Back in 1973, Jalal Mansur Nuriddin - a black activist, devout Muslim, acupuncturist, martial art exponent, and thriving poet from Harlem’s Writers Workshop - released Hustlers Convention under his artist name Lightnin’ Rod. It was a concept album, delivered through rhythmic spoken word, which told the doomed tale of two fictional hustlers named Sport and Spoon, with instrumental backing provided by Kool & The Gang. At the end of June this year, how this relatively forgotten album definitively changed the world of music we see today, became the subject of a brand new crowdfunded documentary.
You see, Nuriddin (above), now 71 years old, is basically the grandfather of rap music - that’s what he was dubbed in the 90s by Mike Zwerin of the International Herald Tribune. Hustlers Convention might have only sold 20,000 copies, and be eventually pulled from the market by its label, but the seed had had already been sown. The record went on to influence Chuck D, Lupe Fiasco, Ice T, Melle Mel plus hundreds more, and was sampled by Wu Tang Clan, Beastie Boys, and Nas to name a few. It was heralded as “a cornerstone in the development of what is now a part of global culture” by Fab 5 Freddy, and famed producer Ron St Germain declared it “one of the most stolen and sampled albums ever made.”
Throwing the record on now you’ll likely be imagining bubble-style graffiti on subways and old-school “cats” in Kangol hats. You’d probably pinpoint its sound as funk-infused proto-rap - a precursor to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, danceable music that also vividly illustrated life on the streets of Harlem in the 70s. Hustlers Convention came before Bronx block parties and boxfresh Adidas were the height of cool, before Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz, and even Fab 5 Freddy himself. So why does the name Jalal Mansur Nuriddin still mean so little to most of us?
As we speak down the phone, Nuriddin veers vibrantly from informative tales to rhythmic maxims - “You can lead a fool to wisdom but you can’t make them think they never missed the water till they ain’t had nothing to drink. Counterfeit promises lead to false hopes, got the people hanging on by the end of their ropes. In the middle of the riddle of the mystery, the only clue of what to do is in the history. But they know what to do and just don’t want to do it and they won’t find out until after they blew it. ” Even in old age, the man basically raps subconsciously.
Hustlers Convention was conceived as a cautionary tale, but of course most of its listeners missed the cautionary bit. When the record used to be played at those block parties - parties that Nuriddin never attended because he was “too busy doing the research” - people were seduced by its groove and the hustler lifestyle. “Basically, they missed the point,” he explains. “The whole point of the Hustlers Convention was, that’s where you don’t wanna go, because you’ll wind up in jail, you’ll wind up on death row, you’ll wind up dead. It looks good on the surface: it’s fast, it’s quick, it’s a road to riches and maybe some local fame. But at the end of the day you’re gonna pay for the crime, you gotta do the time. And black time is three times as much time as white time - that’s if they don’t get killed. And that’s an ongoing thing in this country right now. It’s open season on black people.”
The songs were taken literally, they were misunderstood and - let’s face it - the artwork probably didn’t help much. It shows a close-up of a hustler’s hand clutching a wad of $100 dollar bills, diamond rings sparkling on his fingers. Like the cover of Snoop Dogg’s Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told, it looks to be ostensibly celebrating a materialistic lifestyle. “Nah,” shrugs Nuriddin, “it’s about the traditions and material aspects. You don’t see what’s in the back unless you look back to how this all began. This is a subculture, man. This is not a traditional ancient African culture you got going on here.” Still, you can see how people dancing to it at block parties might miss the record’s darker moments. Because, hey, who really gives a fuck what a song is about when the hooks are hard and the bass is so damn funky?
In the recent documentary from Mike Todd, Nuriddin gets his chance to wax nostalgic about the good ol’ days before rap was, in his opinion, corrupted by big business and MTV, before rappers boasted about bitches and riches, before Scarface became every rapper’s blueprint for living, before we were swamped by diss tracks, memes, and opulent videos. Like an eccentric grandfather desperate to tell you his story, he reminisces about his days as one of the founding members of The Last Poets, a group of musicians and militant poets rooted in the late 60s black nationalist movement, which he insists are the true origin of rap music.
Today, 40 years after the release of his seminal album, Nuriddin often struggles to get by, with money from his records struggling to trickle down. When times were really tough, he’d sometimes get donations from those he influenced. “Q-Tip was the only rapper who helped me out,” he admits. “He sent me a grand when I was stranded and it got me out of hot water. In addition, I stayed at his house when I was in New York, and I treated him because he had a headache and I’m a doctor of acupuncture - I don’t just talk, I heal people - and I cured his headache for him.”
As for the other artists who sampled him - Nas, Wu-Tang, Beastie Boys, etc. - there was nothing. No credit, no acknowledgment. Does he care? “I don’t entertain bitterness, man,” he says. “They made a game out of it and they used the Hustlers Convention as if it was a whale trapped in a piranha fish pool. They all fed upon it, they got fat, and then they got fed upon. But they don’t understand it’s not about money - money ain’t nothing but a piece of paper - it’s about how they manipulate it and use it against the people.”
The story of why Nuriddin’s record tanked is depressingly familiar; he got royally screwed over by the industry. The album was under-promoted, it received little radio play and scarcely any sales. Plus there was a legal battle with Kool & the Gang, whose distinctive bass line opens the record. That was why the album only reached the ears of a few “hip cats”.
“At that time the record company execs chose to minimize rap and make it palatable for the youth, as long as they wasn’t making any sense.” Today he blames the scheming suits that want rappers “to talk nonsense, bitch about their lives, boast about their women, their drugs, their money, their ego - as long as it isn’t relevant to the liberation of the people’s hearts and minds."
Nuriddin was 33 years old when he made Hustlers Convention and he was embracing new forms of music. Now he’s 71 - he’s the actual grandfather of rap - and despite saying he’s not bitter about how things turned out for him, he has finally turned his back on rap music today. “I don’t even think about rap, man. Rap is contrived. If they can do the same thing with live instruments that they can do with technology they get my respect. If they can’t do that, they don’t know the music.”
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Hustlers Convention: The Untold Story of the Album That Changed the Face of Music is now out on DVD.