I stopped taking hip-hop seriously round about the time it started turning into high pantomime and dollar-grabbing clichés in the early 1990s. Gil Scott-Heron had always represented the original message, refined from the Last Poets’ withering salvos into eloquent, often satirical, comment. This was in an early 1970s, coming off the back off the radical changes which fermented then solidified after the social turmoil and riot-riddled late Sixties, the time when Martin Luther King’s message of hope was blasted away on a Memphis balcony. This was also before corporate record companies started waving dollars in exchange for characters and rhymes originally honed on desolate streets, now willingly moulded into stereotypical cartoons, rebellion turning into money accompanied by clichéd over-production and Autotune sheen, often missing the crucial ghetto humour, even diluting the punk-style DIY party spirit which had started uptown in the early Seventies. Even graffiti, once so vividly eye-blasting on trains, now adorned expensive boutiques.
Whereas the Last Poets, hip-hop’s founding fathers, fired out their early messages as stark, confrontational minimalism over bare drums, Gil Scott-Heron arrived like the Harlem spoagraphic clan’s musically-educated older brother, planting his own barbed urban missives and political assaults over mellow jazz or superfly soul. One writer called him, ‘the black Bob Dylan’.
Talking about the modern hip-hop generation a few years ago, he remarked, ‘They need to study music. I played in several bands before I began my career as a poet. There’s a big difference between putting words over some music, and blending those same words into the music. There’s not a lot of humour. They use a lot of slang and colloquialisms, and you don’t really see inside the person. Instead, you just get a lot of posturing.’
This from a man who ‘kept it real’ as it comes, even succumbing to the very demons he had spoken against as he did time for cocaine possession towards the end of his life. Scott-Heron’s pressure-cooker anger struck endless direct hits at the injustices in his country; all the more dangerous and threatening because of his brilliance as a writer. He was a unique figure, whose influence runs much deeper than often painted, possessing the ability to express the rage and frustration of his people through catchy sound-bites, like ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised‘, while able to convey in words the anger and passions which were previously the domain of free jazz dissidents such as Archie Shepp or Max Roach. Gil never said anything would be easy, and lived that out to the end.
While his rich, innately musical voice slid down like brandy-spiked cream, just the track titles on 1970’s Small Talk At 125th Street & Lenox debut album unveiled his mindset and manifesto: ‘Omen’, ‘Brother’, ‘Evolution [And Flashback]’, ‘Plastic Pattern People’, ‘’Paint it Black’, ‘Who’ll Pay Reparations On My Soul’. Then there’s the ‘Whitey On The Moon’, one of his most profoundly concise, compulsively eloquent but bitter lyrics; ‘A rat done bit my sister Nell, Her face and arms began to swell, I can’t pay no doctor’s bill, Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still, the man jus’ upped my rent last night, no hot water, no toilets, no lights’, each line punctuated by the incredulous but seething punchline: ‘But whitey’s on the moon’. It’s easily applicable to modern scenarios, such as the immeasurable hardship being caused by government cuts as a countryside-flattening high-speed rail link costing more than the national debt is on the cards just so people can get from London to Birmingham a bit faster.
Obviously, Scott-Heron was a supreme proto-rapper, but his jazz-soul excursions with Brian Jackson took the spoken word into new, previously-unheard dimensions, notably on the Pieces Of A Man and Winter In America albums of the early 1970s, although last year’s I’m New Here showed him battered but still biting, now infusing his comments with electronica.
Although born in Chicago (weirdly, Gil’s Jamaican dad, nicknamed ‘The Black Arrow’, played for Celtic in the 1950s), his parents’ separating sent him to Tennessee aged two, then back to his mother at 12, now living in the Bronx. He was already writing, which won him a scholarship to the Fieldston School, before attending Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University (partly because his biggest influence Langston Hughes had chosen it too). Here, he met pianist Brian Jackson, the pair forming a band called Black & Blues, while writing the novels The Vulture and The Nigger Factory. A Last Poets gig at Lincoln was his epiphany, inspiring him to return to New York City, where he began his recording career with the afore-mentioned debut, voicing his lyrics over congas and percussion like the Poets, recorded live in a club at that location. With subject matter dealing with TV superficiality, the hypocrisy of some black activists and inner city life, he started on similar turf to the Poets, listing rich influences, including Richie Havens, Coltrane, Otis Redding, Billie Holiday, Malcolm X and Nina Simone.
1971’s Pieces Of A Man brought in song structures, with Scott-Heron singing too, backed by sublime rhythm section of bassist Ron Carter (who had played with Eric Dolphy and Miles Davis’ early 60s group, among many others) and ace session drummer Bernard Purdie, plus Jackson on keyboards and Hubert laws on flute and sax. The music referenced blues and jazz forms, which Scott-Heron described as ‘bluesology, the science of how things feel’. This was the album which solidified his politics, wisdom and lyricism, brutally but beautifully woven into tracks such as ‘Home is Where The Hatred Is’ and aforementioned ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’. The same musicians featured on 1972’s Free Will (Carter replaced by Jerry Jemmott), featuring ‘Then He Wrote Meditations‘ in tribute to John Coltrane and foreboding warnings such as ‘Speed Kills‘. 1974’s Winter In America was another masterpiece, more stripped down and containing ‘The Bottle‘, another of his most acclaimed ghetto observations, inspired by the morning queue for the office. In 1978, he scored an R&B hit single with ‘Angel Dust’. The rest of the decade saw a live album and spoken word set, The Mind Of Gil Scott-Heron, in 1979.
Scott-Heron only released four albums during the 1980s (1980, Real Eyes, Reflections and Moving Target], temporarily ceasing recording after being dropped by Arista in 1986, but returning on TVT in 1993 with Spirits, which included the classic ’Message To The Messengers’, which laid into the modern hip-hop of which he had been dubbed Godfather, decrying modern rappers’ greed and boasting over-shadowing concern for change social comment, even the lack of writing ability.
Living in New York in the Eighties, the decimating effect of crack’s dramatic rise on the poorer areas was startling in its swiftness. By the 1990s, although a renowned critic of Reaganomics during the previous decade, Scott-Heron had also fallen victim of the devastating new escape valve, busted for bugle in 2001 and sentenced to one to three years in a New York state jail. He was released in 2003 but sent back for another two to four years for leaving a drug rehab centre he had agreed to attend as part of a drug possession plea deal. He was released in 2007, confirming that he was HIV positive the following year, but returned to playing live and recording new versions of his old songs. In 2009, he signed to XL Recordings, at the behest of label boss Richard Russell, a long time fan who produced I’m New Here in New York, released in February, 2010. It was a smoking, atmospheric return after 16 years, led by stunning single ‘Me And The Devil’. Earlier this year, the album was reworked by Jamie xx, taking black rhymes into areas they‘ve rarely ventured in the past.
Gil Scott-Heron died on May 27 at St Luke’s Hospital, New York. ‘RIP GSH…and we do what we do because of you,’ said Public Enemy’s Chuck D, while Eminen declared, ‘He influenced all of hip-hop.’
I love the Sugarhill Gang as much as anyone but, while they provided the escape, Scott-Heron struck at the problem. He didn’t just influence all hip-hop, that‘s too restricting. Like all great writers, Scott-Heron’s words will never date as they encapsulate an era in history, while his impact will always be felt, no matter how subliminally. Unlike many of today’s hip-hop megastars, he didn’t set himself up as a role model or god-like entity, remaining a vulnerable commentator who lived the life until it claimed him. The tragedy is, many simply will have never heard him. If that’s the case, a Youtube frenzy is definitely in order; witness a master at work.