CHICAGO — Public Enemy’s Chuck D once said hip-hop was black America’s CNN. If so, Gil Scott-Heron was the network’s first great anchorman, presaging hip-hop and infusing soul and jazz with poetry, humor and pointed political commentary.
His songs, including “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “The Bottle” and “Johannesburg,” were hard-edged yet melodic, influencing subsequent generations of soul and hip-hop artists who revered him as a pioneer, including Common, Erykah Badu, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest and Kanye West.
Scott-Heron, who died Friday at the age of 62, was born in 1949 in Chicago and spent most of his childhood in Tennessee and then New York. He showed an affinity for writing at an early age. His first novel, “The Vulture,” was published when he was 19, then he shifted to music in an effort to reach a wider audience. He teamed with Brian Jackson, a gifted musician he met while attending Lincoln University in Oxford, Pa.
“I had an affinity for jazz and syncopation, and the poetry came from the music,” Scott-Heron told the Chicago Tribune in a 1998 interview. “We made the poems into songs, and we wanted the music to sound like the words, and Brian’s arrangements very often shaped and molded them.”
Together they crafted jazz-influenced soul and funk that brought new depth and political consciousness to ‘70s music alongside Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. In classic albums such as “Winter in America” and “From South Africa to South Carolina,” Scott-Heron took the news of the day and transformed it into social commentary, wicked satire, and proto-rap anthems. He updated his dispatches from the front lines of the inner city on tour, improvising lyrics with an improvisational daring that matched the jazz-soul swirl of the music.
Though celebrated for his political broadsides, Scott-Heron was a master of many styles. He could be playful and mischievous, and he found joy in the power of words and their ability to transform the tragic and tawdry into the comical and uplifting.
His “H20gate Blues,” for example, took President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew to task as the Watergate scandal was unfolding: “If Nixon knew, ‘Ag’ knew/But ‘Ag’ didn’t know enough to stay out of jail.” On “Jaws,” he identified with the shark in the Steven Spielberg movie; common sense and trespassing laws were on the big predator’s side, Scott-Heron argued. Mixed in with the laughs were songs about love, addiction, childbirth, spirituality.
“If you only focus on the political aspects of our work, you change us,” Scott-Heron said in the ‘98 Tribune interview. “We’ve done 20 albums and not all of the songs on them are political. We acknowledged politics, just like we acknowledged the existence of condoms, guns, family, neighborhood issues. We were songwriters who tried to represent all the different aspects of the community.”
After nearly a decade away from the record business, Scott-Heron returned in 1994 with the album “Spirits,” in which he addressed a new generation of rappers and urban poets who were in his debt with tracks such as “Message to the Messengers.”
His work slowed to a trickle in recent years as he battled drug addiction and spent several years in prison for drug-related crimes. A 2010 album, “I’m New Here,” received acclaim, but also offered aural evidence of his declining health.
Scott-Heron never had any chart hits, but his work never really went out of style. Kanye West closed his latest album by including an excerpt from Scott-Heron’s spoken-word piece, “Comment No. 1,” on the track “Who Will Survive in America?”
“We never had a lot of airplay, so I never miss it,” Scott-Heron told the Tribune. “I wrote my first book before I knew how to get it published, and we started making music before we knew there was a marketplace for it. I have always worked like that, because the work itself should be motivation enough.”
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Gil Scott-Heron: the essential recordings
“Whatever happened to the people who gave a damn?” Gil Scott-Heron once asked in song.
The Chicago-born artist was a voice of dissent in a music industry that was turning into a big business during the ‘70s, transforming pop hits and party tunes into profit. It wasn’t a particularly hospitable place for Scott-Heron, who died Friday at 62. But he never set his sights on the charts. Instead, he devoted his life to writing, speaking, agitating and thinking out loud about the world. He gave a damn.
He made poetry of confrontation and art out of everyday life. As the critic Nelson George once wrote, Scott-Heron was a “keyboardist, poet, singer, rapper, and teller of uncomfortable truths.” Those truths could encompass everything from chastising the president of the United States to musing about how difficult it sometimes is for a man to tell his child, “I love you.”
An uncompromising artist working in a machine that thrives on compromise, Scott-Heron was an imperfect fit for the disco and MTV eras, though his “uncomfortable truths” resonated with those who wanted more out of music than just escapist good times. His music was scattered across a hodgepodge of labels, and several of his best albums weren’t widely available until decades later.
The best of his music occurred in a rush of creativity through the ‘70s as he emerged from his teen years, already a published author and a serious student of blues, jazz, Langston Hughes and LeRoi Jones. He stumbled into the business of making records because a respected elder, veteran jazz producer Bob Thiele, encouraged him. He had a lot to say, producing an album a year for a decade-plus while touring relentlessly with the band he built with his college friend, keyboardist Brian Jackson.
Though Scott-Heron is often typecast as a rap progenitor — a label he steadfastly rejected — he more accurately suggested a mix of Richard Pryor’s darkly comical oratory, beat poetry and blues-inflected ballad-singing. Musicians more steeped in jazz than funk accompanied him, and the music embodied many of the values of ‘70s jazz fusion, for better or worse. There were elastic time signatures and flowing keyboard melodies, but there were also plenty of meandering flute solos. Even amid the pastel arrangements, Scott-Heron’s rich, mahogany voice commanded attention.
He left behind dozens of recordings. How to get a handle on this multi-faceted artist? Here’s where to start:
“Small Talk at 125th and Lenox” (1970): The signature “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” more than any other explains why in retrospect he became known as the “rap godfather.” With its clever wordplay and biting humor, it clearly had an impact on the careers of hip-hop mainstays Chuck D and KRS-One, among many others.
“Pieces of a Man” (1971): His second and most fully realized album reprises “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” and points toward his influences in “Lady Day and John Coltrane.” It ranges from reflective (“I Think I’ll Call It Morning”) to harrowing (the junkie’s lament “Home is Where the Hatred Is”).
“Winter in America” (1973): “The Bottle” grooves even as it distills the horrors of addiction. The spoken-word “H20gate Blues” transcends dated references to the Watergate scandal with savage humor and punning rhymes.
“From South Africa to South Carolina” (1975): “What’s the word? Brother, tell me have you heard from Johannesburg?” Scott-Heron’s first major-label album portrays him as a global griot, traveling from continent to continent to spread the news. Progressive FM stations embraced the shuffling funk protest anthem “Johannesburg” while “South Carolina (Barnwell)” casts a skeptical eye on the nuclear-power industry years before the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl meltdowns.
“The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron,” (1978): A collection of spoken-word pieces, touching on everything from presidential pardons to immigrant murders. In the lineage of the Last Poets and Oscar Brown Jr., these proto-raps embody Scott-Heron’s maxim that “there are at least 500 shades of the blues.”
“The Best of Gil-Scott Heron” (1984): A solid one-disc overview of his classic period, plus a more rhythmically aggressive new track, “Re-Ron,” aimed at a certain chief of state.
“Spirits” (1994): After a 12-year break from recording, Scott-Heron returns in top form on tracks in which he schools his hip-hop proteges (“Message to the Messengers”) and documents his struggles with the drug addiction that would eventually consume him (“The Other Side,” Pts. I-III).
“I’m New Here” (2010): After years of drug addiction, Scott-Heron sounds at death’s door on this disturbing, final recording, a mix of chilled-out atmospherics and late-night monologues.