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Prophets Answer the Rap Question

Pop Beat: The poet group, formed in the late '60s and a forerunner of rap, has a new album that updates its biting take on society.

March 22, 1997|CHEO HODARI COKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Why? It's a question that many are asking after the recent fatal shooting of the Notorious B.I.G.--the second such incident of a major rap star in six months.

The question goes beyond the circumstances of the slayings of B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur to the issue of the anger and violence in hip-hop. People continue to ask: Exactly where does it come from? And, perhaps more puzzling, why does it strike such a nerve in millions of record buyers?

The members of the Watts Prophets, the Los Angeles group that's widely regarded as the progenitor of West Coast rap, have been thinking about those questions since B.I.G.'s slaying--and they feel they have some tools for understanding for a generation of adults confused by their children's music.

Like today's hard-core rap, the Prophets' music in the '60s and '70s was filled with the poetry of rage. Formed in 1967, the trio--Father Amde (Anthony) Hamilton, Richard Dedeaux and Otis O'Solomon Smith--saw themselves as young, artistic revolutionaries similar to some of today's rap stars, such as Public Enemy's Chuck D. and Ice Cube.

The trio's new album, "When the 90's Came," which was released Tuesday by Payday/ffrr Records, is filled with the same kind of biting commentaries that characterized their early work, tempered by 30 years of perspective to match all that rage. (See accompanying review)

"When I was 25 years old, I was just as radical and insane as people perceived Tupac to be," said Hamilton, sitting with his two colleagues in a record company office in the Fairfax district. "I believed that every person over 30 ought to be dead, and I was going to kill them," he added with a glimmer of humor in his voice but not in his eyes.

Hamilton said he sees a connection between the rage he felt in his tumultuous youth and that being expressed in rap now.

"Our kids are constantly in pain and adults ask, 'Why are they so enraged?' Well, live in the community that we live in and you'll see why they're enraged," he said. "I was at the YMCA this morning, and I was trying to tell some preachers that they had to start listening to rap music. 'The children are trying to talk to you all, and you're not listening at all because you hear a curse word. You're not hearing past the rage [and listening to] what they're really trying to say to us.'

"When you come from pain, hunger, anger and rage, that's still on the surface when you begin to write. That viciousness has to come out, and once it's out, then you see who they really are. And these boys [Tupac and B.I.G.] never had the chance to finish vomiting."

The Prophets, whose members will only admit to being in their late 40s, came together in the Watts Writers Group, an organization founded by author and screenwriter Budd Schulberg. The program, now defunct, was a haven for young screenwriters, playwrights and poets. Hamilton, who grew up in South-Central Los Angeles after moving from Houston as a 3-year-old, was a former drug addict and prison inmate who credits the program with saving his life.

Dedeaux and Smith also credit the workshop, where many members of the movie industry worked with them on their craft, with helping them find their voices. Graduates of the program include Quincy Troupe, a poet and biographer of Miles Davis, and "Love Boat" actor Ted Lange.

At that time, the trio, which expanded to a quartet for three years in 1969 with the addition of singer-poet-pianist Dee Dee McNeil, decided that poetry no longer needed to be part of polite society. The medium could communicate the condition of the ghetto and incite its inhabitants to change it.

"We didn't apologize for being black," Dedeaux said of the group's radical black nationalist views, which were expressed vividly in their forthright, sometimes profane, lyrics. "Nobody was saying those things at that time," he said. "A lot of people were thinking about the same things that we were, but no one was saying it."

With their 1970 and 1971 albums, "In the Streets of Watts" and "Rappin' Black in a White World," they laid the groundwork for hip-hop. They often expressed their views through such street characters as pimps and hustlers, but they also used their own opinionated voices, urging the street hustlers to direct their destructive urges toward their oppressors instead of themselves.

Although the records never made a commercial splash, they spread through the black radical underground on a word of mouth that reached New York and even Jamaica.

The Prophets maintain that the group was held back by some of the same government harassment that plagued other activists at that time, including wiretapping and surveillance of the group itself and other pressures on businesses that expressed interest in the group.

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