The Last Poets reviewed live by Danny Kelly in the NME, 23 February, 1985.
First, Last & Everything
The Last Poets
London Shaw Theatre
BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO STRUGGLE. A full and hushed theatre. On the stage bathed in a circular pool of light are a pair of congas, a bass guitar amp and two spindly mikestands. Into this oasis of semi-brightness step four men. One carries a bass guitar and sits himself on the amp, one settles behind the drums, and two slouch quietly to the mikes. These, after eight years of “industry imposed Siberian exile” performing live, for the first time, for three years , are …
The Last Poets – the final echoes of the age of poems and essays, the age preceding the time of bombs and bullets. The Last Poets – the group that harnessed the ancient African traditions that survived the galleys and pumped into them the heat and rhythm and jive of America’s streets. The Last Poets – the link between those black radicals of the ’60s, King, Jackson, Seale and the men that threatened to seize time, and Heron and the rap pack. The Last Poets – unique and here.
IT’S A TRIP. Large hands patter on the tautness of drums. The bass whispers a steady, insinuating, pulse. Two voices begin to chant, at first in trance-like unison, then branching off into separate, though intertwined, paths, One repeats again and again the mantra of “cash, notes and credit cards. Stocks, bonds and Mastercharge”, (Prince Charles was hip, but the Poets were first) like a warning signal beeping away in your brain. The other rants and rails, admonishes, spits and cajoles, a wheeling and diving bird of prey. Together the four noises mesh like the hidden rustles of an awakening forest. This is ‘E Pluribus Unum’. This is The Last Poets doing it.
They’re like some Pentagon nightmare, Islam cracked and transported to the streets of Watts or Harlem. Suliman El Hadi is avuncular, stoic, Middle-Aged. In his waistcoats and whiskers he could be a provincial mullah. He is the quiet, humble dignity of the Poets. Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin (Lightening Rod) is their beating heart, their acid tongue. Cool enough to sweat icicles, sharp enough to sell you the clothes you stand in, a crazy philosopher hooked on Mahomet, acupuncture, Luddism and bodily functions. Jalal addresses the audience throughout as a prophet, a harbinger, a huckster, a comic and a friend. It’s an eccentric, high voltage, cascade of language. Most of the mud Jalal throws sticks.
ALL THIS SHIT WILL KILL YOU FAST. Towards the end of ‘mean Machine’, their classic diatribe against the hip chip and the electronic tomorrow, the only piece of transistorised business on the stage, Jamal Abdul Sabur’s amp, splutters to a dead silence. The mind flitted to Paul Daniels. Either way, it was a marvellous moment of vindication, a giggle too.
And the bass loss hardly mattered. For all the agrressive, hectoring, content and revolutionary zeal of this fundamental funk, it remains a quiet, almost unexciting music.
The Last Poets could play in the corner of your living room without disturbing your dinner or Dallas. It’s a communication rather than a broadcast, a two way process. You have to listen actively, to enter into a hypnotic pact with the language and the rhythm, to take it on board.
THIS IS MADNESS. That done, this mixture of jazz from prehistory and poetry from tomorrow showers you with info, sooths, prayers, puns, dogma, opinion, jokes, judgements and a smattering of common or garden bullshit. Jalal treats life as “slavery with fringe benefits”, berates almost every extant power system, lampoons the Pope (“I’m not anti-Christian, just fond of the truth”) and stilettoes herds of holy cows with the adroitness of a Tijuana punk. All the while, Suliman apologises for his rusty voice with a humility that makes you feel hangable-guilty for even noticing it.
Their set was short, an agonisingly fleeting glimpse of a huge heritage, and the problems with the voice and bass prevented ecstatic overload. But still they made you feel chastised, uplifted, simultaneously proud and ashamed, an active part of history rather than an innocent or helpless spectator. Old records – currently fetching £20 in Babylonian collectors emporia – are soon to be reissued while a new set is also on the blocks. We are fortunate that The Last Poets existed, privileged to have them back. Yea verily BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO STRUGGLE.