I’ve had this album in my hands a few times over the years but never bought it. What I’d read about it made it seem unusual enough to be interesting, but perhaps a little too far out there to warrant a purchase. So I was pretty happy to come across it in a big batch of free records I got a while back – now I’d have the chance to explore The Last Poets.
The Last Poets is an album that defies genre categorization. Jazz? There are jazz elements, but this isn’t a jazz record. Most of the music is percussion, and more in the use of bongo and other percussion generators that you wouldn’t find in the typical drum kit. Spoken Word? Well, the lyrics are essential to The Last Poets, but there’s still music here, and a cadence that at times follows the percussion, so it’s not entirely that either. Poetry? It’s certainly that, but it’s also much more. Rap? Hip Hop? Hell, those things didn’t technically exist in 1970, but if you can’t hear the roots of what would become hip hop here it’s because you’re not trying.
The lyrics are politically and socially charged. It’s easy for me as a middle aged white guy in 2020 to write something about how these poems and rhymes reflected the urban African American experience of 50 years ago, but c’mon, what the hell do I even remotely know about that experience? Nothing from anything resembling first hand experience, that’s for sure. The words are raw, direct, accusing, cutting, and depreciating, delivered with passion and conviction. And I have to admit, I enjoyed this record a lot more than I thought I would. The earnestness alone makes it refreshing to listen to, the honesty and matter-of-fact descriptions of reality and expressions of hope for the future. Of course, there are some problematic aspects half a century later, particularly in how homosexuals and Jews are labelled and described. It’s easy to shrug that off and say “that was a different time”, but it still needs to be called out. I wonder how the Poets reflect on the words they used, looking back on them half a century later? Regardless, that’s what’s on the record, and it’s still a strong piece of work.