Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Last Poets Are Almost Gone

Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, the “Godfather of Rap,” is dead at 73, said the New York Times. It's a nice, respectful piece, you can go and read it. He achieved his Godfather status as a founding member of the Last Poets in New York City in about the year 1968, maybe 1969. Their music was as revolutionary as their politics, and it all sounds as fresh as a daisy today, fifty years after the fact, and the message is also as important as it was in olden times.

Many of us have reached the stage of life when the obituaries take on a new importance. You never know who you'll find! The Last Poets, featuring Mr. Nuriddin, presented a totally new form of entertainment, or edutainment (big educational element), something that the world had never heard before. For a long time there wasn't much of the Last Poets on YouTube and the records were not available. More recently, YouTube has a lot of it and the records are available on CD. I hope that means that Mr. Nuriddin was making some money. I'm sorry to see him go, but that's life. RIP, Jalal, and thanks for everything.

Not to change the subject, but people now look at the Rolling Stones and the only thing that is considered remarkable is that they can still set up and play rough edged rock and roll at their advanced ages. Not only play, but play long sets and get audiences excited. To me, though, in retrospect, the most remarkable thing about the 'Stones is that they were, in the beginning, cultural ambassadors bringing American music to young Americans who had never heard that material before. The culture came from America, got filtered through a very small number of maladjusted English teenagers, and returned to America on Rolling Stones records. This fact is under-reported.

I am a great test case. By early 1964, when it all started, I was already a rock fan and a record buyer, and I already had albums by Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly. I was also a big fan of the New Orleans songs that got played on the white radio stations, songs like “Mother-in-Law,” “Working in a Coal Mine,” and “Walking the Dog.” I did the math about New Orleans because my favorite songs were the Gary “U.S.” Bonds classics, “New Orleans,” and “Quarter to Three.” I was therefore drawn to the Rolling Stones, because they were playing this music and they obviously loved it just like I did. Those first three albums were almost all covers, and let's give the 'Stones more credit where credit is due: they credited the original artists and writers when they covered a song.

That only opened the door to the 'Stones for me, though. Once I was in, it was a whole new world. That stuff that I just described was discoverable right on the radio stations that white kids listened to, but the Rolling Stones swam a lot deeper than that. Through them I discovered the music of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Slim Harpo, and many New Orleans artists and records that had only been regional hits. That stuff was nowhere on the radio in New York, and I didn't know anyone who had those records. There was no other way for me to have discovered all of that music without the Rolling Stones. In a way, they led me to the Last Poets, too.

We are not here to glorify the Rolling Stones. How did I discover the Last Poets? By 1970 I was also a big fan of movies, in fact I was a big fan of Cinema, capital C, so when Mick Jagger appeared in the movie Performance, I was there within the first couple of days. Performance was directed by Nicolas Roeg. I had heard the name, and there was some artistic buzz about the movie, but not enough to make it a sure thing on its own. I loved the movie, though, and I took my girlfriend back on the weekend to see it again. The soundtrack was great, so I picked up the album as well. Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, and (drum roll) The Last Poets. Within days I had purchased the Poets album that features the above song, and I was hooked. Most of my friends at the time thought that I was crazy, but they usually leaned in that direction anyway. I couple of my friends understood it right away, and were as impressed as I was. This was exciting stuff.

No Mick Jagger in the movie? Not a sure thing that I would go to see it. That's the nature of money: you spend it and it's gone, you can never spend it again. Let's see, I can go to the first run of Performance for $2 and it might be good, or I can go to the Bleeker Street Cinema and see a Marx Brothers double feature for $1. I usually stuck with the rerun houses, because they were cheap and the movies were great. Why take a chance on any new movie that comes along? Go with the sure thing, and save a buck. For a buck, you could buy two new underground comix. Mick was still facilitating lessons in American culture for me.

Thanks, Mick, and thanks, Jalal. All of those experiences were important to the formation of my artistic identity.

It all passes through the generations, too. When my boys were growing up, they heard the Last Poets from time to time. They were on my mix-tapes being played in the car, and I played the records back home. This was in the time before Rap, before Curtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash. I always had records on back then. I would often be doing three things at once: reading a magazine; watching a Godzilla movie on tape with the sound off; and listening to a record. For my boys, it was all part of the background noise of growing up.

Later on my oldest son was in that early rave scene in L.A., where you went to certain street corners late on Friday evening and somebody was selling maps of Los Angeles for ten dollars. The map showed the location of the rave, and it was your ticket to get in. Those were some crazy parties. My son became a DJ and worked those raves. One afternoon he was sitting around with some black friends at a home in Compton and, as it is only correct for black Americans to do, they were sizing him up. One of them put a Last Poets record on, and my son immediately identified it and proclaimed his affection for the group. That was it, he passed the inspection, he was in the club. That alone was enough to get him promoted from suspect to ally. Me too, probably, because he had learned about the Poets from me.

That is all well and good, but today it's just one more brother gone. Fare thee well, Mr. Nuriddin. Lung cancer at the age of seventy-three, I believe. I think only one of the fellows remains alive at this point. There are eight million stories in the naked city, and this has been one of them.

No comments: