Umar Bin Hassan is an OG when it comes to spoken word, influencing a generation of MCs and poets as a member of the seminal Last Poets. Recording for Douglass Records, the group’s albums were incredibly impactful. Tracks like “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution” and “The Mean Machine” were not only heard on the radio, but also on the streets of Black America as they blared from Cadillacs, ill-lit bars and Black bookstore doorways. Today, we hear Hassan’s booming voice on Common and Kanye’s brilliant “The Corner,” and we can hear his muse flutter all over Kendrick Lamar’s recent rhythmic revolt, To Pimp a Butterfly.
Forty-five years after the debut of 1970’s The Last Poets, Brother Umar moved from Brooklyn to Baltimore to help raise his grandson, but he’s still writing, fighting and expressing his pain. His latest project, Are We Trapped, was recorded in collaboration with Daddy-O (Stetsasonic), stic.man (dead prez), Styles P and jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove. Older and wiser, Umar Bin Hassan is still telling it like it is.
EBONY: Let’s talk about the new album. It opens with an Adam Clayton Powell speech. Was he someone that you knew?
Umar Bin Hassan: It was a pleasure putting it all together on this record. We’ve been working on it for a while, so I’m glad that it’s finally done now. It’s called Are We Trapped. I didn’t know Powell personally, but I saw him speak a lot in Harlem. I never met him personally, but I know one thing: he was probably the biggest legislator to come out of Congress. He represented so many bills. Powell was a powerful man. He got a lot of things done for Black people. But when people talk about Black leaders, it seems he has been forgotten. He helped Black people, but he also helped a lot of White people along the way.
EBONY: Talk about the single “Are We Trapped,” which you recorded with stic.man from dead prez.
UBH: It’s just a song I hope will give the children some direction. Sometimes the people that are supposed to show them the way are hung up with other things, so they can’t help the children. It’s like they’re trapped, which was how that song came to be. Me and stic.man had done some work together on his last album, and people have told me how much they love it.
EBONY: Listening to the song “Blow” reminded me of living in Harlem years ago during the cocaine-and-crack 1980s. Were you still in New York City when crack hit?
UBH: I sure was. I was on crack! I was really out there: selling it, doing it. I was part of it until I realized how selfish I was being. Addiction is really a selfish thing, because you’re looking out more for the high than you are your soul or your mind. Once you realize that you’re sick, that you have a problem, then you can get some help. A lot of us are sick, man.
EBONY: You’re such a serious person on record. What makes you laugh?
UBN: Richard Pryor has always been my favorite comedian. I never got into Bill Cosby, always thought he was corny myself. Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley we listened to. [The Last Poets] knew Jimmie Walker personally. We were the ones that gave him his first chance on stage. We had this loft in Harlem where people performed. Jimmie was just a young boy hanging in Harlem. He didn’t even have to tell no jokes. He looked so funny, people just started laughing.
EBONY: What was Harlem like back in those days?
UBN: It was great; you go up there now, it’s so bland. I don’t know, Harlem just been torn down a whole lot. It used to be that once you came out of the train station, you could feel the spirit. Everything was moving fast, there was so much going on, but it’s not there no more. It’s like a different world there.
EBONY: Did you hang out at the African National Memorial Bookstore?
UBN: Are you kidding? That’s the difference between us and a lot of young folks today: we had to read, man. It was necessary to read, so you could be on top of what you were talking about and to talk to others. [Owner Lewis] Michaux not only had books, he also had a lot of old Black movies in his archives. I wonder where those films are today. He had a lot of Black films from the 1930s and ’40s. Black dramas, Black detectives, are you kidding? I always wondered why some institution didn’t try to buy those movies.
EBONY: What was the vibe like there, and who were some of the other writers and poets that hung out there?
UBN: Sonia Sanchez, of course. The Last Poets, we was the so-called street niggers. We wasn’t intellectual like some of them. Everybody loved the Last Poets, including the pimps, the hoes and the drug dealers. A lot of the intellectuals were leery of us, because we was so funky. It was Amiri Baraka, who I love and was one of the most honest writers, who told them, “These brothers are part of this movement.”
It was a wonderful time. I lived at that loft for a while, then on Lenox and 126th Street. Then on 132nd Street for a year. I lived in Harlem for about a year, and then I moved to Brooklyn. I lived all over Brooklyn. All my children were born in Brooklyn; I had three wives in Brooklyn; that was where I made my bones for real. The Last Poets might’ve been born in Harlem, but we grew up in Brooklyn. Had a spot in the Brooklyn called The East—it was a culture center and everybody used to go down there. Reggie Workman, Hamiet Bluiett, Billy Higgins, Baraka… A lot of jazz artists used to come through there.
EBONY: People have told me about the Brooklyn jazz clubs. Max Roach was big in Brooklyn.
UBN: Oh yeah, man. We had a connection with Max Roach. He used to live over on Central Park West. Max once told me, “Y’all are those cats. Y’all sayin’ what we was trying to say back in the day.” Jazz musicians loved us. Sometime they would jump on stage and start playing with us. We will never see those times again.
EBONY: The Last Poets album debut came out 45 years ago. What do you remember about working on that album?
UBN: “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution” was written on the rock in Mount Morris Park. Me and Andrew Jones was in the park on that day; that was my favorite park. He asked me what had I learnt since I’d been in Harlem. I looked around, I hesitated, and then I said, “Niggers are scared of revolution.” The next day I wrote, people dug, and it’s become a classic, man.
EBONY: Were you friends with Gil Scott-Heron?
UBN: We were very close; my birth name is Gilbert too, and he I got along great. We was both on that stuff, and we’d bump into each other along the way doing that and we talked. I talked to him a few months before he died. He had just put out [2011’s We’re New Here] and I was supposed to go meet him. But you know Gil. He’d tell you to meet him somewhere and he would never show up. I miss Gil. I was always hoping he would make it. I miss, Gil… I miss his voice, I miss his presence.
EBONY: The Last Poets were one of those groups that just touched so many people with the truth.
UBH: I remember some of those guys coming back from Vietnam tell me how listening to the Last Poets kept them sane when they were overseas and stopped them from doing drugs when they came back home. I thought them motherfu**ers was blowin’ smoke up my ass, but now I really understand how much our music touched people.
I started writing poetry when I was in junior high school, way back when in Ohio; didn’t really start performing until I met the Last Poets. I had a minor alternation with Abiodun Oyewole, but we made up and he invited me on stage with the Poets. When I got on that stage, I had never felt like that before. It knocked me out. That was in Akron, Ohio. I’m originally from Akron, but I spent most of my life in Cleveland. That was where I learned what the big city was all about. Plus I loved those Cleveland girls.
EBONY: Growing up in Ohio, what was that like?
UBH: I was a poor boy growing up in the projects. You know what poor boys from the projects are like, man. I always had a hustle. First thing was shoe shines, I was working as a shoe shine boy when I was 8 years old. That was my first hustle, but there were so many more. I used to take tricks to the hoes. Those crazy cracker boys would be in the bar, they would ask me if I knew where they could get a girl. I’d make them give me a couple of dollars and I’d take them there. I was one of those boys from the bottom, with my Stacy Adams and Beaver skins. In the midwest at that time, we had three options: you could work in a factory, you could pimp, or you could try to make it to college.
EBONY: What kind of music were you listening to?
UBH: Motown. I used to go up to Detroit a lot, and drive past their building. My father was working in a factory up there and sometime I’d go up to stay with him. The Temptations is one of my favorite groups. I used to see them on stage and just lose my mind. People talk about the riots in Detroit, but when Berry Gordy took Motown out of the city, that’s what really broke it. Motherfu**in’ Motown was never the same after it moved to California; that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Detroit. They was looking bad after the riots, but having Motown there always gave them hope.
EBONY: Who were some of your favorite Motown writers?
UBH: Everybody talking about how much of a poet Bob Dylan is, but the real poet was Smokey Robinson. And all his lines, they rhymed. They wasn’t no almost rhyme or trying to rhyme from him. Smokey could rhyme, brother. Of course, Holland-Dozier-Holland, the songs those brothers wrote will live on for eternity. But they never really get the kind of credit they should as writers, man. I used to listen to Marvin too; after the Temps, he was my favorite. I used to listen to Marvin Gaye when I was in the bar shining shoes. That music meant so much to me, and when I hear it now, it still has the same effect on me as it did when I was 15 or 16.
EBONY: What’s your opinion on the world today?
UBH: It’s like our song “The Mean Machine,” that says, “Automatic push-button remote control/Synthetic genetics command your soul.” That’s the world we’re living in now. Like our album title said, This Is Madness, and it’s still madness. But you know what… I’m all right, Mike. I’m all right.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also a columnist for soulhead.com. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.