Step back, all ye wannabe rappers, and check out one of the originals who made hip hop possible. Before Africa Bambaata was throwing parties in the Bronx — before Prince Whipper Whip was rocking with the Fantastic 5 — and before the Rock Steady Crew ever attempted their first windmills, Umar Bin Hassan and the Last Poets were making rhythm and poetry live on the streets of Harlem.
More than 30 years later, Bin Hassan still speaks with a hurried urgency, as if every word could be his last. His voice still resonates with the fervor of the Last Poets’ seminal This Is Madness (recently named one of the 20th century’s best albums by Vibe magazine).
But tell him that early ’70s poems “Forty Deuce Street” and “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution” are jewels from a bygone era, or that he’s an icon to younger street poets, and he tries to change the subject.
“Being an icon is not for me,” Bin Hassan, 56, says by phone. “Shit, I’m still used to sleeping on the floor, hustling just to get by, and battling my own demons. Plus I don’t take myself too serious like that. I’m just as wild and crazy as the next person.”
In some ways, however, Bin Hassan has slowed. After years of drug and alcohol abuse, he says he’s just grateful to still be alive. He’s currently clean and living in Flint with his younger sister. He still tours under the banner of the Last Poets and also makes solo engagements.
“When I speak about victory in my poems, the real victory is to become content with yourself,” Bin Hassan says. “I’m not ashamed of that part of my life. The drugs and crack and all of that. That’s me. You have to stand up and face yourself, face the inner demons that lurk within your soul. You can’t hide and pretend. If I hadn’t faced myself and hit the bottom the way I did, I might not be alive today.”
The Last Poets first spoke out against poverty and racial injustice at a time when artists and revolutionaries were hanging out on the same urban street corners; the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron and the Watts Prophets were picking up microphones and djembe drums while the Black Panthers and the Young Lords were picking up guns.
The Last Poets officially started May 19, 1968, at a Malcolm X birthday celebration in Harlem. The group’s originators — Abiodun “Dun” Oyewole, Gylan Kain and David Nelson — took their name from a poem by South African poet Willie Kgositsile, who wrote about the necessity of putting aside poetry in the face of looming revolution. Bin Hassan joined a year later.
In all, there’ve been seven poets, and, in addition to jousting with the establishment, they’ve spent a good deal of time fighting each other in various groupings and regroupings. In one altercation, former Last Poet Jalal Nurridin stabbed Bin Hassan in the neck. And for a while, there were two competing groups claiming the name.
Bin Hassan says that the group now consists of himself, Oyewole and percussionist Don “Babatunde” Eaton. Bin Hassan owns the name to the group, he says.
“I had the common sense to trademark the name back in 1995, and I don’t care how upset anybody else is that I did that shit. None of those dumb niggas were smart enough to do it. Out of all the poets, I’m the crazy nigga, wild-ass Umar, that’s got the name. And if I didn’t own the rights to it, some white boy probably would and then we’d really be in trouble.”
While Bin Hassan and Oyewole (who spoke to Metro Times in a separate phone interview from New York) are pleased that many of today’s rap and hip-hop artists cite the Last Poets as pioneers, both poets are critical of some aspects of today’s scene.
“When we rapped, it was all about raising consciousness and using language to challenge people,” Oyewole says. “When I wrote [about] ‘party and bullshit’ it was to make people get off their ass. But now ‘party and bullshit’ was used by Biggie, used by Busta Rhymes, but in a nonconscious way. That’s difficult for us to deal with.”
Nonetheless, a number of the more socially and politically conscious emcees are planning a tribute album to the Last Poets. When We Come Together is to feature Common, Bilal, Dead Prez, Chuck D, Keith Murray, Buckshot, Kanye West, Erykah Badu and others. It’s slated for release on West’s new label next year.
“I’m glad the project is coming out, but I’m a little pissed off about the way it’s being done,” Bin Hassan says, complaining that his poems are being shortened for airplay. “Fuck the radio.”
Asked about his partner in rhyme, Oyewole says he’s most proud of Bin Hassan’s recent turn to writing love poems.
“Umar has been able to take all of the anger that stems from living in this society and the difficulties of his addictions and turn them into love poems,” Oyewole says. “Our society needs to hear love poems right now, especially from a brother that’s been through what Umar has been through.”
Bin Hassan says, “I’m getting close to that victory, man — of not being afraid to express who I really am. Some days it’s hard, but, slowly and surely, I’m getting there.”
Umar Bin Hassan performs with the backing of Soul Clique at Revival ’04 black music and poetry festival. Also on the bill are Third Eye Open, 5ELA, Versiz, Kahn Davison and DJ Slo-Poke on Thursday, Dec. 16, at Fifth Avenue Downtown (2100 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313 471-2555). Jonathan Cunningham is an editorial intern for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org