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Poetry Review

A Dynamic Look at Roots of Hip-Hop

February 17, 2001|NATALIE NICHOLS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With the conviction and fire of artists steeped in '60s-era black consciousness, New York's the Last Poets and L.A. wordsmith Kamau Daaood assessed the state of African American culture on Thursday at the El Rey Theatre. Their performances illuminated the roots of hip-hop, reminding us that the beat--and the Benjamins--aren't all that matters.

The themes of identity, community and truth were set early in the evening during a round robin featuring Seattle poet Piece with Los Angeles artists Medusa and Jerry Quickley. As compelling as some of those threads were, the veterans on the bill explored the same ideas even more dynamically.

Daaood, a key figure in the Leimert Park cultural scene, spun a sprawling tribute to John Coltrane with explosive, jazz-like phrasing, urging listeners to approach their destinies with the same innovative fearlessness the legendary saxophonist applied to music. His take on jazz pianist Horace Tapscott was a treatise on nurturing fellowship rather than pursuing selfish, materialistic goals. (The evening's jazz motif was also carried in a live performance by the L.A. quartet Infiniti Project.)

Two of the original Last Poets septet, Umar Bin Hassan and Abiodun Oyewole, brought home the night's messages with an hourlong set drawn from the full range of their turbulent history.

Supported by percussionist Don "Babatunde" Eaton, the poets' rhythmic verbal give-and-take flowed smoothly, touching on the horrors of street life and the salvation of love. Most heart-stopping was the 1971 classic "This Is Madness," a cacophonous portrait of black pain whose cries for transformation are not only just as relevant today, but also all the more urgent because so little has changed.

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