Gil Scott-Heron Pioneering Poet
Published Feb 20, 2010Gil 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.
1970 to 1974
Scott-Heron takes to performing his poetry in coffee houses and jazz clubs. He is approached by jazz producer Bob Thiele to record an album on Thiele's new label, Flying Dutchman. Thiele had been a key figure in Impulse Records' jazz output, producing classic recordings by John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins. Surprisingly, Scott-Heron's debut is a live recording of his poetry, including material from The Vulture. Even the title, Small Talk At 125th And Lenox, showcases a man of biting wit who is unafraid to righteously take issue with the fading promises of the civil rights era, the emptiness of consumerism and entrenched economic iniquities in America. The musical accompaniment of congas and an occasional dash of piano is little more than a pulse underneath his rapid-fire, didactic spoken word style, which reaches its peak with "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and "Whitey On The Moon." At the time, he's compared to fellow New Yorkers the Last Poets, who also combine highly charged spoken word politics with minimal, percussive instrumentation. Both artists' work at this time is widely acknowledged to be a key influence on rap. Flying Dutchman is a tiny label and the album doesn't attract much attention outside New York, but it is heard by influential people. The next year's follow-up is Pieces Of A Man, which in many ways is Scott-Heron's true debut album. Thiele employs New York's jazz luminaries to help out, including Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, Ron Carter and former Curtis Mayfield arranger Johnny Pate. Also notable is the presence of Brian Jackson on keyboards.
Pieces Of A Man is a quantum leap forward from Scott-Heron's debut. The re-recorded "Revolution," now underpinned by Purdie's breakbeats, becomes an even clearer foreshadowing of hip-hop. Scott-Heron sings much more than he raps, and employs conventional song structures, as in the joyous "Lady Day and John Coltrane," which speaks of the uplifting effect of jazz, a theme to which he will return throughout his career. His emotional range is much broader, from the harrowing junkie chronicle "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" to the serene beauty of "I'll Think I'll Call It Morning." With this album, Scott-Heron's characteristic jazz-funk fusion, dominated by electric piano, is established. Though critical and commercial reaction is poor at first, it eventually reaches #25 on Billboard's soul album charts two years after its release, becoming one of Flying Dutchman's most popular records.
The third album for the label is Free Will in 1972. One side is recorded with roughly the same band as Pieces Of A Man, and the other side is similar in style to Small Talk. Though all the music is wonderful, the album's concept is ultimately unsatisfying, and the songs are perhaps too compact in length. Still, two of his poems ― "No Knock," about police harassment, and "Sex Education: Ghetto Style" ― refine his proto-rap even further. Scott-Heron's first three albums are distilled into a greatest hits package entitled The Revolution Will Not be Televised, released in 1974 and hitting #21 on the soul charts. With his deal fulfilled with Flying Dutchman (and amid conjecture that he was getting "Jesse James-ed" by the label), Scott-Heron and Jackson move to another jazz indie: Strata East. Working only with a bassist and drummer, Scott-Heron and Jackson created a stark and minimal album that's another clear progression in their sound. Winter in America is released in mid-1974, credited to Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, as were almost all their albums until 1980. Spacey, liquid sounds of the Fender Rhodes mix with African-inspired percussion and free jazz motifs to create a sound that's deeper than ever before. The songs are almost entirely sung, and showcase Scott-Heron's smooth yet anguished baritone perfectly. "The Bottle" brings Scott-Heron a new level of recognition. Riding a four-to-the-floor rimshot to create a reggae-like beat, together with a rolling, disco-anticipating bass line, the song becomes a big local hit in New York and rises to #15 on the soul charts. Cover versions follow, most notably by salsa/soul fusioneer Joe Bataan, who scores a major hit in discos with his heavily orchestrated version.
1975 to 1980
His commercial breakthrough does not go unnoticed. In 1975, Gil Scott-Heron becomes the first artist ever signed to Arista Records. This is a major development, since the company's president Clive Davis is one of the biggest stars of the music business in the '70s, and this new label boasts major capitalization through Columbia Pictures. The first album on Arista introduces Heron and Jackson's new ensemble, the Midnight Band. Significantly, the band have no guitarist, so the focus remains on keys, percussion, and for the first time, horns. The First Minute Of A New Day introduces more Latin and funk rhythms into the mix, but broadens the free-meets-soul jazz palette established on Winter In America. Despite the change in label, Scott-Heron maintains his lyrical acuity. Thanks to Arista's heavy promotion, it reaches the top ten on Billboard's soul album chart. Scott-Heron starts attracting much more press coverage and is now described as a major jazz poet and ―inevitably and erroneously ― "the black Bob Dylan." He is the musical guest on the ninth-ever episode of Saturday Night Live at the insistence of host Richard Pryor.
Next year brings From South Africa to South Carolina, which contains one element the previous album had lacked: a hit single. "Johannesburg" is an early and strident critique of South Africa's apartheid. It makes the top 30 soul charts in the U.S, and establishes his fame in Britain. Chuck D would later remark: "If you're going to be talking about Johannesburg, and most people don't know anything outside of Pittsburgh, you're bringing a worldly discussion to the table, like Malcolm X." Though he has never shied away from autobiography in his songs, this album witnesses a slow increase of such material in his repertoire. This year also sees the release of the mostly live double album It's Your World, recorded in Boston during the American Bicentennial celebrations. This set showcases the original Midnight Band at their peak, stretching songs beyond ten minutes with considerable soloing that borders on self-indulgence. The sound of 1977's Bridges is less polyrhythmic and adds electric guitar to the mix. The dominant instrumental touch of the album is Jackson's early adoption of synthesizer bass. Bridges' signature sound is "We Almost Lost Detroit," describing a near-disaster at a nuclear plant in the Detroit area in 1966. Its synth solo will be sampled by Kanye West for Common's "The People" 30 years later.
At this point the Jackson/Scott-Heron duo is in constant recording and touring mode. The even funkier Secrets comes out in 1978, and nods to disco. It featured Scott- Heron's biggest hit "Angel Dust" charting at #15, and "Show Business," one of his more overtly humorous songs. Also that year, The Mind Of Gil Scott-Heron is released, compiling a disc of mostly unaccompanied poetry readings and monologues dating from 1974 onward. Extremely political and topical, it has aged poorly and requires a thorough knowledge of domestic American politics of the '70s to appreciate in its proper context. "We Almost Lost Detroit" gains additional traction in 1979 following the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania. Scott-Heron is a natural choice for the concerts organized by Musicians United for Safe Energy at Madison Square Garden later this year. He appears alongside Bruce Springsteen, Crosby Stills and Nash, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne and others in the film documentary No Nukes, and lends "Detroit" to the album of the same name.
1980 to 1984
After a three-month hiatus from recording and touring in 1979, Jackson and Scott-Heron regroup late in the year to work on tracks Scott-Heron had recorded with Malcolm Cecil (electronic producer for Stevie Wonder, Weather Report and others). After several equally billed albums, Jackson is surprised and dismayed that Scott-Heron worked with someone else without notifying him. They finish the album together and it becomes 1980, featuring a more overtly synthetic sound than anything they had recorded before. Late in the making of the album Jackson recalls, "I had been working on a piece while I was in Oakland. It needed lyrics. As was our custom, before he wrote a word, he asked me, 'What's it about?' 'It's about turning corners, a new page,' I replied. He knew what I meant. It was over. We had gone to the end of the line as musical partners. 'Corners' was the last song we ever wrote together." Never very close on a personal level, the pair don't speak again until 1994.
Scott-Heron keeps up his torrid pace, and embarks on a tour with Stevie Wonder (replacing the terminally ill Bob Marley). The highly anticipated Real Eyes is the first all-music release since Free Will to be credited solely to Scott-Heron. It fails to produce a hit to capitalize on the exposure generated by the tour, though "Legend In His Own Mind" will be sampled to great effect by Mos Def on Black On Both Sides' "Mr. Nigga." Despite the increasing smoothness of his music, Scott-Heron remains as ferocious as ever lyrically. In some ways he is even more enraged about the fading promise of civil rights in 1980 than he was a decade earlier. Reflections, released only nine months after Real Eyes, contains his famous rant against new President Ronald Reagan entitled "B-Movie." Over a six-and-a-half minute slow boil of slap bass and a tense beat, Scott-Heron takes square aim at a politician against whom he had been speaking out for at least five years. The Midnight Band dissolve around the turn of the decade, and a new crew called Amnesia Express has arrived when Moving Target is released in 1982. Another solid effort, it's marred mainly by misguided experiments with reggae. At the time, nothing suggests that this would be Scott-Heron's last studio album for 11 years.
1984 to 1992
Though records like 1980 demonstrated that Scott-Heron was able to incorporate changing musical trends into his earthy jazz funk, by the middle of the decade his musical direction sounds stale. Arista pressures him to adapt, but he refuses to compromise. One new song appears on the collection The Very Best Of Gil Scott-Heron in 1984: "Re Ron," produced by Bill Laswell. Scott-Heron dismisses the track, which today sounds more like Laswell's productions of Herbie Hancock and Mick Jagger of the time. Soon after, Scott-Heron teams with Artists United Against Apartheid on the "Sun City" single. Scott-Heron is featured along with Miles Davis on the Sun City album track "Let Me See Your ID," produced by Arthur Baker. Arista drops Scott-Heron in 1985. He hits the road with Amnesia Express, and stays there. This is a lesser unit than the Midnight Band, partly because they are very much stuck in his '70s groove and suffer in comparison. Nevertheless, Scott-Heron remains popular in England, where his musical planks of keyboard-heavy jazz, funk and Latin rhythms have been rebranded as acid jazz. The band records several live albums including Live At The Town And Country 1988 (in London) and Tales Of Gil Scott Heron in 1990, which contain little new material. A twelve-inch single, "Space Shuttle," on Castle Communications in 1990, is produced by future Massive Attack cohort Paul Waller, and sees Scott-Heron in a hip-house mode with acid jazz-friendly production touches. Also in 1990, an anthology of song lyrics called So Far So Good is published. Around the turn of the '90s, rumours of cocaine abuse begin to circulate.
1993 to 2006
Castle issues his comeback album Spirits in 1993. The album showcases a deepening of his voice and slowing of his cadence, but is a solid effort. It is a resolutely '90s production, and focuses on contemporary issues. Now widely acknowledged as a godfather of hip-hop, "Message To The Messengers" is aimed squarely at rappers, urging them to consider the negative implications of their songs. Old cohort Malcolm Cecil produces most of the album while Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest produces one track, "Don't Give Up." The album's centrepiece is the three-part "The Other Side," which details the anguish of drug addiction in a manner even more personal than ever before. Unfortunately, Spirits does not re-establish his career in any great way and he does a few advertising voiceovers to supplement his income. Yet Scott-Heron's earlier work is being reissued and reconsidered. Three compilations appear in 1998-'99 alone: Ghetto Style, Evolution (And Flashback), and The Gil Scott-Heron Collection: Sampler 1974-1975 on TVT Records, which was the American label for Spirits. TVT partners with Scott-Heron as he regains the rights to some of his back catalog, to reissue The First Minute Of A New Day, From South Africa To South Carolina, It's Your World and Winter In America ― the latter reaching a mass audience for the first time. A further book of poetry, Now and Then, is published in 2000.
As his fortunes seem to be changing for the better, Scott-Heron is arrested in New York in the fall of 2000, found in possession of 1.2 grams of cocaine and two crack pipes. In the court case, his ex-girlfriend claims he's spending $2,000 a week on cocaine. He is sentenced to 18 to 24 months of in-patient drug rehab the following year, but allowed to embark on a previously scheduled European tour. When he misses a subsequent court date, he's sentenced to one to three years in prison. He is released in October 2002, in time to make a cameo on Blackalicious's "First In Flight" on their Blazing Arrow album. In October of 2003, as Scott Heron is en route to a gig in Chicago, he is arrested at La Guardia airport for possession of a controlled substance, and is placed in Rikers Island prison. He is released in 2004. In July 2006, he violates his parole conditions by leaving a rehab facility and is sentenced to two to four years in jail. Scott-Heron says that he left the facility because they had refused to supply him with HIV medication, which leads to the presumption that he is HIV positive, though he has never explicitly confirmed this. Throughout this period, one-off live albums continue to appear, including Tour De Force and Winter In America, Summer In Europe (both 2004).
2006 to 2010
XL Recordings head Richard Russell visits Scott-Heron at Rikers Island in 2006, and proposes making an album. Scott-Heron is paroled in May 2007, and the pair start working on new recordings. Scott-Heron resumes performing, though by now he has a Sly Stone-like reputation for missing gigs. He is arrested once again for cocaine possession in October 2007, but according to New York Prison information, his case is marked "warrant lifted" the following month, and no further jail time results. Russell states that the long-awaited studio album was largely put together throughout 2009, and a microsite for I'm New Here is launched that fall with four snippets of new songs. Both the music and the vocals are shocking to listen to. Scott-Heron's voice is thicker, deeper and phlegmy. His enunciation is less precise, and his singing is the embodiment of the "bluesician" that Scott-Heron always termed himself: part holler and part hurt. The music is by far more austere than anything else in his career. Slate-grey downtempo beats, mechanical-sounding loops, and bludgeoned, low key samples have very little funk or jazz to them, but slivers of sunlight still poke through. I'm New Here does not have the feel of a triumphant comeback like that of so many old soulsters reinvigorated on Anti Records. However, it's a bold change in direction that may mark an entirely new sonic vista for his songwriting to explore. In remaking "Your Soul Or Mine" from Small Talk, the simplicity and directness of Scott-Heron's first album is compellingly updated 40 years later without any sense of nostalgia.
The alliance with XL has already been a success of sorts. I'm New Here's audacity has already translated into rave reviews and by far the biggest crossover potential of his entire career. The record is already marked as one of the best of the next decade in The Guardian in November 2009. He is also said to be working on a memoir for Canongate Publishers (possibly due in 2011), who have reissued all his books. However, there are no guarantees that this will be the turning point for Scott-Heron. Like so many of his albums, there are no obvious hit singles. There may well be a larger audience than ever before out there for his music, but a fragile-looking 60-year-old Scott-Heron is just trying to hang in there. Throughout the album, he chronicles his current state of mind and finds that his personality traits that have led to his struggles are the same as those behind his achievements, or as he puts it: "If I hadn't been as eccentric, as obnoxious, as arrogant, as aggressive, as introspective, as selfish as I am ― I wouldn't be me."