Before hip hop pioneers like the Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel or Run DMC, there was The Last Poets. Called the "Godfathers of rap", for their performances which merged street smart poetry that rhymed, set to musical backgrounds, The Last Poets, a seven member group, was formed during the Civil Rights era on May 16, 1968, the anniversary of Malcolm X's birthday, as voices of Black consciousness. Known for political poetry, the Harlem based group, fused African drums and song with themes of Black Nationalism, "We were influenced by all the music of our people," says Oyewole, "... Spirituals, jazz, rhythm and blues and salsa."
Poems such as "White Man's Got a God Complex", "Niggas Are Scared of Revolution" and "E Pluribus Unum" were the political wake up calls The Last Poets issued to Blacks. The Last Poets often faced problems with cops and the FBI because of their political lyrics.
Despite the controversy, The Last Poets have recorded eighteen albums, which have sold millions of copies without mainstream airplay or other advertisement. Some of the more popular of The Last Poets eighteen albums include: "The Last Poets"(1969), "This Is Madness" (1971), "Delights of the Garden" (1975), "Jazzoetry" (1975), "Be Bop or Be Dead"(1993), "25 Years" (1994), "Holy Terror" (1995) and "Time Has Come"(1997). As hip hop artists frequently sample the work of older generations of artists before them, Public Enemy, used lines from The Last Poets', "White Man's Got a God Complex" (The Last Poets album, 1969), in their song "Godd Complexx" off P.E.'s 1994 album, "Muse Sick in Hour Mess Age."
The Last Poets continue to stand as shining examples for younger generations of artists. Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hasaan, now elders , are both active members of The Last Poets, continue to travel and perform together. Both Bin Hasaan and Abiodun Oyewole (who is still based in Harlem), lecture at colleges, teach poetry workshops in New York City public elementary and secondary schools and perform with musicians for hip hop and poetry events. Last year, HBO featured them on Russell Simmon's Def Poetry Jam. And several hip hop artists such as Jill Scott, Common, Bilal, Erykah Badu, Chuck D. and Doug E. Fresh have come together to record a Last Poets tribute album which will be released in 2005. "We need to glorify the strength of us. And that's what this tribute album is doing. These artists have been great and we feel revered by them," says Oyewole.
Although some of the more progressive artists of hip hop have come together to do The Last Poets tribute album , when asked about some of the other artists representing hip hop culture today, Oyewole remarks,
"Hip hop has become a circus. The vehicle is still the same, but the artists, the drivers are silly. We know they're doing this because niggas are trying to get paid, but see a lot of people are on the line to be niggas and they're being paid to be sleazy and greasy."
Oyewole is not completely turned off to hip hop as he admits to admiring some of hip hop's more progressive, such as Chuck D., Nas, Common , Kanye West, Rakim and Dead Prez. The Last Poets have done shows with Chuck D. and Doug E. Fresh. Oyewole also collaborated on the hit song "Mind Sex" with duo, Dead Prez, off their "Let's Get Free" album. "Hip hop reflects wherever we are. And we have to try to promote the best of who we are. I'm working with youth now and work with what they know, which is hip hop, to get them open to poetry. And they always respond to it," says Oyewole.
"We're receiving our flowers while we're alive," says Oyewole. "We have a large fan base in Europe and the college kids here know us because they look us up on the Internet." The Last Poets are more like , the first poets.
Copyright 2004 DuEwa M. Frazier
The Last Poets on AALBC.com