Sunday, May 29, 2011
RIP Gil Scott-Heron (1949 - 2011)
Scott-Heron was one of those cats who never had anything resembling a hit on the pop charts, yet inspires reverence among those in the know, and was extremely influential to artists in a number of genres. He was also a complex and deeply flawed character; while his songs spoke eloquently and powerfully about the ills facing African-Americans, he spent most of his life from the early 80s onward in the grip of crack cocaine, and spent several years in jail in the 2000s for drug-related offences. It always seemed almost inconceivable that such a fate could befall a man as intelligent and positive as he. He did manage to release an album in 2010 (his first in 16 years), entitled I'm New Here.
I managed to catch the man live in the mid-90s, touring off what was his then-comeback album, Spirits. Gil was only in his mid-40s but I'd guessed him to be at least 20 years older due to his weathered, emaciated appearance. From that underrated album, Don't Give Up is not one of his better-known tracks, but it represents the breadth of his musical oeuvre, with his distinctive spoken/rapped delivery and blues-soaked singing over a jazzy groove. It's sad listening to these lyrics today, which reflect on his many frailties yet offer hope for a salvation that was never to come.
The song that most people know Gil Scott-Heron for was one of his very earliest releases, The Revolution will not be Televised. While the song's many pop-cultural references have long since dated, its fierce critique of television and mass consumerism's effect on societal consciousness is just as relevant now as it was back in 1970.
Scott-Heron has often been dubbed "The Godfather of Rap", something of a misnomer and a label he was apparently not fond of. His distinctive brand of poetry set to music did not directly give rise to hip-hop, although he was very influential to later generations of rappers. In many ways he resembled his contemporaries, The Last Poets, and like them is frequently associated with the black militancy of the era. But Scott-Heron's politics were often more nuanced, and in his poem Brother he skewers those so-called black revolutionaries who were more concerned with superficial displays of pride than actually bringing about positive change.
While his first album was primarily poetry accompanied by conga beats, his subsequent work revealed his more musical leanings. He played keys while singing in an unmistakable baritone that was unpolished but soulful and jazz-inflected.
We Almost Lost Detroit is from his 1977 album Bridges. Hip-hop fans might recognise chunks of the song sampled in Black Star's Brown Skin Lady and Common's The People.
The Bottle is one of Scott-Heron's better-known works, from his 1974 album Winter in America. On flute is his long-time collaborator Brian Jackson.