Have the Last Poets — perhaps the foremost of the many forefathers of hip hop — made their last stand? Not if New York City — based producer Will Roberson and a dedicated all-star team of artists have anything to say about it. They're making a push for one of Western music's most influential groups to release their latest album, a brilliantly accessible opus as yet unheard.
Producer Will Roberson
Photo: David Weiss
It's entirely conceivable that if the Last Poets hadn't officially formed on May 16, 1969 (Malcom X's birthday), and begun broadcasting their highly political, distinctively deep and rhythmic wordplay to the world, rap and hip hop might sound very different today. Founded by Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, Omar Ben Hassan and Abiodun Oyewole, the group's self-titled debut pried open eyes in 1970; the jazz-funk of the 1972 Chastisement gave birth to “jazzoetry,” and the members (and their resultant splinter groups) have kept going ever since.
For Roberson, a fast-advancing producer with a diverse clientele ranging from the French hip hop group KDD to multi-Platinum new age artist Jean-Michel Jarre, Jose Feliciano and the upcoming comeback for '80s dance icon Shannon, his own musical journey with the Last Poets began in 2002. That's when he got in touch with Hassan and Oyewole to suggest an album pairing them with some of their favorite musical admirers — a proposal that was met with the sound of one hand clapping.
“Over the years, they had approached other artists about doing collaborations that never worked out, so they were not enthusiastic about the outcome,” acknowledges Roberson, seated in his intimate Upper East Side Pro Tools HD — equipped personal studio. “But I knew everything was right: The timing was right, everything in the world was right, and they were going to come back to the forefront.”
With the likes of Common, Erykah Badu, Keith Murrary, John Legend, Chuck D., M-1 and Sticman of Dead Prez, Doug E. Fresh, Capone and Riverside Drive onboard, the artistic success of the album seemed like a slam dunk. All they needed was a studio that would accommodate the schedules of this busy stable of stars, not to mention the Poets. Enter Jambetta, a studio on Third Street in the East Village owned by Charlie Gambetta. An experienced New York City producer, Gambetta offered his heart, soul and facility to the project, working first and foremost with the album's engineer, Philip Painson, just to get the room in working order.
“We had good technology, but it was scattered all over the place,” recalls Painson. “The whole basement was a wreck, and every day I would go down there to fix something. The first board that was there was a generic Ramsa console, then Charlie found a 28×28×2 Trident console on eBay, which was small but very flexible. There were good monitors on hand, including Ascents, Yamaha NS-10s and Mackie 824s. We tracked most of the vocals using a Neumann U87, API or Neve mic pre's, and LA-2A straight into a Pro Tools MIXPlus system.”
“The production quality on this Last Poets record can take them as far as they can go,” Roberson says. “We did this record with the integrity of the Last Poets, but with the ability to have commercial appeal. They're two of the greatest voices in the world and they complement each other. Omar has this tense, angry focused sound. ‘Dun’ is relaxed, but any minute can turn into Darth Vader.”
With that duality came the need for discipline by Roberson and Painson as they oversaw the songs' creation, from the writing through to the mixing. With their propensity to rhyme for five or six minutes at a time, the intense creativity of Hassan and Oyewole was constantly at odds with the production team's goal of making an album that would play to all the stations at Clear Channel, and not just the coffeehouses.
Engineer Philip Painson was brought in for the Last Poets project.
“We needed a mainstream package with underground viciousness, if you know what I mean,” Roberson notes, “so the first thing we had to do was create a formula for how we were going to edit the rappers. The album's track ‘Panthers’ is the blueprint: The format was a basic song structure with 16 bars of Omar, four bars of Common, 16 bars of Sticman or M-1. It's a different way of doing poetry because it had to mix with hip hop.”
Keeping things on the dramatic side was the fact that Hassan and Oyewole were usually not self-editing when they hit the mic. And often, they would not find out that their lengthy rhymes had been cut down by the production team until they heard the mixdowns later, leading to some hostile confrontations in Jambetta.
In the mix phase, Roberson's talents for gorgeously rich background vocals on songs like the soaringly soulful “Grace,” as well as tight, punchy drums on tense tracks like “Panther” come shining through. “I like to work in the moment — a lot of music and words are written in the moment, and I want to keep that same energy,” he says of his mixing style. “For backing vocals, however, I do a minimum of 25 background tracks, and I've done up to 60. It widens the whole sound and it creates a pocket. I create a dome with the different frequencies, and it tickles your ears when you listen in the headphones.
“When I mix drums, instead of using compression, I'll put the Sony Oxford limiter on the drum bus, with a fast attack and a slow release. I don't use it excessively, but that helps me to get the drum level to the highest point possible without creating an imbalance with the other music.”
So why all the talk about this soon-to-be-classic disc, but no record-release bash? The holdup is that although multiple record companies have tried, no one has yet come up with a deal to satisfy the Last Poets camp. “There's been several offers on the table, but no agreement with all parties,” Roberson reports. “It's one of the greatest records ever made, with some of the great artists of yesterday and today. The world already knows about this album: We just have to get it to the people.”
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