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Listen to the laughter of the children in the projects and their sense of rhythm to survive.

—Umar Bin Hassan

Harry Allen once wrote that an early documented reference to rap’s beginnings could be found in historian Eileen Southern’s The Music of Black Americans: Southern describes Pattin’ Juba, a late 19th-century black woman who told stories while simultaneously creating rhythms by beating her hands against her body. Others have suggested that rap evolved from the recorded monologues of pioneer comics such as Pigmeat Martin and “Moms” Mabley; some (myself included) argue that contemporary rap poets maintain the traditions of African griots.

While the question of rap’s origins will continue to be debated, it’s clear that its nearest predecessors can be found in the jazz-and-poetry unions that sprung from the revolutionary struggles of the ’60s and ’70s: writer/poet Amiri Baraka and the New York Art Quartet’s Sweet—Black Dada Nihilismus (1964) and Haki Madhubuti and Nation’s Rise, Vision, Coming (1976). During those years, the “spoken word” (as it was then called) tended to only reach certain segments of the black community. Baraka et al. combined academic references to Mondrian and Hermes with jazz music’s fringe avant-garde elements, appealing primarily to a small, usually college-educated audience that was often already socially conscious and politically prepped. Similarly received was Haki’s talk of Afrocentricity (“If we had called a blood African four years ago/He would have had his whole family out for the kill looking for a crazy negro”).

Along with Gil Scott-Heron, the Last Poets were one of the first groups to truly bring the spoken word closer to the masses of black people. Like rap, the words of the Poets were steeped in the cadences and slang of the streets. Their pre-hiphop-era recordings, which include early- to mid-’70s releases like The Last Poets, This Is Madness, Chastisement, At Last, Jazzoetry, and Delights of the Garden are not only classics, they represent the most direct precursor to rap. But in the period since hiphop’s emergence, the Last Poets have been far less influential, producing mixed results on Oh My People (1985), and Right On (1989), with the latest effort being the somewhat forgettable Freedom Express (1990).

Be Bop or Be Dead, the first solo recording from Umar Bin Hassan, was produced by bassist Bill Laswell (Material, Last Exit) and features Laswell’s usual eclectic mix of musicians, both longtime collaborators (Funkadelic’s keyboardist Bernie Worrell and bassist Bootsy Collins, percussionist Aiyb Dieng, Golden Palominos drummer Anton Fier), and welcome newcomers (keyboardist Amina Claudine Myers, African multi-instrumentalist Foday Musa Suso, percussionist Guilherme Franco, and drummer Buddy Miles). None of them, however, can do much for the opening and close of Be Bop, two inessential new versions of early Umar-penned Last Poets compositions. “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution” is unsuccessfully given a ’90s face lift—brooding bass and drums are pushed out front, while percussion and voice are murkily relegated far deeper into the mix. The new studio version makes one yearn for the raw, street-corner feel of the original’s leaner, more natural mix of voice and congas. Be Bop‘s closing “This Is Madness (Metal Mix)” opts for a techno-metal feel, offering plodding drums and rock-guitar chording in an attempt to approximate the mad hysteria of the lyrics: “All my dreams have been turned into psychedelic nightmares.” In the original “Niggers,” the panic is unsubtly—though more effectively—echoed by the moans and groans of the chorus.

Be Bop‘s other selections are anything but forgettable. “Am” is a hiphop song for 21st-century survivalists seeking to prevail over life’s seemingly endless bum rush of obstacles. “Love the children in the beginning to save them from the end” is voiced in an uncadenced, unrhyming verse that walks hand in hand with church-infused organ. Offered throughout are sermonized observations such as “malt liquor grins dripping with the sacrifice of innocence/The blood in their eyes smile so defiantly at their wounds/Teasing and following laughter to its death/Dancing in the joys of casual violence and polite discussions of their senseless acts.”

“Personal Things” and “Bum Rush” recall the more traditional sound sculptures of early Last Poets, with a lone voice riding over a predominant mix of African-based instrumentation—dousongonni, kora, chatan, congas, and berimbau. In “Personal Things,” Aiyb’s searing chatan (imagine a violin crossed with a sitar) fills the wide spaces left open by a repeated two-note bass figure.

In “Bum Rush,” the streets rule; its basic theme is similar to the Geto Boys’ “My Mind’s Playing Tricks on Me,” though “Bum Rush” uses imagery that is both broader and more vivid (no video required). Over a chorus’ repeated whisper of “young boys,” Umar proceeds to move inside the mind of one of the street’s anonymous foes, weaving a dense tale. It begins with the situations that often place young people in difficult situations—“Daddy came and then was gone, made a move that left a pawn”—before moving to the effects—“Boys in the hood/Hoods on the head/Living large to die instead.” The track concludes with the resolution found in defeat: “One morning they find you with your face in the mud/There are no wounds/There is no blood/But in your eyes is that mystery that has finally become known/That the streets don’t work with anybody, they only work alone.”

Rap music is sprinkled with both references to and samples from Malcolm X’s speeches, but too often, such Malcolmisms are merely one-dimensional co-options (ballot or the bullet/by any means necessary) used to provoke knee-jerk feelings of anger or fear. Be Bop‘s “Malcolm,” a probing poemsong for which Umar assumes X’s identity, is different. He succeeds in providing much deeper insight into Malcolm, from his Midwestern upbringing to Harlem street life (“learning the game…loving the game…obsessed by the game”) to his incarceration and rehabilitation (“in jail, always in jail….I think I’m sick, I think I should get well”), through his worship of and then estrangement from Elijah (“I love you Elijah Muhammed/I forgive the envy/I forgive the jealousy/I forgive myself for believing in someone other than just Allah”). “Malcolm” closes, appropriately, with his death—“Bullets…becoming part of me/Where is the pain?/Ilove you brother/Self-hatred wrapped up in a twisted, demented but well-controlled smile….I know that tune/I grew up with that tune”—and the closing verse seems to both absolve his assassin and recognize a kindredness with him.

“Love” is Be Bop‘s most poignant, and as far as rap goes, most uncharacteristic poemsong. Compared to his earlier, Last Poets verse, Umar’s new lyrics display a deeper understanding of the relationship between a man and woman. (In ’73’s “Ode to Saphcallah,” he lovingly—yet in a patriarchal manner—referred to women as queens of the earth. Then in ’76, “Black Thighs” offered male-centered images of thighs bumping and grinding.) “Love” is an exhaustive recitation on all the things that true love is and is not—“Perversions and distortions inside your head/When illusion dictates love is dead/Love is not paranoia/Love is not insecure/When a man becomes a friend is when a women becomes sure”—delivered in swinging 4/4 time to a pulsating organ and drum duet that recalls the early work of the late Larry Young and Elvin Jones (check out “Monk’s Dream” from Larry Young’s Unity recording).

It is mostly in today’s conventional three-minute rap song that one either gets the big payoff (mo’ money, mo’ sex) or the big payback (premature death). In the real world, for most of us at least, folk simply struggle onward, day by day, in hope of a brighter break o’ dawn. Be Bop shows that, during Umar Bin Hassan’s third decade of composing urban poetry, his fire still burns. What Be Bop offers is lucid images revealing pictures of both pain and triumph.