The Last Poets will perform in a benefit for the D.C. Rape Crisis Center at Kilimanjaro's Heritage Hall at 8 tonight. The wrong date was given in a story in yesterday's Style section.
Sulieman El-Hadi and Jalaluddin Mansur Nurridin -- will appear at Kilimanjaro's Heritage Hall with guitarist James (Blood) Ulmer in a benefit for the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. Listen to their first records from 1969 and 1970 and you will hear one of the essential roots of today's rap music, but with a decidedly more visceral, angry edge: belligerent voices chanting over stark percussive accompaniment, creating astonishing portraits and scenes from deep inside black America.
"We called it 'spographics,' " El-Hadi explains. "Later, the record industry put another title on it, rappin', but we tried to draw pictures in the minds of the people with our words, much like the painters do on a canvas."
"At that particular time everybody was angry," he adds. "There were a lot of real violent actions being perpetrated against us; consequently our outcry was one of anguish and anger . . .
The common enemy is ignorance and we had recognized that at the beginning. Consequently, our job was to reeducate our people. It may have looked harsh to outsiders, but to the people on the inside, it was welcome because we all knew in our hearts that this was the case."
The first two Last Poets records -- they have just been reissued on Celluloid -- were unrelenting, shockingly urgent. The first record was reportedly played over and over to a captive Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army. "I don't think they used it for brainwashing or indoctrination," Nurridin said recently. "They were using it to school her to what was happening on the other side of America that she was not aware of because she grew up too wealthy and rich and knew nothing about the ghetto."
The Poets came together in the late '60s "as a group of neigborhood poets at the East Wind, a Harlem loft where they could come and recite," El-Hadi says. "It cost a dollar to get in, just to pay the rent; nobody was receiving any money and the group didn't have any notoriety." The name was derived from a visiting South African poet's prediction that this was the last age of poems and essays before guns and rifles took over.
The Poets performed on street corners before appearing in a PBS segment that drew the attention of producer Alan Douglas. They released five albums over the next six years, as well as the "Hustler's Convention" album cut by Nurridin (under the name Lightnin' Rod) with Kool and the Gang, Billy Preston, King Curtis and others. Though the Last Poets' use of profanity and their sexist, street-tough aggressiveness kept them off the airwaves, their records sold hundreds of thousands of copies on, appropriately, word of mouth.
"In our work we address social issues, political issues, and historical issues," says El-Hadi. "A people without knowledge of their past is like a tree without roots. History is recorded so people will know where they came from, so they'll understand how they got where they are, so they'll be able to come up with where they're going and how to get there. Political issues are natural for us to address because they lay the groundwork for the social issues; and the social issues directly affect us."
There were several earlier incarnations of the Last Poets; Nurridin and El-Hadi have been members since 1970 and 1974, respectively. Two other Poets, Omar Ben Hassan and Abeyedun Oyewolfe, went on to become playwrights. Nurridin has also been working as an acupuncturist, El-Hadi as a history teacher.
On their new record, "Oh My People" (also on Celluloid), the Last Poets have enlisted the services of producer Bill Laswell with the thought, according to El-Hadi, that "you can't fight a war -- and I use the term loosely -- in 1985 with weapons that were developed in World War II . . . The important thing for us is reaching the people."
Unfortunately, "Oh My People" does not rekindle the fiery passions of the earlier Poets' work; it seems muted, its issues less personal. "But," says El-Hadi, "we felt we should address the issue of nuclear holocaust, for instance, because if they drop a bomb, it's going to hit New York and I'm going to wind up a corpse like everybody else."
The use of synthesizers and drum machines also seems to clutter up the sound, though El-Hadi points out that "our emphasis is not on music -- our emphasis is on the message . . . "It's not going to make you laugh and sing, necessarily, but it is enlightening and important. We believe it's vital for someone like us to be out there doing it. The issues that we address are vital to us as black people, and as people, period."