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Band of the Week: The Last Poets

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#27: The Last Poets

Who: Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, Umar Bin Hassan, Abiodun Oyewole, Nilaja Obabi.

When: 1960-Present.

Where: USA.

Why: Those who attempt to make any sort of assertion about the first examples of hip-hop are jumping into shark-infested waters. There are many individuals who can lay claim to being in some way responsible for sowing the first seeds that led to the blossoming of the genre, The Sugarhill Gang, DJ Kool Herc and Gil Scott-Heron being three of the most commonly cited. In the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination, another group that can lay claim to the title would be formed, channelling the spirit of his philosophy whilst simultaneously laying down the foundations of rap: The Last Poets. The story starts in prison, where Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, a US Army paratrooper who objected to the Vietnam War met Umar Bin Hassan and Abiodun Oyewole. He converted to Islam within the jail walls and learnt 'spiel', a prototype form of rap. On release, the three stayed in touch after returning to the mean streets of Harlem. Appropriately, it was on Malcolm X's birthday, May 16th, 1969, that several members of the East Wind poetry workshop took the name The Last Poets.

This was rather ironic, as it stemmed from the writing of Willie Kgositsile, another grandfather of rap, (literally - he's the grandfather of Odd Future's Earl Sweatshirt), who suggested that his generation would be the last to use poetry, in the lead-up to a violent revolution. Joining the workshop, the three jailbirds usurped the collective and combined prison spiel with minimalistic percussive backing. After he witnessed them on a local TV program, they would become the first production project of Alan Douglas, who would go on to produce Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and (hilariously) S Club 7. Their eponymous debut album is still remarkably powerful, with 'Wake Up, Niggers' and 'Niggers Are Scared Of Revolution' pulsing with naked, desperate emotion. It's far more primitive and discordant than what would traditionally be considered hip-hop, bereft of sampling or turntablism, but the raw elements - taut rhymes complemented by tribal beats - are clear and present.

Thanks to the record startlingly reaching #3 on the Black Albums chart, their brand of radical rhythmic verse would reach a generation of impoverished black Manhattan youths. But before the group could tour, Oyewole was jailed for 12-20 years for robbery (he only served 4) and replaced by percussionist Nilaja Obabi. Their follow up LP This Is Madness continued in a similar vein and was wrapped in the iconic album artwork of Abdul Mati Klarwein, who had painted for Miles Davis and Santana. The poetry was more politically charged, and resulted in their being noted on Richard Nixon's Counter-Intelligence program due to their associations with the Black Panthers, the SNCC and the SDS. They conflicted with the FBI and police, and were arrested for raiding the Ku Klux Klan. Despite these distractions, the group continued to evolve into more jazz-orientated forms towards the end of the decade. But while their popularity would wane and the unit would faction off, their influence still throbs through the beats of any politically conscious hip-hop artist. Common, Nas and Black Market Militia have all collaborated, as well as English post-punks The Pop Group. Their legacy is astonishingly rich and broad, and its safe to say that hip-hop wouldn't be the same without them.

Influences: Langston Hughes, Albert Ayler Trio, Amiri Baraka, Curtis Mayfield, John Coltrane.

Influenced: The Sugarhill Gang, Public Enemy, Brand Nubian, Eric B & Rakim, Rage Against The Machine.

Sample Lyric: 'The nightstick it glides gracefully upside yo' head / That's right, brothers and sisters, you livin' dead'.

Which Record: The Last Poets (Douglas, 1970)

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