When I watched the Mick Jagger film Performance, the main memory I took away with me* was of an astonishing, raw track that was played on the soundtrack at one point, that featured prominent African drumming and copious use of what I shall call the N-word**. This was from 1970 FFS! Sadly as no-one had the courtesy to invent the internet yet, I had to carry this scrap of information around in my brain^ for years before I read a small review of an LP that sounded like it might have been them and about a decade after that I walked out of Probe Records in Liverpool in 2001 with a brand-new copy of The Last Poets under my arm.
The Last Poets was released in 1970 and it still burns bright, strong and dangerous 46 years later. The group of three poets Abiodun Oyewole, Alafia Pudim and Omar Ben Hassen and percussionist Nilaja, formed through a Harlem writer’s workshop amid the fervent of the civil rights movement and quickly gained a reputation for incendiary live performances; different groups at different times, with radically different members seem to have used the group name, just to confuse things for simple-minded rock scholars like me. Their stance was fiercely Afrocentric, fiercely intelligent and fiercely fierce.
The whole album runs on voices and percussion only and it is testament to the invention and musical wit on show that the last thing The Last Poets sounds, is samey. The rhythms are quite extraordinary, strong and intricate, helping some very hard-hitting songs hit even harder. Everyone always talks about The Last Poets being the birth of hip-hop and it would be difficult to deny the group were in the room at the conception, but so were a lot of folks. You certainly can trace the birth of most of the righteously political, conscious raising rap I like back here to this mother lode of groovy primitivism.
What is different about The Last Poets to me is the real sense of focused anger that flashes through these 13 bullets; not only that but the way the group switch it up from the poetic to the profane effortlessly in a single line; you get the whiff of high ideals undercut with a little honest sweat. You see these particular poets had no interest in razzle dazzling with their poesy, which they were quite capable of, they took delight in jarring us out of our complacency with profanity and so many repetitions of the word nigger, that it ceases to have all meaning – becoming mere punctuation and background noise, totally stripping it of any venom it may once have had.
Tracks? For sheer din and tone my favourite is ‘New York, New York’, over a persistent chant of ‘New York, New York, the big apple’ Oyewole tells some home truths about his home city, as he sees it, his vocal cutting over the top of the backing and also joining with it on occasion too,
New York New York the big apple
New sameness, new food same shit
New car, same gas without platformate
New love, same neurosis
New hairdos, same minds
New styles, same influence
New installations, same holes
New words, same story
New York New York the big apple
I also love the wistful ‘Black Wish’, which even features a little singing, ‘I am the wish that makes Nina Simone wish / She knew how it felt to be free’, it may even be the only optimistic spot on the album, the song ends by confirming that the wishes will come true.
But such optimism is a blip, at best. The Last Poets serves us up some harsh street realities on ‘Jones Comin’ Down’ and ‘Two Little Boys’ and preaches a coming revolution on, the quite brilliant, ‘Niggers Are Scared Of Revolution’ and, the mighty, ‘When The Revolution Comes’. This isn’t the more amused detached observation of Gil Scott-Heron, this is a street level call to heed the cause, there are plenty of references to ‘whitey’ and a couple of Jewish stereotypes that rankle, but make no mistake The Last Poets is a nail bomb of opprobrium aimed almost solely at one community, their own. The group heap scorn on those who are too lazy, too complacent, too easily distracted (the brilliantly lascivious, ‘Black Thighs’), or just too damned stupid to fight for their rights, in the Poets’ terms they are traitors and chaff. It’s a harsh judgment, a harsh discipline, some harsh home truths and a harsh creed for harsh times. Luckily it is leavened by touches of humour and humanity on occasion, but this is an LP birthed in a tough environment.
Good job that society has made so much progress and everything is so much better that after 46 years of uninterrupted moral and societal growth that we can just look at The Last Poets with its’ thunderous clarion call for organisation, social responsibility and change as a quaint historical curio with little contemporary resonance. Hmm.
PS: Choice of listening matter was probably prompted by my choice of reading matter this week Douglas Hartmann Race, Culture and the Revolt of the Black Athlete (2003), a brilliant socio-political and cultural analysis of the aftermath of the 1968 Olympic protests by Tommie Smith and John Carlos (possibly my all-time sporting moment ever). I’ve wanted to read this book since it was published and it has taken me this long to track down a reasonably priced copy^^.
PPS: I didn’t want to just dig out my Lego figure with the ‘fro again. I think it’s high time that Lego brought out a black panther figure, what could possibly go wrong with that?!
*well the only one not involving Anita Pallenberg anyway. If I was inclined to be kind I’d say the film was irretrievably of its time. If I wasn’t so inclined I’d call it a rambling, disjointed, pretentious crock of shite. Good job I’m a kind soul then, really.
**I’m not being coy, I have no issue with the word being co-opted and used by African Americans and reporting it as such in my own writings, but I’m not so sure how tolerant WordPress are about that sort of thing.
^Note to younger readers: that’s what we used to use to store and access information in before we had iPhones, it wasn’t as good, it crashed even more times than Windows XP and you couldn’t play ‘Angry Birds’ on it.
^^Revolutionary and thrifty, that’s me.