Lydia Lunch and Umar Bin Hassan Unite No Wave, Jazz and The Last Poets

Lydia Lunch.

Lydia Lunch. Screen shot/YouTube

From the ingeniously wacked out brain of “big sexy noise” high priestess Lydia Lunch came this dream of a project: take the skronk terror of No Wave and out-jazz and marry it with The Last Poets and call it “NO WAVE OUT.”

The catch was Lunch—no wave movement pioneer and the strings-scraping guitarist at the helm of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks—had no idea if any of The Last Poets were even alive.

Hailed as the O.G. fathers of rap and idolized by the likes of such hip-hop luminaries as Chuck D, The Last Poets were a monumentally revolutionary crew, a collective of take-no-prisoners poets and jazz-influenced musicians melding drum circle-like percussive beats with socially aware poetry; civil rights for African-Americans in the face of racism and poverty was their lifeblood.

The Last Poets started in Harlem on May 16, 1969, the birthday of Malcolm X, and their self-titled 1970 debut and 1971’s This is Madness are classics in the rap canon and pointed to as where the genre was birthed.

Lunch first became aware of the proto-rap and hip-hop of The Last Poets in her early teens, a chain of events that eventually inspired her to make her NO WAVE OUT vision into reality.

Enter Umar Bin Hassan, original Last Poet and fellow survivor.

“I had heard of Lydia back in the ’70s because we both got some New York in our bones,” says Bin Hassan on the phone from his home in Baltimore. “But I never met her or anything. Then there was this guy named Phil [Painson] who said, ‘You’d might want to meet Lydia, Lydia Lunch.’ ”

With that, the Lunch and Bin Hassan alliance was fortified, and the two system-railing lifers who, despite the generation gap, have more in common than one might think.

“This has been of course, the trajectory of my whole life: trying to understand what makes a victimizer through being a victim. So it’s the victim who becomes the victimizer, torment the next victim in line.”—Lydia Lunch

“We were all trying to bring down the corporate structure, ‘The Man,’ as we call ’em,” Bin Hassan explains.

“It was us The Last Poets and The Black Panthers. Back then, we were all young and ready and willing to make changes in America. Miss Lydia was out there. She was Lydia Lunch, for real. Way out there, yeah. But it was cool because we’ve kind of welded together. We were crazy back then. I was crazy and we were all crazy, whether it was no wave or Last Poets. You had to be mad to go up against the baddest. Like I say, she survived, I survived.”

Now these two survivors’ paths have crossed. Lunch and Bin Hassan will come together with Last Poets percussionist Don Babatunde, drummer Shaun Kelly and Retrovirus’ Weasel Walter and Tim Dahl to realize the NO WAVE OUT vision at Joe’s Pub on Wednesday, November 2 and Thursday, November 3. 

Bin Hassan is not only grateful to be collaborating with Lunch but happy to still be trudging along in his 60s, following his time as a substance abuser and alcoholic. He’s now hard at work on a new solo album and Last Poets record and reveling in the fact that he’s survived and thrived through the roughest of times.

“I’ve known some of the best that have gone before me, like Gil Scott-Heron and Huey Newton,” says Bin Hassan. “I’ve had to fight through alcoholism, drug addiction and mental insanity. I had to fight through all of that but I’m blessed and I’m grateful to be here.”

The Observer caught up recently with Lunch on Skype from Barcelona to get the full story of NO WAVE OUT.

How did this collaboration with Umar go down? Did you know who he was and his history?

Well, I knew who The Last Poets were, of course. You have to remember what I came out of was the Rochester, N.Y., riots of ‘64 and ‘67 that my house was the epicenter of. At the age of 5 through 8, I was living in a battle zone. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, I was too young, but they spoke in Rochester. Saul Alinsky, Emma Goldman, they all, for some reason, treaded that unsacred ground.

I don’t remember the riots when I was 5 but I remember them when I was 8 and I just was delirious. I was so thrilled by my father’s car being destroyed that I was sent to my room. [Laughs] “Come on baby light my fire.” I mean, let’s remember what ’67 was all about. It was a series of protests across America. Even though as an 8-year-old, I didn’t really know what was going on, I felt the spirit and I do feel that it imbued me with a sense of protest.

 So that sense of protest happened really early for you.

The Wire asked people to write about a book or a record or something that influenced them. I wrote an article called “1967.” It was something that impregnated my adolescent psyche and somehow I think really worked its way into my blood. Also the music of ’67, there was a lot of protest music then and I’d lived on the radio.

I was in my attic bedroom, listening to the radio. You didn’t really know what those songs meant then but when you go back to them you realize how many protest songs there were. Or drug songs. It was a pretty radical time. Of course, those of us that have become disillusioned by the failure of the ’60s—you forgot all that during the no wave movement. The ’60s was a failure unfortunately because look at where we are now: in 1950s reality.

Can you recall any of those protest songs you were listening to back then?

I remember the Ed Sullivan show, James Brown, the Doors, the Temptations, “Ball of Confusion,” “Light My Fire,” which you know when my father’s car was burning, that’s a great song to play. You know, Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit.” All of that stuff, and especially James Brown, which was really radical at that time. I actually just went to Rochester for the first time in 30 years two months ago to do a performance.

How was the experience to be back in your old ‘hood? What was it like there?

There was a broken TV in front of it, there was a table turned upside down. It [my house] was much closer to the street than I thought. It really looked like we were in Mississippi. The Catholic school I went to which was right around the corner was still standing.

What was interesting is that I could remember the first house, which I went to that I lived in and the third house that we lived in. But I couldn’t remember where the second house was, which would have been from the ages of 9 to 11 or 12. Total blackout. I was in the trauma zone of post-mini war, meaning the riots and familial insanity. So that was kind of interesting.

Anyway, what that has to do with this is just I guess the come around. So, of course, any radical music, this was at the same time Last Poets were just starting.

And you jetted off to New York City around 13, right? Were you aware of The Last Poets at all?

I didn’t know about them when I was 13 but I knew about them when I got to New York, not much later than that. So I was very influenced by the sense of protest and the sense of poetry and “the revolution will not be televised.” Well, no, it was right in front of my front fuckin’ door. I wish I had a video camera, there was no reason I couldn’t film it. It’s embedded in my psyche.

Five thousand people were arrested, a helicopter crashed three blocks from my house. But this was happening in Cleveland and Detroit and various other cities across America at that time. I actually had to go back to my cousins and ask them because they lived in the suburbs where I was sent at the age of 14 or 15 to try to straighten out, which is where of course, I decided to leave New York for good, after going to the suburbs.

I asked them about the riots when they were still alive, because they were older than I was and they confirmed. I went and saw pictures of the ’64 riots and, like all riots, it’s a mini war. It’s brutal. What it was about was equal rights, equal pay, stop the enslavement. And here we are.

Things haven’t changed much.

We’re in, if not the same position, a worse position, and realizing…you know I’m just writing up some pieces for the show and I’ve always favored numbers. When I started talking about prison after Bill Clinton, the prison population’s gone up by like 500 percent since then.

You know there are 65 million Americans with criminal records? What?! This is a statistic that I just found out last night. What?! The statistics for the incarceration in New York or the amount of 13,000 cameras in New York, 4,500 on the subways, 34,000 uniformed police officers, which is more than the military of like five combined European countries. Where are we today? Same as it ever was! Which is, you know, one of my main mantras. Same as it ever was!

Did you talk to Umar about your childhood?

Umar and I…look, face it. How this [collaboration] came together is very bizarre. I was at UCLA pitching a variety of projects with Susan Martin of Some Serious Business. She works at HOWL! Happening. Susan and I were at UCLA talking to this curator we happen to like who was putting on the “Songs for Unseen Warhol Films” by Martin Rev, etc. So we went to talk to this curator and I was pitching a number of ideas.

Suddenly I pitched NO WAVE OUT, which was no wave, out jazz and Last Poets type, not knowing if any Last Poets were still alive. This was after Gil Scott-Heron had died and they were like, “Yeah, whatever.” I’m like, “That’s a fuckin great idea.”

Two days later, it was very synchronistic. I’m in a taxi in New York going to Greenpoint to stay with my friend Shayni Rae, who’s been of my main sponsors for years and spoken word proponents. And I’m in a taxi and I give the taxi her address. But I decide instead to stop a few blocks away at this French restaurant to have some soup and a glass of wine. I go in and there’s nobody in there but one guy and a kid, a very normal looking African-American dude and his kid.

I go out to smoke a cigarette and he follows me and he says, “Are you Lydia?” I’m like, “Yes.” And he said something about Teenage Jesus. You can imagine I don’t have many black fans. I don’t know why and I think I should because I’m the closest thing to the Geto Boys that’s out there, or Mystikal. I was like, “Teenage Jesus? How do you know this stuff?”

Lydia Lunch and Umar Bin Hassan of the Last Poets.

Lydia Lunch and Umar Bin Hassan of the Last Poets. Courtesy of NO WAVE OUT

How was he aware of you?

He used to engineer at a studio in New York and he engineers at NYU, teaches engineering. So he’s like, “What are you up to?” I tell him I was just at UCLA and I proposed this project [NO WAVE OUT]. I’m not gonna tell him exactly what I’m up to; I’m doing a billion things. And he said “Last Poets? Last Poets? I have two unreleased albums by Umar Bin Hassan.” I’m like, “What?!”

What an insane coincidence.

I mean, this is right after the concept came out of my mouth. Phil Painson his name is. He’s an engineer and he’s produced records.

I’m like, “Alright, we have to meet.” So we started meeting and I said, “Look. Here’s my idea. No wave, out jazz and Last Poets.” And he’s says, “Alright.”

So I’m waiting for a meeting with Umar because he lives in Baltimore. Also, what is he [Umar] going to know about me? Can you imagine somebody not knowing who I am and they vet me on Google or something? You come up with The Gun is Loaded book, who knows? Who knows what they’re gonna come up with? I know him but how can I expect him to know anything about me anyway.

How did you finally meet Umar face to face?

So I’m nomad’ing around as I do and I’m waiting for a meeting and I’m going up to Chelsea. I think I had an appointment with Phil. I call him and I say, “Is the meeting tonight or tomorrow?” and he goes, “It’s tonight and it’s with Umar.” I’m staying right around the corner and I’m like, “Oh, shit, O.K., coming.”

So there’s Umar, I don’t know what he’s seen about me or what he knows. If you don’t know me what are you gonna know if you haven’t seen it? It’s too weird. So how am I gonna get in with him? The only way I can get in and the best way to get in was through humor of course. He made some comment about how he’s had a lot of wives and a few kids and I’m like, “Well, ya did that backwards, son, didn’t ya!”

He goes, “Yeah, I guess I did.”

I said, “Well, have you ever been with a white woman?” and he’s like, “No.” and I’m like, “Well, don’t expect to be with one tonight ‘cuz I’m Biggie-mothafuckin’-Smalls!” [Laughing]

And he got my humor, which I think warmed him to me because how’s he supposed to know what I am or why should he? What’s he gonna have vetted? So then we had a dinner and Phil set up an arrangement for just Umar and I to go in the studio just like in conversation, just talking, which we recorded. A few months later when I was having my HOWL! (Happening) exhibition and that was a lot of work setting that up at the Howl gallery. Suddenly I get a call from Phil: “Umar’s coming in tomorrow.” I’m like “What?!”

This is the day after my opening, which I’ve been working on for a month nonstop, many hours a day, installation, blah blah. I had slept all night, which I never do so I had like 10 hours of sleep sickness. I’m totally in a sleep coma, I feel terrible. We were in the reverse phase. I had nothing. We record the videos you see, improv, and it just was amazing.

The performances in those videos are great. There’s a natural chemistry.

We didn’t discuss what we were gonna do. We had one conversation in the studio and one dinner but I think once he got to understand…I don’t know what he got to understand actually. And he has every reason to be suspicious of anything because people like the Last Poets have been ripped off forever. Not given the credit that they should have. Hello! Welcome to my club!

It was just such an instantaneously and amazing connection. It’s interesting because when I’m away from America at any given point of time, I mean the only thing I miss is conversations with black men in their ’60s. And it’s true because, I mean living in Louisville for a while, or L.A., it’s like, that’s what I miss! It’s that energy, that poetry, that connection.

It’s the only thing I miss when I’m away from America. The dialogue I can get into with that kind of person. Being, myself [laughing] somewhat of a black man! And when I say black man I say it with the ultimate respect. I know that sounds ridiculous. But I do feel some of that, I don’t know why, I just, I do.

Let’s talk about The Last Poets. Do you think they were proto-Hip hop or proto-rap?

Absolutely. I mean really the only music I like for many years was the most extreme rap. Really into Mystikal and really into Scarface, Facemob, Eminem. I really respond to that music but I was also really into The Temptations and their protest and funk, early funk. James Brown. I was always really into that music. Of course, it’s not reflected in my own music but it doesn’t have to be, it’s well covered enough.

I did one rap song, its pretty good, it quotes Iceberg Slim. For the longest time, it was the only music that I really listened to. Public Enemy, Tupac, Biggie Smalls. This is the music I responded to. I mean the lyrical content, the point. Mystikal and how he turned that kind of music on its head by influencing it with New Orleans jazz. More so than white boys whining and staring at their fuckin’ shoes.

Did you tap into Umar and his past in the ‘60s and ‘70s? What he was up to back then?

Well as you saw in that one video, we’re going back and forth—“Drugs, sex and rock and roll.” I asked him at the end, “Why don’t you tell me about those 10 years you spent at the crack house? I got that out of him. You know, obviously, it was a really hard row to toe at that point and even though there was some acknowledgement, I mean the whole black experience from the ‘60s and the ‘70s and still ongoing it is so incredibly difficult.

I mean, you’re either a mega-commercial rap superstar who talks about murder and drug dealing or you’re incarcerated for stealing a piece of pizza or walking while black. It’s such a wide gap and no wider than in the African-American community at this point.

And you had a front-row seat to it from your childhood.

Having had firsthand experience and seeing it as a child growing up in a situation that was obliterated by that dilemma—basically it’s classist and, of course, it’s racist. White poverty is rampant as well. Poverty, right now, is the biggest problem. Classism, sexism, racism: it’s all tied into the 1 percent versus the rest of us.

Do you view the scene in New York that you came out of interconnected in some way with where Umar came from?

No wave was so much more about individual insanity; it wasn’t about political insanity or social insanity. Because the situation was so dire, instead of turning it outward for some reason, we did turn it inward. As victims of the system, I don’t know why, but also most of us coming from either horrible families or poverty or art backgrounds, we’re all pretty much the same.

As opposed to the British punk movement, which was more socially conversant, we tried to describe our personal insanity living under the bigger picture, which was the big failure of the ’60s, the Nixon administration, the Kennedy assassination, the summer of hate fostered by Charles Manson. That was really what inspired us and pretty much my generation of white teenagers was left alone, left alone or bothered by the failure of everything.

We weren’t under constant surveillance. Our houses weren’t being bombed and we weren’t being incarcerated so we had the full sense of freedom until we realized when we got a little older that the trap was already set and it was much bigger and we were all in it.

But still, no wave was about the personal insanity in a bankrupted city that was purposely bankrupted by the banksters and kleptocrats wanting to drive out the minorities, the artists, the rent-controlled, the freaks, the gays and the musicians to turn it into the yuppie version of hell that it now is. They have a 30-year plan. Most of us have a 30-day plan—if we can think that far in advance because we’re just trying to survive to the next fuckin’ day.

Lydia Lunch.

Lydia Lunch. Screen shot/YouTube

And your background, when you were a kid. You came out of a similar environment, a ghetto that was an insane place to be growing up in?

Exactly. I felt I was the victim of racism myself because, as one of the few white kids at my school, of course I was gonna get picked on. It toughened me right up. I didn’t blame people for wanting to pick on me. I just picked back. You realize I’m on their side but I could see racism from a different perspective than most people see it from because most people are racist. I was the victim of it, but to which I couldn’t blame the victimizer.

This has been of course, the trajectory of my whole life: trying to understand what makes a victimizer i through being a victim. So it’s the victim who becomes the victimizer, torment the next victim in line. This has been the basis of my entire career in trying to decode that both sexually and politically. Politically, of course, it’s a different version, because it’s always the elite 1 percent that’s always torturing and raping the entire fucking planet. 

Getting back to your gigs with Umar. Will everything be improvised?

Umar and I have been in contact. I’m sending stuff back and forth with him. You saw the evidence of the first recordings of which there was no preparations. Music that was in that video was only just to keep a really basic beat, not to confuse the issue. Tim and Weasel are pro-improvers. I trust their judgement and it’s gonna be back and forth. It’s gonna be really a musical framework around which where Umar and I will come in and interject with each other and let the boys do their wild improv around that.

Do you see this collaboration with Umar going beyond these Joe’s Pub shows?

Let’s see how these go but I would love it to. I think it’s an important collaboration between generations and cultures and styles that I don’t think exists anywhere else. To me, as somebody who tends to defy a genre or try to invent new genres, I was trying to come up with a term for what Weasel and I do with this drum-vocal thing and I can’t believe there’s not many other people doing this. But wherever it goes it will go.

I do think it’s a new genre but that has roots in things that have come before. It has roots in the Last Poets, it has roots in no wave, it has roots in out jazz. Bringing all of this with our collective individuality is just amazing. I’m really excited about it. I mean, look. Everything I set out to do I’m gonna get done, obviously. That’s why I’ve gotten shit done.

But this came together in such a weird way that I’m kind of shocked and amazed. This is real shock and awe, my friend, jeez.

Do you think no wave and Last Poets and out jazz coming together is an organic thing?

Absolutely, because we’re all complete outsiders, outside of everything. It’s just the real outsiders coming together. And I think it’s gonna be a beautiful thing. I mean, where are the voices? Sure, on the internet there are numerous voices of reason in these times of insanity. There are numerous publications from NationofChange to Truthout. Even Alex Jones you have to listen to from now and then.

I hear very little poetical protest at this moment and I don’t know why. Maybe people are just afraid of being incarcerated or having a criminal record like the 65 million other Americans! I don’t make enough money for them to listen to me and neither do you so we’re still safe.

I’m looking forward to seeing you and Umar together.

It’s just a unique experience and I’m really happy it came together. The thing involves the best players in both improv, no wave and poetry that are out there. I hate to use the word poetry but it’s what I will be spewing. Of course, one of my pieces is we do not need an election, we need an insurrection.

Lydia Lunch and Umar Bin Hassan: NO WAVE OUT presented in association with Some Serious Business is at Joe’s Pub on Wednesday, November 2 and Thursday, November 3.

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