In the wake of Jalal Nuriddin’s passing earlier this month, Malik Al Nasir reflects on the life and legacy of his friend and mentor.
The year was 1984, the location was Sefton Park, Liverpool and the event was Larks in the Park.
That was the first chance encounter I had with Jalal Mansur Nuriddin (aka – The Grandfather of Rap). I was wandering round the backstage area – meaning the path behind the bandstand – when I happened across an old friend; bassist Lloyd Massett, who was standing there after the show with Jalal, an American poet, of slight build and a very cool demeanour. As soon as we were introduced, he put me at ease with his off-the-cuff rhymes, that seemed limitless. This guy could rhyme the phone book and keep your attention. The encounter was brief on this occasion, but it wasn’t long before I ran into him again in Liverpool, this time on Princes Ave outside the Methodist Centre.
He was standing there with another American fellow poet, who introduced himself as Suleiman El Hadi. On this occasion, they had been performing as The Last Poets and running a series of workshops at The Black-E, under the title of one of their albums called “Blessed are those who struggle” (the title also of one of Suleiman’s own poems). I told them I’d been working with another revolutionary American poet Gil Scott-Heron, whom I’d also had the good fortune to meet in 1984 and subsequently toured with that year. Jalal dropped his first pearl of wisdom on me; “Stay with the righteous and you shall surely prosper” he said. I went away and pondered on that thought for a couple of years, whilst travelling and touring with Gil Scott-Heron.
In 1986, a local band had asked me to manage them, called BANTU – Liverpool’s answer to Public Enemy – had been working with Jalal at the Pink Studios on Lark Lane in Liverpool. Jalal was signed to Warner Chappel on a publishing deal and had a budget to do an album. BANTU were working on it with him and had drafted in US producer Davy DMX. The album was entitled The Fruits of Rap. In 1986, BANTU went to London to record with Jalal and Davy DMX. I arranged to meet them at the Town & Country in Camden where The Wailers were playing. I met up with them at the show, only to discover that Jalal was with them. That night we spoke again. He’d already forgotten me – 2 years had passed – but I’d not forgotten him, nor the advice he’d given me, which I reminded him of. I said, ‘You told me “Stay with the righteous and you shall surely prosper”‘ He said ‘Yeh man, that sounds like something I’d say.’ So, I said ‘How do I know who the righteous are?’ To which he replied, ‘They won’t be surrounded by the unrighteous.’
That was the point at which I knew that this guy was special.
Jalal was born on 24th July 1944 in New York. He grew up in the Fort Greene area of Brooklyn; he was professionally known as Alafia Pudim when he co-founded the legendary The Last Poets with Omar Ben Hassan and Abiodun Oyewole, and percussionist Nilijah on Malcolm X’s birthday 50 years ago in 1968. They laid the cornerstone for what became known as rap and later, hip hop As Quincy Jones stated in his autobiography The Dude , ‘This mix of elements — what people now label rap — first came on my radar screen in the 1960’s, with performers like the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron.’
An organisation called East Wind Associates had formed The Harlem Writers Workshop which was also home to Felipe Luciano – who went on to co-found the Latino civil rights arts movement The Young Lords – also David Nelson and Gylan Kain – who would all later form part of the group and produce an early album called Right On the soundtrack to the film by Herbert Danska.
They would often perform for the community on the basket ball courts in Harlem in the late 60’s, with politically charged spoken word and percussive accompaniment. They were considered by many as the voice of the people.
In 1968 Jimi Hendrix’s producer Alan Douglas, came up-town and heard them perform on the basketball court and immediately signed them to his label – Douglas Records, releasing their first album the self-titled Last Poets to critical acclaim in 1970.
This album produced the hit record Niggers Are Scared Of Revolution which established the Last Poets as principle exponents of The Black Arts Movement which in turn inspired the likes of Gil Scott-Heron, to write The Revolution Will Not Be Televised as a response to the Last Poets poem We The Revolution Comes.
The Last Poets‘ second album This Is Madness was released in 1971. The album was linked to a deal with Douglas, who wanted to release a classic jail toast that Jalal had written called Hustlers Convention. Jalal refused to give him Hustlers unless Douglas agreed to release the second Last Poets album, which he did.
Jalal also recorded another jail toast with rock icon Jimi Hendrix called Doriella Du Fontaine which he refused to release after Hendrix’s death because he ‘didn’t want to capitalise on Jimi’. Douglas did however release it via Celluloid in 1984 under another of Jalal’s aliases Lightnin’ Rod.
After converting to Islam, he changed his name from Alafia Pudim to Jalal Mansur Nuriddin (which is Arabic for glorious and victorious light of the faith). When Omar and Abiodun left The Last Poets in 1973, Suleiman El Hadi joined the band and their third album Chastisement was released.
They had also signed with Blue Thumb Records and a fourth album At Last was also released the same year; this was the last album to feature Omar Ben Hassan with Jalal and the only album where Omar and Suleiman appear together.
A string of other albums followed: Oh My People, Freedom Express, Scatterap – Home and after the death of the original percussionist Nilijah, a string of drummers and percussionists graced the stage with them, most notably Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdy, (who’d incidentally also featured with Gil Scott-Heron), conga player – the late Abu Mustapha and vibraphonist the late Kenyatte Abdur-Rahman.
But it was the album Hustlers Convention Jalal’s first solo project, that would be the crowning glory of his back catalogue. It was released in 1973 under the pseudonym Lightnin’ Rod (an idiom for a fast gun slinger in old westerns) but was deleted from the market after 3 months due to a dispute with Kool & The Gang’s label.
They had recorded the music for three tracks and failed to tell Douglas they were signed. When their label found out they were on the album, they threatened Douglas’ distributors – United Artists – with a law suit and UA pulled the album and it died a quick commercial death, apart from the 20,000 copies already in circulation. Melle Mel memorised it, released it as his own and then went on to write The Message a global hit – based upon the Hustlers Convention. It became therefore the foundation of modern day hip hop.
In 2014 I was asked by Manchester film company Riverhorse TV, who were making a film about Hustlers Convention being the sort of Rosetta Stone of hip hop, to recreate the Hustlers Convention live. It was a challenge because it had never been performed live since it was released some 40 years before. I called in my own band Malik & The O.G’s’ musical director – Orphy Robinson and between us we pulled together all the elements, to recreate the show live, so that the film company could shoot it for the film. I chose the Jazz Café in London and Jalal agreed to perform on one condition – that Malik & The O.G’s opened the show. And that’s what we did.
Poet Lemn Sissay MC’d and DJ Perry Lewis from jazz dance troupe Shiftless Shuffle DJ’d the night and we packed it to the rafters. Industry heads including Alan Douglas, Gilles Peterson, Paul Bradshaw, Cathy Tyson, George Clinton and many more, came to – what would turn out to be – the only ever live performance of Hustlers Convention since its release in 1973.
Chuck-D was the executive producer of the film, I was the associate producer and Mike Todd was the director. The film featured rap royalty, such as Ice-T, MC Lyte, Melle Mel, Fab Five Freddie, Immortal Technique, Chuck – D and Public Enemy and as Ice-T says in the film, ‘I wasn’t the first rapper but I bet the first rapper heard Hustlers Convention.’
In 2003 Jalal and I went on a pilgrimage to Mecca together and we have since collaborated on many projects. In 2004 when I first published my poetry book Ordinary Guy by Mark T. Watson (my name when I met Jalal) he wrote the foreword to my book in the form of a poem about our meeting and my conversion to Islam. The poem is called Malik’s Mode. It was in fact, Jalal who named me Malik.
Later that year, we shot a film together called Word-Up From Ghetto To Mecca with myself Jalal, Gil Scott-Heron and Benjamin Zephaniah and in 2015, I released my album Rhythms of The Diaspora Vol’s 1 & 2 Ft Gil Scott-Heron & The Last Poets (Jalal and Kenyatte Abdurahman) by Malik & The O.G’s.
Jalal moved to Paris around 1996, where he lived until his return to the USA – after a long self-imposed exile, – when Obama became President. Whilst in Paris, he set up his own label On The One and re-released several of the Last Poets works under two compilations Prime Tiime Rhyme of the Last Poets Vol’s 1 & 2. As well as solo albums Fruits of Rap and Science Friction.
He also released an album On the One with producer Adrian Sherwood (Tackhead) with the hit single Mankind which featured in the soundtrack to the Samuel L Jackson film 187. The Last Poets made a brief reunion with Omar Ben Hassan in 1994 to make a cameo appearance in the John Singleton film Poetic Justice with Janet Jackson and Tupac. Apparently it was at Tupac’s request.
I travelled to the US with him and Suleiman, leaving Kenyatte in the studio in Paris to mix what would be the final Last Poets album with Sulieman El Hadi – Scatterap – Home. There was no budget to take me to California – and I always regretted not paying my own air fare because it would have allowed me not only to witness more history in the making but on a personal level – to meet another icon of mine – Tupac, who was on set when they arrived. I stayed in Kenyatte’s flat on 169th and 10th Ave in the East Bronx. It was somewhat daunting at first, falling asleep to gunshots and sirens every night but I became quite comfortable on those streets after a couple of days. It was the first time I’d ever been in a place outside of Africa where absolutely everyone was black.
When Jalal told me that he wanted to write his ‘whole life story in rhyme.’ I jokingly said ‘Oh man you’ll be dead before you write that book.’ He took it seriously embarked upon a 15 year writing project, which spawned the sequels to the Hustlers Convention called The Hustlers Detention and The Hustlers Ascension collectively a 3-part autobiography written entirely in rhyme. The latter two, though completed, remain unpublished at the time of his death.
In 2016 Jalal and I did a tour of Canada screening both our films Hustlers Convention and Word-Up – From Ghetto to Mecca, performing live shows together in Toronto and Ottawa and doing school assemblies in Mississauga with hundreds of kids; motivating them to stay in school and get educated, to raise themselves up.
When I heard of Jalal’s illness last year, I travelled to Atlanta, Georgia to spend a few days with him last Ramadan. We’ve spoken a lot since, the last of which was just a week before he passed away. I read him a poem I’d written but not yet published. It describes my search for truth and how I came to Islam at Jalal’s very hand. It’s called The Fear Of Not Knowing. The last thing I received from Jalal was a text message saying ’brilliant poem Malik’ which I shall treasure and never delete.
Jalal has been my friend, my mentor for 26 years. He passed away on Monday, June 4 in Atlanta Georgia, after a spirited battle with cancer but despite my feelings, I can’t help but realise just how influential this man has been to the civil rights movement, the black arts movement, the foundation of rap and hip-Hop.
His legacy will be eternal and his 50-year career has pioneered several fundamental shifts in musical genres, jazzoetry, acid jazz, rap and hip hop, all owe a debt of honour to this great wordsmith and lifelong civil rights activist. My sincere condolences to his family. Rest in peace my brother – until we meet on the other side.
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