Simon Bland in Film & TV


Interview: Mike Todd, Director of Creative England funded doc 'Hustlers Convention'

Released in 1973, 'Hustlers Convention' is widely regarded as a game changer that directly influenced what we now know as modern hip hop. 

However, despite the record's word-of-mouth success and huge cultural impact, the man behind the music Jalal Mansur Nuriddin remained unknown. 

More than 40 years later and Manchester-based filmmaker Mike Todd aims to change all that. His new documentary 'Hustlers Convention' tells the true story of Nuriddin's record, the inspiration behind it and the release issues that followed. Through exclusive interviews with hip hop icons Melle Mel and Ice T, Todd tells the definitive tale of 'Hustlers Convention' and its impact on modern culture. 

The film was funded in part by Creative England's Production Fund and receives its European premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest this weekend. Before then however, we caught up with Todd to find out how this story landed on his radar, the key behind the album's longevity and what his favourite Jalal line from Jalal's work is...

Hi Mike, you’re a filmmaker from Manchester - that’s a long way from the streets of Brooklyn where Jalal’s story began. How did you find yourself working on this project?

I think it was reading about ‘Hustlers Convention’ over 20 years ago. It was an interview with Fab Five Freddy in a book that I had on Blaxploitation culture and the way he described it suggested it was the fundamental building block of everything we know and understand about hip hop culture today. But to my mind back then there was little or no reference to this album, what it was or where it came from, anywhere. Over the years I’d always been curious as to why this album that was given such critical and cultural significance by one of the people many associate with being a key commentator on this type of stuff, wasn’t really referenced anywhere. 

As the years passed, I saw that it never really came up as being referenced with any significance so I just began to research it. It was a mystery. So as I began to piece things together I understood, which many people didn’t even though they might’ve known the album, that Jalal had recorded it and that he was in the Last Poets who people are more familiar with and the influence they had; and that Jalal had done it under his alternate name Lightnin’ Rod. It was that unique combination of the time, politics and culture and Jalal’s combination with the street rhyming that he grew up with. It really is like a blueprint for what went on to become rap as we understand it today.

There was a lot of change happening in American culture during the album’s 1973 release. How did this translate through Jalal’s work?

America was going through a period as it shifted between the late 60s and early 70s where the black power and civil rights movements had achieved so much prominence and were, in a way, giving way to some disillusionment. Martin Luther King had been murdered, Malcolm X had been murdered and although there had been some changes in terms of voting rights, the main socio-economic situation and the structural nature of society were not really changing in a fundamental way. 

It was the era of all the Blaxploitation films and there was more of a fascination with street culture and people achieving success in whatever way they could because there seemed to be limited potential to make your mark in society through the things many people take for granted. So I think Jalal’s album was an analysis of that era and the frustrations that people were experiencing. He tried to bring that political awareness to a subject matter that was being tackled in different ways. He brought his own kind of sensibility to it.

Did it just speak to people at the right time?

I think it did. The strange thing about the album is that as the film outlines it was pulled from sale due to a dispute over music rights. It had only been out for a few months but had already started to generate a word-of-mouth response and reach people on a street culture level but it was stopped from mainstream sale so it never really achieved the commercial success or even the awareness for the influence it had but it did reach all the people we now associate with the birth of hip hop culture. People like Melle Mel, Grandmaster Flash, Fab Five Freddy, DJ Kool Herc, all these people who are recognised as pioneers all had access to this album and saw it as a step change in the way that street rhyming and storytelling could be utilized in music.

Was it interesting talking to these people and finding out how they personally stumbled across it?

Yeah because it’s like a different era of how people were exposed to things. They didn’t have the same exposure to information that we have now so people learned about the album through word-of-mouth. Many people didn’t even have access to a copy of the album and instead learnt it as a street rhyme. Melle Mel could recite it and had learnt it on the street before he’d even heard the album. He heard Grandmaster Flash playing it at these block parties but already knew it as a street rhyme because people were passing it around. In the same way, Fab Five Freddy heard it from his cousin who he use to hang out with in Times Square. It was the last days of oral tradition.

Did you find that people were eager to discuss Jalal and his work?

Yeah, many people were less aware of him. Everyone knew the Last Poets and maybe knew him from there but because he did it under the name of Lightnin’ Rod...Ice T for example was a big fan of the album and knew it as a teenager and grew up with it and said it was a major influence on him - he didn’t know it was Jalal who recorded it. So there was a disconnect. People understood the work more and its influence but because it had not had the exposure and in many ways, Jalal had not had the exposure, he’s lesser known.

Jalal must have loved this opportunity to tell this side of the story?

I think for the last 40 years he’s seen this album be recognised and hailed as a cult classic that countless people have namechecked and referenced. It’s been sampled so many times by everyone from the Beastie Boys, to the Wu-Tang Clan to Nas but he has never had any real recognition from it and the real cultural impact that it had has never been fully outlined before. Nowhere, until our film, has it been documented explicitly the real impact that this album has had.

Did this impact Jalal’s relationship with the record?

Yeah I think he has many decades of frustrations with the legal problems around the album and the financial issues with him never being paid for it. Then there’s the lack of awareness of who he is and what the album went on to achieve. I think it’s left him with some sense of frustration but I think that hopefully, and from what he’s said I think it might be the case, making the film and telling the story have in some ways helped him to come to terms with it and hopefully he can now finally get the recognition that both the work and he deserve for the influence he’s had.

What’s the key to its longevity?

I think it contains certain eternal truths that people recognise in the way people struggle, ambition, where ambition can lead; the way the world really works and the illusion of success that we’re all presented with. It’s got in it this truth that’s still just as relevant today. Obviously it was so original at the time that everything else that follows is, to an extent, an imitation of sorts. It was the original and probably still the best.

What advice do you have for emerging filmmakers?

Try and get as much advice and support as you can from people. Reach out to people who you respect or who you feel you can learn from. You’re not going to get time necessarily with everyone but if you can look to get as much advice and support as you can and also try and make things and learn through the process of doing that. I think people tend to be more likely to help people who they see are making their own effort to make something happen.

And finally, do you have a favourite line from Jalal’s work?

People who know the album know the whole story of Sport and Spin but Jalal said that he wrote the last verse of the album first which is ‘The real hustlers are ripping off billions from the unsuspected millions who are programmed to think they can win’ and he wrote the whole story to reach that conclusion. I think that’s my favourite.

Hustlers Convention releases in UK cinemas from 26th June, and will be available to download from 20th July.  It will also be available on DVD from 27th July.

'Hustler’s Convention' is showing at the Molinare Library Theatre, at 3.30pm on June 7th. Head here for tickets.

The Creative England funded feature 'Orion: The Man Who Would Be King' will also be screening at Sheffield Doc/Fest this weekend. Read our interview with director Jeanie Finlay.

To learn more about Creative England's opportunities for filmmakers visit our Film page or follow the team on Twitter.

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