Before A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy or the rapper Common, there was The Last Poets — one of the most influential spoken-word groups that pioneered the hip-hop genre.
After releasing their first album in two decades last year, The Last Poets is back with a funkier follow-up to their 2018 rebellious, reggae-infused Understand What Black Is.
Transcending Toxic Times, out now, deals with the social themes that the collective has been playing with since its founding in Harlem in 1968.
The group, born out of the civil rights movement's black nationalism in the 1960s, speaks on racism and the oppressive horrors of America's past.
Over 50 years of the group's rotating cast of artists and evolving musical specialties, The Last Poets' forge on with their mission to speak the truth to inequality.
In an interview with NPR's Michel Martin, two '70s-era members from the group's latest iteration, Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan, say the new album's funkiness pulls from their roots.
"This is in the pocket of what Umar and I are used to," Oyewole says. "We're both from the Midwest. And that's like the funk capital of America. And this is a funky album. And we're both very proud of what [jazz bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma] has done. He's produced a beautiful funk classic with our poetry."
But over Baba Donn Babatunde's upbeat drums and Tacuma's funky bassline, rings a grim message, in the album's second track, "For The Millions." From slavery to lynching, the lyrics speak to the suffering of "millions" of African Americans.
Oyewole says he originally wrote the piece in tribute of the 1995 Million Man March.
"All I'm really doing is just laying out the story of our existence here in America," he says.
The song speaks to what Oyewole describes as the The Last Poets' mission — an "unveiling of the truth" for an oppressed community.
"It's an intimate conversation primarily between us and our people in many ways," he says. "We did not have a direct fight going on against the system. We know the system is going to be what is going to be. And it's already caught up in a very wicked place."
The Poets' truth-telling stems from a need for unity, Oyewole says, "something that's still a little [far] from where we'd like it to be."
"We would praise the good in us, the beauty in us," he says. "And at the same time, we would chastise those things that needed to be chastised."
The group shifts inward with the more personal, uplifting track "Love." (Love is all we need to rise above the flames/When there is no love inside us, life is so insane; Love may come late, but it always comes fair).
Hassan says the song is about the special ingredient on the individual plane that's helped a community survive.
"Love has always been a part of our character, you know," he says. "And that's the only thing that kept us here alive in America is our love for our music, our love sometimes to ourselves, our love for things that help us have, you know — surviving."
NPR's Janaya Williams produced this story for broadcast. Tinbete Ermyas edited.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, the rapper Common, all major players in the music scene whose work can be heard just about everywhere. So it might be hard to remember that they all have a common musical ancestor - a group whose first performance was in 1968, reciting poetry at a park in Harlem.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DELIGHTS OF THE GARDEN")
THE LAST POETS: The things of this life I'm peeping (ph), delights of the garden I'm seeking. Things of this life I'm peeping, delight sof the garden I'm seeking.
MARTIN: I'm talking about The Last Poets, one of the most influential spoken-word groups of all time. And they have a new album out. It's called "Transcending Toxic Times." And two members of that group are here with us to tell us more about it. Umar Bin Hassan is here with us in our Washington, D.C., studios. Thank you for coming.
UMAR BIN HASSAN: Great. Thank you for having us.
MARTIN: And Abiodun Oyewole is with us from our bureau in New York. Mr. Oyewole, thank you so much for joining us as well.
ABIODUN OYEWOLE: And thank you for having me as well.
MARTIN: So you put out an album last year, and that was the first in some 20 years. And now you have a new album. Are you feeling a creative burst of energy?
OYEWOLE: Well, the first one that we put out was really a hand-in-the-glove in a sense because it was the first time we'd recorded something with reggae music and because reggae music is considered to be like rebel music, I thought it would be really clever and appealing to put our rebel poetry with some rebel music. And it works. It worked out fine.
But this is in the pocket of what Umar and I are used to. We're both from the Midwest. And that's like the funk capital of America. And this is a funky album. And we're both very proud of what Jamaaladeen has done. He's produced a beautiful funk classic with our poetry.
MARTIN: Abiodun, you described it a certain way. For some people, your work is the soundtrack of their young adulthood. For some people it's, you know, it's the soundtrack of their understanding of politics. But other people are not going to be as familiar with your work or maybe discovering it for the first time. So I'm curious about how you describe it. Like, one of the people writing about you said it's not poetry set to music, nor is it music made for poets. How do you both describe it?
OYEWOLE: Well, personally, I see our work as being unveiling of the truth. And also, it's an intimate conversation primarily between us and our people in many ways because the initial initiative for The Last Poets was that we wanted to clean the landscape, the community of the madness that we were taking each other through. We did not have a direct fight going on against the system. We know the system is going to be what is going to be. And it's already caught up in a very wicked place.
We know that. And we have to do something to combat that. But in order to do that, we felt we needed unity. And unity is something that's still a little farfetched from where we'd like it to be. So our whole mission was to unify black folks using poetry and to also praise us. We would praise the good in us, the beauty in us. And at the same time, we would chastise those things that needed to be chastised.
MARTIN: I'm going to play some music in a minute. But, Umar, would you describe the work? How...
HASSAN: Well, you know, first of all, we are the children of some of the greatest musicians in the world. All the blues singers, all the jazz singers, and for me, the bop singers, like Bird and Charlie Parker and Miles Castro were speaking things that should have been heard through their music. And matter of fact, when we met some of these people, they told us - I mean, the greatest thing that happened to me since I've been a Last Poet, when we were at the University of Southern California doing a show with Miles Davis. And we were in the green room.
And Miles gets up, and he comes over to my table where I'm at - love you guys are doing, man. Love what you all are doing. You all are doing what we were trying to do. You all are saying what were trying to play, man. So you all keep it up. Keep it up. You know, I was on cloud nine for the rest of the day. So, you know, all that music that they played and blues and jazz, it's The Last Poets who took that sense of what it was and turned it into words.
MARTIN: So let's jump in and play a little bit of the new album. Let's play "For The Millions."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR THE MILLIONS")
THE LAST POETS: And you for the millions. And you - for the millions. For you and you. For you and you. For the millions of Africans chained to the slave ships. For the millions of scars on the backs and faces by the bull whip. For the millions who jumped overboard. For the blood that poured on the shores of North America, South America, Central America and Europe.
MARTIN: So, you know, Abiodun, for your - to your point, it has a - it has an intense message. I mean, there's no getting around the seriousness of the message. But it also has a really kind of funky, I don't even know - yummy kind of beat...
MARTIN: ...To it, right? Yeah, flavor. Yeah, there you go. Tell me a little bit more about how you all came to that.
OYEWOLE: Well, this particular piece, I had written actually for a gig that Umar and I never arrived at. We were supposed to be going to the Million Man March. But we had a gig at Penn State at the same time that the Million Man March was taking place. And so, of course, we did the gig because, you know, we could use the money and so forth and so on. But the fact is that I had written that poem, and then I shared it with some people. And they were - everybody was just outraged with the poem because I said for the millions because I'm thinking that this Million Man March is going to have millions of people there. And I want to connect with them as much as I can.
So a friend of mine put together a little pamphlet with the poem in there. And they went to the Million Man March with something like 20,000 pamphlets of the poem, and they sold every one of them out. So that particular piece has a life of its own because of what I'm saying - because all I'm really doing is just laying out the story of our existence here in America.
MARTIN: So let me play another piece. This one is called "Love." Let's play that and switch gears a little bit here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE")
THE LAST POETS: Love is all we need to rise above the flames. When there is no love inside us, life is so insane. Loving kisses and loving sighs. To have those - pleasure bring tears to my eyes. Love at first sight is so very rare. Love may come late, but it always comes fair.
MARTIN: So here's why I wanted to play this. The Last Poets have always expressed love for the community. But this album seems to really make some really pointed messages about love between two people. And I wanted to ask about that. Why was that important to do?
HASSAN: Love has always been a part of our character, you know. And that's the only thing that kept us here alive in America is our love for our music, our love sometimes to ourselves, our love for things that help us have, you know - surviving. So love is a very important part of us/.
OYEWOLE: And the other thing about it is that we're together basically because we do love each other.
OYEWOLE: And that's one of the main things that causes us to have conflict. Our love is overmuch in terms of what we feel about what we should be about and what we're doing. But I can depend on Umar. I know his skills. I know his ability. And he can depend on me. And that's important to find one person in your life who you can depend on, who you know is not going to come up short when the back up against the wall. I can depend on him. He's my brother. We can argue, fuss and fight. Sometimes we want to take each other's hearts out our chests. There's no question about that. But that's the love, and love has weird ways of expressing itself sometimes.
MARTIN: That was Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan, two members of The Last Poets. Their new album, "Transcending Toxic Times," is out now. Thank you both so much for being here.
HASSAN: Michel, thank you for having us.
OYEWOLE: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.