Gil Scott-Heron

(1949 – 2011)

Acclaimed as a godfather of Rap and Soul Jazz, musician/poet Gil Scott-Heron forged a radicalized vision of the world with deep roots in the Black Power movements of the late 1960s. He came to prominence in the early 1970s, most notably with “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a provocative 1970 poem from his debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox that gave a militant voice to America’s ghetto street culture. Scott-Heron also made a string of albums with keyboardist Brian Jackson that influenced the “neo Soul” movement of the 1990s, as represented by Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, and others.

Born in Chicago and raised in Tennessee, Scott-Heron moved to the Bronx, New York, with his mother when he was 12. He showed an early aptitude for creative writing and won a scholarship to a local private school. While attending Lincoln University in Pennsylvania (the alma mater of his hero Langston Hughes), he met Jackson, and the two formed a band called Black & Blues.

Scott-Heron eventually left school to write two novels, then returned to New York City. In 1970, through the publisher of his novel The Vulture, he was introduced to legendary Jazz producer Bob Thiele, who owned a small label called Flying Dutchman. With no budget for a full band, he agreed to record a spoken word album. Small Talk at 125th and Lenox was recorded live with three percussionists, and captured the fire and intensity of Scott-Heron’s poetry — a stinging narrative flow vivid with tales of urban horror, social injustice, and personal struggle, delivered in a deep, stentorian voice honed on New York’s downtown coffeehouse scene.

Small Talk made enough money to allow Scott-Heron to bring in a band for the follow-up Pieces of a Man – an influential record now recognized as a touchstone for modern Hip Hop. Joined by Jackson and a group of A-list session players, Scott-Heron explored Blues and Jazz influences in his singing voice, which he brought to bear on songs like “Home Is Where the Hatred Is.”

Scott-Heron made one more album for Flying Dutchman before moving on in 1973. The following year, he released Winter in America with Jackson, which established the pair as a collaborative force in politically-minded Soul music. They signed to the major label Arista in 1975, releasing a series of albums that explored the “bluesology” themes cited by Scott-Heron as central to his philosophy. It’s Your World, a double LP released in 1976, catalogued the anger and malaise of post-Watergate America, while the title song to 1980 was a funk-and-brimstone groove on a dystopian future that chronicled the reactionary policies of the Reagan era before they happened.

Scott-Heron’s recorded work tapered off in the early ’80s, and he didn’t release another album until 1994’s Spirits. In the years to follow, he struggled with drug addiction; in 2001 he served a year in prison for cocaine possession, and more arrests and more jail time followed. He started performing again in 2007; by then, rumor had it that he had contracted HIV, which he later confirmed. In 2008, he performed at Carnegie Hall as a guest of Mos Def, and two years later, he released a comeback album, the confessional I’m New Here.

Scott-Heron died in 2011, drawing eulogies of praise from Public Enemy’s Chuck D, KRS-One, Kanye West, Eminem and many other Hip Hop stars. His memoir, The Last Holiday, was published posthumously in 2012, and he was honored by the Grammy Awards for Lifetime Achievement the same year.