Mike Todd’s documentary sheds some light on a simultaneously important and obscure slice of vinyl African-American history.
“Husters Convention” pays due tribute to the eponymous 1973 album, a pseudonymously credited, underground-distributed proto-rap album that wound up hugely influencing a hip-hop culture not yet extant at the time of its creation. Mike Todd’s documentary rewards in shedding some light on this simultaneously important and obscure slice of vinyl African-American history, while also frustrating with its somewhat limited insight. Beyond music-focused fests and other venues, primary exposure will be in home formats.
“Hustlers Convention” was attributed to “Lightnin’ Rod,” whose real identity would remain a matter of conjecture for many years. But the pic immediately abandons any pretense of suspense by focusing on Jalal Nuriddin, nee Alafia Pudim, whom several here cite as “the Grandfather of Rap” not just for the aforementioned disc, but also for his membership in the Last Poets, the remarkable spoken-word trio bred in a Harlem writers’ workshop. Their performance poetry, with variably complex musical backing (at first just percussive, then jazz-funk ensembles), explored issues familiar to the Black Power movement while not shrinking from critiques of the larger black community.
Amid his initial run with the Poets, Nuriddin became interested in ways that community had used humor and rhyme to “disrupt social conformity (and) teach survival strategies,” notably via the Afro-Caribbean tradition of “toasting” and tall tales told of the fictive ‘hood hustler Dolemite (a persona later taken on by comedian Rudy Ray Moore in his popular blaxploitation films). He coalesced these folkloric materials into an album of rhyming raps chronicling the high times and eventual rough road (including a death-row stint) experienced by two ghetto playas called Sport and Spoon.
Purportedly first released by major label United Artists (a bit surprising, given the envelope-pushing nature of tracks like “Four Bitches Is What I Got”), “Hustlers Convention” was quickly withdrawn. According to witnesses here, the reason was that management for Kool & the Gang — one established act among several that supposedly made uncredited contributions to the record — threatened to sue over their uncompensated input. That may have worked in the disc’s favor, as what could’ve been dismissed as a novelty album instead developed the cult fascination of the forbidden, eventually becoming (as one original collaborator puts it) “probably one of the most sampled/stolen albums ever made.” Some estimate as many as a million mostly bootlegged copies may have sold over the years — none profiting anyone directly involved in its creation.
“I chose the message over the money,” Nuriddin shrugs now, displaying little rancor over the wealth or fame “Convention” might have brought him under different circumstances. Instead, at 72, he’s enjoying the belated adulation afforded both that recording and the Poets’, as testified to by such grateful students/popularizers of hip-hop history as KRS-One, Ice T and the docu’s executive producer Chuck D. We also get input from some of the subject’s artistic and activist contemporaries including Ishmael Reed, Cecil Brown and Amiri Baraka. Having been unmasked for some time as the album’s mastermind, Nuriddin is seen performing it for the first time in decades at gala concerts in England and the U.S., events attended by such luminaries as Parliament’s George Clinton.
Testaments to the lasting influence of “Hustlers Convention” are all very well, but their point is absorbed quickly enough. Alas, they occupy far more screen time than the brief, cursory coverage of the record’s actual conception and making. Nor are we afforded much insight into how Nuriddin spent most of the intervening 40-plus years. It’s also disappointing that the documentary barely wades into a discussion one might think would be central here: the never-ending debate between conscious rap and gangsta rap, whose development the Last Poets and “Convention” played respective major roles in fostering.
The result perhaps leaves the original album still shrouded in more residual mystery than necessary, especially for fans who hoped for detailed behind-the-scenes intel. But as directed by Todd (whose prior docs include 2011’s “Joe Frazier: When the Smoke Clears”), the film should satisfy those principally interested in subject from the hindsight position of modern rap artists. The highlight element of the otherwise workmanlike assembly is a number of animated sequences illustrating “Convention” passages in a manner reminiscent of Ralph Bakshi’s raunchily streetwise 1970s cartoon features.