Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Lightnin' Rod-Last Poets

One of my first offerings of 2007, prior to the time you (or at least I) could put music in a post was this piece about how the Last Poets were a big part of my music and world view back in the dark ages.
Epiphany in the High School Library
In 1979 I was a 9th grader at a New England prep school. Most of my friends were into the Grateful Dead, Bowie, or Punk Rock (all of which I would embrace, later), while I was still locked into AM Top 40 radio. Disco ruled the charts at the time, so that's where I was at, even though the music seemed to be aimed at older folks. I liked a lot of the tunes, but Disco just wasn't my music, but it was on the radio. I was too young to go to all the clubs where the true heart of disco was, so I felt left out.One glimpse of the disco highlife I did get, came from channel 9 out of New York City.

On Saturday nights I never missed The Soap Factory Disco show, which was a coked-up (I didn't know that then) disco-rific version of American Bandstand and Soul Train. I really wanted to be older, so I could go to the Soap Factory, but I wasn't, so I just kept watching the bodies moving and waited for my chance to dance. One night, everything changed. Usually a disco one hit wonder, like Amii Stewart, would come on the show and lip synch her latest, but this night, The Sugar Hill Gang graced the Soap Factory stage and did Rapper's Delight.

I certainly wasn't a disco hater, but I knew right away that The Sugar Hill gang was for me. The rappers were closer to my age, and where disco was a cold, shiny dream, Rap was raw, new, and (at least to me) real. I had found the first music that was MINE. It wasn't on the radio, it wasn't in my parents record collection, and no one in New Haven,CT (at least at prep school) knew or cared, except for me and one friend (the kid who hipped me to P-Funk).In our giddiness we went down to our school library looking for information on this new rap thing. There wasn't a whole lot to find in newspapers or books, so we decided to dig through their small record collection.

Amongst the classical and folk records I found the next step in my Hip Hop education. It really stood out from the dour, browning old folk records, it was blue and yellow with dashiki-wearing, afro-coiffed black men, sitting on a stoop, surrounded by a brace of conga drums. This was the Last Poets.

The look of the record was different to be sure, but the sounds and words on that record were a revelation. Holy shit, if the Sugar Hill Gang was raw, this was fucking DEATH.Not to mention that it was already 10 years old in 1979. We couldn't believe we found this item in our library (and I hold the utmost respect for librarians to this day) and we returned to listen to it on an almost daily basis. Hard, socially conscious, sexual, biting, revolutionary, this was the holy grail.

As high school wore on and more folks started finding out about rap, I always had my "secret" knowledge of The Last Poets to flash around to prove I was down. Most folks still scoffed, but when Grandmaster Flash came out with The Message, former naysayers were using words like raw, new, and real about them. These were the same things I was saying-mostly to myself- a few years earlier about Sugar Hill Gang. People were declaring the birth of a new art form, Hip Hop, but as far as I was concerned, the world had finally caught up to the Last Poets.

Today, the influence of that first Last Poets album is well documented and their convoluted history is an interesting tale, but I want to focus on another part of the Poet's canon, original member, Jalal Mansur Nuriddan's 1974 opus, Hustler's Convention (Jamal voiced this album under the name Lightnin' Rod).

I went to college out in Minnesota in the early 80's, when vinyl was still king and there was plenty of used material to dig through at low, low prices. No internet yet (for regular people) and certainly no historical perspective on Hip Hop, even though we were almost 15 years from the Last Poets debut.

I picked up Hustlers Convention used for 3.99 at Cheapo Records in St. Paul,MN on the strength of the gatefold cover and the song titles (Sport, Spoon, The Café Black Rose, Coppin' Some Fronts for the Set). At this point I was deeply into Hip Hop and DJ culture, but I had no idea Lightnin' Rod was from the Last Poets, so I went home, slapped the slab on the 1200 and got my mind blown.

What I had here was an ex-Last Poet (the voice was unmistakeable) backed by Kool and the Gang, doing a Rap concept album. One story, 32 minutes, with some funky music upfront (very different from the sparse conga backing of the Last Poets), some strictly spoken parts, and some parts where the music was strictly in the back (a forerunner of todays skits). This album was not your average concept album, it was like a blaxploitation movie on wax. Right up my alley to say the least.
The Bones Fly From Spoon's Hand

Hustlers Convention is ostensibly a cautionary fable, but like anything in the blaxploitation cinema of the 70's, partying, snorting, free love, and gun play make up about 95% of the story, leaving 5% for redemption and message-o-fying. I was fine with that. The first verse sets the stage and Jalal never lets up:

It was a full moon, in the middle of June, in the Summer of '69
I was young and cool and shot a bad game of pool
And I hustled all the chumps I could find
Now they called me Sport'cause I pushed the ball short
And loved all the women to death
I partied hard and packed a mean rod
And could knock you out with a right or a left

The rest of the Rap is about getting ready for the Hustlers Convention, a competition amongst players and their peers to see who can win all the dough at various games of chance. Characters flow in and out of the scene, and there is plenty of sex, drugs, jazz,and funk until the cops raid the convention, and Sport (our anti-hero) gets shot, arrested, and eventually sentenced to death for taking out a cop in the gun battle following the raid.
Ham Hocks Hall Was Big

He gets a reprieve in the end because the death penalty is abolished, and his twelve year incarceration leads him to some enlightenment and the moral of our story in the last minute of the record.

It had cost me 12 years of my life to realize
What a nickel and dime hustler I had been
While the real hustlers are rippin' off billions
From the unsuspecting millions
Who are programmed to think they can win

Pretty dark stuff, Hustler's Convention presaged where Hip Hop was at in 1985 when I picked the album up. Just about 10 years ahead of BDP, Schooly-D and other rappers telling tales of urban decay, survival, and hood life. The album has been named checked and ripped off by many, including Melle Mel and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and sampled by legions of DJ's, but the vibe of the piece was what really foretold the future.I sure am glad I went to the library back in '79. I didn't get a whole lot of homework done, but I did find a touchstone in my musical life, that stays with me to this day. I guess that's why they build those places.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Somehow missed this post the first time. So good to catch up with it - TBoom