The Last Poets are rightly called the godfathers of hip-hop. Formed in the late ‘60s and still very active today, the spoken word group first put rhythm to their politically-charged poems in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, inspiring a generation to use their voice and their words as tools of social justice.
This weekend, the Last Poets appear in a daylong spoken word workshop, showcase and performance at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma, as a fundraiser for local radio station KWTF. In the Bohemian this week, we profiled the group and spoke with founding member Abiodun Oyewole by phone from his home in Harlem. Here is our full interview.
Bohemian: How did you first get into poetry and form the Last Poets?
Abiodun Oyewole: I got into poetry because when I was a teenager in high school, I had a liking for older girls, and when I was 15 I started getting into writing poetry to win the favors of some of these ladies.
I remember my teacher had given us an assignment to write sentences with new vocabulary words. I went to my teacher, Mrs Carpenter, and I said, ‘If put these words into a poem, can I get an extra credit?’ and she looked at the words and said, ‘If you can put these words in a poem together and make sense, I’ll give you two extra credits.’ So that was the time I wrote a poem seriously. When my teacher read the poem, she looked at me and ‘You are a poet, I don’t know what you’re going to do with it, but you have quite a gift.’
I started getting into poetry seriously when they killed Dr King. Dr King was killed April 4, 1968. And when King was killed I really kind of lost my mind, because I felt it was such an insult to black people. He was representing us, and he was nonviolent. I just felt totally offended by that.
I had a friend named David Nelson, and he made mention of the idea of starting a group of poets that would be from different walks of life, and would be an example to black people as to how much we need to come together. No matter what our particular persuasions in life are, we have the same foot on our necks, and we need to unify to get the foot off.
B: When did you first add percussion to the poetry?
AO: The Drums came early, when we were first on stage, there was a drummer there with his dance company, they were dismantling as we were coming on stage, and I motioned to him, I didn’t know him, but I said, stay, stay. I felt have some rhythm, some percussion in the background would enhance what we were doing, because we came onstage doing a chant.
We wanted to go back to the roots, to be organic. We know, thousands of years ago, we were in Africa someplace, just communicating with voice and drum. We were always musically inclined, then and now.
So we started seeking a conga player that could compliment what we were saying. And the truth is, that wasn’t as easy as it may sound. We went through a few different musicians, even a guitar player, before we decided to use a conga player named Nilaja, who understood the language of the drum.
In fact, to be honest, if you came to the group to present a new poem and you got onstage and read it, if Nilaja didn’t accompany you before the poem was finished, your poem was dead. So, he was the barometer because he had to feel it, and it wasn’t about understanding similes or metaphors or anything like that, it was simply a case of him being able to feel what you were saying. I learned that lesson the hard way.
By the time our self-titled debut album came out, it sold a million copies on word of mouth alone. It told me that we were on the pulse of the people; that the people appreciated what we had to say, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.
B: What was it like to see the rise of hip-hop in your wake?
AO: I’ve spoken with KRS, I’ve spoken with Cool Herc. Herc was telling me that back in the day the only thing they had that they felt was relevant to listen to was the first album of the Last Poets. It was different, it was unique, it had some rhythm, we were saying stuff with a swag that they appreciated.
They didn’t have the political savvy we had but the style we had was intriguing, and they wanted to copy that. We were definitely the prototype, they just took it to another place. And there was some conscious rappers, there’s quite a few brothers who have said something of value. But, then the circus came to town and many of them have become clowns and they’re not trying to be serious. We were always seriously charged, and tried to say something to raise consciousness and to make black people feel like we need to come together and liberate ourselves, and that has changed a bit but in the beginning we laid what’s called the foundation for hip-hop.
And we’ve got all these names to define and describe us, and I’m cool with that, but I just feel like I’m a brother doing his job. And I’m very grateful that people appreciate the job I’m doing, and I just hope I can continue, because this is the greatest thing I think I can really achieve.
B: What’s the latest from the Last Poets? What are you writing about these days?
We are presently in the studio with Bill Laslow, who happens to be my favorite producer of the Last Poets stuff for the last 20 years, he seems to gather around him all the weird guys like George Clinton, and he just lets you do what you do.
I just did a piece called “Black Lives Matters” because I had to address that. I was tired of the expression because a lot of people use it like a cliché, and it doesn’t get to the substance of anything. One of things that poets have to do, especially black poets, is we have to define our situation, and sometimes redefine because the definitions that have been given to us are insufficient.
Another piece that I did is another phrase that’s overused, “At the End of the Day.” I hate that, I wanted to give that some substance as well. We’re dealing with social situations and we’re dealing with the world and how crazy things, there’s a lot of things going on that we’ve accepted as normal life, but it’s insanity. And so we’re addressing all of that; and at the same time we’re trying to share the compassion that we all must have.
The Last Poets appear Nov. 14, at the Phoenix Theater, 201 Washington St., Petaluma. Workshop, 1:30pm; Youth Showcase, 6:30pm. film, 3:55pm; performance, 9pm. $10–$20. 707.762.3565.