The Last Poets were the first wordsmiths that preceded hip-hop. Our Will had a fascinating chat with original Poets member Abiodun Oyewole ahead of their performance at Peggy's Skylight on 27 March.
With early albums fusing spoken-word poetry with traditional African sounds, and through numerous changes to the line-up, The Last Poets have created racial, cultural and experimental music that laid some of the early the foundations for hip-hop. Formed in 1968, The Last Poets mark their 50th anniversary this year, starting by reciting poetry in an East Harlem park in memory of Malcom X. This month they release their second album in two years, a remix of 2018's Understand What Black Is, entitled Understand What Dub Is.
When The Last Poets were first created, what would you say the aim of the group was?
To eclipse humanity on every possible level. The truth of existence is that we're poets, and poets are people who try to use language to reach the soul of man. My only intention really is to use my poetry skills to reach the hearts and souls of the people who hear me, by speaking the truth and raising their levels of consciousness on every possible level. So I want to lift humanity to a point of being something that we can at least respect as human beings on planet earth.
What would you say your influences are?
I'm inspired by many. I would say that jazz musicians have been a great inspiration to me because of what they do with sound. Poets like Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks have inspired me poetically because of what they did with the language, I like novelists such as Thoreau, and John Steinbeck. Jean Toomer of course was another great writer back in the day. My primary inspiration is people who I see daily and stories surrounding those folks, including myself. I might be involved in something that causes me to want to write a poem about my particular position or disposition at that time. I think a lot of poets do some in-house searching and try to figure out what's going - we are truly the greatest riddle, so if we can unravel the riddle within ourselves, we'll probably be able to unravel the riddle within everyone else too.
The group is renowned for speaking poetry over drum beats and music - what made you specifically want to recite over a backing track?
Because the drum was the very first communication device that was created as far as I know. And the drum is really just a replica of the human body: it's like we have skin over bones, and we have a mouth, the drum has skin over wood and it has a mouth. But the fact is that it's an instrument to actually deliver a message, and if people understand the rhythms then they'll know what the message is all about.
Do you feel The Last Poets have impacted on racial issues in America?
Based on how people respond to us, not only have we made an impact, but we have been copied by thousands of young people throughout the world. We did our poetry in a certain way, that opened up the door for poetry to be put on stage and performed on a level never achieved before. People don't realise but before The Last Poets, poetry was basically a quiet tea-sipping type of ordeal, you didn't get loud and rowdy. We made it loud, we made it rowdy and that allowed the kids to use it as a tool, as a weapon actually; because that's how it started up in the Bronx: they were using it as means to battle different parts of the neighbourhood so they would not have fights. It wasn't just about punching somebody in the face with your fists - you punch them in the face with your words and you punch them in the face with your breakdancing ability. The Last Poets had a lot to do with opening up the door for folks to express themselves using poetry as the basic theme.
Which modern artists do you admire?
Well Chuck D and Nas and Common and Dougie Fresh, and all those guys, first of all they're friends of mine, I know these guys in particular and I admire their talents. You've got a whole new wave of some younger cats who are coming up like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar and Drake; all these folks who I don't know, but I do appreciate some of their work because I have kids, and grandchildren who keep me abreast as to what's going on. I stay up to date and some of the things I have heard out of their mouths I am very proud of, they're saying something that's extending culture in a positive way. I don't want any artist to use their artwork to belittle, mimic, or just clown us and not teach us something, not help us to understand ourselves in a more positive way. Whenever I hear any rapper or singer say something that could be uplifting, they don't always have to use the politically correct language that some folks might want to hear. Just speak positive and plain about things that you're doing and the people that you're doing it with - that will be a strong enough message, because we spend so much time wallowing around in the past with ourselves, and that doesn't do anything but depress the hell out of me and a whole lot of other people. And I don't want to live in that zone, I want us to feel like we are strong enough to overcome any obstacle and that we can use our poetry and music to help lift ourselves up.
When you speak about politically correct language, what are your thoughts on the 'n' word debate? Do you feel it is an ingrained element of black identity to freely use the term or is it detrimental to overcoming racial barriers?
Well, you know unfortunately we live in two different worlds, a world of what is politically correct and then there's this other world, this black world that might not be politically correct, it's just the world where the word is said and not just spoken. I mean the word is actually said as opposed to saying 'it's the n word' and then of course there's that world that just says 'shhh! don't say the n word.' I think that makes many of us naturally schizophrenic, but sometimes you have to be schizophrenic to survive. That means that you want to be abiding by one world that is politically correct because you don't want to be stepping on people's toes, you might need to find a way to keep making a living and at the same time you want to be true to yourself and you want to be able to hang out with your people and talk the language that you all talk, and not feel any restrictions about that.
When you started performing there was also famous poet Gil Scot-Heron around. Were there any other spoken word contemporaries that we may not have heard of?
Gil was a good friend of ours, he did some beautiful work and there is quite a number of other poets who shared their work and are no longer with us, like our mentor Amiri Baraka. Before The Last Poets were up and running he had a group called the Young Spirit House Movers and Players which was a theatrical group in New Jersey, and they were doing poetry, making it come to life. He even made a statement about poems - he said poems were bull if they didn't smack the government in the face, so he was challenging all the poets really to step up their game and have poetry zero in on some of the ills that were taking place in our society, because for a long time people skirted around the issue, never really hit it head on. But he was a very straight shooter and he felt that the poetry should be on that same note. So we just took his ideas to the next level, because we put three men on the stage doing poetry in the background with conga drums. So it's like we were in the jungle with our spears, throwing them at you – we’re word warriors so to speak. So that concept found its birthplace with Amiri Baraka. He had used his art, all of his plays and poetry to wage war against an unjust world.
How do you feel being widely acknowledged as the main influence on the birth of hip-hop?
Well you know hip-hop was created because of a series of events. I appreciate the love that I received from Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc who I call the architects of hip-hop, because those are the two guys that really put the formula together. They said the only thing they had to listen to that made sense back in the early 70s was The Last Poets – nobody had done on wax poetry the way we did it, with the force, and the rhyme, and the rhythms and all that stuff; that had just not been done. It broke some ice in a very large way, but once that ice was broken, people began to swim in it. But hip-hop has other influences as well, and one of them is by default, the fact that black people have always been artistically inclined - we love music. That's just a natural thing for us, but to take musical instruments out of school, I mean that’s when it’s critical. So, what can we do with that? The art in me is not gonna die, we'll get into the neighbourhoods and we'll create art. Plus there's this discussion about different neighbourhoods having these different gangs that fought. They would not only kill each other, they would destroy property and there were a whole lot of terrible things happening so somebody decided to take that to another level by saying ‘let's battle with words - nobody gets hurt, we just artistically out-duel you, and then we'll be the kings of the neighbourhood.’ Nobody's giving prizes out, the prize will be our pride. Hip-hop has a number of influences but I am proud that The Last Poets are seen as laying a foundation for it to exist.
The Last Poets play Peggy's Skylight on Wednesday 27 March.