the money and the defamation of one another. But in that poem, I try to give an idea where we all started from. It's called Congo Square, New Orleans, where the slaves got together and they danced and they sang on a free day. Then they had this thing called the cipher, where they'd be in a circle, and they would be dancing. That's where a lot of these young poets and artists don't realize, the cipher is nothing new. It started way back in the 1700s and 1800s in New Orleans. And that thing about dealing in mathematics and science…well, that dance taught us who we really were, even though we were in the depths, and somebody else was trying to make us into someone else. That dance and that music and those sounds made us remember where we came from, and how we're surviving now in America. Just like hip-hop, and how it's trying to survive in America, and what role it took to survive, and take itself up the ladder to become part of American culture, or reality.
For "North East West South," you spend a lot of time paying tribute to Prince.
Bin Hassan: Yeah, well Prince has been one of my favorites, man. I'm a Midwestern boy like him. His musicianship just overwhelmed me every time I heard from him. … We almost got to meet him at his place in Minnesota. A lot of people told us he was a fan. We were on the Lollapalooza tour back in 1994. Then when I come to find out that he was going to be at his club [First Avenue], I was happy. But then we were asking the people when we got there, "Where Prince at?" And people were saying, "He ain't here." Then the night after the gig was over – it was a really nice gig – one of the stagehands came back and said, "Did y'all see Prince? Yeah, he was up front watching you." Boy, I was so upset about that! … What do you think about that poem?
Well, the album is very mellow. It's very fitting with the reggae vibe of the music.
Bin Hassan: This is the first time we've ever worked with reggae. But the reggae, man, it seemed to do something to that poem. It seemed to open it up, and made it broader. I've known bands who have done reggae shows, but I never thought I'd be doing poetry to reggae.
Throughout the history of the Last Poets, you've used your music to criticize American government policy.
Bin Hassan: Actually, we don't do that as much as we used to, because we got a little older now. My thing now is looking inside, looking inside yourself instead of pointing your fingers at someone else, saying what they're doing to you. I'm trying to make people understand what you be doing to yourself sometimes, how you be keeping yourself a victim. Because if you constantly keep pointing your fingers at somebody else, and not be responsible for your own stupid dumb shit, you ain't going nowhere, just standing in one place. You're becoming your own victim. And when you keep doing that just to be a victim, you never move from the spot where you're at.
Going through the drugs and the alcohol and what I went through, I had to go inside myself and admit certain things to myself. You know, I couldn't blame white people for me taking cocaine or doing crack. I couldn't blame the white man for that. I wanted to change some of my attributes, some of my human mistakes and attitudes. So I realized I had to go into myself, be honest with myself, and look at myself. Some of the things that I saw about myself scared the shit out of me. It's horrifying to realize that I had done such actions for most of my life.
When The Last Poets formed in 1968, it was during the height of the Black Power movement, as well as a period of widespread civil unrest. How has the group changed as times have changed?
Bin Hassan: As we get older, we realize that it's humanity. It's not just black or white. There's a thing called humanity. All of us, whether we're black, white, gay, trans[gender], whatever, basically, there's two things we really want. We want to be loved, appreciated, and respected. … When I was 20 and 30, I was just crazy. I didn't care about nobody. You know, black this, black that, black forever. I was damaging my own humanity by having such an attitude. But I changed that attitude because there were certain things that attitude was bringing on me and kept me from becoming.
Those early Seventies poems were very angry. There are some things you guys said that would be considered problematic today, but they were fiery and passionate.
Bin Hassan: Because those were the times. The times were fiery and passionate, and we happened to be just the right source to come forth with that fire and passion. The Last Poets, you know, we were all young men, 19, 20 years old. What do we know, really, about the world, about ourselves, America, race relations? Only what we saw on TV and how it came at us and affected us. So that's where that fire and that passion came from. We were just hoping to make it real or show it to other people what they're doing to us. Yeah, we made some mistakes, and we said some things that we shouldn't have said.
What are your thoughts on the new generation of activists, like Black Lives Matter?
Bin Hassan: Man, listen, I'm going to tell you. It's the young people who are going to win America. We had our time. We had our period. But these black kids in Black Lives Matter, these kids who were in that school [in Parkland, Florida], these young people, they're brilliant, they're smart, they're articulate. They're gonna take it home. They're very serious. All we gotta do as being elders who are where we come from, and what we dealt with, is just try to give them some space, and give them some room so they can work things through.
Abiodun, how do you feel The Last Poets has evolved over the last 50 years?
Abiodun Oyewole: I would give Umar a lot of credit for that because I was not interested in being part of the second wave of the Last Poets, and he came to my house and upset my world, and said, "We have to take the crown back," and talking about the kids were going crazy with this little hip-hop, and they need to have some order, and we were the guys to do it. So I took a chance, and that was 30 years ago. We've been riding the horse ever since, and it's been a wonderful journey.
Hip-hop to me is the Rolls-Royce of a particular genre. I mean you can do wonderful things. My son teaches school, and he uses hip-hop to teach the five food groups that we need to know, the digestive system, hygiene, paying attention. He's written some wonderful, meaningful lyrics to some music done by "Bad & Boujee," some popular hip-hop group [Migos]. So hip-hop can do some wonderful, wonderful things.
But many hip-hop artists – and I think the corporation has a lot to do with it – have decided to throw it into the toilet, and they've made it very unnecessary in many ways. I think you have to put it that gangsta hip-hop has not been helpful at all. We don't need it. And we need to recognize what we need as a people that's gonna be healthy for us. So I like the idea of hip-hop, and I know it's probably the most impacting music on the planet at this time. Some of it is garbage and some of it makes sense. Umar, Babatunde and I have had the pleasure of working with a few of the brothers in the world of hip-hop who are really cool. Like Chuck D and Melle Mel have given us some beautiful love on our CDs. [Chuck] is a wonderful brother, and Nas. …
Bin Hassan: And Common.
Oyewole: So we've had a chance to work with some good guys who know what time it is. But there's some of them who are lost.
Bin Hassan: I was watching TV today, and this thing came on about Wu-Tang Clan. But the brothers in Wu-Tang Clan, every time we saw one of them, they always gave us much respect. I have to speak about them, because they dug the Last Poets and showed much respect. We could meet them somewhere in the streets, and everyone would stop and talk to us.
Oyewole: Two of them, Ghostface Killah and Killah Priest, played basketball with me a number of Sundays over here at my house, eating my food, playing ball, talking stuff. I met RZA and GZA. So I know the Wu-Tang, and Umar is absolutely correct. They have nothing but mad respect for The Last Poets.
Where did you play basketball?
Oyewole: We played basketball at Columbia University. I taught there, and I had the ID so I would bring about 15 guys – you know you're only supposed to bring in two guests, but I'd bring in 15 guys so we could control the basketball court, and we had a lot of fun. Then we'd come over my house and eat and all that. That was a normal Sunday. Every Sunday, that's what happened.
The only guy that wouldn't come in the Wu-Tang Clan was Ol' Dirty Bastard, because I expressed my displeasure with him calling himself Ol' Dirty Bastard. Then he changed his name to Baby Jesus or something. He even called me up and asked me if that was acceptable. I said, "You went from one extreme to another. I can't believe you, man." So I don't know what he calls himself now, but he was in search of a name.
Unfortunately, Ol' Dirty Bastard passed away in 2004.
Oyewole: Oh my god. I didn't know that. Well, I'm not up on all the things that are happening in that world. I'm sorry to hear that.
Babutunde, what kind of elements do you bring to the Last Poets' sound?
Don Babatunde: Well, I'm going to be involved with the music and the poetry, as we always do. Usually, when we perform live, it's the three of us. Now [for the Understanding What Black Is tour], it's going to be us with a band. So that's going to allow me to stretch out a little bit more in the percussion area for this particular project.
I've been listening to them, so I have strong understanding of their voices and the drum. When we do a lot of music, and Afro-Cuban music, well, primarily Afro-Cuban music, you hear the drum and the voice all the time. So I apply that same concept with what we do as far in terms of hearing it as a dramatic effect if necessary, or an emotional effect if necessary, to emphasize what the message is.
Oyewole: I'd like to add that Baba has the same antenna as our original conga player [Nilaja Obabi] had. He knew exactly what rhythm to put behind what poems. Baba has that same energy. It's really uncanny, because he can hear something one time, and come up with a rhythm that works. People think you can get on a conga drum and just beat it to anything. Any rhythm that they feel like playing is good. That's not the case. You got to hone in to what's being said and how it's saying. Baba is a musician. He is not just a conga player. So consequently, he can hear us, he can interpret what we're saying with the drums, and that was the same thing that Nilaja did. Baba is the glue that really holds us together in many ways. He plays the rhythm, but he's definitely a balancer, which makes sense. He's a Libra, so he gets the scales balanced. Umar and I, we've been at each other's throats, and Baba has stopped it a number of times.
The track "How Many Bullets" feels timely right now.
Oyewole: Isn't that a shame? We're going through the same thing, but it ain't stopped! That poem was written for Clifford Glover [a 10-year-old boy murdered by a undercover police officer in New York in 1973], and folks who have been killed years ago! And we're still dealing with the same problem today! It's embarrassing! That poem is only relevant because the circumstances in America have not changed. They're still killing black boys. It's like a hobby or something, and the cops get away with it. I don't think there's one police officer in jail for killing a black child. I don't think they even have it on the books to do that.
Every other week, there's another killing in some place. It's really insulting, it's embarrassing. I hate to say it, but I think it's only going to stop when we physically make it clear that it's got to stop. Because as long as we march and pray and hope and wish, it's going to continue to go on. And these are kids with no firearms on them, no weapons whatsoever. Just a cellphone can get you killed.
I wrote that poem in … oh god, it must have been the mid-Seventies. It was a long time ago.
What makes you perform it now?
Oyewole: Because the problem is still here! They think they're going to kill us, but they're not going to kill us. We're bigger than bullets! No matter what. You can put a bullet in my head right now, and what I say will resonate in a million different mouths of people because they've heard us, and they know what we're coming from. We've already made an impression that will last longer than me and Umar and Babatunde.
Bin Hassan: Our poems are bullets. The sounds that come out of Baba's drums are like bullets shooting out into the crowd. [Our] bullets are spiritual bullets, which are the strongest.