Often mentioned in the same sentence as The Last Poets as a forbearer of hip-hop, Gil Scott-Heron created smooth, progressive poetry and backed it with the soulful, bluesy sounds his of backing band, Brian Jackson and The Midnight Band. While he successfully crossed over to R&B radio with the slicker, more pop songs that he wrote, and generally made music that was more polished and accessible than the drums and poetry of The Last Poets, The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron is a more stripped-down affair, capturing Scott-Heron delivering his poems over minimal musical backdrops.
The album, a reissue of a 1978 collection but with bonus tracks, includes six tracks recorded in the 1970s and one from 1990. The latter is the album’s one throwaway, a piece about the arms race crossing over into space that is marred by cheesy synthesizers and a too-slick demeanor, and was likely included because of the presence of Paul Weller on keyboards. Coming as it does from the ‘70s, the album is on one level a quick recap of the important social and political issues of the day, told from the perspective of the people not the powerful, a sort of mini-People’s History of the United States, the ‘70s version. Scott-Heron hits on Watergate (“H20 Gate Blues”), Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon (“We Beg Your Pardon America”), police brutality (“Jose Campos Torres”), the CIA’s involvement in other countries’ governments and wars (“The Ghetto Code”) and the Bicentennial celebration (“Bicentnial Blues”).
But what makes Gil Scott-Heron’s poems so powerful is that they don’t serve just as snapshots of a time past, put seem as pertinent today as ever. For the basic issues he’s taking about—our country’s military presence abroad, the rising prison population, political corruption, the growing influence of the wealthiest corporations on governmental policy, police brutality, etc.—have not disappeared in the last 30 years, and in some cases are continually growing worse. It’s hard to hear Scott-Heron say “Ask them what we’re fighting for and they never mention the economics of war” and not see the relevance still today.
Gil Scott Heron’s poetry is so powerful in part because of the issues he raises, but his delivery, style and articulateness can’t go unmentioned. A few of the tracks here are live, and the audience’s reactions drive home the humor and general friendly tone that Scott-Heron exudes, even while ripping our government to shreds (and rightfully so). He also uses repetition and verbal devices, taking a phrase and building a poem around the permutations of it. “The Ghetto Code” uses the letter ‘C’ to jump into all sorts of issues, while the first track on the album leads off with a faux phone call (famously used by Boogie Down Productions on their classic “Why Is That?”): “Click! Whirr Click! ‘I’m sorry, the government you have elected is inoperative’.”
The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron is one of a few of his albums that TVT has reissued. Scott-Heron is still around, and still performing live. This release is not only a testament that his words are still important, but an incisive kick in our collective American behind, a call for us to pay attention to what’s going on around us and to speak up about it.