THE LAST POETS / “The Last Poets Mixtape”
The legendary Last Poets are more often talked about than actually listened to. Certainly they are popularizers of reciting rhymes on top of rhythms. But beyond the easy reference, The Last Poets are also a major force in bringing poetry to the masses of black people, the majority of their audience was not composed of college educated students but rather their primary audience was composed of conscious, working class black people of the black power era. Moreover, very little of their poetry is available in text form. The Last Poets were certainly the first poets to emphasize recordings rather than books. Of course there were other poets active in the Black Arts Movement of the seventies but except for Bob Kaufman, all the other poets had books regardless of whether their poetry emphasized the oral tradition. Indeed, even Kaufman, who did not write down his poetry, is not an exception to the book emphasis. Bob Kaufman’s wife transcribed much of his poetry and his work is primarily studied via three books: Golden Sardines, Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness, and Ancient Rain. Whereas Bob Kaufman’s reputation, like the reputation of nearly every other widely recognized poet, is based mainly on books, The Last Poets established a new paradigm. They are, de facto, the progenitors of what we know today as “spoken word.” I think it is also important to recognize that their emphasis on the oral tradition was conscious and not accidental. Indeed, for the first decade, the ensemble always included a percussionist—a drummer was an integral member of a performance poetry group. Indeed, it would not be entirely inaccurate to call the Last Poets a band. In addition to all of the above, it is also important to note that rather than romanticists, The Last Poets strove to be revolutionary in both form and content. Their oral aesthetic might even be considered conservative when measured against their content. Indeed, a history of The Last Poets includes a complexity that is generally not known. Early on The Last Poets had a major split. One of the groups not only claimed the name, they in fact referred to themselves as The Original Last Poets. The tracks from the Right On album featuring Gylan Kain, Felipe Luciano and David Nelson might be thought of as jazz oriented as opposed to the second group built around Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Hassan is more R&B-oriented. This is not an exact categorization but the point is that The Original Poets were much more complex in both the writing of their poetry and in the arrangements and presentation of their poetry. Within the poetry tradition, The Original Last Poets were children of Bob Kaufman and LeRoi Jones, whereas The Last Poets stylistically were akin to Langston Hughes and Haki Madhubuti. Again, this is not an exact reference but rather a context within which to understand and appreciate the differences between the two groups. Throughout not only African American culture, but indeed, within all non-mainstream arts movements there is the question of whether to be mass-oriented or cadre-oriented, whether to emphasis popular modes of presentation or to emphasis alternative modes (which are often synonymous with avant garde and/or anti-establishment). None of these distinctions should be construed to mean that one group was more political or more committed than the other. The Original Last Poets only produced one album as a group, whereas The Last Poets produced over five albums and almost forty years after their founding in 1968 are still recording. My two favorite Last Poets albums are Right On by The Original Last Poets and Holy Terror by The Last Poets (and featuring rapper Melle Mel). Right On exemplifies a major poetic assault on establishment aesthetics and politics. Among a number of interesting aspects is the use of Spanish by Felipe Luciano that constituted a clear advocacy of multicultural unity, a unity based in the social reality of Harlem in the seventies. One of Gylan Kain’s, “Today Is A Killer,” was picked up by Nina Simone who recorded the song and thereby illustrated how influential The Original Last Poets were in the late sixties and early seventies. Holy Terror represents one of the highest developments of what is sometimes mis-labeled jazz poetry—it would be more accurate to call it funk poetry. And at the same time, we must remember that these categories are not exclusive and/or rigid. The Original Last Poets did poems modeled on and paying tribute to James Brown. The Last Poets did “Bird’s Word” and “Jazzoetry.” Indeed, the wholistic approach is a hallmark of African American culture which rarely values purity and exclusiveness. With those caveats in mind, it is nevertheless easy to appreciate how funk-oriented Holy Terror is. Initially, the album may sound totally different from the chanting over a conga that was the initial sound of The Last Poets, but actually it’s the same aesthetic but modernized. There is, of course, much more that can and should be said about The Last Poets and the body of recordings they produced. If this is your first time listening to The Last Poets, consider this an introduction. If you’ve heard them before, consider this a reminder. In either case, you are listening to major spoken word artists, surpassed only by Gil Scott-Heron. Although there are a number of other important poets who have recorded, none besides Gil has produced a major body of recordings. The Last Poets are seminal purveyors of spoken word, a category that they pioneered. —Kalamu ya Salaam The Last Poets Mixtape Playlist Holy Terror - The Last Poets 01 “Invocation” The Very Best Of The Last Poets 02 “When The Revolution Comes” 03 “This Is Madness Chant” 04 “Two Little Boys” 05 “Black Is” 06 “Jazzoetry” Right On! - The Original Last Poets 07 “Black Woman” 08 “Un Riﬂe/Oracion-Riﬂe Player” 09 “Today Is a Killer” 10 “Little Willie Armstrong Jones” 11 “Jazz” 12 “Alley” 13 “The Library” Chastisment - The Last Poets 14 “E Pluribus Unum” 15 “Bird's Word” The Very Best Of The Last Poets 16 “Ho Chi Minh” 17 “Oh, My People” Holy Terror - The Last Poets 18 “Homesick” 19 “Funk” 20 “If We Only Knew” 21 “Last Rites”
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