Considered by many to be the first MC ever, Gil Scott-Heron was a soul and jazz spoken word poet whose work with musician Brian Jackson, notably their 1970s albums Pieces of a Man and Winter in America, inspired the birth of hip hop.
The soulful, plaintive blues that the late Gil Scott-Heron made his own reflected a man who could recognize his own troubles. He had plenty to draw upon — he endured a complicated family life, battles with drug addiction, spells in prison and becoming HIV-positive, which would contribute to his death at 62. And yet he also had a fascinating career spanning 40 years, from his youthful debut in 1970 to a last Indian summer in 2010. From straight up folk, blues, soul and funk to spoken-word and proto-rap that would influence a generation of MCs and activists that followed him, his is a rich, often sad story, but also one of restless creativity.
Music and Poetry
Born to an opera-singer mother, Bobbie Scott-Heron, and a soccer-playing father, Gil Heron, in Chicago on April 1, 1949, Gilbert Scott-Heron endured a troubled start to life as his parents split when he was very young. He went to live with his maternal grandmother, Lily Scott, in Jackson, Tennessee, at two years old. Lily was active in the civil rights movement and infused in her grandson pride in his ethnicity and anger at inequality.
After his grandmother’s death in 1961, Scott-Heron returned to New York, moving in with his mother in the Bronx. Showing an aptitude for writing, he received a full scholarship to The Fieldston School before moving on to Lincoln University, Pennsylvania.
It was here that he met Brian Jackson, whom he would go on to collaborate with on numerous classic recordings. At this time Scott-Heron was immersing himself in the writing of Langston Hughes and the deeply political music and poetry of The Last Poets. (“After a gig he came backstage and said, ‘Listen, can I start a group like you guys?’ Abiodun Oyewole of that group told The New Yorker in 2010.) Both would influence the novels he was writing at the time. He dropped out of Lincoln to publish The Vulture in 1970, which would be followed by 1972’s The Nigger Factory. With their modest success and his burgeoning collaborations with Jackson, Scott-Heron decided not to return to Lincoln. Hardly surprising, considering his second novel’s trenchant analysis of black student life.
The New Black Poet, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’
Even while he drafted his novels, Scott-Heron was penning poetry and performing it with Jackson. He was signed to the New York jazz label Flying Dutchman by Bob Thiele (a producer who worked with many jazz greats including John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie, and who co-wrote Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful World”) and released his debut album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, in 1970. Sparse and stripped down, it mostly featured Scott-Heron performing his stanzas over congas. But with strikingly political tracks such as “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Whitey on the Moon” — and the cover’s clever marketing of him as “a new black poet” – Scott-Heron still made quite an impact.
Breakthrough and ‘The Bottle’
“Revolution” would be recycled on 1971’s Pieces of a Man, regarded as Scott-Heron’s first true masterpiece. Here, with Jackson on board, he shifted from poetry to soul to blues effortlessly, displaying his versatility not just in terms of his voice, but also of mood. The anger of “Home is Where the Hatred Is” sits cheek-by-jowl with the joyful and upbeat dedication of “Lady Day and John Coltrane” before the deep melancholy of Pieces of a Man. It’s a fine line to tread, and that Scott-Heron was able to do so was down to the fact that, as The Guardian notes, he “had enough intellectual and musical flexibility to ensure that his medium wasn’t crushed under the ponderous weight of his message.” For his most mainstream album ever, in terms of sound, it’s still challenging and strident lyrically.
The experiments of 1972’s Free Will, his final album for Flying Dutchman, weren’t as popular with critics. The first half is more in the vein of “Pieces,” the second half harks back to “Small Talk” and its experiments in poetry. He then shared billing with Jackson on 1974’s Winter in America, the only album he recorded for Strata-East Records. Politics is front and center again on a long-player whose reputation continues to grow. Its only single, “The Bottle” — perhaps the closest thing to a pop tune Scott-Heron ever conceived despite its subject matter about alcohol abuse — helped it become his biggest album yet, selling more than 300,000 copies. Pitchfork’s Nate Patrin notes that the song “struck club-play paydirt” and “crossed over to the Latin crowds he’d grown up amongst in 60s Chelsea.”
The 1980s: Solo Work, ‘Message to the Messengers’
The 1980s weren’t particularly kind to Scott-Heron. While he released albums in 1980, 1981 and 1982, all of which had moments of vigor, his audience was declining and, without Brian Jackson’s influence, his records lacked a certain lightness of touch to leaven the polemics. He was dropped by Arista in 1985 and wouldn’t release another album until 1994. In many regards, it wasn’t surprising. His voice, which had been so clear and so strident in the 1970s and early 1980s, had been somewhat superseded by the coming wave of rappers; and there were rumors that the demons Scott-Heron had warned his listeners about on songs like “Angel Dust” and “The Bottle” were clutching at him.
Sporadic live shows aside, the only output in these years was the sole track “Let Me See Your ID” for the Artists United Against Apartheid compilation Sun City in 1985. The best way to hear Scott-Heron in these years was in sampled form, although he had mixed feelings about that as he revealed in the same New Yorker interview. “It’s not all bad when you get sampled — hell, you make money. They give you some money to shut you up. I guess to shut you up they should have left you alone.”
After a hiatus he signed to TVT Records and released Spirits in 1994. The opening track, “Message to the Messengers,” was a deeply felt response to those very rappers who had usurped him. However, this wasn’t the angry rant of a man out of time, but a heartfelt plea to less-conscious rappers not to betray the political heritage that Scott-Heron’s peers had fought for. In a bridge to the new generation, he called on A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammed to produce one track.
Drug Abuse and Jail Time
At this point, the demons finally got the upper hand in their battle with Scott-Heron. A messy personal life — including four children by four different mothers — combined with drug addiction, sent him on a downward spiral that would culminate in prison time: he received a one-to-three-year sentence for cocaine possession in 2001, and a six-month bid in 2003 after being arrested with a crack pipe. A plea bargain from the 2001 charge meant that Scott-Heron was required by law to attend an in-patient drug treatment center and, when he subsequently left without permission in 2006, he was sentenced to between two and four years. At this point, Scott-Heron claimed he left only because they wouldn’t provide him with HIV medication — a diagnosis that was later confirmed in a 2008 interview with Marcus Baram for New York magazine. He was paroled in 2007 and, determined to put his troubles behind him, once again began performing and recording.
Last Album: ‘I’m New Here’
Despite the ravages of drug abuse and prison time, Scott-Heron’s innate knack for a punchy, deeply felt phrase had not diminished; neither had the rich-but-cracked timbre of his voice. Released in 2010, I’m New Here, his first studio album in 16 years and his last before his death in 2011, is a collaboration with Richard Russell, owner of XL Recordings. Sad and somber, it’s also partly a poignant love letter to the grandmother who helped raise him. “Staggering,” wrote Jude Rogers in The Guardian in 2009. “You not only get the sense that he’s trying to link hip hop with a broader tradition of storytelling, but that he wants to expand the reach of this music, as well as himself.”
The renewed interest in Scott-Heron made it a busy last couple of years for him, including a tour of Europe, during which he fell ill. He died on May 27, 2011, in New York City, a place whose tribulations and ecstasies he’d so wonderfully sound-tracked.
His death led to an unresolved squabble for his estate between some of his children, and he’s survived by a son, Rumal Rackley, and daughters Raquiyah Kelly-Heron, Gia Scott-Heron and Chegianna Newton. Kanye West — who had both sampled Scott-Heron and been sampled by him — performed at his memorial. Chuck D of Public Enemy — who had borrowed the singer’s “the revolution will not be televised” phrase for the intro of their 1987 album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back — tweeted: “We do what we do and how we do, because of you.”
In 2012 he was posthumously granted a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. A memoir, The Last Holiday, was published by Canongate in 2012.