Born in the wake of the civil rights movement, Harlem’s Last Poets performed politically charged spoken word to musical backings. Cited alongside Gil Scott Heron as hip-hop progenitors, there’s some ambivalence to the tag. Not merely a rap history footnote, their work stands alone as “jazzoetry”.
Compelled by a new civil rights struggle, the Last Poets’ first album in over 20 years marks 50 years since their founding. It finds two of the outfit’s members – Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan – musing long and deep to reggae backings, courtesy of Brit producers Nostalgia 77 and Prince Fatty and Poets percussionist Baba Donn Babatunde.
This sonic kismet is so obvious, it’s a marvel the Poets never took to reggae previously. A skank percolates elegantly underneath the gravelly, fatherly tones of Bin Hassan and Oyewole – no longer the young firebrands who furiously indicted systemic racism in the early 70s. Drugs, crime and infighting have plagued their number; the last Poets standing are necessarily wiser and more philosophical. There’s ample disgusted fury here, as tracks like the powerful Rain of Terror attest, but inner strength and enduring creativity are the takeaways from this unexpected record, as well as nods to Prince and Biggie Smalls.
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