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Last Poets rap pioneer Jalal Mansur Nuriddin dies at 73

Jalal Mansur Nuriddin of the Last Poets in

Jalal Mansur Nuriddin of the Last Poets in London in 1984. Credit: Redferns / David Corio

Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, who became known as the “grandfather of rap” for his rhythmic, spoken-word verses with the Last Poets, a group that channeled the militant social criticism of the Black Power movement into music that paved the way for hip-hop, died June 4 at a hospital in Atlanta. He was 73.

The cause was lung cancer, said Umar Bin Hassan, a fellow member of the Last Poets.

“History is distorted ‘cause it ain’t all there,” Nuriddin once declared in song, “so let’s examine the truth so we can — clear the air.”

In the annals of hip-hop, Nuriddin was long overshadowed by pioneers including Melle Mel, Grandmaster Flash and DJ Kool Herc, who helped popularize a musical style that set boasts and stories to percussion-heavy beats.

Yet in his work with the Last Poets and in solo records such as “Hustlers Convention” (1973), Nuriddin — pronounced noo-ruh-DEEN — established himself as one of the finest rhyme-makers of his generation, a socially conscious trailblazer whose music demonstrated a new means of black cultural expression.

“If rap could be traced to one logical source point, this exceptional piece of vinyl would be it, without question,” critic John Duffy wrote in All Music, reviewing the Last Poets’ 1970 self-titled debut. The record featured Nuriddin alongside poets Bin Hassan and Abiodun Oyewole, whose words were backed by little more than the conga beats of the percussionist Nilaja.

For many listeners, the album captured life on the streets, where Nuriddin and his fellow Harlem-based poets spouted verse about white hypocrisy, black empowerment and the perils of drug use.

“Our mission was to try and clean up our own neighborhoods,” Oyewole said in a phone interview. “We were doing everything in our power to destroy that negative energy that stopped us from coming together in the black community.” The group appropriated a racial epithet, used in many of their songs and song titles, to refer to African Americans they viewed as politically apathetic.

Their incendiary rhetoric resulted in stickers labeling their first album as “Recommended for Mature Adults Only” and limited its play on the radio. Yet it sold more than 300,000 copies, peaking at No. 29 on the Billboard music chart, and led to a booking at the Apollo Theater alongside R&B singer Jerry Butler and the O’Jays.

Nuriddin, Oyewole said, “was the rhyming genius of the group,” someone who “could take a conversation and turn it into a rhyme.” Soon after the trio came together, he recalled, they visited a “shooting gallery, a place where junkies would come in to shoot their drugs. It was a research project in a sense. We were there all night watching black heroin addicts looking for a healthy vein to get high.”

Nuriddin’s focus on crime, drugs and the havoc they inflicted on black communities culminated in “Hustlers Convention,” a landmark recording that was later sampled by acts including the Beastie Boys and the Wu Tang Clan. The record was inspired by “jail toasts,” boast-filled stories shared by black prisoners behind bars and back on the streets.

“They were rhyming jokes but they didn’t have much content,” Nuriddin told the Guardian in 2014. “I felt something new needed to be done to lay down the whys and wherefores of street life, its attractions and distractions.”

The poem chronicled two hustlers, Sport and Spoon, who engage in a shootout that results in a police chase and a sentence to death row — all while “the real hustlers were rippin’ off billions / From the unsuspecting millions.”

Its verses, boisterous yet ultimately moralizing, were set to backing music by Kool & the Gang and produced by Alan Douglas, who previously worked with Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis. Nuriddin released the record under the name Lightnin’ Rod, a reference to someone “who blows the whistle on wrongdoing in the community.”

Nuriddin said he received little money or recognition for the record, in part because of a lawsuit over the involvement of Kool & the Gang, who were signed with another label, leading United Artists to pull the album from distribution.

Years later, Nuriddin spoke of “people who were doing the hustling on a higher level,” barring the album from release because of its provocative content.

Its impact, however, was unmistakable. The album became the subject of a 2014 documentary, “Hustlers Convention,” produced by Chuck D, whose group Public Enemy helped bring hip-hop to the fore of American music in the late 1980s.

“It was probably the most influential record to set off all those early Bronx MCs,” Chuck D told the Guardian, “but very rarely does ‘Hustlers Convention’ get mentioned in the annals. It’s a missing piece of culture.”

Nuriddin was born Lawrence Padilla on July 24, 1944, and raised in the projects of the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. He joined the Last Poets in 1969, one year after its formation in Harlem. The group featured a shifting lineup that included Gylan Kain, David Nelson, Felipe Luciano and the trio who performed on the collective’s debut record. Nuriddin was known at that time as Alafia Pudim, and became Jalal Mansur Nuriddin after converting to Islam in the early 1970s.

The Last Poets’ lineup continued to shift in the aftermath of their first album’s success, with Nuriddin remaining as the driving force of records such as “This Is Madness” (1971) and “Chastisment” (1972), which featured a more experimental free-jazz sound.

He eventually moved to London and in recent years recorded albums under the name Jalal, including “On the One” (1996), “The Fruits of Rap” (1997) and “Science Friction” (2004).

A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Nuriddin said that while he was delighted his music had laid a foundation for other artists, he was not always happy about those who followed in his footsteps. The boasting verses of “Hustlers Convention,” he noted, had led the way for gangsta rap — artists who focused on hustling and crime but failed to reflect on its consequences.

He was “downright sad,” he told the Guardian, that “Hustlers Convention” “introduced what they called gangsta rap on the scene, but they didn’t get the point.”

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