Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, a foundational member of the spoken-word crew the Last Poets, was a black revolutionary whose words helped spawn rap as we know it. Though not often mentioned among hip-hop’s founding fathers, Nuriddin had a great influence on groundbreaking rap acts like N.W.A., Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, and A Tribe Called Quest. He died in his sleep Tuesday evening, at the age of 74.
The Last Poets were, in many ways, the first rappers. Nuriddin’s tag teams with Suliaman El-Hadi on 1972’s Chastisment ushered in a concept he referred to as “jazzoetry,” with fluid, rap-like inflections. And as Lightnin’ Rod, Nuriddin created what is often cited as the prototype for gangsta rap. His work was formative for Digable Planets, shaped the sound and vision of Main Source’s debut, Breaking Atoms, and was sampled by many others. He had a greater solo impact than any of his peers.
Seven men recorded as the Last Poets, but never at the same time. The first version of the group, founded by Gylan Kain, David Nelson, and Abiodun Oyewole in 1968, was born performing in a Malcolm X commemoration. Nuriddin co-led the second iteration of the group, which was also the most popular. He was one of the last two men to bear the Last Poets name, but the most dogged in his right to claim it; he recorded under the moniker more than any other member.
Nuriddin’s faction of the group released their self-titled debut in 1970. Their pro-black screeds, full of radical politics weaponized to dismantle the structure of white power, were ignored by local radio, but their buzz around the community was so intense that they were booked to play songs like “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution” at the Apollo alongside R&B crooners the O’Jays. Throughout The Last Poets and its follow-up, 1971’s This Is Madness, Nuriddin made black liberation feel as cool as it was urgent.
In 1973, as Lightnin’ Rod, Nuriddin released Hustlers Convention, an originating hip-hop text that would be a source of inspiration for decades of MCs, from N.W.A. and Tupac to Nas and Lupe Fiasco. Public Enemy’s Chuck D called the record the “verbal bible” for understanding the streets in the 2015 documentary he helped produce about the album. “I felt something new needed to be done to lay down the whys and wherefores of street life, its attractions and distractions,” Nurridin told The Guardian.
Rap repurposed the record’s sound and slang, but also its colorful storytelling and hustler narratives. “Hustlers Convention is a lot of what hip-hop is,” Large Professor told RBMA. “It’s a lot of boastful swag and the origin of all these words and catchphrases today. It’s a staple of rap history.” Q-Tip added, “In a lot of ways, it did pre-date hip-hop.”
Nuriddin considered other early street poets like Gil Scott-Heron his students. (“I gave [Scott] one lesson and he made a career out of it, he should have come back for nine more,” he once said.) Though he had mixed feelings about rap and hip-hop, perhaps because it never truly embraced him as an architect, Nuriddin was aware of his contributions. “[Rappers] made a game out of it and they used the Hustlers Convention as if it was a whale trapped in a piranha fish pool. They all fed upon it, they got fat, and then they got fed upon,” he told Noisey in 2015.
His legacy lives on through the art form he influenced, and his narratives can be traced through years of rap songs. Jalal Mansur Nuriddin’s story is that of shepherd, ushering in a new generation of poets who ensured he wouldn’t be the last. Below, find six of Nuriddin’s most influential songs.
Lightnin’ Rod: “Sport”
The opener and conceptual centerpiece of Hustlers Convention is both a foundational moment for rapping and a sonic template. It’s been sampled by LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, MC Lyte, Marley Marl, and Smif N’ Wessun. RZA stripped the song’s drums for Wu-Tang Clan’s “Method Man” and Jungle Brothers repurposed its entire sound on “Black Is Black,” for what would serve as Q-Tip’s rap debut.
The Last Poets: “Mean Machine”
“Mean Machine” is a fascinating display of rhythm and timing. You can hear the gears that would become the rap machine turning in Nuriddin’s calculated flows and stretched rhyme schemes. He raps over his own chanted vocals, finding pockets within his own breaking cadences.
Lightnin’ Rod: “The Bones Fly From Spoon’s Hand” + “The Break Was So Loud, It Hushed the Crowd” (1973)
One of Hustlers Convention’s most impressive gambits is how tightly wound its concept and narrative are, playing out an ongoing saga with deliberate pacing. “The Bones Fly From Spoon’s Hand” is Nuriddin’s crisp, scene-setting storytelling in action. “The Break Was So Loud, It Hushed the Crowd” is like Too $hort performing Seussian nursery rhymes about shooting dice.
The Last Poets: “White Man’s Got a God Complex”
It’s easy to hear the roots of the Public Enemy ideology—as well as other explicitly pro-black rappers like KRS-One and Melle Mel—in the spoken-word verses of this song. In fact, the militant rap group sampled the track on their 1994 album, Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age. But the tendrils of this Nuriddin gospel spread throughout hip-hop. The song’s messaging can be traced from Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted to Joey Bada$$’ All-Amerikkkan Bada$$.
The Last Poets: “Wake Up, Niggers”
One of Nuriddin’s best songs is also one of the Last Poets’ defining texts. “Wake Up, Niggers” carries within it all the exasperation of its title, its exclamation an immediate call to action. Over patterning hands drums, he drags syllables. “Night descends as the sun’s light ends/And black comes back, to blend again/And with the death of the sun/Night and blackness become one,” he chants. “Blackness being you/Peeping through the red, the white, and the blue. Dreaming of bars, black civilizations that once flourished and grew/Hey! Wake up, niggas! Or y’all through.” The pulse of his inflections falls somewhere between the beat poetry of the ’50s and the black focus of negritude, foreshadowing not just rap but slam poetry. Jalal Mansur Nuriddin’s chants reverberate in the mind, and they continue to echo throughout culture.