A full decade before Public Enemy revolutionised the world of rap, Chuck D first encountered the album he describes today as "a verbal roadmap for people trying to understand the ghetto they were in: 'What is this life that's ahead of me, and how can I actually figure out how to handle it?' That's what this record was." He is talking about Lightnin' Rod's 1973 album, Hustlers Convention , a crucial but largely overlooked link in hip-hop's evolutionary chain. The genre's pioneers - Melle Mel , Grandmaster Caz, Fab 5 Freddy - knew it by heart. Grandmaster Flash played it at early block parties, and it was later sampled by the Beastie Boys, Wu Tang Clan and countless others. Yet far from being designated a classic, it remains a relative obscurity. A mixture of bad luck, bad business and bad faith consigned Hustlers Convention to the margins, but 40 years after its initial release that may change. Next month in London the album will be performed live for the first time, and a film is due out later this year, directed by Mike Todd and executive produced by Chuck D, that celebrates its legacy. Lightnin' Rod was the pseudonym of Jalal Nuriddin , a member of militant proto-rappers the Last Poets, who wrote Wake Up, Niggers, featured in the cult 1970 film Performance. Growing up in the Brooklyn Projects, he was weaned on "jail toasts", braggadocious rhyming accounts of hair-raising exploits in the black community, often originating in prison. "They were rhyming jokes but they didn't have much content," says Nuriddin, who spent time in jail during his youth. "I felt something new needed to be done to lay down the whys and wherefores of street life, its attractions and distractions." Hustlers Convention tells the tale of two brothers, Sport and Spoon. The older of the pair, Sport, is a card sharp, pool shark and dice-throwing "hustler supreme". The album's opening track carries his name and acts as a swaggering manifesto: "I was snorting skag, while others played tag/ And running through bitches like rags to riches." What follows is a premonition of gangsta rap, a vivid depiction of ghetto life lived large, complete with shoot-em-up sound-effects. Following a final violent confrontation, Sport is captured by the police and dumped on death row, defeated by a system where "the real hustlers were rippin' off billions/ From the unsuspecting millions". "I wrote that last line first, so people wouldn't go in that direction when they see the outcome," says Nuriddin from his home outside Atlanta, Georgia . "They see that the glamour and the glitter is the work of parasites who prey on the downtrodden. I wrote it to make that point, but also to establish myself as a solo artist." The poem pricked the interest of Alan Douglas , producer of Jimi Hendrix , Miles Davis and the first two Last Poets albums. Having signed a deal with United Artists, Douglas recorded Nuriddin reciting the toast to a metronome, then set about animating the words with a jazz-funk soundtrack. Hustlers Convention truly came together when he stumbled on Kool & the Gang while the band were recording in New York in 1973, on the cusp of their breakthrough success. "They were downstairs in the studio and we were upstairs," Douglas says. "I heard them play the tune that became the opening strain to Hustlers Convention . I talked to Kool, invited him up, played him the poem and said I wanted to use the music. He said: 'Great!'" Douglas laughs wryly. "Of course, we did no papers and there were some problems afterwards . . ." Kool & the Gang were signed to another label, and within a couple of months of the release of Hustlers Convention , United Artists was faced with a lawsuit. It promptly withdrew the record. Without sales or radio play, Hustlers Convention sank commercially, but its reputation grew via word of mouth. In New York , Fab 5 Freddy memorised chunks of lyrics before he even knew it was an album. "On the street somebody recited it and I thought it was amazing, the most epic jail toast of all time," he says. "Someone told me it was based on a record. I stumbled upon that and passed it on. Hip street guys like Melle Mel would know about it. I could hear the influence in their raps." By the mid-80s Nuriddin was also aware his album had become a set text for rappers. "It was like a secret: 'Oh man, I got hip to this record, I could use this as a stepping stone.' And that's what happened." The numerous tracks to have sampled Sport include Beastie Boys' Eggman, Wu Tang Clan's Method Man and Nas's Sekou Story , but Nuriddin remains aggrieved that such influence has brought him neither the wider recognition nor the money he regards as his due. "I'm still trying to get paid for Hustlers Convention ," he says, adding that he has written two sequels, Hustlers Detention and Hustlers Ascension, but can't get backing to record and release them. "None of the rappers ever came up to me and said: 'Hey, thanks man, you laid down a foundation. Can I do anything to help you?' The only one who actually helped me was Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest. The odd one might give respect when questioned about it, but nobody did that to me personally." As for its legacy, he is "downright sad" that "it introduced what they called gangsta rap on the scene, but they didn't get the point". Chuck D sympathises. "It was probably the most influential record to set off all those early Bronx MCs, but very rarely does Hustlers Convention get mentioned in the annals. It's a missing piece of culture." Why? The album has certainly been poorly curated, shunted carelessly between various labels and licensees. Performing it as Lightnin' Rod rather than Nuriddin from the Last Poets resulted in "not many people making the connection", says Douglas. The album also raises awkward questions about how hip-hop treats its trailblazers. "Because a lot of rappers happen to come from after that time, the powers-that-be have deemed these original storytellers as being not as relevant," says Chuck D. "It's the biggest mistake the industry could make, because the true root of the history helps you shape what it is in the first place." Fab 5 Freddy regards rap "as a long, broad road with a wide group of contributors, going back generations. Hustlers Convention is one of the little-known pieces in the puzzle that deserves to be heard." For Nuriddin, 70 this year, the album and its aftermath "went down like a murder mystery or something. Let's just say I get a chance to tell my side of the story now." Wu-Tang Clan Method Man Nas Sekou Story Beastie Boys Eggman Hustlers Convention Live, starring Jalal Nuriddin with the Jazz Warriors, is at the Jazz Cafe , London NW1, on 10 February. thedoctorsorders.
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