The roots of rap music can be traced back to the late 1960s. Militant messages decrying the state and society of African-Americans were first vocalized, commented on, and critiqued by the Last Poets—grandfathers of the genre and purveyors of sharp, insightful street poetry, which, when combined with African percussive rhythms, laid the groundwork for future rap artists.
The creative collective known as the Last Poets was formed in Harlem, New York on May 19, 1968—the day known as Malcolm X Day, so named for the slain founder of the Organization of African-American Unity. According to David Mills of the Washington Post, three young African-American poets, David Nelson, Gylan Kain, and Abiodun Oyewole, were, “invited to share some culturally correct poetry at a Malcolm X commemoration in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park).” Despite the fact that the trio had no idea about what to do, they took to the stage as the audience chanted the call to arms used by Howard University student protesters when they overran their campus in March 1968. In recounting the Last Poets first performance, Oyewole commented to Mills, “I thought that [the chant] was so hip. I never heard nothing like that on television. So we sang that as we went on stage. Had the entire park singing that. From that moment on, we got gigs.”
Mills stated that the Last Poets remained nameless until Nelson found inspiration in the last verse of a poem by William Kgositsile: “When the moment hatches in time’s womb, there will be no more art talk. The only poem you will hear will be the spear point pivoted in the punctured marrow of the villain. Therefore, we are the last poets of the world.”
Nelson, who has become a minister in the interim, was the first to leave the Last Poets due to a disagreement over the status of the group. Nelson wanted the group to be a free flowing “collective of writers” while Kain and Oyewole preferred a more fixed line-up. Felipe Luciano, befriended by Kain, joined the group after Nelson quit.
A performance at Ohio’s Antioch College in early 1969 compelled Umar Bin Hassan to join the Last Poets. Bin Hassan—who was working college security atthe time—related to Mills, “[I was] into my black militancy thing…. That was it. It [the performance] just blew my head. I guess I understand what people be getting’ from us [because of] what I got from them. It’s that feeling, that very spiritual thing that comes out and pulls you in and makes you part of the pain, the diaspora…. That was it. I wanted to become a Last Poet.” About six months later, Bin Hassan arrived at East Wind—the headquarters of the Last Poets in Harlem.
Shortly after Bin Hassan joined, a bitter fight broke out between the two remaining original Last Poets, Kain and Oyewole. Kain desired to bring Nelson back into the collective while Oyewole was opposed to the notion. The band split in half and each side performed as the Last Poets. The split foreshadowed the troubles that were to come.
Luciano allied himself with Kain and Nelson while the newest Last Poet, Jalal, joined Bin Hassan and Oyewole. A turf war erupted as the two sides engaged in gang tactics to try to rid themselves of the opposition.
In 1969, Kain, Luciano, and Nelson shot the film Right On! The film remained out of the spotlight until the other Last Poets—Bin Hassan, Oyewole and Jalal, released their self-titled debut album on Douglas in early 1970. Although radio stations did not play the album, the underground furor the album caused—especially in the African-American community—was significant enough to allow the Last Poets to be booked into the Apollo Theater for a performance. Not long after the record was recorded, Oyewole left the band.
According to the Official Last Poets’ website, Oyewole “traveled to the South where he took Willie Kgositsile’s
For the Record…
Members include Don Babatunde (joined group, 1991), congas; Umar Bin Hassan (joined group, Spring 1969, left group, March 1972, rejoined group, May 1973, left group, February 1974), poet; Sulie-man El-Hadi (joined group, May 1972, died, October 1995), poet; Jalal (joined group, June 1969), poet; Gylan Kain (left group, Spring 1969), poet; Felipe Luciano (joined group, Autumn 1968, left group, Spring 1969), poet; David Nelson (left group, Autumn 1968), poet; Nilija (died, 1981), congas; Abiodun Oyewole (left group, Summer 1969), poet.
Group formed in Harlem, NY, May 19, 1968; released Last Poets on Douglas, 1970; This is Madness, 1971; At Last on Blue Thumb, 1974; signed to Celluloid and released Delights of the Garden, 1975; Jazzoerty, 1985; Oh! My People EP, 1985; Freedom Express, 1991; signed to Rykodisc and released Holy Terror, 1995; signed to Mouth Almighty and released Time Has Come, 1997.
Addresses: Record company —Rykodisc, Pickering Wharf Building C, Salem, MA 01970. Agent— Peter Schwartz, The Agency Group, 1775 Broadway, Suite 433, New York, NY 10021. Website —Official Last Poets website:http://www.trilliumproductions.com/tlphp.htm.
message to heart. He put down the pen and picked up a gun, and soon found himself convicted for armed robbery [in 1970]. ‘I thought being a Last Poet was being a fake revolutionary,’ he said of his motivation at the time, ‘I wanted to be a real revolutionary.’” He spent four years in a North Carolina prison for his crime. When Oyewole recounted his experience in jail to Mills he said, “People were coming in the joint talking about the Last Poets and I couldn’t even tell them who I was.” He had to keep his identity secret for fear of reprisals from the prison guards. Oyewole returned to New York after prison and began work as a creative writing consultant for the New York City School System.
The second Last Poets record, This is Madness, was released in 1971. It featured Bin Hassan and Jalal. By the time At Last was released on Blue Thumb three years later, Sulieman El- Hadi had joined up with Jalal and Bin Hassan. In the interim, Bin Hassan had quit and rejoined the band only to quit for good after the release of At Last.
Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Jalal and El-Hadi recorded as the Last Poets. They signed to Celluloid and released Delights of the Garden in 1975 and Jazzoetry and the EP Oh! My People in 1985. That same year, they wrote the book, Vibes from the Scribes— a collection of their writings also released under the name the Last Poets.
In 1990, the founding members of the Last Poets staged a comeback tour that lasted only four dates. El-Hadi dismissed this to Mills when he said, “They put in the papers that the Last Poets are being ‘resurrected’ when we’ve been working all this time. My vibe is ‘Why didn’t you jump on board when it was hard times?’” Jalal and El-Hadi released Freedom Express as the Last Poets in 1991. Three years later, the Last Poets played 13 dates on Lollapalooza. They also contributed tracks to the Panther film soundtrack and Stolen Moments: Red, Hot + Cool— an African American AIDS awareness album.
Holy Terror was released on Rykodisc in 1995 and featured Oyewole and recovered crack cocaine addict Bin Hassan as the Last Poets. Guest artists on Holy Terror included former Parliament Funkadelic members Bootsy Collins and George Clinton as well as Grand Master Melle Mel. In October of that year, El-Hadi died.
The next year, Oyewole and Bin Hassan collaborated again, although this time it was on a book titled On a Mission: Selected Poems and a History of the Last Poets. The Last Poets, Bin Hassanand Oyewole, signed to Mouth Almighty Records in 1997 and released Time Has Come.
Commenting on the place of the Last Poets in the rap pantheon, Oyewole said in the Official Last Poets website, “We’re no more ‘godfathers of the spoken word’ than the man in the moon; it comes in a package from the motherland. But we accept that there is work out there that we can do. People need to see a focal point, a beacon, and we don’t have no problem with shining, we don’t walk away from the fight.”
Last Poets, Douglas, 1970.
This is Madness, Douglas, 1971.
At Last, Blue Thumb, 1974.
Delights of the Garden, Celluloid, 1975.
Jazzoetry, Celluloid, 1985.
Oh! My People (EP), Celluloid, 1985.
Freedom Express, Celluloid, 1991.
(Contributor) Panther (soundtrack), Mercury, 1995.
(Contributor) Stolen Moments: Red, Hot + Cool, (compilation), GRP, 1995.
Holy Terror, Rykodisc, 1995.
Time Has Come, Mouth Almighty, 1997.
New York Times, September 18, 1996; February 5, 1997.
New York Times Magazine, April 3, 1994.
USA Today, April 30, 1997.
Washington Post, December 12, 1993; June 18, 1997.
—Mary Alice Adams