There was nothing even remotely like the Last Poets when the trio of New York wordsmiths (Umar Bin Hassan, Abiodun Oyewole and Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin) and their percussionist (Nilaja) burst on the scene in 1970. For the first time, here was an outfit that understood African chanting and free-jazz dissonance; with the accompaniment of just hand drums, the group was able to express the message of black nationalism in frenetic howls and galvanizing taunts, using images so true to the streets they could not be denied.
The first two Last Poets recordings — 1970’s eponymous debut and 1971’s This Is Madness — formed the blueprint for what’s now called spoken word, and provided the essential inspiration for most message-oriented rap. The records addressed the black community using taboo confrontational language — in rants, such as “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution,” designed to wake up and provoke a black audience — and insisted on a hearing for grievances long swept under the rug. (Compare that track from the Last Poets’ debut to Ice Cube’s “Scared Lil’ Nigga” insert on Da Lench Mob’s Planet of the Apes for a quick reminder of the group’s enduring influence.) After the racial conflicts and progressive socio-politics of the late ’60s, the Last Poets’ turbulent delivery was a clear reminder that change was still a long way away.
There was, inevitably, an artistic decline. Following a few key personnel changes — Oyewole left in 1971 before This Is Madness, Hassan left afterward — the Poets began to sound like a cartoon version of their former greatness. The group recorded for a few more years, but never regained the sense of mission that informed its early work.
Along the way, however, the Poets have offered some interesting solo projects. Nuriddin transformed himself into the sharp-tongued Lightnin’ Rod for Hustlers Convention, a wry mid-’70s concept album commentary on blaxploitation. A decade later, producer Bill Laswell coaxed Nuriddin and Sulieman El-Hadi into the studio for a trivial, repetitive dance album, Oh My People, that borrows little but the name from the Last Poets.
With Laswell’s help, Hassan cut timely updates of “This Is Madness” and “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution” for his acidic, jazz-centric solo project, Be Bop or Be Dead. The remainder of the album is filled with riffs on jazz legends and autobiographical notes on the successes and failures of black nationalism, with contributions from Oyewole, Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, Buddy Miles and Amina Claudine Myers.
Two rival Last Poets have cropped up in the last few years. Nuriddin and El-Hadi issued the dismal Scatterap/Home under the Last Poets name in 1994. Hassan and Oyewole collaborated on Holy Terror, another Laswell project released in 1995, and Oyewole’s 25 Years (also produced by Laswell) the following year. Supported by the usual jazz-funk luminaries, Hassan and Oyewole summon a little of the old spark, but rarely deliver the strident message that was once their calling card.