Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, whose work in the spoken-word group the Last Poets helped earn him the title of the “Grandfather of Rap,” died Monday. He was 74.
“It is with extreme sadness and a heavy heart that the family of Jalal Nuriddin announce the passing of this great pioneer of the recording industry,” his family said in a statement. “Jalal slipped quietly away this evening into the arms of Allah.” No cause of death was revealed.
Nuriddin contributed to the Last Poets’ 1970 debut album as well as the follow-up, This Is Madness. These albums, which paired minimal, driving, percussive accompaniment with emphatic, relentlessly political spoken-word vocals, are widely regarded as crucial early examples of hip-hop.
In 1973, Nuriddin also demonstrated his lyrical dexterity as Lightnin’ Rod on the storytelling solo album Hustlers Convention. Rapper Fab 5 Freddy dubbed Hustlers Convention “a cornerstone in the development of what is now a part of global culture [hip-hop]” in an interview with Noisey. Wu-Tang Clan, Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers are among those who have lifted ideas from the record, with veteran producer Ron Saint Germain declaring Hustlers Convention “one of the most stolen and sampled albums ever made.”
“If you were 14 years old and trying to understand the streets, it was sort of like a verbal Bible,” Public Enemy’s Chuck D gushed in a documentary about the album.
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Nuriddin, however, had mixed feelings about many of the rappers who came after him. He told Noisey that the music industry forces MCs “to talk nonsense, bitch about their lives, boast about their women, their drugs, their money, their ego – as long as it isn’t relevant to the liberation of the people’s hearts and minds.” He added, “I don’t even think about rap.”
Nuriddin was born in Fort Greene, Brooklyn in 1944. The Last Poets, which formed in the late 1960s, had multiple lineups – to help distinguish ensembles, one group took up the name the Original Last Poets – but Nuriddin was part of the lineup that had the most commercial impact. The Last Poets, released in 1970, peaked at Number 29 on Billboard’s albums chart, selling hundreds of thousands of copies of the lyrically and musically uncompromising LP.
After appearing on the Last Poets’ follow-up, This Is Madness, Nuriddin branched out on Hustlers Convention. The album replaced the sparse instrumentals of the Last Poets with liquid funk from a young Kool & the Gang. “Hustlers Convention is about two characters, who are saving themselves by any means necessary,” Nuriddin said in 2015. “It wasn’t like they were educated at Harvard, you know? They was already facing discrimination by coming from the ghetto. They had to use their wits without actually breaking the law, because then they would go to jail, and the younger one did go to jail.”
Hustlers Convention would go on to be highly influential, but at the time it was released, it barely sold at all despite its major label (United Artists) bona fides. In the years since, Nuriddin continued to record intermittently, though he never again achieved the mainstream exposure he enjoyed in the early Seventies. He made a cameo with the Last Poets in the Tupac-starring film Poetic Justice in 1993.
As reissues and archival releases became increasingly popular, historians and hip-hop fans alike became more interested in correcting the historical record to acknowledge the contributions of figures like Nuriddin. British director Mike Todd helmed a documentary on Hustlers Convention in 2015. The Hollywood Reporter called the film “austere but engrossing.”
Despite the efforts of Todd and others, Nuriddin struggled to make a living as the rappers who sampled him and paid homage to his work thrived. “Q-Tip was the only rapper who helped me out,” Nuriddin told Noisey. “He sent me a grand when I was stranded and it got me out of hot water.”
Nuriddin also worried that many aspiring rappers “missed the point” of Hustlers Convention. “It looks good on the surface: it’s fast, it’s quick, it’s a road to riches and maybe some local fame,” he said of the hustler lifestyle. “But at the end of the day you’re gonna pay for the crime, you gotta do the time.” The real takeaway from the album, according to Nuriddin, was, “you can hustle righteously and honestly, you just gotta practice.”
In a statement, Nuriddin’s family said that “details regarding his jananza (funeral) will be forthcoming shortly.”