Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin presented ‘Hustler’s Convention’ 40th Anniversary at the Jazz Cafe in London on Monday night and the “Godfather Of Rap” blew us all away – including the High Priest of P Funk, George Clinton.
Despite the miserable weather, the Camden venue filled up rapidly with a diverse crowd of the faithful and the curious eager to experience a live interpretation of ‘Hustler’s Convention’ – a cult album that is arguably the head cornerstone of rap. Having been familiar with this album and Jalal’s other incisive and skillfully crafted offerings, as a founding member of The Last Poets, I was more than happy to revisit Jalal’s mesmerising onstage rhyming skills. I was also keen to discover how the Jazz Warriors International and the MD for the project, Orphy Robinson, was going to recreate the musical setting and atmospherics that frame Jalal aka Lightnin Rod’s original journey into the hustlin’ life.
There were a lot of faces in the house and the level of anticipation high. It was down to Liverpudlian poet and prime mover behind this project, Malik Al Nasir to open the set with a hand picked ensemble called the OG’s. Mentored by both Jalal and the late great Gil Scott Heron, Malik brought his own poetic life experience to the event and his no nonsense delivery came wrapped in the warm, versatile vocals of Cleveland Watkiss and Chantelle Nandi.
It was down to Jalal to lift it all to another level. At 70 Jalal projects serious gravitas. His dedication to Bak Mei – ‘White Eyebrow’ – gong fu and the healing arts of acupuncture make for a strong body and a clear mind. A shock of silver grey hair bursts in bunches from below his woolen hat; his eyes are hidden behind a pair of aviator shades. He’s primarily onstage at the Jazz Cafe to perform an often misunderstood concept album, that was written four decades ago as warning about a “career” the hustlin’ life, but his own contemporary concerns about the future of mankind are clearly to the fore in his thinking.
I bought The Last Poets ‘This Is Madness’ LP at the dawn of the Seventies and had never heard anything like it. It was a shocking and challenging experience that truly conveyed the intensity of racial divide in the States. So, my initial meeting with Jalal back in Eighties was charged with expectation. If I recall correctly Jalal announced his presence in London via a phone call to Gilles Peterson’s Mad On Jazz radio show. We’d just started Straight No Chaser magazine and the Talking Loud & Saying Something Sunday afternoon session at Dingwalls was in full flight. Jalal became a face on the scene. He participated in one of the radical Straight No Chaser fund raising session at Dingwalls and also taught gong fu to members of the Young Disciples and Galliano. We were in awe…. he was one of the Last Poets!!
However, on reflection, I don’t believe that we could fully grasp the depth of Jalal as an artist. His deep knowledge and waves of words were forged during the most turbulent era in post-war/cold-war America’s history – they were/are his weapons in an ongoing struggle. He was, in reality, a brother from another planet and we lacked the confidence and skills to create something potentially unique. As a generation, through an engagement with Black music and culture, we were being increasingly enlightened as to the reality of deep rooted racism in the US. In turn, that knowledge had to relate in practice to our own lives in the UK. One thing’s for sure, Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin had an impact on all us and it was good to see him back on a London stage , a documentary crew in tow and an autobiography being worked on. It made me think that maybe, hopefully, this is his time.
Jalal does nor speak kindly of today’s “candy rappers”. He rightfully remains bitter at the fact that his recordings, which are still on sale or now streamed on Spotify, have never delivered the financial rewards he is due. But through his craft, on this night, his lyrical ire is aimed at humanity as a whole… “mankind was given a little free will between a choice or a chance to build or kill”. He regaled us, over a bass driven rhythm, with a picture of mankind that is schizophrenic, avaricious, suicidal, genocidal, psychotic, idiotic, egotistic, sadistic… and on mission of self destruction. He dipped into his verbal vaults to analyse the symbols on a dollar bill and had George Clinton vibin’ on every word. In every action there’s a reaction and Jalal’s reasonings are an endless flow of rigorous observations and concepts punctuated by call and response style chants. It all comes together with tsunami like momentum and throws back in our faces the fragility of our planet and madness of our inactivity. There are hooks, from a stack of albums, that are ingrained in the consciousness of all those stood around me and it was impossible, for each and everyone, not to finish them off as they ricocheted around the room.
Following a short breather in the set Jazz Warriors Int. were back onstage and with it came that wah-wah-intro and familiar horn riff that paved the way for ” It was a full moon in the middle of June in the summer of fifty- nine….“. A deft change of tempo and we went from the man called Sport to his “ace-boon-poon” called Spoon. The band was kickin’ and tight, moving easily through the rhythmic shifts that words require. Cleveland Watkiss traded vocal licks and at one point looked like he ‘d gone to heaven. The band were clearly capable of mirroring the original soundtrack which featured a host of stellar musicians from Kool & The Gang to Billy Preston, Bernard Purdie and Cornell Dupree to Julius Hemphill and Philip Wilson. Both Ibo Shakoor and Rob Young of Gil Scott Heron’s Amnesia Express respectively held down the percussion and drum spots while Jonathan Idiagbonya sat in on piano. Dennis Rollins sublime trombone simply conjured the spirit of the JBs. Bass man, Tiago Ciombra, delivered every time as did Howie Gondwe on guitar. There was no need for those transitional ambient sounds that link the tracks on the album. With Orphy at the helm one track fused into another transporting us to the Cafe Black Rose where “you can cop a bag of reefer or scag or even some coke or hash” and onto the Hustler’s Convention itself where “there were pick pockets and dope peddlers, murderers and thieves… hi-jackers , bootleggers, bookies and the mob: and anybody else who had ever killed, cheated or robbed.”
Just as Jalal’s narration took us into the Hamrock’s Hall and into the heart of the Hustler’s Convention he decided to ask those assembled if they’d mind if he saved the rest of the story for another day. Weird as it may seem, no one was going to object. We’d already witnessed a next level performance from both Jalal and the musicians. Having read all the lyrics on Hustler’s Convention, I was totally impressed that he could memorise as much as we got to hear…. so, yeah, part two… bring it on… and we can get to that conclusion where, on Death Row, Sport admits ” It took me 12 years of my time to realise what a nickel and dime hustler I had really been..”
It was an extraordinary night and now look forward to Jalal’s promise of both a ‘Hustler’s Detention’ and a ‘Hustler’s Ascension’ along with the film which, with the support of Public Enemy’s Chuck D, is due to premiere at The Smithsonian in DC sometime later this year.
ALL PHOTOGRAPHY BY SIOBHAN BRADSHAW – http://www.siobhanbradshaw.co.uk/