For the latest of our WhoSampled interview series, we speak with Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin, better known as Jalal of The Last Poets. Born out of the American civil rights movement in the late 1960s, The Last Poets fused rhythmic poetry with sparse percussive soundtracks, delivering revolutionary messages in support of freedom and equality via a series of albums released throughout the 1970s. Engaging in solo work alongside The Last Poets’ output, Jalal adopted the moniker Lightnin’ Rod for the 1973 ‘Hustler’s Convention’ LP, a theatrical story rap set to a funk laden soundtrack provided by Kool & The Gang and others which is widely considered to be one of Hip Hop’s foundation stones, not only influencing the development of Rap itself, but also heavily sampled. Ahead of Jalal’s forthcoming appearance at London’s Jazz Cafe (where he will perform Hustler’s Convention just over 40 years after its original release) we caught up with Jalal to speak about the inspiration behind his early recordings, the impact his work has had on Hip Hop and why there is still more of the Hustler’s Convention story to be told.
Interview: Chris Read
Your first two albums, 1970′s self titled ‘The Last Poets’ and the 1971 follow ‘This is Madness’ adopted a minimalist musical approach utilising only rhythm and vocal and the lyrical content was equally uncompromising and non-conformist in terms of its political content, including open discussion of revolution, references to the situation in Vietnam. In spite of their non-conformist agenda, these records enjoyed commercial success with the self titled debut reaching #10 in the US Billboard chart. The negative attention that Hip Hop acts like N.W.A and Ice-T received from the US establishment and the FBI is recognized as an important part of Hip Hop’s story, but almost 20 years prior you were attracting similar attention for opinions expressed in your music from the Nixon adminstration. How did that attention manifest itself?
Well, the attention manifested itself as detention, you dig? It manifested itself as ‘no room at the Inn’. You know? It manifested itself as ‘cut them off at the pass’.
The thing about the lie that never seems to change,
It makes itself look good and the truth look strange,
The lie moves around amongst the people with stealth,
But the truth bears witness unto itself,
Whether science fiction or science fact,
The lie is relentless in its line of attack,
It doesn’t come forward because it knows it’s not right,
And it casts its shadow in the shade of the light,
Until you don’t believe what it is that you’re seeing,
And you don’t understand your fellow human being,
And you think you understood what you thought you knew,
That the former was a lie and it’s the lie that was true.
So what it manifested itself as was, you know, the lie moves around amongst the people with stealth, but the truth bears witness unto itself. When you shine a light on the darkness, you’re no longer in the darkness. But to keep people in the dark then you have to have secrets, and secrets about secrets, but whoever divulges those secrets gets eliminated.
So, you were saying when we spoke earlier that you felt at that time as though pressure was being brought to bare on people around you, people you were working with, photographers, journalists, people who were supportive of your message and of your cause.
Yes, behind the scenes.
Was there ever a point at which you thought that pressure had become too great? That made you reconsider whether the obstacles were too great to deliver the message you wanted to get across?
Well, if you don’t have any respect for your enemy, don’t get on the battlefield. If you have nothing to lose and everything to gain and you can’t be bought, then you have no fear.
I don’t fear the truth and I don’t fear the lie,
I am apprehensive of the alibi [laughs]
You don’t have to fear a lie, because you can always bust a lie with the truth. And I don’t fear the truth because the truth will free my mind and my behind will follow. But the alibi is nebulous, that’s an excuse, a parlay, a waylay and delay, but not a payday.
Turning for a moment to the musical aspects of your output as opposed to the lyrical content, with 1972′s ‘Chastisment’ album, there’s a shift in the musical make up, introducing elements of Jazz and the music of Africa, which you’ve mentioned was due in part to a change in personnel in the group. Can you talk us through that shift in style?
Well, I introduced a rhyme partner. I launched a search for a rhyme partner, a poet, and I found one. He was eight years older than me and he had grown up with John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, and he was a revolutionary. He was a junkie and it took me three years to clean him up. His name was Suliaman El Hadi. He was the personification of be-bop. So now we could really stretch out jazz wise and rhythmically and turn a corner and evolve the group and we recorded six albums together. Each one was a progression of the group format. On the side, I did my own thing. That way, I don’t place no limits on myself, so far as where I can go as an artist. The sky is the limit and the sky can blend right on in with the universe.
With the group situation, when they get comfortable, they’ll stay in that groove and become famous for that and that’s what they’ll do over and over again. I’m not into repeating myself. I’m into improvisation.
That leads neatly into us talking about the Hustler’s Convention album actually, because that certainly introduced a very new style to your work, not only musically but the style of delivery of the vocals too. The rhyming couplets and the story telling rhyme style that most would perhaps more easily identify with Hip Hop than your previous work. Did that evolution of that rhyming style come as a result of the story telling element of that album? Did they evolve together or was one a result of the other?
They went together like birds of a feather flying together. It was hand in glove, you know? Most musical instruments, when you’re transporting them come in a case to protect them from being damaged. We needed a case, which was the packaging of the artform, in terms of album covers, of concept and of projection to the direction we were headed in. But our direction was 360 degrees. When you can deal with all 360 of those degrees, you come back to one. There’s a line in the Hustler’s Detention…
This is the follow up to Hustler’s Convention right?
Yes, it’s a trilogy, Hustler’s Convention, Hustler’s Detention about Sport’s life on death row after Hustler’s Convention then finally Hustler’s Ascension. So there’s a line in Hustler’s Detention:
The realization of creation gave a feeling sensation that was awakened and aware of itself ,
The Earth, the sky and the by and by and the whole of mankind,
And intelligence was the gift that was given to the mind,
Intelligence was stationed inside of creation,
‘Cause by the one’s decree,
That all was to be,
In the process of elimination and things came to an end,
To begin again,
And time was and is the now and then,
Of when all that was behind is ahead and ahead is behind,
And the one added, divided, multiplied it,
Subtracted it as all figures are into the one,
And all comes back in one lump sum,
And when you can dig where that’s coming from…
You’re on the one.
This is what I mean when I say now I understand what’s going on with the Hustler’s Convention. I’m on another page you see. I’m doing the footnotes on what Sport [the character in Hustler's Convention] won for his 12 years on death row. So it’s philosophically sound. Now we’re into reflection and part of that reflection is review. And so now we understand mindsets and how your mind can become set on one dial and you don’t have no variety, and variety is the spice of life but if you’re on one track, you’re gonna run into a dead end street and there ain’t no place for you to go. You know, Hip Hop became like a dog biting its tail, going round and round and round. They can make money but they can’t make a point. They can’t make a point with a stick, they’re just taking a handful of darts and throwing it at the wall. Do that 10, 20, 40, 50 times or whatever, if one hits the bull’s eye, that’s it, it’s platinum. And then they drive down the highway in a Rolls Royce and forget about the guy who chopped down the jungle with the machete. That’s what’s up. They’re not coming to me and saying “listen man, I appreciate that you gave us a vehicle and a voice, is there anything I can do to help you?”. You see what I’m saying? They’re pretending they’re coming from the source without really identifying that source or doing anything to allow the source to remain in its pristine form. To do that, they would have to revolutionize what they’re doing lyrically and say something intelligent but that might not be commercially viable. They want that Rolls Royce to roll down the highway. I have no such values. I’m not into valuables. I’m into values and values has to do with family and it has to do with mutual benefit. It’s like Bob Marley said “dem belly full, we go hungry”. You know, I don’t want to eat if you go hungry. You understand what I’m saying? Because then I’m gonna feel bad and have a bad conscience. I have a conscience, because I’m conscious.
It’s interesting that you speak in those terms about Hip Hop, because you’re one of a handful of artists who frequently get referred to as the ‘forefathers of Hip Hop’, the people who created the vehicle for Hip Hop if you like. Along with the likes of Gil Scott-Heron…
I’ve read in interviews that Gil Scott-Heron didn’t feel comfortable with being labelled as such, perhaps even distanced himself from that association. How do you feel about being given that label?
I’m not a forefather of Hip Hop, I’m the grandfather. That’s who I am. But I don’t make no big issue about it. I do the work. The work is more important than me. The work is the message and the message is not the money. The message is to clear up the mess in this age. That’s the message in a nut shell. Get rid of the mess, for all ages, not just the current generation, for Grandma and Grandpa too [laughs].
We touched on it a little already, but there’s a commonly held view that the mainstream aspects of Hip Hop are preoccupied with the superficial, with wealth and so on, whilst Hip Hop with content of more substance, Hip Hop that does express non-mainstream opinions is marginalised with the tag ‘conscious’ almost as if that’s a sub-genre that doesn’t comfortably belong in what Hip Hop now is. To what extent do you follow what’s going on in Hip Hop and how important is it to you to have a voice in that conversation, in that debate?
I don’t. I stay in the woodshed. A jazz musician, a jazz poet stays in the woodshed. My mentors were Art Blakey, Max Roach, Nina Simone. These were all my friends, OK? They were a generation removed from me, but they liked what I was doing. Max Roach told me to master my axe. To master your axe, you have to work at it. You not only have to say something, you have to understand what you’re saying. You have to know what the foundation is, you have to know where you’re coming from and you have to separate fact from fiction and facts from fantasy so what you’re saying can be applied. There’s a course at university called applied science. When you’re dealing with metaphysics, that’s applied science. But metaphysics is intangible but it’s development toward the unification of spirit body and mind, for one to make an evolution within one’s lifetime. I don’t want to be a physical specimen like Arnold Schwarzenegger if I don’t have no brains, nor do I want be Einstein and as puny as Woody Allen. [laughs] Nor do I want to be a spiritual master that can’t treat somebody to dinner. [laughs]
If we could talk a little about the relationship of your music with Hip Hop’s early development, we’ve spoken already about the albums you released in the early ’70s. Without wanting to gloss over too much, you went on to release a number of further albums into the late ’70s including a collaboration album with Bernard Purdie, but by 1979 we see the first Hip Hop records being released. How aware were you of what was going on with Hip Hop and did you see a relationship or parallel with what you were doing at that time?
There’s an old saying. A little bit of knowledge in the hands of a fool is dangerous. If you go off half-cocked, you can’t consummate the marriage. [laughs] So, basically, it was a turn off, a detour. So, I distanced myself from it and went in to exile.
And you say that because you viewed it as superficial?
Listen, if you can’t teach me something, that I don’t already know, then I don’t need to know. I need to know what I don’t know. I need clarification. I need facts and figures. Then I can move…
So you viewed it as a step back rather than a step forward…
Right. I viewed it as regression and as commercialization. It became commerce. ‘Commerce verse’.
Taking the chronology another 10 years forward though to the late 80s, early 90s, there was a movement in Hip Hop often referred to as the so called ‘Afro-Centric’ movement which is perhaps more closely aligned with the lyrical content of your own material in terms of its politics. And so with groups like X-Clan we see more than just an influence in terms of the lyrical style, but also groups actually sampling your work and incorporating it into their music. What was your reaction to that?
I saw a couple of candles, you know, but I didn’t see the Sun. [laughs] I didn’t get no Vitamin A or D from that. They didn’t add, they subtracted… and then they multiplied and then they divided.
Do you not feel there’s a vehicle there though to introduce your music to another generation through that connection though? Speaking personally, I grew up listening to Hip Hop and discovered your music because of the fact it had been sampled so much. I found it only because of the process of retracing the steps and looking into the music that had been sampled. That process bridged a 20 year gap for me – I was finding records you’d made in the ’70s because of something that took place in the ’90s. Do you see value in that?
That’s what you call ‘I catch you on the rebound’. But an artist has to live long enough to reap the benefits of that rebound. That’s difficult man. This record is 4o years old. [laughs] That’s two generations. For me to live long enough to see the rebound means I had to survive the bounces in between and the bounces are up and down. People have tried to ‘off’ me. I have survived attempted eliminations one way or the other. That’s when you know you’re being taken seriously, that you’re not a clown in a circus. In fact, you’re the ring master. [laughs]
Overall I would rather that people got it sooner rather than later. Later means you’ve closed the barn door but the horses have already run. Had they have listened to me from the get go, they would have benefited, not just people, but the leaders. I told them:
Automatic push button remote control, synthetic genetics, command your soul,
Automatic push button remote control, synthetic genetics, command your soul,
Driving me nuts, bolts, screws,
I got the blues from paying dues,
For programmed news of honey-coated lies,
Your eyes can’t believe,
That weave the Devil’s magic with the latest gadget,
From the Mean Machine,
A’ running the same game with another name,
Down to your brain, blowing your mind,
Stealing your time, smooth and slick,
With the latest trick to get rich quick,
From nonsense at your mind’s expense,
As your mind digs the scene,
From the Mean Machine,
Designed to drive your brain insane,
Loudspeakers blasting inside your head,
Saying what someone else said,
For you to do what they want you to,
No. Go. Fast. Slow.
Getting you high off the latest lie,
Telling you when, where, how and why,
As your mind digs the scene,
From the Mean Machine,
A’ running the same game with another name.
So I’ve told them in my poetry, if you go this route… You know. Let’s just talk about technology for a minute. If the technology is faster than your metabolic rate, you’re gonna burn up on the technology and forget manual control, and the technology’s always gonna be ahead of you. We used to call technology ‘trick-nology’. So what happens when the plug is pulled on the technology? What happens when you have to charge your machine? You have to have a source of energy that’s not based on inspiration. If the source of energy expires, the machine is useless and then you don’t know what to do because you didn’t hold on to valued traditions. In any era, you take the best and you leave the rest! And now you’re evolving. If someone’s doing something back in 1800 that’s still appropriate today, then I can use that today in the 21st century. Whatever else they were doing that wasn’t cool, well then that’s obsolete and I can leave that behind. But I can take whatever was considered of value and apply it and bring it up to date.
I’ve collaborated with the youth who were interested in evolving. I collaborated with Jimi Hendrix, I collaborated with a French Hip Hop kid, 21 years old…
You did some work with Acid Jazz too?
Yeah, I did some work with Acid Jazz, Giles Peterson. So yeah I collaborated with the youth who were interested in evolving, who were able to express themselves and needed some guidance, you know what I’m saying? Needed direction, because my platform is to give the people affection, protection and direction. Like the poem, the children of the future:
The children of the future tried to come to terms,
With the industrialized nations and their corporate firms,
To decontaminate the planet and meet their demands,
And detoxify the oceans, rivers, lakes and lands,
Purify the air, get rid of nuclear waste,
Put it on a rocket ship and send it into space,
Tone down, bone down, hone down hatred,
To love for the most high creation is sacred,
Rectify, recompense, re-evaluation,
Clarify, satisfy the current situation,
Spiritualize, realize, crystalize aspirations,
Recognize, stabilize the unity of nations.
So it’s not about the vision, it’s about unison. From unison, you can go into harmony. Other than that you’ve got cacophony, noise. It’s like the tower of babel, you know. Nobody knows what they’re saying. [laughs].
Identify the dots and connect them. Now you got the picture. If you’re just constantly hammering one dot then that’s all it is. It’s just a period. No continuity. It’s not leading anywhere. Like the group Friends of Distinction [sings 'You've got me going in circles']. There’s a message in everything. There’s a message in Humpty Dumpty. I need the message man. I need to stay awake. I need to sleep with one eye open and my ear cocked, because the cosmic clock says 5 minutes to midnight. [laughs] Like Thelonious Monk said ‘Round About Midnight’ [laughs].
So to bring things back up to date, you’re here in London to perform Hustler’s Convention at the Jazz Cafe on Monday a little more than 40 years after its original release. I understand that’s being filmed for a forthcoming film, ‘The Forgotten Roots of Rap’ which Public Enemy‘s Chuck D is involved in. What prompted this tour 40 years on and what’s the connection with the documentary?
I’m more excited about what I’m doing now, than what I’ve done, because as far as I’m concerned others are just catching up to what I’ve done. It’s been 40 years. I haven’t recited this poem for 40 years. Since I’ve been here, all I’ve been doing is interviews and everything. I haven’t even had the time to rehearse. I have to memorize all of this. I have performed it once in public live and that was before I recorded it for the album. You understand what I’m saying? It’s like that. But, you know, I may interject some of my other material while I’m doing it.
But England really is the motherland of America you know. The English will take a staid view of things and they deal with things in a more reasonable manner. They search out that which has and retains value in an attempt to preserve that for future generations, whereas America, it’s a free for all and free for all is a frenzy. It’s a feeding frenzy like piranha fish. And once the meal has been devoured nobody picks up the bones. The result is ‘here today, gone tomorrow’. The emphasis is on the material. We need a better sense of perspective. More humility is required.
Any final words, details of places people can find out more about you online etc.
My website is based in Bristol: www.grandfatherofrap.com. Grandfather of Rap was a title given to me by Mike Zwerin in the arts section of the International Herald Tribune, not what I name myself, but what he assigned to me. I never beat my own chest. I’m more concerned with the welfare of everybody else and that’s why I do what I do. I don’t like to see people suffer needlessly on a bullshit tip, when they could be hip and swing. To swing is to go back and forth like a Grandfather clock, and I’m like that Grandfather clock. They came and found me and rewound the clock so no they’re gonna get perfect timing to go with the rhyming! [laughs]
Jalal performs ‘Hustler’s Convention live at London’s Jazz Cafe on Monday 10th Februrary. Tickets can be purchased via Ticketmaster here.