UPPER EAST SIDE, MANHATTAN: The continuum continues for Umar Bin Hassan. As a core member of the Last Poets — the landmark NYC group widely recognized as one of hip hop’s founding fathers – he’s been impacting music, rhyme and rhythm for four decades nonstop.
While the Last Poets are still officially together, new material from the group hasn’t been easy to come by. The dynamic interplay between Hassan and the Poets’ other founding members often spills over into no-joke volatility, escalating friction to the point that great material recorded in the last few years remains unreleased.
But the light of day can shine brightly on Brain Storms, a fresh-for-2010 collection that hears this bona fide hip hop poet embracing his gifts from an inspiring new viewpoint. Produced by elite producer Will Roberson, Brain Storms surrounds Hassan’s stunning word flow with swaying atmospheres, positive hooks and pure musicality. Star guests are on board as well, from trumpet icon Roy Hargrove to music maven Daddy-O and stic.man of Dead Prez.
Recorded primarily in Chelsea, mixed with Brooklyn’s Phil Painson and mastered by Ricardo Gutierrez uptown at Stadiumred, the result is a made-in-NYC collection that’s advanced and instantly classic all at once. Hassan and Roberson explained how Brain Storms broke out.
Q: Umar, you’ve been releasing music off and on for 40 years now — WOW. Why Brain Storms now?
A: This seems to be the right moment in time. When I was writing poetry before, I was just writing what came to me — a poetic image or metaphor. The real stuff of my life is in here: my experiences in the Last Poets, in the record industry, and some personal changes that I’ve been through.
It’s deep. Every artist somewhere along the line wants to take a break and do something different. My whole thing has been the black movement. The original title of this album was Jerome Huling [Hassan’s original name] – the idea was “just be you”. Just some normal me stuff that I’ve encountered in my life, and things that Will wanted me to write about. I never wrote so much poetry at one time.
Q: It sounds like this is a different kind of album than people may be expecting from you.
A: Some movie stars are so dramatic – deep, dark – and then they do something light. I took time out to do something light. Nothing too revolutionary, nothing too community-oriented. I’ve been so used to doing something so uptight, that just to be able to let my expressions and sense of creativity go somewhere else felt good.
Q: How did that freedom affect the poetry of Brain Storms?
A: It’s a transformation into reality. There’s a tit-for-tat with me and some of my demons. And I encountered some parts of my humanity that maybe I’ve been scared to express – to just be free and out, and just flow. Just flow from my heart. No Black Power movement, not something so deeply political – it took me to a new level and helped me to grow a lot. I’m set in one thing, and it was good to let that go. Will and some of his friends, and younger people around me, are giving me some ideas. It works.
Q: Will, you’ve worked on various projects with The Last Poets over the last several years. How did you get involved with the group, and subsequently Umar?
A: I wanted people to know the origin of where hip hop in the recorded sense came from. I feel that for the most part hip hop has been turned into a wasteland of beats without the words that feed our souls. I spent two years living with and shaping an album that speaks to our inner ears — I am talking about that place deep within us.
I have a team of people who I consider priceless. We have Luciana out of London who Executive Produced this project with me for Diggin4Brown, and also was a great inspiration of the song “White Girls” featuring Roy Hargrove. I also worked on a few songs with Daddy O of Stetsasonic. Marcos Varela is on bass, Brixx was a great collaborator, and Jennifee and Ally Way are new singers that are featured on the project. Cynthia Horner at Hip Hop Weekly is precious – she is an angel on Earth. This project is a global effort. I think that it is a reflection of Umar’s impact on people’s lives through his poetry and music.
Here is one answer to why I think it’s a good time for Brain Storms to drop. A few years ago Nas came out with the “Hip Hop Is Dead” album. So I felt it was important to go back to the very beginning, because it seems that the Last Poets were the first poets of hip hop, and now it seems they really are the last poets of the art form.
Q: Umar, how did working with Will and the various players affect the musicality of the album?
A: Will is a very creative, imaginative young man. It wasn’t always easy – you’ve got two creative minds, independent thinkers and creative eras coming together. There was some clashing, but we got it done and we finished it.
Will’s free will and imagination, spur-of-the-moment creativity was part of making the album. To put all that freedom together shows the process of a great man. He likes making music.
Q: The Brain Storms track “Free” featuring Styles P. went #1 on college radio after that single was released. Why do you see such a strong reception for this song?
A: It was just like the old school and the new school coming together, doing a ballad. The old heads and the young heads liked it. When the video was shown on TV, we had gotten a whole new Last Poets clientele — we had 13-year-old kids on the subway asking about them.
The fact that I’m still around working with young kids I’m grateful for. I think these kids are looking for something new. It’s a new time. And the young kids are looking for something new too. As Will said, “It’s time for hip hop to grow up”. I think he’s right.
Q: What’s your opinion on what’s emerging in hip hop today, and how the genre is evolving?
A: Hip hop I’ve always observed, but never got into it deeply. It’s part of the African oral tradition. Sometimes what amazes me is they think they’ve started something new, but it’s all part of the same branch and tree. Before there was jazz and bebop, gospel singers, blues singers and before them there were field songs on the plantations, and even when they crossed on the boats, we were expressing who we were. So Last Poets is just part of that tree.
Q: You’ve devoted so much of your art towards pressing for change, it makes me want to ask you: Is there such a thing as an ideal world? What would that look like?
A: I don’t think there’s ever going to be a perfect world. I would just like to see a world that’s fair, logical and reasonable. And I may sound cynical, but with the way the way people are treating each other now, there won’t be a perfect world.
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