Richard Dedeaux, a founding member of the spoken word/poetry performance art group The Watts Prophets, and a major influence on the Hip Hop/ Rap movement, died on Dec. 3, after a lengthy bout with cancer. He was 73.
Richard Anthony Dedeaux was born and raised in the midst of the Mississippi gulf area his family had frequented for generations. His lifelong concern about racism stemmed from his childhood and the memories of going into a Sears or J.C. Penny’s and not being able to try on clothing without being obligated to buy them.
“That really bugged him,” remembers friend and fellow band mate Richard “Made” Hamilton. The issue of segregation and his status as a “Creole” later compelled him to compose “What Color is Black:”
“Can I be brown, tan, or yella?
’Cause I didn’t make my color.”
As a teenager, he migrated to Los Angeles where he entered into his first marriage at age 19. Over his lifetime, he married two more times, resulting in five children. The South Los Angeles neighborhood he settled in, largely unknown outside of Los Angeles, became world famous with the outbreak of the Watts Riot/Rebellion circa 1965. Emerging out of the ashes of that civil disorder came a number of community organizations aimed at providing a creative and cultural outlet for the rage that had been smoldering prior to that breaking point in August of 1965. The most prominent of them was the Watts Writers Workshop started by Academy award-winning screenwriter Budd Schulberg. For Hollywood liberals of that era, the workshop was the equivalent of today’s ecological movements: the hip thing to do for a celebrity seeking to separate themselves from the hedonism associated with the entertainment industry, and demonstrate their eagerness to give back to society.
A true renaissance man, Dedeaux had dabbled in all types of writing, and studied acting with the Donnybrook Players, a local theatre ensemble, and jumped at the invitation of novelist Odie Hawkins to join this new endeavor. There, he became formally introduced to Hamilton, a casual acquaintance from the neighborhood and Samuel Gompers Middle School.
Hamilton remembers catching a ride home with Dedeaux, who drove a hearse funeral car in those days. Even then, he recalls, “Richard had his own flair.”
Their relationship solidified both creatively and personally, with Dedeaux and his son moving in with Hamilton’s family for some three years. Together with Alabama native Otis O’ Solomon, they formed a trio (later adding songwriter and Motown alum Dee Dee McNeil). Unsure about their group name, they vacillated between “Watts Fire” and “Watts Poets,” until fellow poet Helen Mingleton declared them more than poets; they were prophets.
Honing their skills at talent shows and schools, the poetry-based trio branched out to perform at neighborhood clubs, most notably at the landmark Maverick’s Flat on Crenshaw Boulevard. Reputed to be the Apollo Theatre of the West Coast, it served no alcohol but quickly became the “in” spot showcasing Jazz and Rhythm and Blues talent. During their four month residency at “The Flat,” they rubbed elbows and shared the stage with a “who’s who” of Black show business hierarchy, including athlete-turned-actor Jim Brown, George Clinton of Parliament/Funkadelic fame, and legendary comedian Richard Prior, whose recording company, Laff Records, produced their first album, “Rappin’ Black in a White World,” circa 1971.
With its provocative cover depicting a Black child cradling a rifle superimposed over a collage of South Central photos, and track titles like “Amerikkka,” “Dem Ngers Ain’t Playing,” and “Fked” (all written by Dedeaux), the message of The Watts Prophets wasn’t exactly conducive to air play on middle-of-the-road radio formats, or even deliberately edgy playlists.
Due to the inflammatory nature of their lyrics, a void developed between them and elements of the community, who “kept us at a distance.” Always more interested in critiquing their own community than lambasting White society, The Watts Prophets believed this was a major obstacle to their gaining mass exposure like their contemporaries Gil Scott Heron and The Last Poets.
Part of the appeal of the Watts Prophets lay in their delivery. Not content to merely recite their verse in the manner of a traditional poetry reading, they utilized memory in the fashion of the West African griots, which allowed them to improvise as they went along, emulating the Jazz instrumentalists they idolized, and laying the foundation for “free style” Rap, the approach that informs the delivery of contemporary artists like Dom Kennedy, Ice Cube, and Kendrick Lamar.
Performing live, they engaged the audience as active participants, with Dedeaux utilizing his acting and theatre background to captivate listeners with his body language. In a group noted for its uncompromising militancy, Dedeaux stood out for his biting sarcasm.
At the time of his death, Dedeaux was a long-term resident of Shelton, Wash. where he lived surrounded by a band of relatives. A creative force to the very end, his output often included premonitions of his own demise:
On many occasions I’ve stared death in the face
And through some strange twist of fate
Always managed to escape
Some say it’s because it wasn’t my time to go.
Well somebody must’ve give him my address
‘Cause now DEATH’S standing on my damned doorstep!!!