The First Rappers:The Last Poets

May 16, 2009Updated 8 months ago

This was the era of rebellion and black power, of empowerment and growth. It was a time of civil unrest, The Black Panthers, and The Nation of Islam. And The Last Poets were the progenitors, the original rappers.

Formed on May 19, 1968 on Malcolm X’s birthday, The Last Poets were the separatists of the day. They came along with the changing domestic landscape of the New York City-hip groups and were the rappers of the civil rights era. They used obstreperous, hostile verse to chide a nation whose inclination was to maintain the colonial yoke around the neck of the disenfranchised.

Spiel an Earlier Form of Rap

They were a group of poets and musicians, arising from the late 1960s African American, civil rights movement, founded by Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, an Army paratrooper who chose to go to jail instead of fight in the Vietnam War. He founded the group in prison after converting to Islam and learning to “spiel” (an earlier form of rapping). After his release, along with Umar Bin Hassan and Abiodun Oyewole, Nuriddin joined the East Wind workshop in Harlem, and began performing their spiels, along with music on the streets of New York City.

They grew from three poets and a drummer, to seven young black and Hispanic artists: David Nelson, Gylan Kain, Abiodun Oyewole, Felipe Luciano, Umar Bin Hassan, Jalal Nurridin, and Suliamn El Hadi. They adopted the name The Last Poets in 1969, taken from a South African writer, named Little Willie Copaseely, who posited the necessity of putting aside poetry in the face of looming revolution.

Whitey on the Moon

The Last Poets released an LP in 1970 and reached the Top Ten album charts and Oyewole was arrested for robbery before a tour could begin. He was replaced by Nilajah and featured Whitey on The Moon, a classic protest anthem depicting social and racial divide. The follow-up, This Is Madness, featured more politically charged, radical poems, which resulted in the group being listed as part of the counter-intelligence program, founded by then-President Richard Nixon.

Following This Is Madness, Hassan joined a southern-based religious sect and was replaced by Suliam El Hadi in time for Chastisement (1972). The album introduced a sound the group called “jazzoetry” a mix of jazz and funk with poetry. At Last released in 1974, was a free jazz album.

The remainder of the 1970s saw a decline in the group’s popularity. However, they regained recognition with the rise of rap, collaborating with Bristol-based, British post punk band, The Pop Group and their return to record Oh My People (1984)and the follow-up, Freedom Express (1988). Recently they collaborated with popular rapper, Common on the song The Corner.

Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Although never officially a member of The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron was an integral part of this movement who wrote and performed much of what was considered controversial issues of that era. Writing more than 24 albums, five books, and a film, Black Works, he believed that The Last Poets were the first to bring music and poetry together, and considered themselves the first rappers.

Scott-Heron, an American Poet and musician is best known for his poem and song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. His longevity and recognition even surpasses, in many ways, the popularity of The Last Poets and accounts for his earned moniker of The Godfather of Rapp.

The True Originators of Rap

The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, stand today as the true originators of Rap with withering attacks on everything from racists to government, to the bourgeoisie. Their spoken word albums preceded politically-laced R&B projects, such as Marvin Gaye’s, What’s Going On, and foreshadowed the work of hard-hitting rap groups, such as Public Enemy.

Novelist, Darius James, author of self-published book That's Blaxploitation: Roots of the Baadasssss 'Tude (1995) recalled the impact of the Poets at their birth. "In 1970 the Last Poets released their first album and dropped a bomb on black Amerikkka’s turntables. Muthaf. . .s ran f' cover.”