Watts Writers Workshop
edited: Saturday, December 12, 2009
By Anthony Amde Hamilton
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Thursday, July 19, 2007
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South Central Avenue, the Black Sunset Boulevard, regularly seeing stars like Billie Holiday and Marilyn Monroe, Lena Horne and Elizabeth Taylor.
A central node was the Watts Writers Workshop, started in 1966 by Jewish Hollywood leftist writer Budd Schulberg, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of "On The Waterfront". Dozens of Black artists came through the workshop, including writers like Quincy Troupe, Kamau Daáood, and Ojenke. Among the most important were the young poets who became known as the Watts Prophets. Watts native Anthony Hamilton became the assistant director of the Workshop. Born in Houston, Texas, in 1940, he moved to Los Angeles when he was four, and came of age on segregated South Central Avenue, the Black Sunset Boulevard, regularly seeing stars like Billie Holiday and Marilyn Monroe, Lena Horne and Elizabeth Taylor. When he later moved to Watts, he says, the sound of drums was everywhere. He fell in with a crowd of forward-thinkers, with names like Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, Horace Tapscott, and Ornette Coleman. Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka had not yet given the rising national African American cultural movement its name, but, Amde says, "Watts had a Black Arts Movement before 1965. This is the home of Charlie Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Big Jay McNeely, Lester Young, and Odetta. We already had poetry moving in a direction before the Watts Writers' Workshop because we had Jayne Cortez, who was Ornette Coleman's wife, and the hippest thing in the community." In 1966, Amde finished a 4-year prison stint for drug possession, and returned to Watts to reunite his family and get right. He met Odie Hawkins, who brought him into the Watts Writers Workshop. With a raging pitbull voice—one that N.W.A.'s Eazy E would later evoke, and that would be sampled by dozens of rap producers—Hamilton's rep spread. Richard Dedeaux was taking acting and poetry classes with the Workshop. Born in 1940 in Louisiana, he had come to Watts as a 14 year-old. By the mid-60s, he was raising a family, working odd jobs, writing poetry and acting with an Irish repertory group in Hollywood. The Workshop, he says, was a revelation. "I took this book of poetry that I wrote to my white friends. They told me it was a little vicious," he recalls. "And then I took it to the Watts Writers Workshop and they practically laughed me out of there. They told me you got to some more 'Kill whiteys' in there!" Dedeaux acted in three plays with the Workshop, and became fast friends with Amde. Otis O' Solomon, born Otis Smith and raised in Alabama, came to Watts to check out the brimming scene. After reading an article about Amde, he went down to 103rd Street to meet him. Before long, Otis joined Richard and Amde in a fiery trio they called Watts Fire. The three became prominent in the local scene, especially after they took second place in an Inner City Cultural Center talent show, going up against some of the community's most popular musicians and dancers. "We come in and they say, 'What's your name? We said, 'Watts Fire, Watts Poets.'" recalls Amde. "And a lady with us said, 'No you're more than poets, you're prophets. Watts Prophets.'" In 1969, the Prophets' Harlem contemporaries, the Last Poets, released Right On!, a movie and album capturing their revolutionary street rhymes. Hoping to duplicate that project's success, the L.A. indie label Laugh Records approached Talmadge Scott of the Watts Writers Workshop about doing a record. Odie Hawkins assembled the poets—including two young professors, Ed Bereal and Emmery Lee Joseph Evans—and then called his student Amde at the last minute when another poet dropped out. All were to record three poems each, but when Amde got going, it was clear where the album was going. Amde took control of the mic, exerting himself so much that he put his back out. The session was completed only after a prone Amde insisting on being mic'ed from the floor. "I was the last poet invited to do this, but I ended up doing the introduction and 9 poems," he says. The poems on The Black Voices: On The Street In Watts, especially Hawkins' "Black Pussy" and "They Shot Him", were memorable, but Amde's were indelible. There was no detachment or distance, instead there was the urgency of being within the storm. They embodied Baraka's call for "poems that kill", and sounded like blueprints for "Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos", "Fuck The Police", and "All Eyez On Me", seemed to anticipate Louis Farrakhan's ministry and Chris Rock's comedy. The record was released on a new Laugh imprint called ALA, because this was serious stuff. Amde encouraged the label to record the Prophets. By now, they were enjoying a long residency at Maverick's Flat, a visionary alcohol-free club on Crenshaw Boulevard that set Richard Pryor, Funkadelic, Earth, Wind & Fire, and countless other acts on their way. Booked for 18 straight weekends in 1970, the buzz around the Prophets reached new heights. "We took poetry from the podium to the stage," says Richard. "We added dimensions to it. We started putting movement to it, drama, and the call and response." In doing so, they helped create the foundation for the spoken word and hip-hop theater movements two decades later. They were inspired by the avant-garde jazz around them. Amde says, "The lead cat out front is the one doing the solo. And the poets in the background, it' was a whole 'nother thing. The background could be a whole 'nother poem." "Rapping Black In A White World", recorded in 1970 and released in 1971, began with new member Dee Dee MacNeil leading a backing chant that transitioned into her poem, "Sell My Soul", and concluded with the Richard's "Amerikkka" and the shocking line: "Ask not what you can do for your country but what in the fuck has it done for you?!" After this suite of poems, and the rebel tribute "Dem Niggers Ain't Playing", audiences were often left divided. "White folks was afraid of us, Black intellectuals was ashamed of us," says Richard. "And the grassroots loved us!" adds Amde. The trio had recruited Dee Dee MacNeil from the Workshop. She was a Motown contract songwriter who had moved from Detroit to Watts. She composed and played the bluesy music for the "What Is A Man?" suite that ended Side A and the album's finale, "Black In A White World", expanding the sound and power of the Prophets' poetry. She also became a pioneering, if unsung, female rapper. On "There's A Difference Between A Black Man And A Nigger"—with Otis whispering behind her, "rapping facts"—Dee Dee kicked an answer-rap to the movement's sexist hypocrisies, two decades before Yo-Yo melted Ice Cube. Hers was the first and last voice heard on the album. The Prophets' words seemed to portend the cultural, political and social trends of the next four decades. Otis' poem "The Pimp" was the kind of street portraiture that would gain a broader audience through blaxploitation movies and then, of course, sealed in the rise of Los Angeles rap. Richard's "Freedom Flames"—included in the introduction to "What Is a Man?"—would capture the tension of inner-city Los Angeles in 1992 or 2005 as well as it did Watts in 1965. With minimal accompaniment, the poems on both albums felt ancient and futuristic at once—pointing forward to hip-hop, but also back to the African concept of nommo, the power of the word. "Since we were brought here as slaves we have been searching for that freedom of expression and as time goes on we're getting closer and closer to the full circle," says Amde. "Because we're just going back to what where we really were in the beginning, in Africa." From line to line, poem to poem, suite to suite, side to side, the words burned. If "Black Voices" was the wake-up call, "Rapping Black In A White World' remains a timeless classic—a cohesive and profoundly compelling concept album on one level, a motherlode of sample-sized gems on the other. Both are as indispensible to the rise of west coast rap. Through the 70s, the Prophets enjoyed much success and respect in Black Los Angeles. The Prophets became the community's bards, commissioned to do tribute poems for politicians and businessmen, and the likes of Marvin Gaye, Quincy Jones, and Mayor Tom Bradley. They recorded with Jones (Mellow Madness) and released two books of poetry, The Rising Sons and Poetic Reflections. A documentary on them, Victory Will Be My Moan, was nominated for an Emmy. While screenwriting an Isaac Hayes movie, Richard brought Stax Records to Watts, and helped create the famed Wattstax concerts. Otis's poem "Hey World" brought the Prophets acclaim in Jamaica (it was later adapted into a hit for Ziggy Marley's album of the same name). Through Amde's ministry in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church—he had taken the name "Father Amde" and baptized Nina Simone—the Prophets linked with Bob Marley, and were recording an album with him for his Tuff Gong label when he passed away. The ferment that the Prophets emerged in could not last. An FBI counterintelligence agent burned down the Watts Writers Workshop in 1975, including its brand new theater, and the scene on 103rd Street fell apart. The Crips replaced the revolutionaries. Work dried up. Otis and Dee Dee drifted away. In 1986, Otis's poem "Hey World!" became the cornerstone of Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers' second album, and Amde recorded the central song for his old friend Don Cherry's Multi-Kulti album. But it took hip-hop to bring the Prophets back together and back to prominence. During the early 90s, artists like Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, DJ Shadow, Digable Planets, and Too Short rediscovered the records and sampled them. Photographer Brian "B+" Cross interviewed them for URB Magazine, and his book, It's Not About A Salary. Amde secured the rights to both records, and began to recover publishing royalties from usage of his voice. At the same time, a vital scene in the Leimert Park neighborhood brought together a new generation of cutting-edge rappers—particularly the Freestyle Fellowship—jazz musicians, and poets with older Watts giants like Horace Tapscott, Kamau Daáood, and Billy Higgins. In this new cultural ferment, amidst political and social conditions that seemed too much like 1965, the Watts Prophets were received as elder statesmen. On April 29, 1992, their poems again sounded—there is no other word for it—prophetic. "Our poetry lives," says Amde. "The poetry that you have on those albums, we're still doing them today. We just have to change one little word to make it in tune with right now, because the overall truth is there." "Truth doesn't spoil," Otis says, "it survives." A few years later, I was blessed with the opportunity to work with Amde, Richard, and Otis on a new record, When The 90s Came. They set old and new poems to music by DJ Quik, Blackalicious' Chief Xcel, Ras Michael, and Horace Tapscott. They returned to the tour circuit and performed their still-timely poems for new audiences around the world. The Watts Prophets are a literal and literary bridge between the Civil Rights Generation and the Hip-Hop Generation. "In the last 20 years, we have dedicated our lives to directly opening up avenues of expression with children and trying to make them aware of this world and the many troubles that they are going to face in the future," says Amde. "We don't play with them, we try to really open them up to what's going on." Richard adds, "Early on, I learned the value of words. You can use them to hurt or you can use them to heal. And we chose to use them to heal. It works so much better." —Jeff Chang Author, Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation June 2005