Excellent documentary examines a lost chapter from the dawn of hip-hop
In 1973, Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, one-time acupuncturist, US Army paratrooper and founding member of The Last Poets, recorded his debut solo album. Released under the alias Lightnin’ Rod, the album – Hustlers Convention – was mired in bad luck and bad business. While the genre’s pioneers – Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, Fab 5 Freddie and others – embraced it, nevertheless protracted legal issues held it back from mainstream success. Widely sampled since, its admirers cite it as an underground classic, and the recognition the album and its creator deserve is long overdue.
The story of Nurridin and his album are taken up by British director Mike Todd in this partly crowdfunded documentary. Clearly a low-budget passion project, although it lacks the cinematic gloss of comparable retro-themed rockumentaries like Searching For Sugar Man the heavyweight list of talking-head cameos here attests to the project’s cultural importance. Todd interviews famous fans and commentators including George Clinton, Melle Mel, Fab 5 Freddie, KRS-One, Ice-T, MC Lyte, Greil Marcus, Nelson George and Chuck D, who is also credited as executive producer on the film. Nuriddin himself, now a senior citizen who speaks in effortless rhyme almost constantly, is also an engagingly laidback star presence.
Nuriddin made Hustlers Convention with Alan Douglas, The Last Poets regular producer whose other credits included Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis. A vivid Blaxploitation-style narrative about living large and paying a heavy price, the album tells the story of two brothers, Sport and Spoon, whose visit to the eponymous gathering of pimps and high-rollers ends in a dramatic showdown with the police. Full of verbal dexterity and superfly imagery, the story ends with Sport on Death Row reflecting on where his life went wrong. Nuriddin laid down the bling-heavy gangsta blueprint, though his cautionary message about the deadly downside of thug life clearly got lost in translation.
Todd’s film frames the album in historical and cultural context: from the civil rights struggle to the Black Panthers, from African oral tradition to “jail toast” convict rhymes, from the Harlem-based Black Arts Movement of the 1960s to the Rudy Ray Moore’s bawdy Dolemite movies of the 1970s. “If you were 14 years old and trying to understand the streets, it was sort of like a verbal Bible,” recalls Chuck D. “It was the seedy side of life told in an eloquent way,” confirms Douglas. The producer assembled a starry guest list of musicians to provide backing for Nuriddin on Hustlers Convention, including Billy Preston and Kool and the Gang. The latter offered their services following a chance encounter in a neighbouring studio, but no paperwork was signed and the band’s manager later raised objections. The United Artists label consequently got cold feet about promoting the album, fearing a messy legal battle. Hustlers Convention was a commercial flop but enjoyed a long cult afterlife, with some hip-hop historians claiming it went on to sell a million copies on word of mouth alone.
The Mancunian Todd gives the story a strong British dimension. After playing with The Last Poets in Liverpool in the 1980s, Nuriddin spent several years living in the city. Just last year, he finally performed the Hustlers Convention album live for the first time at London’s Jazz Cafe, and Todd captures that performance on film. DJ Gilles Peterson and poet Lemn Sissay are among the Brit acolytes giving testimony on camera.
But there remain some fuzzy gaps in this story. Nuriddin’s intriguing English exile is never fully explained. Nor is there much insight into what he has been doing musically and personally for the last four decades. At 71, he appears to live in a pleasant but modest retirement community in small-town Georgia. “I chose the message over the money,” he shrugs, insisting he never made a penny from Hustlers Convention. Even so, he still harbours ambitions to complete two unreleased sequels, Hustlers Detention and Hustlers Ascension. The film touches on these basic details, but leaves them unexamined. Todd deserves ample respect for fanboy dedication, but not much for journalistic rigour.
Hustlers Convention follows an all too familiar narrative arc for African-American artists, one of early promise compromised by ill fortune and bad business decisions. But for all the star names offering testimony to Nuriddin’s poetic skills and deep cultural impact, it seems odd that nobody has stepped up to take a financial risk on his artistry nowadays. Neither tragic downfall nor triumphant comeback story, Todd’s film lacks a sense of closure. But it works just fine as a solid documentary tribute to a classic spoken-word album that is, quite literally, unsung.
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