As a major influence on first-generation rappers like Grandmaster Caz and Grandmaster Melle Mel, the Last Poets were integral to the development of hip hop. Set to the spare beats of a conga or delivered a cappella, searing polemics like "Black Is," "True Blues," and "White Man's Got a God Complex" took on racism, the military-industrial complex, and the harsh realities of New York street life, while simultaneously offering spirited affirmations of black cultural pride. The Poets' militant philosophy became a mainstay of hip hop; the group has been sampled by rappers as diverse as Public Enemy, Digable Planets, Ice Cube, the Notorious B.I.G., and N.W.A.
"People are beginning to understand the part we played in this whole rap thing, and that we created a viable market for the spoken word to get out there," says Umar Bin Hassan, who played with several incarnations of the group, and recently reformed the Poets with founding member Abiodun Oyewole. "Everybody always wants to believe that they started [hip hop], that they were the first, the beginners, the originators. But as far as this whole rap thing goes, it's just a part of the African oral tradition," he continues.
Despite the critical acclaim the Last Poets have reaped over the years, success has always passed them by. Radio wouldn't touch them; original member Jalal Nuriddin (with Sulieman El-Hadi) released Oh! My People (1985) and Freedom Express (1991) to little attention. In addition to frequent lineup changes, Poets past and present struggled with poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, and prison time. They watched an art form they helped create become big business -- and they still weren't getting paid. But through it all, the Poets never toned down their rhetoric, which chastised white liberals, racists, and Uncle Toms with equal zeal.
"Poetically, as far as vision and imagery went, we were ahead of our times," says Bin Hassan, "which caused us all to go through some changes later on in our lives. Jail, drugs, you know. We had to pay the dues, and it's through the mercy of Allah that we're still here, that we've begun to reap some benefits out of our labors and our youthful endeavors."
For Oyewole, rock bottom came at a hip-hop awards show in New York, when he heard an artist sample the line "party and bullshit" from the song "When the Revolution Comes"; used as a hook, it deflated the original biting irony into mere mindlessness.
"You can't build no foundation on niggerisms," Oyewole says, explaining that songs like "Niggers Are Scared of Revolution" were designed to raise consciousness through the shock value of the n-word, all Mark Fuhrman jokes aside. "We talked about niggers like they was dogs," Oyewole says of the Last Poets' infamous "nigger poems," which were written to illustrate the social dynamics of the black condition, rather than reclaim or glorify the term.
"We were not really talking to white people," Oyewole continues. "We were trying to clean up our own personal mess. And now nigga has become the thing; it has become an industry."
On the bright side, Bin Hassan's 1993 solo album, Be Bop or Be Dead on Bill Laswell's Axiom label, brought the legacy of the Poets to a new generation, and led to a collaboration with Bootsy Collins on the compilation Funkcronomicon (Axiom), and Melvin Van Peebles on the Panther soundtrack. Last spring, Last Poets Bin Hassan and Oyewole released Holy Terror (Rykodisc), which, if nothing else, suggests that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Holy Terror defines the black experience in the '90s as an amalgamation of everything that has come before it: slavery, racism, freedom, black-on-black crime, even rap music itself. In "Funk," special guest Melle Mel celebrates true school, not old school, blackness; "Pelourinho" recounts the little-known history of Brazilian slave camps; "Last Rite" echoes Frantz Fanon's decolonialist handbook, The Wretched of the Earth, in the prophetic statement, "The last will be the first/ The first shall be the last."
"OK, really what I'm talking about is a revolution," Oyewole says. "And that particular line means the people who have been put down, like black people in this country, and all of the other folks who have been put on the bottom of the totem pole, will have their day in the sun."
By and large, Oyewole stresses, the same social conditions that made the Last Poets so relevant in the '60s still exist in the '90s and have even been magnified to some degree; that's the Holy Terror of the album's title. "Things have not changed," Oyewole says. "They've been cooled over and they've been given a brand-new coat of paint, but it's still the same old wound.