The Last Poets started out in the late sixties speaking out as few other musical groups had about racism, poverty and other concerns of American-Americans. Here Dan Prince checks in with one of the original members Jalal as he prepares to perform his seminal, ground breaking Hustlers Convention album for the first time since it’s release in 1973 – an album often cited as the first ever gangsta rap record which presaged hip-hop’s most lucrative subgenre by nearly two decades…
Photo courtesy of Malik Al Nasir
There are better ways to start an interview than getting the Grandfather of Rap out of bed due to a time difference cock up. Still, these things happen and thankfully with a few impromptu, exclusive, off the cuff rhymes down the phone from the main man, it seems Jalal isn’t too perturbed by his early morning alarm call…
Jalal you are hitting UK shores next month for a very important date at The Jazz Café on February 10th with Doctors Orders, can you remember the first time you came to the UK and what was the rap scene was like back then?
“The first time I came over to the UK was 1978 and there was no rap scene at all, back then there was only The Last Poets who mattered. I came back a few years later and there was a small scene going on but it was so insignificant I remember no details about it at all, that’s how small it was Dan!”
The debate about exactly the difference is between rap music and hip hop has rolled on for years. What does the term rap music mean to you?
“Well the word ‘rap’ means to blame. We are all accustomed to the word from all of the gangster movies we watch where we hear about people having a bum rap or not taking the rap. For me, rap is an ingredient in my art form, pure and simple. It’s about who gets what, why, where and whenever. Hip Hop is a marriage between the words hip and hop, there is nothing meaningful to it at all. What’s a hop? It’s an ingredient in beer, it’s something kangaroos do…it’s just a very limited term that means nothing.”
Your performance at The Jazz Cafe is to be included in a documentary that has been filmed for the last two years piecing together what many people have always said is rap culture’s missing link, your 1973 solo album Hustlers Convention. What was the original idea behind what is now cited as one of the most important recordings in black music history…?
“Hustlers Convention was all a trap basically, all a deliberate trap I laid down for people to go figure. I wrote the album so people would sit up, take notice and not become one of the hustlers, card cheats, prostitutes, pimps and highjackers I rapped about. When I realised that all these types of people didn’t want their hustles exposed to the world, I picked up a pen and started to highlight it all. And that's how the Hustlers Convention was born.”
The album was memorised by Melle Mel, Fab5 Freddy and many others - it became what Chuck D called a ‘verbal bible to understand the streets’. Wu Tang, the Beastie Boys and Jungle Brothers have all paid homage to it...did you know how much a point you had made when completing the album?
“The way I wanted it to be received was that people wouldn’t get the point, I wanted the point to make itself. What happened was the people who were putting it out there at the time wanted to be like the characters I was speaking about. Everything that glistens isn’t gold Dan and the grass is most definitely not always greener on the other side, unfortunately some people had to learn the hard way.”
This is the first time Hustlers Convention will be performed in it’s entirety since it’s release, why did you choose London for this historic moment and what can you tell us about the film…?
“To be honest that was the film maker Mike Todd’s idea, he acknowledged that this is a global story and concluding the story in London seemed like a great idea. Obviously it is an autobiographical documentary showing where I was raised, events that shaped me and the people involved in my journey - it is also allowing me to explain the real behind the scenes Hustlers Convention story, of how I never got paid and how I was totally hustled by the industry. Forty years on and I still haven’t seen a dime, in a way this documentary is like an investigation, a tale of decades of embezzlement that I have finally unravelled for all to see.”
Preview of the film 'Hustlers Convention'...
Are you bitter at the money floating around this genre of music now?
“I was never allowed to capitalise on my music back in the day and to a point Hustlers Convention is a warning not to be like this anyway. We were only dealing in nickels back then but still the message was there, don’t try and emulate these materialistic folk because you don’t know how they got there, you don’t know who got hurt or how ruthless they had to be to get to where they are. At the end of the day, I chose the message over money.”
Surely you must have turned down hundreds of live show offers down over the years though?
“Ha ha! Well this one time a friend of mine took me to a booking agent and he said to me, ‘I’m sorry Jalal, I have never heard of you'."
“You know what I'm sayin Dan! Well I opened my bag and pulled out all of my albums and he was like, ‘you should be rich by now, why didn’t you trademark everything?’ I tried explaining to him that you can’t trademark everything, this kind of thinking was just another form of people putting face value on materialistic objects and getting people to pay for it. They create a demand and then limit the supply. I was trying to get people to think beyond their eyesight...something may look good, might even taste good but that doesn’t mean it’s the be all and end all. I come from the school of thought that you do an honest days work for an honest days pay.“
The art of toasting for many was the starting point of rap, put a group of men together on a street corner, in a bar or in a jail cell and it would begin. Is that how you saw it?
“There were two separate developments of the term toasting, there was the Carribean way and there was the form of the Blues. I was born with music running through me, I walked music, I talked music…all I had to do was play myself! In the beginning toasting was completely x-rated - it was only thrown down at private parties and shows or for personal entertainment. Half of toasting was pure fantasy, it was ironic, half truth, half myth. Everybody has a history, a folklore and that’s what we explored. We grew up in the tradition that toasting never left any real messages but I decided to change all this. I decided that there were points to be made, there were ways of opening people's eyes and therefore created my own toasts. The way I looked at these rhymes is that it was infotainment, not entertainment like everyone else…”
You chose prison as an alternative to fighting in Vietnam and whilst inside converted to Islam. It’s been documented that this is where you met future Last Poets members’ Omar and Abiodun – is that true?
“No that’s not true. That story was made up over the years to give the whole history some authenticity. I met them at the East Wind poetry group in Harlem a little later.”
What are your thoughts on the Billion Dollar Rap/Hip Hop game in 2014?
“I have said it before and I will say it again, since I laid down Hustlers Convention nobody has said anything meaningful…with the exception of perhaps Public Enemy. There was a TV advert over here in the States a while back where the catchphrase is ‘can’t sing, can’t play, we’ll go all the way!’ – and that’s just how it is nowadays. All Hip Hop has done is taken all of the ideas from the pioneers and capitalised on it, it has become the hustle without the muscle! You have to have the correct knowledge in life and before the knowledge you have to have the wisdom.”
So what’s next for Jalal, has all this given you a taste for more…?
“Hustlers Convention does have a sequel that has never been heard before, it hasn’t even been recorded yet. It goes into even more detail potentially giving you the story of the characters and the hard lessons that were learnt. Youth can so easily be misguided in life, especially if they think their future is golden. They become reckless, they don’t think about old age and become disappointed with their elders…but they should have learnt their history. People make the same mistakes over and over again. In life people only really need the basics, they only really need an opportunity to contribute…it’s that simple. The media is such a controlling influence advertising all the glitz, all the glamour, the lust and all of the power. People don’t need all of that, how are we meant to conquer the universe if we cannot conquer ourselves? It doesn’t matter how many billions of dollars you have in the bank, at the end of the day Dan, you still have to go to the toilet.”
The Doctor’s Orders, Charly Records & FWP present
HUSTLERS CONVENTION 4 40th Anniversary Live
Featuring Jalal (Last Poets a.k.a Lightnin’ Rod) with Jazz Warriors International Collective & Malik & The O.G’s + DJ Perry Louis . Hosted By Lemn Sissay
7pm – 11pm Monday 10th Feb 2014 @ Jazz Café, Parkway, Camden, London NW1
* Charly Records has just announced that they are issuing a special limited edition of the original Hustlers Convention on vinyl with the illustrated lyric insert on 1st Feb specifically for this live show...