Public Enemy's Chuck D famously dubbed hip hop the "Black CNN," which must make Gil Scott-Heron, who died last Friday at 62, the Voice of Black America. Later dubbed the "godfather of rap," Scott-Heron's musical musings during the 1970s were like shortwave signals breaking through the static of the United States' post-civil-rights-movement morass.
Scott-Heron would later become as much a cautionary tale for his crack addiction as a catchphrase creator for his signature song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, but even that was part of his all-encompassing embodiment of the black inner-city experience.
In death, however, Scott-Heron reclaims his dignity as his personal defeats pale against his cultural victories, most recently heard on Who Will Survive in America, the closing track of Kanye West's acclaimed 2010 opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy which is given over to a remix of Scott-Heron's 1970 spoken-word song Comment No. 1.
Like his untelevised revolution, Scott-Heron "will not be right back after a message." But his own message lives on in the hip hop that he helped birth.
In Jay-Z's recent book Decoded, he made clear that rap was just musical poetry - which many would say makes Scott-Heron's The Revolution Will not be Televised ground zero. People had married poetry and music before, but it had been sung. What Scott-Heron did differently was prove the power of the spoken word paired with a rhythm track. Though he denied his role in rap's birth, he did admit in the intro to his 1990 poetry collection Now and Then, "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."
Rap may have developed anyway, but it arguably would have become something different. Scott-Heron's lyrical combination of poetic devices and clever wordplay with radical politics, and the way those words flowed over his jazz, soul and funk-based backing tracks, became the blueprint for the more sophisticated and politicized second-wave rappers like Public Enemy and KRS-One (as well as later artists like Rage Against the Machine and Kanye West) who gave rap music its lasting artistic legitimacy. Generations of rappers, from Jungle Brothers and Tupac to Black Star and Common, paid tribute by sampling his seminal works.
Those works covered what Scott-Heron would dub on his 1974 album Winter in America. Though the 1960s celebrated a series of civil-rights victories, they soon began to feel hollow as inner-city poverty soared, activists became passive, drugs and gangs flooded the streets and the skyline glowed orange as slumlords torched their tenements.
At 21, he released Revolution on his 1970 debut Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, a live recording of spoken-word street poetry over congas and bongos. Though inspired by concurrent act The Last Poets, Scott-Heron advanced the style with a series of indelible anthems that reverberate today.
He released 13 albums of social commentary between 1970 and 1982, was one of the first musical guests on Saturday Night Live (at Richard Pryor's insistence) and the first artist signed to Arista Records. He had a pair of sadly prophetic R&B hits with his anti-substance-abuse songs The Bottle and Angel Dust and continued his agit-pop politics with songs against nuclear power ( We Almost Lost Detroit) and former U.S. president Ronald Regan ( B Movie and Re-Ron).
He went largely silent during the rest of the 1980s and 1990s - releasing only one album in 1994 and rereleasing his classics in the late nineties, though he did occasionally play live shows - as he battled crack addiction and contracted HIV.
During the 2000s, he continued to downward spiral with several drug-related jail stints. But he was in the midst of a cultural revival after last year's I'm New Here on XL Recordings (home to Adele), which saw Scott-Heron's vocals placed atop contemporary soundscapes and was later remixed by Jamie xx of Mercury Prize-winners the xx for February's We're New Here.
As news of his death spread over the too-aptly named Memorial Day weekend in the United States, rappers began posting their respects on Twitter, ranging from Talib Kwelli and Ghostface Killah to Eminem and Snoop Dogg. He disavowed his "godfather of rap" moniker - even attacking the art form's materialism and misogyny on 1994's Message to the Messengers - but Scott-Heron's influence will live on. As Chuck D posted, "We do what we do and how we do because of you."
Gil Scott-Heron is best known for his landmark The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and his biggest hit The Bottle, but the musical poet was prolific during his prime. Here are some similarly powerful pieces.
Whitey's on the Moon, 1970
This blackly comic cut goes after the United States' skewed priorities. Contrasting urban decay with the space race, he wonders why "a rat done bit my sister Nell/ with Whitey on the moon."
Home Is Where the Hatred Is, 1971
This soul burner is more socio than political, as Scott-Heron croons about drug addiction's white powder dreams and silent screams; "where the needle marks/ try to heal my broken heart."
Scott-Heron's funky call-and-response jam about the growing rebellion against apartheid drew a connection, as he put it in the album title, From South Africa to South Carolina.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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