Gil Scott-Heron passed away Friday, May 27, 2011. Widely acclaimed as the “Godfather Of Rap & Hip-Hop”, Gil Scott-Heron clearly “gave a damn” about social injustice and “the powers that be”. Gil Scott-Heron made sure that his message pointed out the real problems that the corporate institutions and social norms, that we take for granted, cause and perpetuate.
Long before Public Enemy urged the need to “Fight the Power” or N.W.A. offered a crude rebuke of the police, Gil-Scott Heron was articulating the rage and the disillusionment of the black masses through song and spoken word.
Scott-Heron, widely considered one of the godfathers of rap with his piercing social and political prose laid against the backdrop of minimalist percussion, flute and other instrumentation, died on Friday at age 62. His was a life full of groundbreaking, revolutionary music and personal turmoil that included a battle with crack cocaine and stints behind bars in his later years.
Musician and singer Michael Franti, who also is known for work that has examined racial and social injustices, perhaps summed up the dichotomy of Scott-Heron in a statement Saturday that described him as “a genius and a junkie.”
“The first time I met him in San Francisco in 1991 while working as a doorman at the Kennel Klub, my heart was broken to see a hero of mine barely able to make it to the stage, but when he got there he was clear as crystal while singing and dropping knowledge bombs in his between song banter,” said Franti, who described himself as a longtime friend. “His view of the world was so sad and yet so inspiring.”
Scott-Heron was known for work that reflected the fury of black America in the post-civil rights era and spoke to the social and political disparities in the country. His songs often had incendiary titles — “Home is Where the Hatred Is” or “Whitey on the Moon” — and through spoken word and song he tapped the frustration of the masses.
He came to prominence in the 1970s as black America was grappling with the violent losses of some of its most promising leaders and what seemed to many to be the broken promises of the civil rights movement.
“It’s winter in America, and all of the healers have been killed or been betrayed,” lamented Scott-Heron in the song “Winter in America.”
Scott-Heron recorded the song that would make him famous, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” which critiqued mass media, for the album “125th and Lenox” in Harlem in the 1970s. He followed up that recording with more than a dozen albums, collaborating mostly with musician Brian Jackson.
Though he was never a mainstream artist, he was an influential voice — so much so that his music was considered to be a precursor of rap and he influenced generations of hip-hop artists that would follow. When asked, however, he typically downplayed his integral role in the foundation of the genre.
“If there was any individual initiative that I was responsible for it might have been that there was music in certain poems of mine, with complete progression and repeating ‘hooks,’ which made them more like songs than just recitations with percussion,” he wrote in the introduction to his 1990 collection of poems, “Now and Then.”
In later years, he would become known more for his battle with drugs such as crack cocaine than his music. His addiction led to stints in jail and a general decline: In a 2008 interview with New York magazine, he said he had been living with HIV for years, but he still continued to perform and put out music; his last album, which came out this year, was a collaboration with artist Jamie xx, “We’re Still Here,” a reworking of Scott-Heron’s acclaimed “I’m New Here,” which was released in 2010.
He also was still smoking crack, as detailed in a New Yorker article last year.
“Ten to fifteen minutes of this, I don’t have pain,” he said. “I could have had an operation a few years ago, but there was an 8 percent chance of paralysis. I tried the painkillers, but after a couple of weeks I felt like a piece of furniture. It makes you feel like you don’t want to do anything. This I can quit anytime I’m ready.”
He referred to his signature mix of percussion, politics and performed poetry as bluesology or Third World music. But then he said it was simply “black music or black American music.”
“Because black Americans are now a tremendously diverse essence of all the places we’ve come from and the music and rhythms we brought with us,” he wrote.
Even those who may have never heard of Scott-Heron’s name nevertheless knew his music. His influence on generations of rappers has been demonstrated through sampling of his recordings by artists, from Common to Mos Def to Tupac Shakur. Kanye West closes out the last track of his latest album with a long excerpt of Scott-Heron’s “Who Will Survive in America.”
Throughout his musical career, he took on political issues of his time, including apartheid in South Africa and nuclear arms. He had been shaped by the politics of the 1960s and black literature, especially the Harlem Renaissance.
Scott-Heron was born in Chicago on April 1, 1949. He was raised in Jackson, Tenn., and in New York before attending college at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Before turning to music, he was a novelist, at age 19, with the publication of “The Vulture,” a murder mystery.
He also was the author of “The Nigger Factory,” a social satire.
His final works continued his biting social commentary. “I’m New Here” included songs with titles such as “Me and the Devil” and “New York Is Killing Me.”
In a 2010 interview with Fader magazine, Scott-Heron admitted he “could have been a better person. That’s why you keep working on it.”
“If we meet somebody who has never made a mistake, let’s help them start a religion. Until then, we’re just going to meet other humans and help to make each other better.”
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.
Scott-Heron died Friday at the age of 62, according to his U.K. publisher. The Pitchfork Web site said the report was confirmed by a record-company publicist.
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 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 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.”
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.”