'Hustlers Convention': Film Review

Hustler's Convention Still - H 2015
Carl Hyde/Courtesy of Riverhorse

Hustler's Convention Still - H 2015

A hip-hop history lesson that feels at times like a rap cousin of 'Searching for Sugar Man'

British-made passion-project documentary pays tribute to a highly influential cult album from the dawn of hip-hop, with cameos by some famous musical fans

Shining a light on a lost chapter from the early days of hip-hop culture, the British director Mike Todd pays tribute to a milestone cult album in this austere but engrossing documentary. Recorded in 1973 by Jalal Mansur Nuriddin of militant New York proto-rappers The Last Poets under the alias Lightin’ Rod, Hustlers Convention was arguably the first ever gangsta rap album. Ill fortune and legal issues held it back from mainstream success, but Nuriddin’s solo debut became an underground classic that would later be sampled by Grandmaster Flash, Beastie Boys, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan and others.

Partly crowd-funded, Todd’s unpolished film is clearly a low-budget labor of love, but the guest list of cameos and famous fans here affirms the project’s cultural importance. Among the interviewees are music legends George Clinton, Melle Mel, Fab 5 Freddie, KRS-One, Ice-T, MC Lyte and Chuck D of Public Enemy, who is credited as executive producer. Now a silver-haired senior citizen who speaks in effortless rhyme almost constantly, Nuriddin himself also makes an engaging screen presence. Currently playing in UK theaters, Hustlers Convention has clear appeal to film festivals with music-themed programs, though its afterlife will most likely be in fan-friendly home entertainment formats.

An ex-convict and former US Army paratrooper, Nuriddin conceived Hustlers Convention as a cautionary Blaxploitation-style narrative about living large and paying a heavy price. Full of verbal dexterity, street slang and bawdy humor, the album lays out the story of two brothers whose high-rolling lifestyle ends up on Death Row. “If you were 14-years-old and trying to understand the streets, it was sort of like a verbal Bible,” recalls Chuck D. Todd’s film frames the album in historical context, from the civil rights struggle and Harlem-based Black Arts Movement of the 1960s to the explosive rise of hip-hop in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Hustlers Convention was produced by Alan Douglas, who had previously worked with Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis. Douglas assembled a starry guest list of musicians to provide backing for Nuriddin, including up-and-coming funk-pop outfit Kool and the Gang, who were recording in a neighboring studio. But no paperwork was signed and the band’s management later objected, which led the United Artists label to go cold on promoting the album, fearing possible litigation. Hustlers Convention was a commercial failure, but it later gathered a cult word-of-mouth cult reputation, with some hip-hop historians claiming it went on to sell a million copies.

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Todd relates this story with care and respect, but leaves a few confusing gaps. The film never adequately explains what Nuriddin has been doing musically and personally for the last four decades, a journey which included periods of exile in Britain and France. At 71, he appears to live in a pleasant but modest retirement community in small-town Georgia. “I chose the message over the money,” he shrugs, insisting he never made a dime from Hustlers Convention. More journalistic rigor would have fleshed out these sketchy hints.

The film ends with footage of Nuriddin performing the album live for the first time, in London in 2014. It’s a joyful and well attended event, but the take-home message is bittersweet. Hustlers Convention follows an all too familiar narrative arc for African-American artists, one of early promise squashed by bad luck and bad business.

Production company: Riverhorse

Cast: Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, Abiodun Oyewole, Abdul Malik Al Nasir, Chuck D, Melle Mel, Ice-T, Fab 5 Freddie, KRS-One

Director, editor: Mike Todd

Producers: Quenell Jones, Lathan Hodge, Mike Todd, Geseth Garcia

Cinematographer: Quenell Jones

Sales company: Kaleidoscope Entertainment

Unrated, 91 minutes