Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, who helped establish the foundation for hip-hop as a member of the Last Poets and in his own solo work, died on June 4 at a hospital in Atlanta. He was 73.
The cause was lung cancer, said Umar Bin Hassan, a fellow member of the Last Poets.
The Last Poets emerged in Harlem, New York, at the end of the 1960s, reciting rhythmic verses over conga drumming and speaking directly to the disenfranchised youth of New York City’s black community. The group’s poetry pushed revolution and self-determination, while admonishing listeners about survival in an environment defined by racialized poverty.
With his high, declamatory voice and his way of milking words for their sonic potential as well as their meaning, Nuriddin (pronounced noo-ruh-DEEN) stood out. He delivered some of the group’s most urgent and incisive verses, and although the Last Poets’ lineup rotated over time, he performed with the group well into his later years.
By then he had come to be widely known as the “grandfather of rap,” a laurel he proudly accepted.
With the release of their debut album, “The Last Poets,” in 1970, the group became an underground sensation, reaching No. 29 on the Billboard album chart and staying on the chart for 30 weeks despite being rarely played on radio.
As the civil rights movement lost steam and gave way to the separatism of Black Power, the group spoke from a standpoint of disillusionment, although with vigorous attitude.
Nuriddin may have made his greatest contribution to the future of popular music as a solo artist. In 1973, using the pseudonym Lightnin’ Rod, he released “Hustlers Convention,” an album that unified the black tradition of toasts — rhymed stories about the heroic exploits of renegades and rebels, and the battles between them — with the contemporary sound of street-wise funk.
Rapping in a crackling growl, Nurridin told an extended story of two young men surviving on the New York streets, with lush backbeats provided by Kool and the Gang and A-list session musicians.
On “Sport,” the album’s opening track, he wove a boasting first-person narrative about street hustling, cool and deliberate but adamantly paced. Aside from the improvising horn and guitar lines that swept across the album, this represented almost the exact sonic and lyrical blueprint that rappers like Melle Mel and Eazy-E would pick up on a decade later.
Nuriddin arrived at the idea to put a funk band behind his verses with the producer Alan Douglas, who had recorded the Last Poets’ first few albums. Nuriddin said he had meant the album’s contents as a cautionary tale.
“I wrote the album so people would sit up, take notice and not become one of the hustlers, card cheats, prostitutes, pimps and hijackers I rapped about,” he said in a 2015 documentary about “Hustlers Convention.”
In the documentary, the rapper Chuck D. of Public Enemy called the album a “verbal bible” for understanding the culture of the New York streets.