Happy 45th Anniversary to Lightnin’ Rod’s Hustlers Convention, originally released July 24, 1973.
Lightnin’ Rod’s Hustlers Convention is an amazing oddity of an album. Released 45 years ago, it was unlike just about anything on the market at the time or anything that would be released for another 10 years. Even if there hadn’t been the weirdness associated with its release (which we’ll get to soon), I doubt that United Artists Records, the label that released the album, would have known what to do with it.
Lightnin’ Rod was the alias of Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, a member of the legendary The Last Poets, a collective of spoken-word artists who are considered the proto-rap group. The Brooklyn native was in one of the earlier configurations of the group and appeared on their first two albums. He released Hustlers Convention under the pseudonym Lightnin’ Rod as a side project in 1973, without revealing his identity. The album is about as detailed of a portrait of young Black men doing whatever it takes to survive on the streets as has ever been recorded.
Hustlers Convention is the best soundtrack without a film that’s ever been released. The story it tells is like the plot of a Donald Goines or Chester Himes novel, with all of the appropriate grit intact. It follows the lives of narrator/hustler supreme Sport and his fresh-out-of-prison homie and aspiring hood Spoon, both street denizens in an unnamed city in the summer of 1959. They’re extended invites to the Hustler’s Convention, an underground triathlon for gamblers and other assorted criminals, by the shady Brother Hominy Grit.
After a month of “training,” the pair attends the Convention and run the daunting gauntlet of dice, pool, and cards. They emerge victorious with $172,000 in cash in hand, only to be double-crossed by Hominy Grit. After a bloody shoot-out and car chase involving Grit’s thugs and the local police department, Sport is arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, while Spoon escapes to try to live a better life.
The Devil of the Hustlers Convention is in how Nuriddin tells the story. He fills the narrative with minute attention to detail, painting vivid pictures of places like the Café Black Rose (where the “heroes” initially meet Hominy Grit) to Hamhock’s Hall (the location of the Hustlers Convention). He captures all the associated sights, smells, sounds, and tastes of the atmosphere in the settings, chronicling the sex, drugs, and other assorted vices that go along with surviving the streets. Nuriddin also portrays all the characters that appear on the album, and manages to grant each their own distinct voices and identities.
Some of the album’s best moments come as Sport tries to describe the barely-controlled bedlam of the Convention itself. He navigates the chaotic environment that he creates, almost providing the feeling of the sensory overload that would come with taking in these scenes. One amazing passage involves Sport realizing a fellow hustler is using rigged dice, and then going through elaborate steps to not only make the miscreant aware that he knows he’s cheating, but also managing to win thousands of dollars from him in the process. Another highlight is a particularly contentious game of pool with Sport and Spoon’s main rivals. The tension in the song is bolstered by the music dropping out and re-appearing at the exact right moments.
Hustlers Convention’s back-story and recording process is almost as fascinating as the album itself. Nuriddin originally recorded the album a cappella, but while he was laying down his vocals in the studio, he and Alan Douglas, his producer, discovered Kool & the Gang were also recording music in the building. The two approached the group and asked them if they wanted to provide the musical backdrop for some of the album. Kool & crew agreed to play for free, uncredited, their most notable contribution is a driving bass and horn heavy groove used on three different songs, most notably “Sport.” Also providing uncredited instrumentation for Hustlers Convention is a configuration of the jazz fusion band Full Moon, as well as talented musicians like Eric Gale, Bernard Purdie, and Billy Preston.
However, after the album was released, Kool & the Gang’s management threatened to sue United Artists Records for not properly compensating the group. The label quickly removed the album from stores, and the album became a sought after rarity. Hustlers Convention also became a staple of the early hip-hop scene in NYC, with “Sport” in particular getting run at park jams and in club sets. Rappers began to sample the grooves and the vocals from the album, giving Hustlers Convention new life years after it had gone out of print. It’s often referred to as the “first gangsta rap” album.
Nuriddin reportedly bristled at the idea that Hustlers Convention was influential to gangster rappers, noting that they were missing the point of the album. And in truth, the overall message of the album is decidedly anti-hustler. As the album draws to close, Sport is released from Sing Sing after 12 years on Death Row, when the state decides not to retry him after the death penalty is suspended. He emerges chastened, aware that his previous lifestyle was a sham, stating, “It had cost me twelve years of my time to realize what a nickel and dime hustler I had really been / While the real hustlers were ripping off bands from the unsuspecting mans who are programmed to think they could win / But fortunately I had escaped from the deathly fate of being fried alive in the chair / ’Cause in my solitude I found out what's really going down, you see I had learned the whole truth while I was there.”
The legendary status of Hustlers Convention continued to grow over the years. A thorough documentary, also titled Hustlers Convention, was released in 2015, featuring Nuriddin, other members of the Last Poets, and various rappers explaining the importance of the album and the group, and speaking to both of their power. The film also featured footage of a performance in the U.K., where Nuriddin performed Hustlers Convention in its entirety.
Nuriddin maintained that he had written lengthy sequels to Hustlers Convention, both Hustlers Detention and Hustlers Ascension, detailing what would be Sport’s time in prison and his subsequent redemption after his release. He had difficulty getting the albums recorded and finding a record label to distribute them. A few months ago, Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler of Digable Planets revealed on an episode of the Heat Rocks podcast that he had spoken with Nuriddin about producing the follow-ups; the two had been in contact after Butler’s band Shabazz Palaces had sampled vocals from Hustlers Convention. However, it now appears that neither of those albums will see the light of day. Nuriddin passed away last week on June 4th at the age of 73 after a battle with cancer.
Hustlers Convention remains a revolutionary release. Few albums had so thoroughly documented life on the margins in the ghettos across the country so viscerally and without varnish. Whether or not the album comes down to glorifying and vilifying the hustlers of the time, the album documents their existence largely without comment, giving listeners a peek into life on the other side. And for much of that reason, the album has endured and can stand on its own merits.