Gilbert "Gil" Scott-Heron (April 1, 1949 - May 27, 2011) was an American soul and jazz poet, musician, and author, known primarily for his work as a spoken word performer in the 1970s and '80s. His collaborative efforts with musician Brian Jackson featured a musical fusion of jazz, blues, and soul, as well as lyrical content concerning social and political issues of the time, delivered in both rapping and melismatic vocal styles by Scott-Heron. His own term for himself was "bluesologist", which he defined as "a scientist who is concerned with the origin of the blues." His music, most notably on Pieces of a Man and Winter in America in the early 1970s, influenced and helped engender later African-American music genres such as hip hop and neo soul.
Besides influencing contemporary musicians, Scott-Heron remained active until his death, and in 2010 released his first new album in 16 years, entitled I'm New Here. A memoir he had been working on for years up to the time of his death, The Last Holiday, was also published, posthumously in January 2012.
His recording work received much critical acclaim, especially one of his best-known compositions "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised". His poetic style has influenced every generation of hip hop.
Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago, Illinois. His mother, Bobbie Scott-Heron, was an opera singer who performed with the New York Oratorio Society. Scott-Heron's father, Gil Heron, nicknamed "The Black Arrow," was a Jamaican football player in the 1950s who became the first black man to play for Celtic Football Club in Glasgow. Gil's parents separated in his early childhood and he was sent to live with his maternal grandmother, Lillie Scott, in Jackson, Tennessee. When Scott-Heron was 12 years old, his grandmother died and he returned to live with his mother in the Bronx, New York City. He enrolled at DeWitt Clinton High School, but later transferred to The Fieldston School after impressing the head of the English department with one of his writings and earning a full scholarship. As one of five black students at the prestigious school, Scott-Heron was faced with alienation and a significant socioeconomic gap. During his admissions interview at Fieldston, an administrator asked him, "'How would you feel if you see one of your classmates go by in a limousine while you're walking up the hill from the subway?' And he said, 'Same way as you. Y'all can't afford no limousine. How do you feel?'" This type of intractable boldness would become a hallmark of Scott-Heron's later recordings.
Scott-Heron attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, as it was the college chosen by his biggest influence Langston Hughes. It was here that Scott-Heron met Brian Jackson with whom he formed the band Black & Blues. After about two years at Lincoln, Scott-Heron took a year off to write the novels The Vulture and The Nigger Factory.The Last Poets performed at Lincoln in 1969 and Abiodun Oyewole of that Harlem group said Scott-Heron asked him after the performance, "Listen, can I start a group like you guys?" Scott-Heron returned to New York City, settling in Chelsea, Manhattan. The Vulture was published in 1970 and well received. Although Scott-Heron never received his undergraduate degree, he received a Master's degree in Creative Writing in 1972 from Johns Hopkins University. His 1972 masters thesis was titled Circle of stone.
"Small Talk at 125th and Lenox"
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The early live recording from Scott-Heron's debut album features spoken word vocal delivery and African-style congas.
"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"
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One of his best-known compositions contains hip hop elements such as rapping, cultural and political references, heavy drumbeats, and minimalist production.
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Winter in America's only single, a rhythmic social commentary with Scott-Heron on keyboards and Brian Jackson playing flute.
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Scott-Heron began his recording career in 1970 with the LP Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. Bob Thiele of Flying Dutchman Records produced the album, and Scott-Heron was accompanied by Eddie Knowles and Charlie Saunders on conga and David Barnes on percussion and vocals. The album's 15 tracks dealt with themes such as the superficiality of television and mass consumerism, the hypocrisy of some would-be Black revolutionaries, and white middle-class ignorance of the difficulties faced by inner-city residents. In the liner notes, Scott-Heron acknowledged as influences Richie Havens, John Coltrane, Otis Redding, Jose Feliciano, Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Nina Simone, and long-time collaborator Jackson.
Scott-Heron's 1971 album Pieces of a Man used more conventional song structures than the loose, spoken-word feel of Small Talk. He was joined by Jackson, Johnny Pate (conductor), Ron Carter on bass and bass guitar, drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, Burt Jones playing electric guitar, and Hubert Laws on flute and saxophone, with Thiele producing again. Scott-Heron's third album, Free Will, was released in 1972. Jackson, Purdie, Laws, Knowles, and Saunders all returned to play on Free Will and were joined by Jerry Jemmott playing bass, David Spinozza on guitar, and Horace Ott (arranger and conductor). Carter later said about Scott-Heron's voice, "He wasn't a great singer, but, with that voice, if he had whispered it would have been dynamic. It was a voice like you would have for Shakespeare."
1974 saw another LP collaboration with Brian Jackson, the critically acclaimed opus Winter in America, with Bob Adams on drums and Danny Bowens on bass. The album contained Scott-Heron's most cohesive material and featured more of Jackson's creative input than his previous albums had. Winter in America has been regarded by many critics as the two musicians' most artistic effort. The following year, Scott-Heron and Jackson also released Midnight Band: The First Minute of a New Day. A live album, It's Your World, followed in 1976 and a recording of spoken poetry, The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron, was released in 1979. Another success followed with the hit single "Angel Dust", which he recorded as a single with producer Malcolm Cecil. "Angel Dust" peaked at No.15 on the R&B charts in 1978.
In 1979, Scott-Heron played at the No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden. The concerts were organized by Musicians United for Safe Energy to protest the use of nuclear energy following the Three Mile Island accident. Scott-Heron's song, "We Almost Lost Detroit" was included in the No Nukes album of concert highlights. It alluded to a previous nuclear power plant accident and was also the title of a book by John G. Fuller. Scott-Heron was also a frequent critic of President Ronald Reagan and his conservative policies.
Scott-Heron recorded and released only four albums during the 1980s: 1980 and Real Eyes (1980), Reflections (1981) and Moving Target (1982). In February 1982, Ron Holloway joined the ensemble to play tenor saxophone. He toured extensively with Scott-Heron and contributed to his next album, Moving Target the same year. His tenor accompaniment is a prominent feature of the songs "Fast Lane" and "Black History/The World." Holloway continued with Scott-Heron until the summer of 1989, when he left to join Dizzy Gillespie. Several years later, Scott-Heron would make cameo appearances on two of Ron Holloway's CD's; Scorcher (1996) and Groove Update (1998), both on the Fantasy/Milestone label.
Scott-Heron was dropped by Arista Records in 1985 and quit recording, though he continued to tour. The same year he helped compose and sang "Let Me See Your I.D." on the Artists United Against Apartheid album Sun City, containing the famous line, "The first time I heard there was trouble in the Middle East, I thought they were talking about Pittsburgh." The song compares racial tensions in the US with those in apartheid-era South Africa, implying that the US was not too far ahead in race relations. In 1993, he signed to TVT Records and released Spirits, an album that included the seminal track "'Message to the Messengers". The first track on the album criticized the rap artists of the day. Scott-Heron is known in many circles as "the Godfather of rap" and is widely considered to be one of the genre's founding fathers. Given the political consciousness that lies at the foundation of his work, he can also be called a founder of political rap. Message to the Messengers was a plea for the new generation of rappers to speak for change rather than perpetuate the current social situation, and to be more articulate and artistic. Regarding hip hop music in the 1990s, he said in an interview:
They need to study music. I played in several bands before I began my career as a poet. There's a big difference between putting words over some music, and blending those same words into the music. There's not a lot of humor. They use a lot of slang and colloquialisms, and you don't really see inside the person. Instead, you just get a lot of posturing.
Prison terms and more performing:
In 2001, Scott-Heron was sentenced to one to three years imprisonment in a New York State prison for possession of cocaine. While out of jail in 2002, he appeared on the Blazing Arrow album by Blackalicious. He was released on parole in 2003, the year BBC TV broadcast the documentary Gil Scott-Heron: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised--Scott-Heron was arrested for possession of a crack pipe during the editing of the film in October 2003 and received a six-month prison sentence.
On July 5, 2006, Scott-Heron 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 drug rehabilitation center. Scott-Heron's sentence was to run until July 13, 2009. He was paroled on May 23, 2007. The reason given for the violation of his plea deal was that the clinic refused to supply Scott-Heron with HIV medication. This story led to the presumption that the artist was HIV positive, subsequently confirmed in a 2008 interview.
After his release, Scott-Heron began performing live again, starting with a show at "SOB's" restaurant and nightclub in New York on September 13, 2007. On stage, he stated that he and his musicians were working on a new album and that he had resumed writing a book titled The Last Holiday, previously on long-term hiatus, about Stevie Wonder and his successful attempt to have the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. declared a federally recognized holiday in the United States.
Malik Al Nasir a.k.a Mark T. Watson, a student of Scott-Heron's work, dedicated a collection of poetry to Scott-Heron titled Ordinary Guy that contained a foreword by Jalal Mansur Nuriddin of The Last Poets. The book was published in the UK in 2004 by Fore-Word Press Ltd. Scott-Heron recorded one of the poems in Watson's book entitled Black & Blue in 2006, as part of the album Rhythms of the Diaspora Vol 1. by Malik & the O.G's for the record label MCPR Music. After Scott-Heron's death Malik Al Nasir told his story to Simon Hattenstone of the tremendous kindness that Scott-Heron had showed Malik throughout his adult life since meeting the poet back stage at a gig in Liverpool in 1984. The story was then serialised in The Guardian Newspaper in the UK. The BBC World Service also covered the story on their Outlook program with Matthew Bannister which took the story global. It was subsequently covered in many other mediums such as BBC Radio 4's Saturday Live, where Jazz Legend Al Jarreau also paid tribute to Gil, and was mentioned the US edition of Rolling Stone and the Huffington Post. Malik & the O.G's performed a tribute to Gil Scott-Heron at Liverpool International Music Festival in 2013 with jazz composer Orphy Robinson of The Jazz Warriors and Rod Youngs from Gil's band The Amnesia Express.
In April 2009 on BBC Radio Four, poet Lemn Sissay presented a half-hour documentary on Gil Scott-Heron entitled Pieces of a Man. Having interviewed Gil Scott-Heron in New York a month earlier, Pieces of a Man was the first UK announcement from Gil of his forthcoming album and return to form. In November 2009, the BBC's Newsnight interviewed Gil Scott-Heron for a feature titled The Legendary Godfather of Rap Returns. In 2009, a new Gil Scott-Heron website, gilscottheron.net, was launched with a brand new track "Where Did The Night Go" made available as a free download from the site.
In 2010 Scott-Heron was booked to perform in Tel Aviv, Israel, but this attracted criticism from pro-Palestinian activists, who stated: "Your performance in Israel would be the equivalent to having performed in Sun City during South Africa's apartheid era... We hope that you will not play apartheid Israel." Scott-Heron responded by canceling the performance.
I'm New Here:
Scott-Heron released his new album I'm New Here on independent label XL Recordings on February 9, 2010. Produced by XL label owner Richard Russell, I'm New Here was Scott-Heron's first studio album in sixteen years. The pair started recording the album in 2007, with the majority of the record being recorded over the twelve months leading up to the release date with engineer Lawson White at Clinton Studios in New York. I'm New Here is 28 minutes long with 15 tracks; however, casual asides and observations collected during recording sessions are also included as interludes.
The album attracted substantial critical acclaim, with The Guardian newspaper's Jude Rogers declaring it one of the "best of the next decade," while some have called the record "reverent" and "intimate," due to Scott-Heron's half-sung, half-spoken delivery of his poetry. In a music review for public radio network NPR, Will Hermes stated: "Comeback records always worry me, especially when they're made by one of my heroes ... But I was haunted by this record ... He's made a record not without hope but which doesn't come with any easy or comforting answers. In that way, the man is clearly still committed to speaking the truth." Writing for music website Music OMH, Darren Lee provided a more mixed assessment of the album, describing it as rewarding and stunning, but he also states that the album's brevity prevents it "from being an unassailable masterpiece."
However, Scott-Heron described himself as a mere participant in an interview with The New Yorker:
This is Richard's CD. My only knowledge when I got to the studio was how he seemed to have wanted this for a long time. You're in a position to have somebody do something that they really want to do, and it was not something that would hurt me or damage me--why not? All the dreams you show up in are not your own.
The remix version of the album, We're New Here, was released in 2011, featuring production by English musician Jamie xx, who reworked material from the original album. Like the original album, We're New Here also received critical acclaim.
In April 2014, XL Recordings announced a third album from the I'm New Here sessions, titled Nothing New. The album consists of stripped-down piano & vocal recordings and will be released in conjunction with Record Store Day on April 19th, 2014.
"Gil Scott-Heron released poems as songs, recorded songs that were based on his earliest poems and writings, wrote novels and became a hero to many for his music, activism and his anger. There is always the anger - an often beautiful, passionate anger. An often awkward anger. A very soulful anger. And often it is a very sad anger. But it is the pervasive mood, theme and feeling within his work - and around his work, hovering, piercing, occasionally weighing down; often lifting the work up, helping to place it in your face. And for all the preaching and warning signs in his work, the last two decades of Gil Scott-Heron's life to date have seen him succumb to the pressures and demons he has so often warned others about."
- Fairfax New Zealand, February 2010
Scott-Heron died on the afternoon of May 27, 2011, at St. Luke's Hospital, New York City, after becoming ill upon returning from a European trip. Scott-Heron had confirmed previous press speculation about his health, when he disclosed in a 2008 New York Magazine interview that he had been HIV-positive for several years, and that he had been previously hospitalized for pneumonia. As of May 2014, the cause of Scott-Heron's death was not announced.
He is survived by his daughter firstborn, Raquiyah "Nia" Kelly Heron, from his relationship with Pat Kelly; his son Rumal Rackley, from his relationship with Lurma Rackley; daughter Gia Scott-Heron, from his marriage to Brenda Sykes; and daughter Chegianna Newton, who was 13-years-old at the time of her father's death. He is also survived by his sister Gayle; brother Denis Heron, who once managed Scott-Heron; his uncle, Roy Heron; and nephew Terrance Kelly, an actor and rapper who performs as Mr. Cheeks, and who was a member of the Lost Boyz.
In response to Scott-Heron's death, Public Enemy's Chuck D stated "RIP GSH...and we do what we do and how we do because of you." on his Twitter account. His UK publisher, Jamie Byng, called him "one of the most inspiring people I've ever met". On hearing of the death, R&B singer Usher stated: "I just learned of the loss of a very important poet...R.I.P., Gil Scott-Heron. The revolution will be live!!". Richard Russel, who produced Scott-Heron's final studio album, called him a "father figure of sorts to me," while Eminem stated: "He influenced all of hip-hop".Lupe Fiasco wrote a poem about Scott-Heron that was published on his website.
Scott-Heron's memorial service was held at Riverside Church in New York City on June 2, 2011, where Kanye West performed "Lost in the World" and "Who Will Survive in America", two songs from West's album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The studio album version of West's "Who Will Survive in America" features a spoken-word excerpt by Scott-Heron. Scott-Heron is buried at Kensico Cemetery in Westchester County in New York, US.
Scott-Heron was honored posthumously in 2012 by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Charlotte Fox, member of the Washington, DC NARAS and president of Genesis Poets Music, nominated Scott-Heron for the award, while the letter of support came from Grammy award winner and Grammy Hall of Fame inductee Bill Withers.
Scott-Heron's memoir, The Last Holiday, published posthumously by Canongate in the UK and Grove Press in the US, went on sale in January 2012. In her review for the Los Angeles Times, professor of English and journalism Lynell George wrote:
"The Last Holiday" is as much about his life as it is about context, the theater of late 20th century America -- from Jim Crow to the Reagan '80s and from Beale Street to 57th Street. The narrative is not, however, a rise-and-fall retelling of Scott-Heron's life and career. It doesn't connect all the dots. It moves off-the-beat, at its own speed ... This approach to revelation lends the book an episodic quality, like oral storytelling does. It winds around, it repeats itself.
At the time of Scott-Heron's death, a will did not exist to determine the future of his estate. Additionally, Raquiyah Kelly-Heron filed papers in Manhattan, New York's Surrogate's Court in August 2013, claiming that Rumal Rackley is not Scott-Heron's son and should therefore be omitted from matters concerning the musician's estate. According to the Daily News website, Rackley, Kelly-Heron and two other sisters have been seeking a resolution to the issue of the management of Scott-Heron's estate, as Rackley claimed that Scott-Heron prepared him to be the eventual administrator of the estate. Scott-Heron's 1994 album "Spirits" was dedicated to "my son Rumal and my daughters Nia and Gia," and Rackley has added that Scott-Heron "introduced me Rackley from the stage as his son."
In 2011 Rackley filed a suit against sister Gia Heron and her mother, Scott-Heron's first wife, Brenda Sykes, as he believed they had unfairly attained US$250,000 of Scott-Heron's money. The case was later settled for an undisclosed sum in early 2013, but harmed the relationships between all of Scott-Heron's children, who all have different mothers. In her submission to the Surrogate's Court, Kelly-Heron states that a DNA test completed by Rackley in 2011--using DNA from Scott-Heron's brother--revealed that they "do not share a common male lineage," while Rackley has refused to undertake another DNA test since that time. A hearing to address Kelly-Heron's filing was scheduled for late August 2013, but, as of March 2014, further information on the matter is not publicly available.
Scott-Heron's work has influenced writers, academics and musicians, from indie rockers to rappers. His work during the 1970s influenced and helped engender subsequent African-American music genres, such as hip hop and neo soul. He has been described by music writers as "the godfather of rap" and "the black Bob Dylan."
Chicago Tribune writer Greg Kot comments on Scott-Heron's collaborative work with Jackson:
Together they crafted jazz-influenced soul and funk that brought new depth and political consciousness to '70s music alongside Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. In classic albums such as 'Winter in America' and 'From South Africa to South Carolina,' Scott-Heron took the news of the day and transformed it into social commentary, wicked satire, and proto-rap anthems. He updated his dispatches from the front lines of the inner city on tour, improvising lyrics with an improvisational daring that matched the jazz-soul swirl of the music".
Of Scott-Heron's influence on hip hop, Kot writes that he "presaged hip-hop and infused soul and jazz with poetry, humor and pointed political commentary".Ben Sisario of The New York Times writes that "He Scott-Heron preferred to call himself a "bluesologist," drawing on the traditions of blues, jazz and Harlem renaissance poetics."Tris McCall of The Star-Ledger writes that "The arrangements on Gil Scott-Heron's early recordings were consistent with the conventions of jazz poetry - the movement that sought to bring the spontaneity of live performance to the reading of verse." A music writer later noted that "Scott-Heron's unique proto-rap style influenced a generation of hip-hop artists," while The Washington Post wrote that "Scott-Heron's work presaged not only conscious rap and poetry slams, but also acid jazz, particularly during his rewarding collaboration with composer-keyboardist-flutist Brian Jackson in the mid- and late '70s."The Observer's Sean O'Hagan discussed the significance of Scott-Heron's music with Brian Jackson, stating:
Together throughout the 1970s, Scott-Heron and Jackson made music that reflected the turbulence, uncertainty and increasing pessimism of the times, merging the soul and jazz traditions and drawing on an oral poetry tradition that reached back to the blues and forward to hip-hop. The music sounded by turns angry, defiant and regretful while Scott-Heron's lyrics possessed a satirical edge that set them apart from the militant soul of contemporaries such as Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield.
Will Layman of PopMatters wrote about the significance of Scott-Heron's early musical work:
In the early 1970s, Gil Scott-Heron popped onto the scene as a soul poet with jazz leanings; not just another Bill Withers, but a political voice with a poet's skill. His spoken-voice work had punch and topicality. 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' and 'Johannesburg' were calls to action: Stokely Carmichael if he'd had the groove of Ray Charles. 'The Bottle' was a poignant story of the streets: Richard Wright as sung by a husky-voiced Marvin Gaye. To paraphrase Chuck D, Gil Scott-Heron's music was a kind of CNN for black neighborhoods, prefiguring hip-hop by several years. It grew from the Last Poets, but it also had the funky swing of Horace Silver or Herbie Hancock--or Otis Redding. Pieces of a Man and Winter in America (collaborations with Brian Jackson) were classics beyond category".
Scott-Heron's influence over hip hop is primarily exemplified by his definitive single "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," sentiments from which have been explored by various rappers, including Aesop Rock, Talib Kweli and Common. In addition to his vocal style, Scott-Heron's indirect contributions to rap music extend to his and co-producer Jackson's compositions, which have been sampled by various hip hop artists. "We Almost Lost Detroit" was sampled by Brand Nubian member Grand Puba ("Keep On"), Native Tongues duo Black Star ("Brown Skin Lady"), and MF DOOM ("Camphor"). Additionally, Scott-Heron's 1980 song "A Legend in His Own Mind" was sampled on Mos Def's "Mr. Nigga," the opening lyrics from his 1978 recording "Angel Dust" were appropriated by rapper RBX on the 1996 song "Blunt Time" by Dr. Dre, and CeCe Peniston's 2000 song "My Boo" samples Scott-Heron's 1974 recording "The Bottle".
In addition to the Scott-Heron excerpt used in "Who Will Survive in America," West sampled Scott-Heron and Jackson's "Home is Where the Hatred Is" and "We Almost Lost Detroit" for the songs "My Way Home" and "The People," respectively, both of which are collaborative efforts with Common. Scott-Heron, in turn, acknowledged West's contributions, sampling the latter's 2007 single "Flashing Lights" on his final album, 2010's I'm New Here.
Scott-Heron admitted ambivalence regarding his association with rap, remarking in 2010 in an interview for the Daily Swarm: "I don't know if I can take the blame for rap music". As New York Times writer Sisario explained, he preferred the moniker of "bluesologist." Referring to reviews of his last album and references to him as the "godfather of rap", Scott-Heron said: "It's something that's aimed at the kids ... I have kids, so I listen to it. But I would not say it's aimed at me. I listen to the jazz station."
Following Scott-Heron's funeral in 2011, a tribute from publisher, record company owner, poet, and music producer Abdul Malik Al Nasir was published on the Guardian website. Nasir's birth name is "Mark Trevor Watson," but he changed his name after being introduced to Islam by Jalal Mansur Nuriddin and Suliaman El Hadi (deceased), of the band The Last Poets, who he met through Scott-Heron. Titled "Gil Scott-Heron saved my life," the tribute explains how Nasir met Scott-Heron during the period after the 1981 riots in Nasir's home in Toxteth, Liverpool, UK. Following a series of unplanned events that established their relationship, Scott-Heron became a mentor to Nasir and helped him to build a life for himself after growing up illiterate in community homes. In the conclusion of his tribute, Nasir writes:
It's three weeks since Gil died, and I'm still in shock. I'm 45, married with five children, and Gil has been the most important person to me throughout my adult life. His funeral in Harlem was a sombre affair. What touched me most was all the love in the room ... After the service, I told Kanye my story and asked if he would take part in a tribute concert for Gil in Liverpool, the place where we met all those years ago and he took me under his wing. This is my way of saying: "Thank you Gil. You saved my life."