In memory of Gil Scott-Heron

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One of the most import­ant pro­gen­it­ors of rap music, Gil Scott-Heron’s aggress­ive, no-non­sense street poetry inspired a legion of intel­li­gent rap­pers while his enga­ging song­writ­ing skills placed him square in the R&B charts later in his career, backed by increas­ingly con­tem­por­ary pro­duc­tion cour­tesy of Mal­colm Cecil and Nile Rodgers (of Chic).

Scott-Her­on released his 1970 debut, Small Talk at 125th and Len­ox, inspired by a volume of poetry of the same name. With Thiele’s Fly­ing Dutch­man Records until the mid-‘70s, he signed to Arista soon after and found suc­cess on the R&B charts. Though his jazz-based work of the early ‘70s was tempered by a slick­er dis­co-inspired pro­duc­tion, Scott-Heron’s mes­sage was as clear as ever on the Top 30 single “Johan­nes­burg” and the num­ber 15 hit “Angel Dust.” Silent for almost a dec­ade, after the release of his 1984 single “Re-Ron,” the pro­to-rap­per returned to record­ing in the mid-‘90s with a mes­sage for the gang­sta rap­pers who had come in his wake; Scott-Heron’s 1994 album Spir­its began with “Mes­sage to the Mes­sen­gers,” poin­ted squarely at the rap­pers whose influ­ence pos­it­ive or neg­at­ive meant much to the chil­dren of the 1990s.

In a touch­ing bit of irony that he him­self was quick to joke about, Gil Scott-Her­on was born on April Fool’s Day 1949 in Chica­go, the son of a Jamaic­an pro­fes­sion­al soc­cer play­er (who spent time play­ing for Glas­gow Celt­ic) and a col­lege-gradu­ate mother who worked as a lib­rar­i­an. His par­ents divorced early in his life, and Scott-Her­on was sent to live with his grand­mother in Lin­coln, TN. Learn­ing music­al and lit­er­ary instruc­tion from her, Scott-Her­on also learned about pre­ju­dice firsthand, as he was one of three chil­dren picked to integ­rate an ele­ment­ary school in nearby Jack­son. The abuse proved too much to bear, how­ever, and the eighth-grader was sent to New York to live with his mother, first in the Bronx and later in the His­pan­ic neigh­bor­hood of Chelsea.

Though Scott-Heron’s exper­i­ences in Ten­ness­ee must have been dif­fi­cult, they proved to be the seed of his writ­ing career, as his first volume of poetry was writ­ten around that time. His edu­ca­tion in the New York City school sys­tem also proved bene­fi­cial, intro­du­cing the youth to the work of Har­lem Renais­sance poet Lang­ston Hughes as well as LeRoi Jones. After pub­lish­ing a nov­el called The Vul­ture in 1968, Scott-Her­on applied to Pennsylvania’s Lin­coln Uni­ver­sity. Though he spent less than one year there, it was enough time to meet Bri­an Jack­son, a sim­il­arly minded musi­cian who would later become a cru­cial col­lab­or­at­or and integ­ral part of Scott-Heron’s band. Given a bit of expos­ure — mostly in magazines like Essence, which called The Vul­ture “a strong start for a writer with import­ant things to say” Scott-Her­on met up with Bob Thiele and was encour­aged to begin a music career, read­ing selec­tions from his book of poetry Small Talk at 125th & Len­nox while Thiele recor­ded a col­lect­ive of jazz and funk musi­cians, includ­ing bassist Ron Carter, drum­mer Bern­ard “Pretty” Pur­die, Hubert Laws on flute and alto sax­o­phone, and per­cus­sion­ists Eddie Know­les and Charlie Saun­ders; Scott-Her­on also recruited Jack­son to play on the record as pian­ist. Most import­ant on the album was “The Revolu­tion Will Not Be Tele­vised,” an aggress­ive polem­ic again­st the major media and white America’s ignor­ance of increas­ingly deteri­or­at­ing con­di­tions in the inner cit­ies. Scott-Heron’s second LP, 1971’s Pieces of a Man, expan­ded his range, fea­tur­ing songs such as the title track and “Lady Day and John Col­trane,” which offered a more straight-ahead approach to song struc­ture (if not con­tent).

The fol­low­ing year’s Free Will was his last for Fly­ing Dutch­man, how­ever; after a dis­pute with the label, Scott-Her­on recor­ded Win­ter in Amer­ica for Strata East, then moved to Arista Records in 1975. As the first artist signed to Clive Dav­is’ new label, much was rid­ing on Scott-Her­on to deliv­er first-rate mater­i­al with a chance at the charts. Thanks to Arista’s more focused push on the charts, Scott-Heron’s “Johan­nes­burg” reached num­ber 29 on the R&B charts in 1975. Import­ant to Scott-Heron’s suc­cess on his first two albums for Arista (First Minute of a New Day and From South Africa to South Car­o­lina) was the influ­ence of key­board­ist and col­lab­or­at­or Jack­son, co-billed on both LPs and the de facto lead­er of Scott-Heron’s Mid­night Band.

Jack­son left by 1978, though, leav­ing the music­al dir­ec­tion of Scott-Heron’s career in the cap­able hands of pro­du­cer Mal­colm Cecil, a vet­er­an pro­du­cer who had mid­wifed the funki­er dir­ec­tion of the Isley Broth­ers and Stevie Won­der earli­er in the dec­ade. The first single recor­ded with Cecil, “The Bottle,” became Scott-Heron’s biggest hit yet, peak­ing at num­ber 15 on the R&B charts, though he still made no waves on the pop charts. Pro­du­cer Nile Rodgers of Chic also helped on pro­duc­tion dur­ing the 1980s, when Scott-Heron’s polit­ic­al attack grew even more fer­vent with a new tar­get, Pres­id­ent Ron­ald Reagan. (Sev­er­al singles, includ­ing the R&B hits “B Movie” and “Re-Ron,” were spe­cific­ally dir­ec­ted at the President’s con­ser­vat­ive policies.) By 1985, how­ever, Scott-Her­on was dropped by Arista, just after the release of The Best of Gil Scott-Her­on. Though he con­tin­ued to tour around the world, Scott-Her­on chose to dis­con­tin­ue record­ing. He did return, how­ever, in 1993 with a con­tract for TVT Records and the album Spir­its. For well over a dec­ade, Scott-Her­on was mostly inact­ive, held back by a series of drug pos­ses­sion charges. He began per­form­ing semi-reg­u­larly in 2007, and one year later, announced that he was HIV-pos­it­ive. He recor­ded an album, I’m New Here, released on XL in 2010. In Feb­ru­ary of 2011, Scott-Her­on and Jam­ie xx (Jam­ie Smith of xx) issued a remixed ver­sion of the album, entitled We’re New Here, also issued on XL. Later that year, Scott-Her­on died in a New York hos­pit­al, just after return­ing from a set of live dates in Europe.

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Gata Malandra

Gata Malandra

Edit­or / Research­er at No Bounds
Gata is a music and arts lov­er, stud­ied anthro­po­logy, art man­age­ment and media pro­duc­tion ded­ic­at­ing most of her time to cre­at­ive pro­jects pro­duced by No Bounds.
Gata Malandra

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About Gata Malandra

Gata Malandra
Gata is a music and arts lover, studied anthropology, art management and media production dedicating most of her time to creative projects produced by No Bounds.

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