Remembering Gil Scott-Heron

Last Saturday, May 28, came the announcement that musician Gil Scott-Heron had died at age 62. As of this writing, the cause of death is not known, although Scott-Heron disclosed in 2008 that he had been HIV-positive for some time. In addition, he struggled with drug addiction, which netted him prison time in recent years.

You might have to work your radio tuner for quite a while before finding any Scott-Heron. That had always been the case, going back to the start of his musical career in the early 1970s. But upon hearing of his death, rappers from Eminem to Chuck D to Snoop Dogg to Kanye West have expressed their condolences while acknowledging that Scott-Heron was a seminal influence on hip-hop; although he denied the label, Scott-Heron has often been referred to as the Godfather of Rap.

A precocious talent, having already published novels and poetry when he released his first album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, at 21, Scott-Heron seized upon the social and political upheaval of the time, particularly with respect to the African-American experience in the United States. The son of a black American woman and a black Jamaican father, who played professional soccer in the United Kingdom, Scott-Heron's articulate, strident observations, coupled to a jazz underpinning, reflected both the established civil rights struggles of the previous two decades and the nascent Black Power movement of the 1970s, which was a natural outgrowth of the civil rights movement, albeit one that reflected the approach of Malcolm X more so than Martin Luther King, Jr.

Indeed, you can detect the cadence and inflection of Malcolm X—think Malcolm's famous speech "The Ballot or the Bullet"—in Scott-Heron's early touchstones "Brother," filled with the kind of critical assessment Malcolm X leveled against some blacks, "Whitey on the Moon," a droll contrast between the soaring achievement of the Apollo moon landings and urban poverty back on earth, and "No Knock," a denunciation of Nixon Administration law-enforcement policies. The greatest of these, of course, was "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," a prophetic declamation that demonstrated Scott-Heron's acute understanding of pop culture and how it can subvert social and political power. Over a sturdy beat laid down by bassist Ron Carter and drummer Bernard Purdie, with flute accents by Hubert Laws, Scott-Heron impugns the seductive power of pop-culture images while exhorting listeners to resist them.

Rappers have since sampled "Revolution" a number of times, although the first recognition of the song's power came from Labelle, which brilliantly fused the song to Thunderclap Newman's "Something in the Air" on its 1973 Pressure Cookin' album. Despite this early accolade, Labelle itself couldn't get arrested until its proto-disco hit "Lady Marmalade"—after all, what could 1970s pop audiences do with a black female trio that insisted on singing about socio-political issues? Nothing, apparently, but that's another story.

It's tempting to pigeonhole Scott-Heron as just another angry young man—albeit one articulate and compelling enough to make the domestic observation "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" a moving one—but even his early efforts contained notes of hope and optimism, as borne out by "Save the Children" and "When You Are Who You Are," while the acknowledgements of "Lady Day and John Coltrane" made his jazz affinities explicit. Indeed, in addition to backing by elite musicians Carter and Purdie, Bob Thiele, who had produced the landmark Impulse! albums Impressions and A Love Supreme for Coltrane, produced Scott-Heron's first three albums for Thiele's Flying Dutchman label. Scott-Heron would maintain that jazz underpinning throughout his career, often through the efforts of his musical collaborator Brian Jackson, even as his sound began to blend mainstream soul and R&B into the mix, particularly with Scott-Heron's emphasis on singing rather than reciting—what would by the end of the 1970s become known as rapping.

Scott-Heron's easing into the middle of the road coincided with his move to Arista, a label not generally known for its cutting-edge artists. And although Scott-Heron now delved more deeply into personal reflection, he hardly reined in his astute observations—if anything, the smoother musical bed made them more accessible. "Ain't No Such Thing As Superman" and the elegiac "Winter in America" chronicled the then-current state of American society while "Johannesburg" drew the parallel between struggles in then-apartheid South Africa and in urban America. "Shut 'em Down" took on nuclear power—as did his chilling "We Almost Lost Detroit," based on the 1966 partial meltdown of the Fermi 1 breeder reactor in southeastern Michigan, which became a highlight of the 1979 No Nukes concert held in the wake of the Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, accident. "The Bottle," which became a minor hit, and "Angel Dust" took on alcohol and drug abuse.

Then, with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, Scott-Heron delivered one of his greatest songs, "'B' Movie" (from 1981's Reflections). Over a spare arrangement reminiscent of his early material, driven by a strong bass line and punctuated by guitar and horns, Scott-Heron delivers a brilliant, extended movie metaphor describing the rise of Reaganism and the ramifications of that rise before delivering the punchline: We settled for Ronnie Reagan—"but we would rather have John Wayne." (You can catch a snippet of "'B' Movie" on the soundtrack of the 2009 Russell Crowe political thriller State of Play.) Working with Material a few years later, Scott-Heron delivered the synth-funk follow-up "Re-Ron" that, as with "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and "'B' Movie," showed him making canny connections between pop culture and political manipulation.

Of course, all of the Scott-Heron material mentioned so far depends on your actually having heard it. For many years, from the mid-1980s to the beginning of this century, Scott-Heron's albums were as scarce as hen's teeth. Commercial radio certainly didn't play any of his material. Although Scott-Heron continued to tour and release live albums on small labels, his recording career effectively ended by the early 1980s, although he did release two studio albums in 1994, Spirits (TVT Records), and in 2010, I'm New Here (XL Recordings), which, barring a retrospective, looks to serve as his valedictory set.

From his start as an impassioned poet and activist shaped by the Black Power movement of the early 1970s, Gil Scott-Heron emerged as one of America's premier musical social commentators, delivering biting yet eloquent insights over a soul-jazz bed that mirrored the emotional empathy that drove his art. Although he spent his career on the pop-music margins, with an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame unlikely (unless the Hall gets serious about its stance toward hip-hop and inducts him as an early influence), Gil Scott-Heron exerted a significant influence on a generation of hip-hoppers that is still felt today. Your revolution was no rerun, brother—your revolution was live.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 March 2015 18:47

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