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  • The Last Poets pay tribute to Biggie on new album

    Emerging from the Black Power era of the late Sixties and early Seventies, experimenting with street poetry and percussive sound, the music of Harlem's Last Poets helped lay the groundwork for hip-hop. The intense Black Nationalist fare of their 1970 self-titled debut was not only politically explosive – it's most famous tracks include "When the Revolution Comes" and "Niggers Are Scared of Revolution" – it was also nationally popular, peaking at Number 29 on the Billboard album charts and ultimately winding up as inspiration or samples for Notorious B.I.G. ("Party & Bullshit"), Digable Planets ("Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat"), N.W.A. ("100 Miles and Runnin'") and more.

    They recently completed Understand What Black Is, their first album since 1997. The album, due May 18th, is a mellow, reggae-inflected gem that finds the Poets have grown into wise elders who still call out attention to injustice. One of the tracks, Hassan's "North East West South," is a heartfelt dedication to the late Prince, who was a fan. Another standout, "She Is," finds Hassan calling back to Biggie, who launched his career by interpolating the Poets then died about four years later at the age of 24. When asked about how it feels to survive when so many black pioneers have passed away, Hassan answered, "We've been blessed, man."

    In an interview, the Last Poets talked about their legacy as proto-hip-hop pioneers.

    On "She Is" from your new album, you have a line about the "tragic magic of hip-hop" and you give a shout-out to the Notorious B.I.G.?

    Bin Hassan: Yes, because that's the form [that the lineage] comes to, the music that we've made, throughout the history in the South, the field calls and chants, and the gospel singers. Hip-hop is a part of all that. It came from all that. It came from the Last Poets. I'm sorry that it took such a tragic turn for the money and the defamation of one another. But in that poem, I try to give an idea where we all started from. It's called Congo Square, New Orleans, where the slaves got together and they danced and they sang on a free day. Then they had this thing called the cipher, where they'd be in a circle, and they would be dancing. That's where a lot of these young poets and artists don't realize, the cipher is nothing new. It started way back in the 1700s and 1800s in New Orleans. And that thing about dealing in mathematics and science…well, that dance taught us who we really were, even though we were in the depths, and somebody else was trying to make us into someone else. That dance and that music and those sounds made us remember where we came from, and how we're surviving now in America. Just like hip-hop, and how it's trying to survive in America, and what role it took to survive, and take itself up the ladder to become part of American culture, or reality.

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