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The Watts Prophets: Rappin’ for Life

The Watts Prophets: Father Amde Hamilton, Richard Dedeaux, and Otis O’Solomon. Source: The Watts Prophets official website.

I was recently watching the popular psychological thriller series, THEM, by Little Marvin and stumbled upon a powerful piece of black history. During the credits of episode 4 of season 1, there was the garish epithet of ‘Dem Niggas Ain’t Playin’, a spoken word piece from a group of revolutionary wordsmiths known as The Watts Prophets.

At first glance, I found the piece sort of comical, as the phrase ‘Dem niggas ain’t playin’ repeats in alternated vocal syncopation, between each 4 bar stanza. However, each quatrain took me deeper and deeper into the metaphor of the coexistence of a black man and American society in 1970 Watts, California. Raw, real, and unfiltered.

The style, imagery and unapologetically audacious nature of The Watts Prophets and their collective voices struck me deeply and sent me on the search for more. I opened a Pandora’s box of what I would later discover to be a true gem in Afro-American history in the form of socially relevant, puissant spoken-word from the voices that fathered and fostered a movement that would change the disenfranchised black voice forever.

Watts Prophets (Poets with a Purpose)

Connecting with Father Amde of The Watts Prophets

Father Amde Hamilton. Photo by SVFX photography.

I was blessed and honored to connect with Father Amde of Watts Prophets via Instagram to share a few thoughts on the act’s legacy as a collection of voices that greatly influenced what we know today as hip-hop. 

“We are all poets,” Amde said. “The Watts Prophets are not entertainers. We are revolutionaries.”

The Watts Prophets fiery approach to poetry performance is a direct product of the anger, revelation and confusion of the Black community after the Watts, California riots in 1965. Anthony ‘Father Amde’ Hamilton, Otis O’Solomon and Richard DeDeaux met at the Watts Writers Workshops organized by screenwriter Budd Schulberg, which fostered a place for many local poets and authors to harness their love for literacy and writing. 

The trio subsequently began street performing as The Watts Prophets in 1967 after surviving the Watts riots and being influenced by the words and lives of Malcolm X, Black Panthers, and the Black Power Revolution.

Their performances at The Maverick Flats talent shows in South Central Los Angeles in 1968 laid the groundwork that would soon introduce this era of the Black power movement to the nation. The 1969 release of their first audio recordings “The Black Voices: On The Streets of Watts,” spread their powerful insights and personal experiences with systematic oppression, poverty and misuse of power by the police nationwide.

Their plight inspired people from coast to coast to give their ‘rap’ on these raw realities shared by Black communities across America.

Spreading the Message

Source: The Watts Prophets official website.

“Truth has trouble in the mist of lies, but truth always survives,” Amde said. 

The Watts Prophets evolved their radical sermons by implementing simple, mild tempo harmonies that added a slight serenade to some of the grim truths and observations of their environment. Not only did this empower their voices, but it helped them begin to spread their message beyond the borders of California.

Inspiring potent voices like The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron, also known as a founding ‘Father of Rap’ in 1970s New York, it’s wild to put into perspective that The Watts Prophets were the first to use ‘rap’ as a style of spoken word. ‘Rappin’ was a term used heavily in the slick 60s to denote a conversation, a back-and-forth, about something. Poets were known to ‘rap’ to the people about the collective consciousness of the realities of their environment.

The Watts Prophets – Rappin’ Black in a White World (1970)

Lasting Influence

This recipe, derived from The Watts Prophets ingredient book, directly affected the creation and delivery of what later became hip-hop — arguably the most influential genre of music in the world. The Watts Prophets directly influenced rap artists like DJ ad, Eazy E and more who grew up hearing their voices on the streets of Watts and South Central L.A.

You can hear samples of their work through every era of hip-hop. From NWA’s 1990 track “100 Miles and Running,” to “FOUX” from Schoolboy Q’s 2024 album Blue Lips.

The voice of The Watts Prophets represent the militancy and black empowerment that took the ‘rap’ of the day, infused it with black consciousness and ultimately became hip-hop. Though hip-hop has drastically changed in its message and mode, we must thank The Watts Prophets for setting a dynamic foundation for this art to thrive from. 

Songs that sample the Watts Prophets

ScHoolboy Q – “Foux” (ft. Ab-Soul) [2024]

DJ Quik – “8 Ball” (1998)

NWA – “100 Miles and Runnin'” (1990)

Madlib – “Pigs” (OJ Simpson Remix) [2010]