By David DacksGil Scott-Heron's voice has been described as a mixture of "mahogany, sunshine and tears," but recent decades have worn it down to a weary rumble. Scott-Heron is a contradictory figure who still commands intense devotion from long-time fans, and respect from several generations of rappers whom he inspired with his rapid-fire jazz poetry. He was an exclamation point at the end of the civil rights era; his repertoire deconstructs America's social and political failings from Nixon through Reagan. But he's no dour ideologue; his songs are full of beauty, tenderness and humour that leaven his withering critiques. Scott-Heron has been damned with faint praise as an "influential" artist. His decidedly adult musical brew of jazz, funk and Afro-Latino grooves never distilled easily for the masses. Though Scott-Heron has eloquently expressed a stunning range of black American experiences, he has only occasionally resounded commercially within his main constituency. At 60, this multi-talented artist looks worn down by bad habits and several spells in prison. However, his long anticipated I'm New Here, his first studio album in 17 years, may be his greatest chance ever to capture a wide audience ― not that this has ever been an explicit career goal. Can he keep himself together long enough to reap the rewards of his lifelong efforts?
1949 to 1969 Scott-Heron is born in Chicago on April Fool's Day, 1949. His parents are Bobbie Scott-Heron, who had sung with the New York Oratorio Society, and Giles "Gil" Heron, a football (soccer) player and the first black athlete to play for Glasgow's Celtic Football Club (a factoid guaranteed a mention in any British account of Scott-Heron's career). His parents' marriage ends not long afterward and Gil is sent to live with his grandmother Lillie Scott in Tennessee until he is 13. His grandmother is a paramount influence on him. "She was an issues woman, looking at things in terms of what's fair and not fair," he will tell NME in 1986. "It's a question of looking in your heart for the truth and not seeing whether your favourite politician goes for a particular issue. On a right and wrong type of basis, this is how my grandmother raised me, to not sit around and wait for people to guess what's on my mind ― I was gonna have to say it." His grandmother purchases an upright piano. "It was either six dollars or eight dollars, I'm not sure. The story would change from time to time depending on how much she was trying to tell me that we didn't have no money," he would quip to the San Francisco Bay View. He learns to play piano by ear, and becomes, in his own words, "functional, not exceptional." His grandmother also introduces him to the all-around artistic talent and social activism of Langston Hughes and the publication he writes for, the black weekly newspaper The Chicago Defender. He's made aware of the changes wrought by civil rights legislation in Tennessee, and, by contrast, the self-interest of people involved in the organization of the NAACP. After Lillie Scott dies in 1962, he moves in with his mother in the Bronx, then to the Lower Manhattan neighbourhood of Chelsea, where he is first introduced to Latin rhythms. In high school, one of his teachers, impressed with Gil's writing, recommends him to the prestigious Fieldston School. Upon graduating, Scott-Heron attends Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the same school as Hughes, whom he has now met. Here he meets future musical soul-mate Brian Jackson and has his first gigging experiences with Jackson's Black and Blues band. After finishing two years at Lincoln, Scott-Heron drops out to write two novels (The Vulture and The Nigger Factory) and a volume of poetry. The novels will be published in 1970 and 1971 respectively; The Vulture will receive great acclaim.