Sunday, 29 May 2011
Gil Scott-Heron RIP
Gil Scott-Heron, who died on May 27 aged 62, was a composer, musician, poet and author whose writings and recordings provided a vivid, and often stinging, commentary on social injustice and the black American experience; his declamatory singing style, allied to the overtly political content of his work, made him widely recognised as one of the inspirational figures of rap music.
10:31AM BST 28 May 2011
Scott-Heron first came to attention with his 1970 recording The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, an attack on the mindless and anaesthetising effects of the mass media and a call to arms to the black community: “You will not be able to stay home, brother./You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out./You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,/Skip out for beer during commercials,/Because the revolution will not be televised.”
Written when Scott Heron was just 18, it first appeared in the form of a spoken-word recitation, his impassioned incantation accompanied only by congas and bongo drums, on his debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox.
The following year Scott-Heron recorded the song for a second time, this time with a full band, for his album Pieces of a Man, and as the B-side to the single Home Is Where The Hatred Is.
The song went on to be covered, sampled and referenced in innumerable recordings, the title entering the lexicon of contemporary phraseology. In 2010 it was named as one of the top 20 political songs by the New Statesman.
Scott-Heron’s music reflected something of the militancy and self-assertiveness of such theorists and polemicists as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. Over the course of some 20 albums he produced a series of sardonic and biting commentaries on ghetto life and racial injustice, including Whitey’s On The Moon, Home Is Where The Hatred Is, The Bottle (a lamentation about people squandering their lives on liquor, set to an irresistibly seductive Latin beat) and the anti-apartheid anthem Johannesburg. But anger was only colour in Scott-Heron’s music palette; songs such as Must Be Something and It’s Your World were moving affirmations of faith in the power of the human spirit.
A tall, rail-thin man with a wispy goatee beard and a countenance of prophetic gravity, Scott-Heron sang in a rough, declamatory voice that was once described as a mixture of “mahogany, sunshine and tears” and that always emphasised lyrical content over technique. The bass player Ron Carter, who played on Scott-Heron’s second album, Pieces of a Man, described it as “a voice like you would have for Shakespeare”.
His vocal style, and his political message, would be a major influence on such groups as Public Enemy and NWA, and would lead to his being described as “the godfather of rap”. It was a title that Scott-Heron himself always deplored: his music covered a far broader and more sophisticated emotional range than the crude rhetoric of so much rap music, which he dismissed on the ground that “you don’t really see inside the person. Instead, you just get a lot of posturing.” He preferred to describe himself as “a bluesologist”.
Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago on April 1 1949. He was named after his father, Gilbert Heron, a Jamaican who had settled in America, where his prowess at football (soccer) brought him to the attention of talent scouts from Scotland; in the early 1950s Gilbert snr played football professionally for Celtic and Third Lanark, earning the nickname “the Black Arrow”, before returning to Chicago. It was there that he met Gil’s mother, Bobbie, a librarian and an accomplished singer who had once performed with the New York Oratorial Society.
Scott-Heron would encapsulate his early years in a poem, Coming From A Broken Home: “Womenfolk raised me and I was full grown/before I knew I came from a broken home.” His parents separated when he was two, and he was sent to live with his maternal grandmother, Lillie Scott, in Jackson, Tennessee. Scott-Heron would credit his grandmother with being one of the primary influences on his life: “[She] raised me to not sit around and wait for people to guess what’s on your mind — I was gonna have to say it.”
Cultivating his interest in music and literature, she bought him a second-hand piano from a local funeral parlour and introduced him to the writings of the Harlem Renaissance novelist and poet Langston Hughes, who utilised the rhythms of jazz in his poetry and who became a major influence.
When Gil was 12 his grandmother died, and he moved to New York to be reunited with his mother, who brought up her son on her own. On the recommendation of his high school English teacher, Gil won a scholarship to a private school, the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, before going on to study at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where Langston Hughes had once been a student.
In his second year at university he was given leave of absence to write a novel, The Vulture (1970), a thriller about ghetto life, while working as a clerk at a dry cleaners. On graduation he published a second novel, The Nigger Factory (1971), about campus unrest, and a collection of poetry, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox.
By now Scott-Heron had begun performing his poetry in coffee houses and jazz clubs, where he was approached by the jazz producer Bob Thiele who, as head of the Impulse label, had recorded such artists as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as being the co-writer, with George David Weiss, of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World.
Thiele signed Scott-Heron to his own Flying Dutchman label, and released Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, a live recording of one of Scott-Heron’s club performances. The follow-up Pieces of Man brought him together on record for the first time with Brian Jackson, a keyboard-player, flautist and composer whom he had met at Lincoln University, and who would become his principal collaborator on nine albums.
With Jackson, Scott-Heron refined an intoxicating hybrid of jazz, Latin and Afro idioms that established him in the vanguard of black American music in the 1970s. The success of a single version of The Bottle in 1974 led to his being signed to a major label, Arista. He enjoyed further chart success in 1976 with Johannesburg and, in 1978, with the anti-drug song Angel Dust: “Please, children would you listen, Just ain’t where it’s at. You won’t remember what you’re missin’, but down some dead end streets, there ain’t no turnin’ back.”
These lyrics were to prove ironic, for by the end of the 1980s Scott-Heron was himself beginning to be undermined by drugs use. Between 1970 and 1982 he made 13 albums, but it would be a further 11 years before the release of his 14th, Spirits; the album’s centrepiece was a gruelling three-part explication of the hells of drug addiction, The Other Side. While he continued to perform intermittently, Scott-Heron became a notoriously unreliable figure.
Monique de Latour, a New Zealander photographer who met Scott-Heron in 1995 and lived with him for several years, described how he would frequently vanish for days on end without explanation, often retreating to one of a number of flophouse hotels in Harlem.
In the hope of shocking Scott-Heron out of his addiction, de Latour took to photographing him when he was comatose on drugs and hanging the pictures on the walls; but he refused to look at them. “He didn’t like to look at himself at all,” she recalled. “He didn’t like to look in the mirror.”
In 2000 Scott-Heron was sentenced to 18 to 24 months of in-patient rehabilitation for possession of cocaine and two crack pipes, but given leave to complete a European tour. After failing even to turn up at a subsequent court hearing he was sentenced to between one and three years in prison. Released on parole, in 2003 he was again charged with possession of a controlled substance after cocaine he had hidden in the lining of his bag showed up on an airport x-ray. And in 2006 he was sentenced to two to four years in a New York State prison for violating a plea deal on a drug possession charge by leaving a rehabilitation centre.
In 2010 there was a resurgence of interest in his work when he returned with his first studio album in 16 years, I’m New Here. The record had come about after an English fan and record producer, Richard Russell, had written to Scott-Heron and then visited him in prison on Rikers Island in 2006.
The record put Scott-Heron into an abrasively contemporary musical setting, placing his gruff, time-worn spoken-word recitations — including a reworking of the Robert Johnson blues Me and the Devil — in a setting of dark, down-tempo beats, loops and samples.
Gil Scott-Heron was married to the actress Brenda Sykes, with whom he had a daughter.