In the Beginning: Hip Hop's Early Influences
Photograph courtesy of the Associated Students Performing Arts and Lectures, San Francisco State University.
With Gil Scott-Heron, the ensemble known as the Last Poets is among rap and hip hop's most profound and far-reaching influences. An outgrowth of socially aware 1960s civil rights activism, the Last Poets was founded in prison by Jalal Mansur Nuriddin—sentenced as a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam—Omar Ben Hassan, and Abiodun Oyewole. The three later took their poetry and proto-rap performance to the streets of Harlem, New York, where they soon attracted the interest of the jazz producer Alan Douglas. The group's fusion of free-form jazz, spoken word, and poetry earned them a spot on the American Top Ten charts, a success that was short-lived, brought low by various personal tragedies (Oyewole was arrested in 1970 on a robbery charge and sentenced to another term in prison). Still the group continued to cut albums throughout much of the 1970s, and their bracingly political and socially critical material—"Niggas Are Scared of Revolution" and "Last Rites" among many, many other formative tracks—became the bedrock for a generation of culturally aware rappers and hip hop performers.