Lyrics Born:

“I knew about them because I collected records. They didn’t make a lot of history books, at least not the ones I read. The Watts Prophets® were the unsung heroes of spoken word. They had a different perspective, being from California. Over the years, they never diluted the message. It’s surprising, because after so long not getting much mainstream attention, most people have a tendency to accommodate a larger audience somehow. That’s really admirable. And they continue to be an inspiration because of their perseverance. At a time when the record industry was more regionalized, it was possible for similar movements to take hold at opposite ends of the country without one having any knowledge of the other. Given the mounting frustrations in black America and the artistic blossoming in the late ‘60s, it seems almost inevitable that a group would arise to voice the same percussive poetry in Watts, Los Angeles, as the Last Poets offered in Harlem, New York.

Though lesser known than the Last Poets, the Watts Prophets® laid the groundwork for an L.A. hip-hop scene that would produce both the gangsta rap of N.W.A. and the message-oriented pop of Coolio (both of whom have sampled the Watts Prophets®), as well as the more clearly Prophets-influenced underground lyricism of Freestyle Fellowship. Aceyalone, solo / Freestyle Fellowship: We did a couple shows with the Watts Prophets®. It was an honor. The inspiration I get comes from being from the same area as them. And their subject matter, how they keep it positive. And they’re still around in the community. In essence, the Watts Prophets® were born out of the 1965 Watts riots.

Among the people who stepped forward to help rebuild the community after the devastation was Budd Schulberg, a Hollywood screenwriter best known for writing On the Waterfront. He set up the Watts Writers Workshop to provide a place for young aspiring writers in the neighborhood to learn and share their work. One participant was Anthony Hamilton, an eighth-grade dropout who had recently spent time in jail and was having difficulty finding his way out of the criminal life. At a poverty program he met writer Odie Hawkins, who invited Hamilton to the Writers Workshop. Though he initially came for the free food, Hamilton ended up reciting some poetry he’d scribbled on scraps of paper. When the response from others was positive, he was hooked. “I could say a poem saved my life,” he told Brian Cross in It’s Not About a Salary. “Because from that poem I realized I could do something. I had something inside of me.”

Because of its success,the workshop received extensive media attention. When schools and organizations around the country began to invite members of the workshop to come speak, the poets began to group into units for the purpose. Hamilton hooked up with Otis O’Solomon, an Alabama native who moved to L.A. in his teens, and Richard Dedeaux, who’d arrived from Louisiana around the same time. By 1968 the trio (who would soon adopt the name Watts Prophets®) began performing at local gatherings as well as in well-known L.A. night clubs.

Their art combined socially critical verse with theatrical performance in a way that both thrilled and outraged the audience. At one of these shows – at USC in 1969 – the Watts Prophets® shared a stage with the Last Poets. Though they had been doing similarly styled black-awareness spoken-word poetry, it was the first time either group had heard of the other. Around this time, Laff Records – a comedy label best known for releasing Richard Pryor’s first album – approached Hamilton and other Watts poets about recording an album. Because the subject matter was anything but comical, Laff set up the ALA label to release an album called The Black Voices™: On the Street in Watts. Along with work by Odie Hawkins (who would become a well-known novelist), Ed Bereal, and Emmery Lee Joseph Evans Jr., Hamilton contributed nine 165provocative poems – including “I’ll Stop Calling You Niggers™” and “Pimping, Leaning, and Feaning™” – set to Last Poets-style percussion and other instrumental background. The following year, Hamilton brought his fellow Watts Prophets® to the attention of ALA.

Though the album they did for the label, RAPPIN’ BLACK IN A WHITE WORLD , marks the first time “rap” was used on record to describe black spoken-word performance, it was more conceptually and stylistically broad than the usual rap album, with extended suites that included character monologues like THE MASTER™ and manifestos such as AMERIKKKA (a spelling later adopted on Ice Cube’s first album). Tying it all together were the bluesy piano compositions of Dee Dee McNeil, a former Motown songwriter who had been collaborating with the trio since 1969. Her contributions, along with the use of strings and soulful singing, make BLACK IN AWHITE WORLD as rich and varied musically as it is lyrically.DJ Quik: I heard‘em when I was a kid, it was scary cause it was too radical for me.

I was like five, though, when I got into it. I think the real reason I remembered it and the reason I wanted to use it was because of how blatantly scary and formidable it was, it was thought-provoking and fearful. They were the first rappers in the truest sense, they been doing it since the sixties. If what you consider rap is philosophizing over rhythmic African type beats, they paved the way for this shit, [from It’s Not About a Salary (Verso, 1993)] Though McNeil returned to performing solo in jazz clubs shortly after, the Watts Prophets continued performing throughout the ‘70s. They contributed to albums by Quincy Jones (Mellow Madness, featuring O’Solomon’s “Beautiful Black Girl”), Stevie Wonder (Songs in the Key of Life), and Don Cherry (Multi-Kulti™) and did concerts at colleges and prisons across the country.

When the Watts Prophets® stopped performing around 1980, each focused on outside work: Dedeaux and O’Solomon did work in film and television, as actors, writers, and producers, and continued to help with community poetry projects. Hamilton became Father Amde, a leader in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, through which he befriended Bob Marley and his family (Ziggy Marley recorded O’Solomon’s “Hey World (Part I). In an eerie case of history repeating itself, the South Central L.A. rioting of the early ‘90s spurred the Watts Prophets® into activity once again.

Now elder statesmen in a hip-hop scene that has widely sampled their work (including DJ Quik and DJ Shadow), the trio has reemerged as outspoken community leaders. After an EP produced by the Dust Brothers, the Watts Prophets® produced WHEN THE 90’S CAME™, their first new album in 25 years. Featuring appearances by DJ Quik, US3, and Blackalicious on tracks that mix new material and old, the record brings the group full circle in the story of west coast rap. And with tracks like the updated I REMEMBER WATTS™ (originally written in 1967), the Watts Prophets® are as relevant as ever.”

Rap Music America’s Original Art Form™

RONI SARIG Billboard Books
An imprint of Watson-Guptill Publications / New York

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