About The Last Poets
Umar Bin Hassan (left), drummer Baba Donn Babatunde (center), Abiodun Oyewole (right)
One can debate endlessly about who invented rap music, but if rap’s essence is beats and rhymes, then it’s difficult to get around the towering influence New York City-based jazz/poetry group The Last Poets had on the creation of the form. When asked about the first rappers, knowledgeable hip-hop heads won’t start talking about the Sugar Hill Gang. They know that The Last Poets were rapping over a beat back when Big Bank Hank was still in diapers. In fact, the group’s self-titled 1970 debut was a musical and political call to arms built on polyrhythmic drum beats and fierce verse poetry about black power, Afrocentricity, and the realities of street life that sold over a million copies by word of mouth that put “rap” on the map, making them one of the earliest influences on hip-hop music.
The Last Poets were born on May 19, 1968, when David Nelson, Gylan Kain, and Abiodun Oyewole read poetry at a memorial for Malcolm X. Their goal was to be a poetic voice for Malcolm’s call for self-determination and Black Nationalism. Like many black activists of the time, they were tired of Martin Luther King’s integrationist agenda. They were much more influenced by the politics of radical members of the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), the SDS Students for a Democratic Society), and the Black Panthers.
The name of the group was taken from a poem by the South African revolutionary poet Keorapetse William Kgositsile, who posited the necessity of putting aside poetry in the face of looming revolution: “When the moment hatches in time's womb there will be no art talk," he wrote. "The only poem you will hear will be the spearpoint pivoted in the punctured marrow of the villain....Therefore we are the last poets of the world."
The group quickly grew from three poets and a drummer to seven young black and Hispanic artists to also include Felipe Luciano, Umar Bin Hassan, Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, and Suliaman El Hadi. Over the years, different variations of the group recorded and made appearances under The Last Poets. Different offshoots brought different “flavors” to the group, from Felipe Luciano’s Puerto Rican roots to Nuriddin’s rhyming poetry and beat-box/synth tracks. The Last Poets of today, consisting of original members Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan, and drummer Baba Donn Babatunde, have enjoyed a resurgence of popularity since the 1990s. They participated in the 1994 Lollapalooza, released the album, Holy Terror (1993), and a book, On a Mission: Selected Poetry and a History of the Last Poets (1996). Members of the group can be seen on the movie Poetic Justice (1993), and HBO’s Def Poetry Jam (2002), Oyewole and Hassan were also featured in Stolen Moments: Red Hot and Blue (1994), a compilation for the Red Hot AIDS Benefit Series, which also ran on PBS as a video. On the Last Poets’ album, Time Has Come (1997), Chuck D, co-founder of Public Enemy makes an appearance.
They were also featured with hip-hop artist Common on the Kanye West-produced song “The Corner” (2005), the second single released on Common’s on sixth album, Be. Oyewole was featured on the Wu-Tang Clan-affiliated political hip-hop group Black Market Militia by the album of the same name on the song The Final Call in 2005. The group is also featured on the Nas album Untitled (2008), on the songs “You Can’t Stop Us Now” and “Project Roach.” In 2012, Oyewole and Hassan performed in Tongues of Fire, A Tribute to the Back Panthers, spearheaded by David Murray and appeared with members of Living Color and The Roots.
They were featured in the film, Freestyle The Art Of Rhyme (2014), along with Black Thought, Questlove, Jurassic 5, and Mos Def (now known as Yasiin Bey). Nearly forty years after their separation, in 2008 surviving members Abiodun Oyewole, Umar Bin Hassan, Felipe Luciano, Babatunde Don Eaton, Dahveed Ben Israel (formerly David Nelson), and Jalal Mansur Nuriddin participated in the documentary, The Last Poets: Made in Amerikkka, which culminated into a one-time concert at the 2008 Banlieues Blues Festival. Although The Last Poets' popularity declined by the late 1970s, the respect the rappers and lyricists of the post-1980s era have paid them has helped cement their place in history as a major influence on the hip-hop and spoken word movements. Combining politically charged street poetry with inventive yet tribal percussion, these records sparked the rap revolution and, historic achievements aside, thrilled fans with chart-topping music that still resonates more than forty years later.
Many of The Last Poets’ early tracks are landmarks of poetic radicalism, and have been claimed by rappers as seminal influences: “Niggas Are Scared of Revolution” and “When the Revolution Comes” predate and prefigure Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”; “White Man’s Got a God Complex” struck a potent satirical chord in 1971 (and again in 1994, with a cover by Flavor Flav on Public Enemy’s Muse Sick n Hour Mess Age album, which features backup from Umar Bin Hassan.
Still, perhaps because of their unusual polyrhythms, The Last Poets aren’t sampled as often as they might be, though artists as different as Yo Yo, A Tribe Called Quest, and Paris have looped lines from “Run, Nigger” on their recent albums; many rappers’ have given The Last Poet “props” as the fathers of rap and hip hop. Their influence is great, but it’s more an influence on “attitude” than on the music itself. For better or worse, The Last Poets, like many African American artists, have enjoyed more honor abroad than at home; their albums are big sellers in Japan, and Japanese and European labels have been home to most of their post-Celluloid recordings.
All of the members of The Last Poets have carried on their artistry, and while some of them may no longer perform or record albums, the concept and idea of The Last Poets has remained a constant in their lives. As for Oyewole, Babatunde, and Hassan, they continue to perform and record for one reason only: To promote self-empowerment in the African American community through music and the spoken word.