Before rap knew its name, there were a group of angry young men who reflected the harsh spirit of their times and whose work remains prophetic and inspriational today. The Last Poets started out in the late sixties, speaking out as few other musical groups had (or have since) about racism, poverty and other concerns of American-Americans. Their charge has been taken up by many rappers who they've influenced. The group is still alive and active, performing a show for WordLife at the Irving Plaza with such kindered spirits as Amiri Baraka and Chuck D. There is also written work, collections of their poems as well as new CD in the works: ON A MISSION is now out (selected poems and a history of the Poets) from Owl Books. Our thanks to Amaechi and WordLife as well as Cafe Los Negros for all of their help.
COULD YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR RECENT WORK WITH WORDLIFE?
When I did the recording for them, I had just came from Mercury records with their plush offices. I went down to studio at Wall Street (over Chinese restaurant) to WordLife and it was like a fall-out shelter. I had the poem and I working with the engineer. I did the piece and he said 'you want to put down the hook first or the poem.' Hook? I just got the poem. So I said 'Let me think about it.' I came up with 'rivers of our souls... poems are rivers of our souls.' So we laid the track down and he said 'That's great. OK, now go back and harmonize over that.' I had a chorus of my voices on it now. So now he said 'OK, go back and improvise over that now.' He was kicking my butt but he was very sweet, he knew I could do all of this.
It all turned out really sweet. It turned out nice and they got a great guitar player on it. It all happened very easy. It happened so easily that it showed me a goal: if I can earn enough money, then I should own my own studio. It was that comfortable. I could just sit there with a track of music and think of some stuff that works. It worked this time and I had good people to work with who had confidence in what I did so that helped.
They got some other pieces on there like Jessica Moore, who's been like a protege of mine, who does a piece 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings'. They've got a nice balance of male-female tones, voices and poets with very good music. It's not just music that's made to fit. Sometimes in the efforts of people to make things blend, it gets constipated and they don't know how it's supposed to flow. There's a flow that's got to happen. But I'm very impressed with their (WordLife's) energy. It's giving a new scent to the air. A lot of people want to try different kind of things and the spoken word thing is on the rise. But there is a way that can be presented that is right. I think the WordLife concept is the right avenue in presenting this spoken word idiom on the scene and making it rich again.
People have made a mockery of what poetry is. A lot of rap, in a lot of ways, is not poetry. Rhyming words together doesn't mean that you've created poems. This is deeper thought and a deeper understanding. It's like, you could drink Wild Irish Rose or Thunderbird and get drunk as a skunk. Or you could sip some wine all evening and have this wonderful taste. This is poetry compared to Wild Irish Rose. For them, it would be Old English. That's what some of the rap is. The rap that comes out of their mouths is like what they drink out of the bottle. It goes along together. What else can you expect. When we start refining our design, it tastes better. That's what I'm appreciating about the WordLife project.
WHAT KIND OF ALCOHOL WOULD YOU SAY YOUR WORK IS THEN?
(laughs) Cognac. Cognac because I do know how to weave the metaphors together into a journey and intoxicate you, to a degree. Just to make you so drunk that you can't drive. It's strong, I know it. Some people may need to drink some juice or water afterwards. I remember this one line from 'Black Rage' that was aired on NEW YORK UNDERCOVER with this line 'So you became GI Joe/killing your family/not the enemy/a human gun/made and manufactured in/the United Snakes of America' It came off the screen like you could see all the rattlesnakes coming right at you. That's what I'm talking about. I'm not going to fake it on you. I'm going to give it to you. That's the Last Poets' trademark. To undress language and make it naked. Look at that butt, all the cellulite, everything.
WHAT KIND OF INFLUENCES DID YOU HAVE WITH MUSIC BEFORE YOU STARTED THE LAST POETS?
I always liked jazz. My folks had a lot of albums. My mother liked gospel. Mahalia Jackson was, without doubt, the crown jewel. I heard a lot of her. Ella Fitzgerald was in the house too and Sarah Vaughn and Count Basie and Duke Elligton. We were definitely glued to the tube when Sammy Davis was singing. When the Twist came out with Chubby Checker, that was a big deal. My mother was twisting, my father was twisting. I was trying to twist. Music was a part of everything. My first transistor had a little extension that I could put in my ear and listen to when I went to sleep. I listened to Curtis Mayfield and the Temptations and that whole Motown thing. I was in love with all of that. And I liked Johnny Mathis. I won talent shows imitating Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole. Mathis was one of my favorites: I used to sing 'Twelfth of Never' to death, trying to pick up girls! All of that, I'm sure, help nurture the poetry in me.
My father was very political in terms of what was happening. Our first real political experience happened from other black people. We lived on a block where there was one other black family who was from Jamaica. My mother wanted to make friends and sent Christmas cards to everyone. These people sent a Christmas card back from Jamaica- I'll never forget that. They were really upset that we came on the block and upset everything because now they weren't the only ones. They hated us. It was really deep. It lasted for years. But I understand what prejudice had done to them so now we were getting some residuals based on how they were treated. Now they were treating others the same way, their own kind.
I was fortunate in high school to have a English teacher named Mr. Richstone. Two of the books that impressed me the most were CRY THE BELOVED COUNTRY by Alan Patton and THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA by Ernest Hemingway. He asked us to define what THE OLD MAN was about in our own words. I thought it was a metaphor for Jesus Christ. He said that he never read a paper that was more radical than that. I said that it was a Christ fixation that he had. Duane Jones, who also taught at that high school, was another important influence on me. He taught me similies and metaphors and I was a wiz at that stuff. He began a very good friend. He was also in THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD- he saved some people in the movie and the townspeople think he's a zombie so they shoot him dead. He really helped me to get into the technical aspects of poetry and getting me to appreciate it.
At first, I was into Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot and Lawrence Ferlighetti. Then I started getting into the black poetry. Langston Hughes especially. I saw a performance of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis doing his poetry and that's what really opened me up. It was so unreal, so lyrical. They made it live. You could feel it, it became drama as opposed to words on a page. That had a lot of influence on me, involving myself with the Last Poets.
Another big influence was my mother. One Sunday she had me practice the Lord's Prayer in the basement of our house. She wanted me to say it loud enough for her to hear it in the kitchen, which was upstairs but she didn't want me to yell. She said 'throw your voice.' So I developed whatever big voice I have from that. I learned how to project. When that Easter Sunday came and the Reverend put the microphone up to my face, my mother said 'That boy does not need a mic, take it away.' There was a thousand people there and they ALL heard me. Twenty years later, people would still come up to me and say 'that's the Davis' boy that sang on Easter Sunday!' All of that had some influence on my poetry with my whole desire to recite and say it. I do appreciate the fact that people can also read it and get a lot out of it too.
Amiri Baraka was unquestionably a major influence. He was taking strides outside the boundries. He was bold about it. I liked that. He had a sense of music because he knew the musicians and it always came out in his work. He was sipping the right brew with the right cats. I enjoyed him tremendously. He was a major influence and a true mentor of the Last Poets.
Personal influences were David Nelson and Gylan Kain (the original Last Poets) because I was the baby in the group. Kain was the greatest, most intense poet I'd ever heard in my life, especially dealing with the subject of 'niggers' and how he made that it clear how detrimental it was for us to follow that pattern. He broke it down and dealt with it honestly and richly. A lot of people like to deal with things in a nasty way but he he dealt with it richly.Walk around Harlem
Took about a minute
Heard a voice cry out
'Niggers got rhythm'
My head spun around
The people had deserted
From that moment in time
Harlem became a desert
From that moment in time
Harlem IS a desert
Dow Jones went up
One point three
Harlem no change
That's MASTERFUL stuff. Then David Nelson, he had a whole other thing happening. It was his spirit. You could feel that in the way that he pronounced and the way he presented his words. They were the true teachers to me because I was the kid in the group. I didn't have the poetry skills then but I did get better as time went on. I'm a good student.
WHAT WAS IT THAT GAVE THE LAST POETS A POLITICAL EDGE?
It was definitely the times. We were born May 19, 1968, Malcolm X day. We were dealing with Malcolm's ideas and his whole concept of self-determination and black nationalism. We wanted to be the voice of that. That was the impetus of our existance. I really could not buy Martin Luther King's program. The idea that we wanted to sit next to them in a luncheonette or a bathroom. You got to built your own toilet. Don't beg anybody for your friendship. You be who you are. You be respectful onto yourself and every living thing around you. You let them know that you're not having that and you do not include them in the category of respect. That goes for any race, sex or religion.
People assume that the Last Poets are all Muslims but I'm not. 'They must be Muslim because they speak that black talk.' Get out of here! I respect Muslims. Some people don't respect me because I'm not Muslim and that's insane. I can't relate to that. We got through these experiences with the idea that we have to please somebody other than ourselves. My whole life, I've understood that if I can't please myself, I can't please anybody. That's basic. That's who I am.
With the politics, the (Black) Panthers had a lot to do with that time. But the real platform, just for the record, for the politics of the Poets came from New Breed. New Breed was a black clothing enterprise, started by a guy named Jason. Jason provided us with space even before we had the East Wing, which became the space for the Last Poets. He provided us with gigs because he would have fashion shows. His clothing enterprise made popular the dashiki. He designed, made and manufactured the dashiki and popularized it throughout the whole East coast. He would have Pharoah Sanders, Leon Thomas and the Last Poets performing. Beautiful women would come out with this huge afros and these African garbs. We were all in love with a whole bunch of different models. But the politics, the self-determination of that was fostered big time by then. We were that poetic, political voice. David had a direct investment in New Breed so he and Jason were close. Our relation fizzled out after we found our own space.
HOW DID THE POETS GET INTO MUSIC?
We started out with this chant 'are you ready niggers?' because I wanted to affirm that we weren't coming on as three seperate poets. We were at David's house and we developed this presentation of how we were going to go on stage. We tried singing 'Ooh Baby Baby' but that wasn't going to work. The park was crowded (where they did the show) and I didn't want to look foolish. I heard a chant at Howard University where they were trying to get rid of the Dean, who they thought was a real Uncle Tom. That was one of the chants I heard one TV and it freaked me out. So when we came out for the show, we came out singing that and everyone in the park started chanting that. We had some drummers on the stage so the drum became a nature part. The brother's name was named Hakim who was up there with us. After that, we searched for a conga player to work with us just to have the voice and the drums. I would always sing because that was always my thing especially as a kid. That was always a part of the Last Poets, which gave it a certain amount of flavor.
Even in the years after the Poets, I always had jazz with me. When I go away, if there's music at a hotel, I'll usually sing along. I used to sing with anything on the radio, like 'dreaaaaam, dream, dream, dream' with the Everly Brothers. I got heavily into jazz like John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. Then hanging out with Albert Ayler and Sun Ra's Arkestra, all of this started giving me some kind of vibe. Also getting the chance to meet Dexter Gordon and meeting Miles and knowing (in a raspy voice) 'that he talked like that for real.' It was just being in Harlem, because it has so many juices and jewels of culture. Imagation of the day. I had a chance to be here at a real prime time. That's what helped me get into poetry.
IN YOUR MIND, WHAT KIND OF EFFECT DID THE LAST POETS HAVE ON RAP?
The rhyming poems on the first album, the stuff that Jalal did. 'Daybreak's got the shakes.' That really captured the imagination of a lot of kids. It's very playful. It's very colorful, very cute. The sounds coming together, and it's musical.
WAS THERE ANY PRECEDENT FOR THE RAPPING THAT THE POETS WERE DOING?
Eddie Jefferson and Oscar Davis, those guys were rappers. They had rap insinuations, innuendos that I would have never thought of. There's a lot that can contribute to the concept. I think what happened is that the Last Poets really played an important part because of the rhyming schemes that a lot of people used. The rhyming schemes that Jalal used was contagious- that was the stuff that captured the imaginations of a lot of folks. The Sugarhill Gang took to another place with fun and games. But Jalal did 'Hustler's Convention.' That the first time that that kind of idiom had been played up so much. It was heard and it was passed on. But you could away with not saying very much also.
Jalal actually almost didn't get into the group. Nobody liked him. EVERYTHING he said was all in rhymes. All the damn time. He didn't talk to you unless it was a fucking rhyme. But I'm a Pieces and I'm really tolerant. When no else thought he should be part of the Last Poets, I put him into the group because I wanted to fulfill the trinity. It was always three Poets. After David Nelson left, it was Gylan Kain and Felipe Luciano with me. Felipe and I had a ball. We took it to some other place. That was a POWERFUL group. Felipe brought the Puerto Rican contingent into it so we had a whole other force. Then Kain left and Felipe started the Young Lords, his own little political organization. Felipe left to become an actor. Umar always wanted to be in the Last Poets so he got his opportunity. Larry (who later became Jalal) was always bending my ear. He always had a poem. Arrogent too but I never let none of that phase me. I thought he was good. I never knew anybody who could rhyme EVERYTHING. I figured it was worth something. It made sense- I mean it wasn't silly or stupid rhymes. I think, though he's done some dispicable things later on, that his genius is without question. I honestly believe that it was his genius that sparked the minds of these young rappers. 'It's gotta rhyme, if it doesn't rhyme, it ain't fine.'
Every poet knows or should know that when you rhyme, you're creating a picket fence. Now you are a slave to the rhythm you created. With a poet, if you feel like flying, you fly. You're not encased to the ground. There's a contrived thing happening when everything rhymes. When you deal with poetry, there's a freedom of responsibility of being able to fly away and still be contained. That's the beauty of poetry. You can leave the nest. You can go far away. But somehow the nest is always there- you never lose sight. The rapper, he stays at the nest and makes a mess of it. He's stuck there. There's been some very slick things said in rhyme. There's no question. I rhyme things myself and I'd be the last person to say that you can't make a PROFOUND statement in rhyme. There are some great poets do rhyme.
But with the Poets, we were angry and we had something to say. We addressed the language. We just put it right in front of your face. We parented to the hip-hop generation. I can't deny that. I worked with a lot of them and they have the same rage and I understand that. There was a movement back then with the Panthers and other organizations, trying to secure human rights for the community. We had these guidelines and guard rails. These kids don't have these guard rails. The rage is going every which way. It's self-destructive. The whole second coming of the Last Poets is to re-establish those guard rails. Otherwise, you'll all fly off the cliff and be dead and there's no real significance here. I love these kids.
Look at Tupac- he was a genius. His writing skills were good. His delivery was good. He had a look. Just like James Dean, he's gone. Rebel without a cause. There is a cause and we know that. The cause is a place that will allow us to grow without this rage eating us up inside. It's been dominating our existance as opposed to us being able to direct it. I've been able to control my frenzy so I can teach and I can write poetry. I can work with it like a blacksmith. But a lot of young people don't know about that. They haven't travelled this far. They may not be able to understand what I'm saying yet but I'm there to give them an idea. If they're willing to listen, then we can make some progress.
I look forward to these gatherings, these shows. We are dealing with a thirsty, hungry bunch of people from all races. We have this major period of neglect here, with all of these little toys that keep us from nurturing. You got your video games, you got TV, you got the Internet. You have so many different things that have nothing to do with 'You got me and I got you.' That's all that matters.
I think this whole hip hop thing is very vital because it could be a big jolt of positivity. It's been given a lot of bad publicity. But it can grow and develop into something beautiful. I don't know what the beginnings of bebop were but I'm sure there were a lot of dark stories there too.
ANOTHER PART OF THE LAST POETS THAT INFLUENCED RAP WAS THE FACT THAT YOU WERE A GROUP. A POET IS USUALLY THOUGHT OF AS SOMEONE WHO STANDS ALONE.
That was very unusual. We wanted have a collective of men, different heads, with everybody not thinking the same but our ideologies are similar enough for us to get on the stage. We knew that was a test. That proved to be beyond everything else, the biggest test. That's why we broke up. That's why we had different members.
DID YOU EVER GET HARASSED BY THE FBI?
We were all harassed. I even had my own special FBI agent come to see me in prison. He asked me about a murder that I had no knowledge about. I said 'if you've been following me, you know that.' He knew all these details about me. He started talking about his family and his grandmother, getting all corny and friendly like I had something to say. That's the WORST time to try to interogate someone. I mean, I'm in PRISON. I'M AS CLEAR AS A BELL! You got nothing else. It's just you and the elements.
I got out of Harlem because I was being harassed. I felt uncomfortable and when they said there was a warrent out for my arrest, I went down to Carolina and stayed there for a while. They just really wanted me out of here because they thought I was causing trouble. Being a leader of a revolutionary group was a little more impacting than they wanted me to be. I commited a crime, robbing some money. I did that deliberately to get some of my fellas out of jail from another capper we pulled. Each of the Last Poets has their own stories about problems with the law. But I've never had a Rodney King experience and I know it's because of the way I carry myself.
ANOTHER MAJOR CONCERN OF THE LAST POETS WAS BLACK APATHY.
Right. 'Niggers Are Scared of A Revolution.' It's still true and I still see it. Every year, I'm hired to say my poem about Martin Luther King. And every year I'm sick of it. The same thing, again and again. I want to write something else. What I've discovered is that I have to find new meaning in my old material. It's the same thing with that song. It's the truth then and the truth now. We know what revolution is because we've experienced revolutions in our own lives. Now we have a much better understanding. We were talking about some shit that was going to be understood YEARS later. I look at the Last Poets and see that they were true to the concept of poetry.
HOW DID YOUR IDEAS ABOUT REVOLUTION CHANGE?
Back then, I wanted to see everything burned and people hanged. I wanted to see riots. The one thing that stopped me in my tracks was this guy speaking at one of our forums. 'You can't really be a revolutionary until you know the kind of world that you want your kid to live in.' Man, that messed me up. I had no idea. I wasn't into Marx and Lenin like some other radical people. But these people were looking for another concept. But what he said put me on a mission to try to understand what I liked about the life I was living and what I didn't like. I realized that we all opted to let someone else order things for us, through this electoral governmental bullshit. They would think 'these saps are paying us to make them.' Black people were easy targets for a lot of this bullshit. Now, my whole thing is, we have to see how we can be the greatest part of us, which is the healing part of us. This self-empowerment mode is where I'm at. I'd rather that folks learn how to save themselves before they kill themselves. That's what I'm trying to do.
WHAT KIND OF PLANS DO YOU HAVE FOR THE FUTURE?
I'd like to be doing more concerts and shows. Readings and work with rappers also. One of my dreams has been to open Last Poet houses all over the country. This would be a place to nurture poetry, for the mind and the spirit. So many people write poetry but they would never let anyone else know because they're scared. A lot of other people are afraid of poetry and what it says. Poetry is really the central voice of a civilization and it should be nurtured.
It's not the same as this talk about ebonics you hear now. All of this nonsense about ebonics is a bunch of bullshit. That's just what you talk in the street. You might as well study pig-latin. I teach the language and I can flow with people on the street. White people I know can speak the talk just as well as I can. I'm really disappointed with all of the respected people who have participated in this charade. People have to learn how to develop their basic speaking skills. This isn't empowerment. You can flip the script once you know the script.
The Last Poets' early work is available at Light in the Attic
Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER
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