During his 62-years alive Gil Scott-Heron probably got used to being routinely described as the first rapper or the godfather of hip-hop but, with all due respect to the genre he helped inspire, he was more important than this suggests.
As well as releasing several milestone albums of spoken word proto-hip hop and melismatic jazz, soul and blues, he was a poet, a novelist and a revolutionary – one of the most essential Afro-American voices ringing out from street level on the state of his country’s failing experiments in unification and integration. And it is for all of these reasons we should remember him on the fifth anniversary of his death.
Scott-Heron’s experiences as a child forged his world view – he was always the round peg in the square hole. He was born on April Fool’s Day 1949 in Chicago (interesting fact: his father, a Jamaican-born professional footballer, moved to Scotland after being signed by Celtic).
After his parents’ early divorce, he went to live with his grandmother in Jackson, Tennessee, where he was one of three black children chosen to attend an all white school as part of an integration programme. The racism he suffered at this school, scarred him for life. After the death of his grandmother he moved in with his mother in the Bronx, NY, where he also got to see some of the worst injustices modern urban life in America had to offer.
The young man had an undeniable gift for words though – he was a still a teenager when he wrote his first volume of poetry and his first novel, The Vulture. He scored a place at Lincoln University, Pennsylvania in 1969 and even though he would only last a year, this was to prove a key year for him.
He saw The Last Poets – an Afrocentric spoken word group, who performed pieces over thundering conga rhythms and were a massive influence; he completed writing ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, the track that made his name; and he met musical co-conspirator Brian Jackson who would form the backbone of his group.
Combining various strands of blues, jazz, soul and funk to provide musical backing to stories that were by turns heart-rending, hilarious and bone chilling, Scott-Heron turned out album after album of undeniable brilliance such as ‘Small Talk At 125th And Lennox’, ‘Pieces Of A Man’ and ‘Winter In America’ all the way through the 1970s.
After the dawn of the 1980s his crippling addiction to cocaine slowed him down but he still managed to produce the ‘Spirits’ album in 1994. The opening track ‘A Message To The Messengers’ addressed the gangsta rappers (some of whom claimed him as an influence).
Despite spending the last decade in and out of jail after drug busts and in failing health, a long overdue rehabilitation of his art in the popular consciousness was well under way.
In 2010 he released ‘I’m New Here’ with the help of XL Records owner Richard Russell, which was remixed memorably in2011 by Jamie of The xx, and Kanye West paid tribute to him by building the closing track on ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ (‘Who Will Survive In America’) around his words. The world is fractionally dimmer without him but his message lives on.
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Gil Scott-Heron, 1949-2011. RIP.
“Let me lay down by a stream/ Miles from everything/ Rivers of my fathers/ Could you carry me home?”