PHILADELPHIA — Rumors of Gil Scott-Heron’s demise have been greatly overstated, declared the man himself.
“I just turned 60 last April first,” Scott-Heron shared with a husky laugh from his New York City apartment, our conversation sparked by the long-overdue arrival of a new album, “I’m New Here.”
“If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”
In the late 1960’s and ‘70’s, there were none hipper or signifying more on the conscious black arts scene than Gil Scott-Heron, a Lincoln University- and Johns Hopkins-educated poet, author and English professor who’d also discovered his voice as a dramatically throaty, impassioned jazz- and blues-tinged singer.
Truth is, Scott-Heron was nurturing a modern neo-soul sound long before the style had a name.
And if you ask any of the world’s most relevant rappers — from Chuck D to Common — who inspired them, odds are good they’ll cite this guy.
In fact, Scott-Heron is still living down his rep as “the father of hip-hop,” cited for prophecizing (first to a bongo beat and later with a jazz combo) that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
He also put a harsh spotlight on South African apartheid in the bluesy holler “What’s the Word? Johannesburg,” pondered the social cost of putting “Whitey on the Moon” and characterized the presidency of former actor Ronald Reagan as just another “B Movie.”
So what does Scott-Heron think of all he’s wrought?
“My kids like hip-hop, and I like my kids,” he said diplomatically. “That’s who they’re ready for. I’m not supposed to like it. They’re not doing it for me.”
A few years back, there was a published report that Scott-Heron seemed close to checking out, a walking corpse who’d been put away, twice, for drug possession. “That person never talked with me,” he said, “or (they) wouldn’t have written it like that.”
Sure he’s rail thin, “able to fit in the same pants that I did in high school, but it’s because of the way I eat — not much,” he said. “When my wife was cooking for me, badly, I got in that habit. And even after she left, I kept it up to remember her by.”
He may or may not be HIV-positive, a diagnosed ex-girlfriend warned him. “With me, the tests have been inconclusive — coming up both yes and no,” he said in last week’s Entertainment Weekly.
As for drugs, he’s admitted to recreational use but says he got pushed into prison “‘cause I had a bad attorney. They caught me with $20 worth of stuff. It was a misdemeanor that the judge converted to a felony. I was on my way to Europe for a concert tour, and the only way they were going to let me go was if I pleaded guilty and served the time when I came back.”
And the second time he got locked up?
“That was supposedly for me skipping out on my rehab program. What happened is my counselor relapsed himself, ran away with my poetry and music. After three weeks of sitting around, with no one dealing with me, I walked away. Then they noticed, came and got me.”
Something good did happen during that second incarceration. Richard Russell, a Brit who runs the very cool XL Records label (home to Vampire Weekend, M.I.A., Dizzee Rascal and the White Stripes) came to visit him in jail and proposed a new album project, his first in 13 years.
Out this week, “I’m New Here” proves that Scott-Heron is still on his game — more the poet (again) and less the singer this time, and still riveting to the core with his dramatically etched and intoned impressions of growing up (well) in a fatherless home, the hustles and heartaches of big-city life, and the temptations that bring us down.
(In the liner notes, Scott-Heron urges today’s easily distracted listeners to give him full attention: “Turn off everything that rings or beeps or rattles or whistles. ... Think about what you got.”)
Russell’s haunting, techtronic scoring of the tone poems is as much “trip hop” as jazz or blues in spirit, the better to lure in a new audience as well as reinvigorate longtime fans. Dig the soulful, synth pulsed balladry of “I’ll Take Care of You,” the mostly handclap-scored “New York Is Killing Me,” and the equally spell-casting, effects-twisted treatment of the Robert Johnson blues classic “Me and the Devil” (also found on YouTube as an equally eerie music video).
At another extreme is the folksy title track — Scott-Heron’s organic vocal plus fingerpicked guitar cover of Smog guy Bill Callahan’s “I’m New Here.”
“Truth is, I was working with electronics back in the day with a guy named Malcolm Cecil (best known for projects as Tonto’s Expanding Head Band),” Scott-Heron said. “Cecil would have become as famous as Robert Moog, if only he’d put his name on all the stuff he came up with.”
Need more proof he’s got it together? There was that two-page spread in Entertainment Weekly, “a place where you rarely see guys like me — and I didn’t even have to take my shirt off,” he kidded.
The Guardian, a leading British paper, has already anointed “I’m New Here” as “one of the best albums of the next decade.”
And the artist is close to publishing his first book since a 2001 compilation of (mostly older) poetry, “Then and Now.” Called “The Last Holiday,” Scott-Heron’s new tome evolves around Stevie Wonder’s lengthy and ultimately successful campaign to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s birthday a national holiday.
“I was on tour with him back in the early ‘80’s as his opening act when all this stuff was going on,” Scott-Heron shared.
“I was supposed to be the opening act for just eight dates, with Bob Marley taking over after that. Then Bob got diagnosed with cancer and went into (Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center), and Stevie called me in and said ‘adjustments’ had to be made, so we stayed on the whole tour.
“I had to write this book for people to find out all the (expletive) they went through to make the King holiday happen. They got six million signatures on petitions and staged huge rallies in Washington, D.C. There was stuff going on in every city we visited. After all was said and done, Congress just couldn’t turn him down.”
With Barack Obama in the White House, the oft-cynical Scott-Heron feels “America finally came to its senses. I just hope it’s not too late. I’ve got to be optimistic. I don’t have a choice. The opposition can either be a pain in the ass and hold things up, or go along and make it work.”