What Went Right With… The Last Poets?

A retrospective of The Last Poets

In 1878, a photographer named Eadweard Muybridge took high-speed photographs of a galloping horse in order to prove that all four legs leave the ground during part of a horse’s stride. Eadweard’s photographs succeeded in ending an age-old argument but had he pieced all his images together and played them back, he’d have invented the motion picture. Unfortunately, people don’t always know what they have in front of them, and instead the likes of Thomas Edison, the Lumière brothers, and the often overlooked Louis Le Prince took this concept, developed it, and invented the motion picture as we know it. In a similar way to this, black spoken word poets who sprang out of the African American Civil Rights movement including The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, and The Watts Prophets arguably created Hip-Hop before the term was even coined. Delivering spoken word poetry over a rhythmic beat is where it all started but unbeknownst to them, had these artists simply matched their rhyme structure to fit the beat, they’d have invented rapping almost a decade prior to its given date.

Out of all the spoken word poets, in my opinion, The Last Poets were the most impressive. Their revolutionary lyrics spoke of oppression and equality, fighting back against the man and fighting against military enlistment and police brutality. Their lyrics were brave, daring, and unafraid decades before the Parental Advisory sticker existed. Never has there been a better time to acquaint or reacquaint yourself with this group’s political poetry. Check out “When The Revolution Comes” and “Before The White Man Came” as an example of The Last Poet’s work…

Given the group’s contribution to the genesis of Hip-Hop music, The Last Poet’s songs have been sampled by many Hip-Hop musicians over the years from Dr. Dre and Snoop, Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, Showbiz & A.G., Tragedy Khadafi, N.W.A., A Tribe Called Quest, Paris, The Coup, to various members of Public Enemy. Not all of these rappers and producers have stayed true to the song they borrowed however. You may recognise the finale of “When The Revolution Comes” from The Notorious B.I.G. & Easy Mo Bee’s “Party & Bullshit” which I always felt was problematic, considering that line was a reference to people who were too scared or ignorant of revolution (and therefore nothing to brag about). But hey, when has a Hip-Hop producer or DJ respected the concept of their sample?

Another standout track by The Last Poets is “Black Soldier”, a song which began by subverting a military cadence call but it slowly turned into so much more…

The classic line “Here’s to you black soldier fighting in Vietnam, helping your oppressor oppress another man” is so memorable and noteworthy. The lyrics in this track is the reason why I rated Spike Lee’s film Da 5 Bloods so low; there were plenty of black people refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, in fact founding member of The Last Poets Jalaludin M. Nuriddin chose to go to jail instead of fight.

Back to the idea of inventing Hip-Hop lyricism, by the time The Last Poets tried “rapping” in the traditional sense with songs like “This Is Your Life” (in the ’80s) their flow sounded subdued, restrained, and typical of that decade. If only they’d kept their early ’70s style, it predated a flow yet to exist.

The Last Poets pre-empted Political R&B by the likes of Marvin Gaye as well as Political Hip-Hop by the likes of dead prez and Immortal Technique (if not the entire genre of Hip-Hop). The politically-charged poetry in their 1971 album This Is Madness even resulted in the group being listed under the counter-intelligence program COINTELPRO which shows how dangerous real political music can be, and how much of a threat speaking ones mind is to the establishment.

Back to general Hip-Hop, the spoken-word flow of Killah Priest’s “Heavy Mental” owes a lot to this group, in fact Priest’s group Black Market Militia featured The Last Poet member Abiodun Oyemole in one of their best songs (read on for more info). Whilst speaking of foreshadowing, songs such as “E Pluribis Unum” pre-empted many of K-Rino and Ras Kass‘ hidden history songs, “Jazzoetry” pre-empted rappers like Guru who enjoyed blending rapping with Jazz samples, and “Hand Off” pre-empted any and all pro-black, Afrocentric Hip-Hop ever made.

Instead of being merely sampled, on a few occasions, MCs have asked The Last Poets to contribute to their songs. Rappers like Nas and Common have featured new lyrics by certain members but for me, the best example of this (and one of the most beautifully-constructed Hip-Hop songs) is by Black Market Militia featuring Abiodun Oyemole of The Last Poets…

The Last Poets are the reason I refuse to acknowledge people who claim Hip-Hop’s origins were merely dancing to a breakbeat. Hip-Hop production may have originated with sampling and breakdancing but the lyricism existed earlier hence the genre term Proto-Hip-Hop or Proto-Rap being attributed to The Last Poets. I acknowledge that DJ shoutouts originated with Jamaican toasting but the personal, meaningful, and revolutionary lyrics began with black spoken word poets; the true founders of Hip-Hop. That’s why it’s so important that musicians don’t lose sight of what Hip-Hop music can be (and always was): political, dangerous, and subversive. With a bunch of garbage rappers taking Hip-Hop and turning it into something that merely markets expensive objects to the masses, The Last Poets will be…

The First And The Last.

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