Gil Scott-Heron, 1949-2011

Gil Scott-Heron never had a top 40 hit, and certainly never had a platinum album. Yet when his death at age 62 was announced on late afternoon May 27, it became a trending topic across the Internet. His impact resonated beyond sales metrics and radio spins.

His epitaph will be summarized as a pioneer of hip-hop music and coiner of the phrase “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” First recorded as a spoken-word piece for his 1970 debut Small Talk At 125th And Lenox, and then as a jazz-funk piece on 1971’s Pieces of a Man, “The Revolution” weaves around early 70s iconography like old-school civil rights activist Roy Wilkins wearing red-black-and-green jumpsuits and the TV soap Search for Tomorrow. While the pop banalities he rails against have faded from memory, the poem endures as a parable that the real world moves faster than any media, corporation or government can anticipate.

The “godfather of hip-hop” tag is also reductive. Yes, Scott-Heron delivered many spoken-word pieces in a rhythmic style that prefigured rap, particularly the polemical style of Public Enemy (whose “Pollywannacracka” was vintage Scott-Heron). But as a musician he evaded categorization. His recordings, frequently made in tandem with multi-instrumentalist Brian Jackson, ranged from soul-jazz and funk to urban folk and blues. Some of the tracks on Pieces of a Man could be played alongside Joni Mitchell’s Blue, particularly the heartbreaking title track and “The Prisoner.” And “The Bottle,” a number from 1974’s Winter in America that was the closest he ever got to a hit, could be mixed with Eddie Kendricks’ “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” and other proto-disco classics. Scott-Heron called it all “bluesology.”

When industry executive Clive Davis signed Scott-Heron to Arista Records in the mid-70s, he promoted the Harlem, New York artist by calling him the black Bob Dylan. Davis couldn’t turn Scott-Heron into a rock star, but the Dylan reference stuck. It’s a curious comparison: Dylan is a trickster who has shifted and evolved over five decades. Scott-Heron had a knack for satire, too – check his cutting on the 1975 spoken-word piece “Pardon Our Analysis (We Beg Your Pardon),” a devastating critique against President Ford’s pardon of President Nixon. But he was no surrealist. He was deadly earnest, and his guttural voice, which he often inflected with bits of heartbreaking anguish, had the sound of unvarnished honesty. He spoke truth to power with a velocity that some listeners found uncomfortable, especially newer ones uneducated in the racially polarizing, us-or-them hothouse of black revolutionary politics.

Scott-Heron loved to chop it up about current affairs, and some of his pieces like “Johannesburg” are like time capsules of late-20th century activism. He also sang about the disenfranchised, from the working-class man who goes crazy after losing his job on “Pieces of a Man” to the tormented junkies of “Home is Where the Hatred Is” and “Angel Dust.” He filled his voice with so much emotion that it often cracked. He was understandably wary when hip-hop, a genre that showed early promise as the CNN of black America, evolved into something more complex and less committed to progressive ideals. On “Message to the Messengers,” a piece from his 1994 comeback album Spirits, he said, “If you’re gonna be teachin’ folks be sure you know what you’re sayin’.” He delivered these words even as his substance abuse became more public – personally, I heard rumors about it as early as the mid-90s – and culminated in a series of arrests on possession charges.

Last year, Scott-Heron experienced a curious revival. XL Recordings co-founder Richard Russell visited him while imprisoned at Rikers, and eventually convinced him to collaborate on a new project. The lugubrious trip-hop of I’m New Here was an uneven product of Russell’s curious vision of Scott-Heron as a fallen hero. (As Scott-Heron put it in a New Yorker profile last year, “All the dreams you show up in are not your own.”) Nevertheless, I’m New Here and its 2011 sequel, Jamie xx’s remix album We’re New Here; and Kanye West’s sampling of “Comment #1” for his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy re-introduced Scott-Heron to the Pitchfork generation. Scott-Heron’s debilitating crack addiction may suggest a cautionary tale, but his life was no tragedy.

(May 29, 2011)

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