I wish I had discovered Gil Scott-Heron at least 20 years before I heard him first, which was just last year. In March this year, I wrote about his most recent (and as it would turn out, last) album, I’m New Here, the first album he released after a hiatus of 16 years. Scott-Heron died on May 27. He was 62 and had just got back to the US from a tour in Europe. As a new fan, I was saddened by the news—as I imagine many others more fortunate to have heard him in the seventies, eighties and nineties would also have been. Scott-Heron was a poet and musician and many, including the stars of contemporary hip-hop and rap, think he was the progenitor of those genres. Shortly after his death, rapper and producer Lupe Fiasco wrote a touching poem on him and put it up on his website.
But Scott-Heron was not a rapper. His longtime collaboration with another musician, Brian Jackson, produced works that are a unique blend of soul and jazz and spoken words. After I heard I’m New Here, I dug up more of his albums—he has a staggering 15 studio albums and plenty of live ones and compilations. His music is an amalgam of blues, soul and jazz but it is his lyrics that are the most striking—in the seventies and the eighties they were politically charged and dealt with the issues of that period—whether it was apartheid in South Africa or the Watergate scandal in the US or women’s rights. Scott-Heron’s lyrics were powerful—he was a poet, after all, and some dubbed him the black Bob Dylan—and it is not surprising that several generations of rappers and hip-hop artists tipped their hats to him over the past three decades. He was also called the godfather of hip-hop.
If you haven’t heard Gil Scott-Heron, you should. Immediately. And, if you don’t know where to begin, given his vast oeuvre, I would suggest finding a composition called The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. If any one of his songs can epitomise the scale of influence that the man had, it would have to be this one. The Revolution… is at once a poem and a song that Scott-Heron recorded back in 1970. In its earliest avatar it was a recited poem accompanied by percussion instruments. In later versions, a full-band accompanied him. It’s a song that has been covered, sampled and even parodied by scores of singers and referenced by musicians as diverse as Elvis Costello and Gorillaz.
The most attractive bit about Scott-Heron’s works, as I said, is the lyrics but the real magnet is his deep, baritone vocals. His is a voice meant for reciting, reading or just talking. On many of his albums there are vocal interludes and introductions that set the context for the song that follows and those interludes are as good as the songs are.
Within the week after he died, the Internet was awash with blog posts about him, free uploads of little-known concerts and remixes. It was among those that I found a gem, a remixed 17-track tribute to the man by Cookin’ Soul. Unsurprisingly, the digital offering (it is free and downloadable) is called The Revolution Is Being Televised, a cheeky tweak on the title of the famous original. Cookin’ Soul is a trio of DJs and producers from Spain and its members go by the names of Big Size, Milton and Zock. They’ve been re-mixing and mashing up big artists for a while now and a few years back their controversial mixtape, OJayZis (in which they mashed together JayZ and Oasis) got panned and raved about equally by critics. Cookin’ Soul’s tribute mixtape is not like what Scott-Heron’s albums are—spare or heavily steeped in jazz and blues. It’s sampled and bassy. There’s a nightclubby punch that wakes you up and makes you tap your feet or simply sway. You can, if you like, dance to the mixtape but despite all of that, its soul is pure Gil Scott-Heron. It’s the best tribute to an artist that I have heard.
As a fan—albeit a shameful late-comer—I will miss Gil Scott-Heron and have made it a mission to track down as many of his recorded works as I can, especially the early ones such as Pieces of a Man. Here is a sample from the title track’s lyrics: “I saw my daddy greet the mailman. And I heard the mailman say: “Now don’t you take this letter to heart now, Jimmy ’cause they’ve laid off nine others today. He didn’t know what he was saying. He could hardly understand. That he was only talking to pieces of a man. I saw the thunder and heard the lightning. And felt the burden of his shame. And for some unknown reason, he never turned my way.” Gil Scott-Heron. R.I.P.