The Last Poets – Understand What Black Is

last poets
Title: Understand What Black Is

Artist: The Last Poets

Label: StudioRockers

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: May 19, 2018



Before Sugar Hill Gang released “Rappers Delight” in 1979, marking the first hip hop record in history, there was The Last Poets. The Harlem-based group performed politically charged poetry over a musical backing of bebop, funk, and demonstrative solo percussion. Along with other famous poets such as Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets laid the “ground work” of the hip hop genre. They branded their art as “Jazzoerty,” a combination of music and spoken word that worked together simultaneously.

The Last Poets were and are a highly politically engaged group. “The Original Last Poets” were formed May 19, 1968 in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park. They chose May 19th as a way to commemorate the assassination of Malcolm X, three years prior. Because their personal ideology was more in line with Malcolm X’s approach to civil rights, May 19 would became both their founding date and a political statement that continues to drive their music and spoken word art.

Understand What Black Is marks the 50th anniversary of The Last Poets and is the first project they have released in 20 years. The reggae driven album, courtesy of Brit producers Nostalgia 77 and Prince Fatty and percussionist Baba Donn Babatunde, is fused with messages that pertain to the state of black people in America, both in the past and as it relates to the present. Group members Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan celebrate blackness while also providing political, philosophical, and religious perspectives on issues with being black in America and within the diaspora. “Understand What Black is….the breath you breathe….the sweat from your brow…Black is love…Black is humanity…the source from which all things come.” These are words from the title track, setting the tone for what is to come.

“Rain of Terror” is one of the most politically charged poems on the album, where Abiodun Oyewole accuses America of being a terrorist—“being mean and nasty to those who treated him kind.” He goes on to talk about the violent nature of America and its treatment of black people and the outside world. “Though shall not kill…that’s not a part of the American dream, because to kill is a thrill they love to show on the TV screen.” This line in the poem harkens to the ways in which black people have been abused on live television during the evening news almost as if it were a normal and acceptable mode of television performance. It is not unlike America to use the death of black bodies as entertainment. This was a form of entertainment in communities in the rural South during the early 1900’s, where white Americans would bring their families to picnic like settings to watch the hanging and public shaming of Negro bodies. Oyewole’s critique on America is that at its root, the country is violent. During a time when fingers are often being pointed toward Islamic countries as being politically, economically and socially corrupt, The Last Poets beg the question, “Is America not guilty of being these things for the last 400 years until the present day?”

“How many Bullets” is a poem that speaks to the ways in which black people have endured despite the violence they have encountered in America and within the diaspora. “Took my drum, broke my hands, yanked my roots up right out of the land and rattled my soul with Jesus.” This track represents the resilience of black people in the face of trauma. Despite being stripped of their religion, their home land, their drums, and their ancestral tongue, black people both retained self and created new identity. Oyewole speaks to both the idea of retention and creation through his discussion about death, viewed through an African rooted lense, where life and death are fluid and not separated. “They shot Malcolm and all they did was multiply his power…they show King and black folks got stronger by the hour.” He also questions the use of religion, particularly Christianity, viewing it as a tool to keep black people in line both during and post- slavery.

“Is there anything not sacred anymore…freedom, justice, honesty…All being devoured by Western imitations of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is drowning out the tears of deception.” On “We Must Be Sacred,” Umar Bin Hassan speaks to the ways in which our world is shifting and changing into an evil place where love and tenderness are becoming taboo topics instead of practice. He claims that we love the product but we don’t care about the person who has created the work, nor do we listen and/or interrogate the things they say. He questions if we are too far gone to be able to elicit real change. He does not, however, claim defeat. “The phoenix will come from the flames this time, there will be no ashes to ashes. Love must be there when the Dust clears.” People must try to begin to love one another again and practice tenderness. However time is not a power so tender that “we could wipe this savage onslaught from our minds.”

The Last Poets conclude their album with the “The Music.” Oyewole celebrates the black creators of music with the line, “I am the music, the sound of life all round.” He furthers his Afro-centric ideology with the line, “I gave the world song,” which connects all things in life, including music, to Africa’s historical past. “I come from mother Africa where music is how we speak… the drum is my heart beat.” He then goes on to praise African American musical influences, which permeate around the globe. However, as Hassan asks in “We Must Be Sacred,” are people engaging the music and the culture or just buying into the product at face value, not caring about the creators?

Reviewed by Bobbie E. Davis Jr.

From Mambo to Hip Hop

Title: From Mambo to Hip Hop: A South Bronx Tale

Director: Henry Chalfant; Produced by Elena Martinez, Steve Zeitlin

Label: City Lore/MVD Visual

Catalog No.: MVDV4785

Format: DVD-Video, NTSC, all regions

Release Date: March 2009

From the first scene to the last, From Mambo to Hip Hop is fused with classic music from both genres, while also offering a detailed and comprehensive historical overview of the Bronx, the origin of its inhabitants, and the mutual oppression that they faced.  Beginning in the 1920s, the documentary follows the influx of Latino immigrants who came to the United States from the Caribbean and settled in the Bronx, as well as the simultaneous migration of African “Americans” who had been emancipated from chattle slavery just over 50 years before. The two were wedded together in the Bronx.

Musically, it all began with the Afro Cuban mambo players. Their exemplary musicianship would eventually place the budding new genre on the world stage. By the mid 1960s mambo was the hippest thing, and both the Black and Latino communities in the Bronx were embracing this new marriage of cultures, dance, music, and freedom of expression (for the most part). Salsa was not only about the music and the dance; it could also be used as a voice for social and political messages. Then, almost as if predestined, the community was once again under attack by their oppressors.

After economic misfortune began to plague the area, the hardships that ensued created the perfect conditions for the birth of hip hop. Before that would happen, the Bronx and the people that lived there would have to go through hell, literally. The landlords of the various housing projects throughout the Bronx began setting fire to their own property in order to collect the insurance money. The landscape of the South Bronx was turned into a desolate wasteland, almost as if war torn. The people moved and, as fate would have it, the impoverishment followed. As the victims of injustices, the people of the Bronx underwent an infestation of crime and violence born out of the poverty that they were forced into. From the 1950s on into the 1970s, street gangs were commonplace on the main stage of the Bronx. Gang violence inevitably followed the youth of the community where ever they went. The film also highlights the importance of the gangs and the gangster hierarchy which can still be seen today in various aspects of hip hop.

After the birth of hip hop in the Bronx, the people of the community nurtured the fledgling lifestyle. Strongly encouraged and influenced by both the Black and Brown cultures of the area, hip hop quickly became a national sensation. It wasn’t long before the lifestyle and culture of hip hop went from one of the most impoverished communities in America to becoming a global phenomenon, sweeping across the planet and communicating with each and every culture.

From Mambo to Hip Hop will cause most to view the origins of the universal vibration known as hip hop through a new spectrum. Being Afro-Latino myself, I was immediately sucked into the content. With a multitude of characters from the classic mambo and hip hop eras, stories are woven together and pictures are vividly painted. The old black and white footage of the Bronx is marvelous, along with the rare footage of mambo and hip hop performances from back in the day.

The hour long documentary is divided into three major parts with each leading into the other. Beginning with the origins of mambo and salsa, the film takes a look at the people and conditions that were the catalyst for the music. Next is an exploration of the street gang subculture that sprang up from the Black and Brown people of the Bronx. From Mambo to Hip Hop does a fantastic job detailing some of the gang activities of the past, with awesome vintage footage of actual gang meetings, and of gang members hanging out. Last but not least is the segment on hip hop, which rose from the ashes of the Bronx like a phoenix. At a time when almost all hope had been lost, hip hop came along to replenish the spirit of the people. In essence, it literally resurrected a people.

If you are a fan of Latino or hip hop music, or if you just want to learn more about American history, I highly recommend that you check out From Mambo to Hip Hop. If you are in a gang or are interested in a unique piece of American street gang history, then you too should see this film. Don’t miss out on the bonus features which include extra interviews with Mike Amadeo, Joe Conzo Sr., and Jo-Jo Torres, among others, plus outtakes of interviews with featured the artists, which includes Angel Rodriguez, Benny Bonilla, Bobby Sanabria, Carlos Mandes, Clemente Moreno, Curtis Brown, Emma Rodgriguez, Sandra Maria Esteves, David Gonzalez, Eddi Palmieri, “Popmaster Fabel” Pabon, Ray Barretto, Willie Colón, and the Rock Steady Crew.

Posted by Moorishio De la Cruz

Eleventh Hour

11th.jpgTitle: Eleventh Hour
Artist: Del the Funky Homosapien
Label: Definitive Jux
Catalog No.: 881562
Date: 2008

After years and years of delays, Del the Funky Homosapien has finally resurfaced on the hip hop landscape with Eleventh Hour, his fifth solo album. Over the last nine years, Del has been an enigma. He randomly popped up on compilations and group albums, but was virtually absent from the hip hop scene. Released on indie power-house Definitive Jux, Eleventh Hour is Del the Funky Homosapien’s comeback album.

After being introduced to the hip hop world by his cousin Ice Cube, Del released his debut album I Wish My Brother George Was Here (1991) to much critical acclaim. He followed that up with No Need For Alarm (1993) which was very well received and introduced his crew, the Hieroglyphics. Del’s third solo album, Future Development (1998), was issued by his crew’s own Hiero Imperium Records after the rapper was released from his contract with Elektra. It is often seen as his best work. In 1998, the Hieroglyphics released their first crew album, Third Eye Vision, which established the collective as an underground force. In 2000, Del’s fourth solo album, Both Sides of the Brain, received mixed reviews. He subsequently followed that up with Deltron 3030 (2000), a concept album that has become an underground classic. Since 2000 Del has been relatively silent, except for a notable appearance on the Gorrillaz debut single “Clint Eastwood.”

Minus a few exceptions, the long-awaited Eleventh Hour was completely written and produced by Del which, if anything, gives it a high level of cohesiveness. The album opens up with “Raw Sewage,” a superb song that features minimalistic production and braggadocio rhymes. Although his flow is a tad lazy, the song still sounds like its from the Both Sides of the Brain era, when Del was at his finest. The next song, “Bubble Pop,” is representative of what plagues this album–complex, but underwhelming production combined with an uninspired delivery from Del. “Back in the Chamber,” “Foot Down,” “Workin It,” and “Str8t Up and Down” all have these same characteristics. They are not bad songs, just uneventful. There are, however, other highlights including the laid-back “Last Hurrah,” the smooth “Hold Your Hand,” and the up-tempo Ladybug Mecca collaboration “I Got You.”

Eleventh Hour is a mediocre release from a very talented artist. After listening to this album and comparing it to previous efforts, it became clear that part of what once made Del and the Hieroglyphics so great was their youthfulness. This is not to say that the crew is too old to make good music (see Opio’s 2005 album Triangulation Station), but Del’s pseudo-nerdy braggadocio rhymes do not sound as good coming from his 35-year-old self. Combine that with hit-or-miss production and you get the disappointment that is Eleventh Hour. Hopefully Del’s forthcoming Deltron Event II will make up for this release, just as Deltron 3030 compensated for Both Sides of the Brain.

Posted by Langston Collin Wilkins