Influential poet and musician with a declamatory style who hated being hailed as the 'godfather of rap'
Published 05/06/2011 | 05:00
GIL SCOTT-HERON, who died on May 27 aged 62, was a composer, musician, poet and author whose writings and recordings provided a vivid, and often stinging, commentary on social injustice and the black American experience. His declamatory singing style, allied to the overtly political content of his work, made him widely recognised as one of the inspirational figures of rap music.
Scott-Heron first came to attention with his 1970 recording The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, an attack on the mindless and anaesthetising effects of the mass media and a call to arms to the black community: "You will not be able to stay home, brother./You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out./You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,/Skip out for beer during commercials,/Because the revolution will not be televised."
Written when Scott-Heron was just 18, it first appeared in the form of a spoken-word recitation on his debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox.
The following year Scott-Heron recorded the song for a second time, this time with a full band, for his album Pieces of a Man.
The song went on to be covered, sampled and referenced in innumerable recordings. In 2010 it was named as one of the top 20 political songs by the New Statesman.
Scott-Heron's music reflected something of the militancy and self-assertiveness of such theorists and polemicists as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. Over the course of 20 albums he produced a series of sardonic and biting commentaries on ghetto life and racial injustice, including Whitey's On The Moon, Home Is Where The Hatred Is, The Bottle and the anti-apartheid anthem Johannesburg. But anger was only colour in Scott-Heron's music palette; songs such as Must Be Something and It's Your World were moving affirmations of faith in the power of the human spirit.
A tall, rail-thin man with a wispy goatee beard and a countenance of prophetic gravity, Scott-Heron sang in a rough, declamatory voice that was once described as a mixture of "mahogany, sunshine and tears" and that always emphasised lyrical content over technique. The bass player Ron Carter, who played on Scott-Heron's second album, Pieces Of A Man, described it as "a voice like you would have for Shakespeare".
His vocal style, and his political message, would be a major influence on such groups as Public Enemy and NWA, and would lead to his being described as "the godfather of rap".
It was a title that Scott-Heron himself always deplored. He said: "You don't really see inside the person. Instead, you just get a lot of posturing." He preferred to call himself "a bluesologist".
Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago on April 1, 1949. He was named after his father, Gilbert Heron, a Jamaican who had settled in America, where his prowess at football brought him to the attention of talent scouts from Scotland; in the early Fifties Gilbert Snr played football professionally for Celtic and Third Lanark, earning the nickname "the Black Arrow", before returning to Chicago.
It was there that he met Gil's mother, Bobbie, a librarian and an accomplished singer.
His parents separated when he was two, and he was sent to live with his maternal grandmother, Lillie Scott, in Jackson, Tennessee. Scott-Heron would credit his grandmother with being one of the primary influences on his life: "[She] raised me to not sit around and wait for people to guess what's on your mind -- I was gonna have to say it."
Cultivating his interest in music and literature, she bought him a second-hand piano from a local funeral parlour and introduced him to the writings of the Harlem Renaissance novelist and poet Langston Hughes, who became a major influence.
When Gil was 12 his grandmother died, and he moved to New York to be reunited with his mother, who brought up her son on her own. On the recommendation of his high school English teacher, Gil won a scholarship to a private school, the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, before going on to study at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
In his second year at university he was given leave of absence to write a novel, The Vulture (1970), a thriller about ghetto life, while working as a clerk at a dry cleaners. On graduation he published a second novel, The Nigger Factory (1971), about campus unrest, and a collection of poetry, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox.
He was soon approached by the jazz producer Bob Thiele who, as head of the Impulse label, had recorded such artists as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as being the co-writer, with George David Weiss, of Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World.
Thiele released Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, a live recording of one of Scott-Heron's club performances. The follow-up Pieces of Man brought him together on record for the first time with Brian Jackson, a keyboard-player, flautist and composer who would become his main collaborator on nine albums.
He enjoyed further chart success in 1976 with Johannesburg and, in 1978, with the anti-drug song Angel Dust, but was to fall victim to drug abuse more than two decades later, serving jail time for various offences. In 2010 there was a resurgence of interest in his work when he returned with his first studio album in 16 years, I'm New Here.
Gil Scott-Heron was married to the actress Brenda Sykes, with whom he had a daughter.