On what would have been his 70th birthday, we look back at the exceptional legacy of the poet, musician, and novelist
Even if you’re not familiar with Gil Scott-Heron, it’s likely you’ve unknowingly encountered his work in some form. The late artist’s poeticisms have taken on a life beyond their architect, from his extensive sampling in hip hop music, to cover versions like soul singer Leon Bridges’ recent resurrection of “Whitey On The Moon” for Damien Chazelle’s 2018 film First Man. This is no clearer than in the piece of socio-political sloganeering that the late poet, musician, and novelist is best known for.
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, which appeared on Scott-Heron’s debut live album Small Talk at 125th & Lenox, addressed the dangers of commercialisation and complacency with its prophetic stanzas. The track transcended the real life nightclub on the corner of Harlem’s 125th Street and Lenox Avenue (the future Malcolm X Boulevard) that Scott-Heron honed his provocative material to ignite minds across the world. The phrase has since become a part of the collective cultural vernacular, and while it’s been somewhat disembodied from the man that coined it, Scott-Heron’s wider catalogue of polemical musings and artistic dissension remains as vital as ever.
Born 70 years ago today, Scott-Heron may no longer be here to personally reprimand society for its many transgressions (he died on May 27, 2011, aged 62), but his disciples come from every corner of the modern music sphere. Prolific in the 1970s and elusive thereafter, Heron’s bricolage of jazz, soul, and assertive spoken word would have a seismic effect on the music and popular culture that arrived in its wake, even if he was eager to downplay his contributions.
Along with the insurgent spoken word collective The Last Poets, Heron’s infusion of poetry and immersive, rhythmic grooves left a template for the future. In his legendary 70s and 80s run, his attempts to galvanise his community into action in ways that were not only digestible but danceable laid the groundwork for the future of protest music as we know it. From Grandmaster Flash’s gritty reportage on “The Message”, to Public Enemy’s cries to “Fight The Power”, the lineage of these propulsive public addresses can be traced right back to Scott-Heron’s blunt proclamations on tracks like “Winter In America” or “The Needle’s Eye”: “A circle spinning faster, and getting larger all the time / A whirlpool spelled disaster, for all the people who don’t rhyme.”
Eulogised by Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Michael Moore, to name a few, his erudite commentary and imposing performance style granted him the retrospective moniker of the ‘The Godfather Of Rap’, an honour that he was eager to refute. In fact, his interest in the rap genre didn’t come from a place of comradeship, but from the lucrative rewards that it occasionally afforded him. In a profile with The New Yorker, the self-proclaimed ‘bluesologist’ outlined his uneasy truce with the artform that sees him as a munificent well of inspiration: “Long as it don’t talk about ‘yo mama’ and stuff, I usually let it go. It’s not all bad when you get sampled – hell, you make money. They give you some money to shut you up. I guess to shut you up, they should have left you alone.”
“Heron’s bricolage of jazz, soul, and assertive spoken word would have a seismic effect on the music and popular culture that arrived in its wake, even if he was eager to downplay his contributions”
Concerned by the frivolous use of their platform, Scott-Heron went so far as to formally reproach his would-be students on 1994’s “A Message To The Messengers”. In a rare acknowledgement of the genre’s power, its forebearer spoke of how their art didn’t exist in a vacuum, and that “the gun-toting brothas” were just perpetuating the cycle that the-powers-that-be had laid out for them to subsist in. Released in March 1994, the track foretold the shift from studio bravado to real life violence that would spark the fateful East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry later that year, which led to the deaths of Biggie and Tupac Shakur. A socially attuned poet in his own right, Shakur tapped the legend’s speculative sci-fi offering “1980” for “Ready 4 Whatever”, while his mentor Leila Steinberg cited the poignant confessional of “Dear Mama” as Pac’s attempt at a “Gil Scott-Heron record”.
Yet for all his misgivings, admirers of his words and arrangements with collaborator Brian Jackson come from all sides of the spectrum. In 2015, four years after Scott-Heron’s death, acclaimed ‘conscious’ rapper and lifelong devotee Talib Kweli depicted the artist’s impact as impervious to the loss of his earthly presence: “Kanye West, Jay-Z, Ice Cube… mention Gil Scott-Heron and go on about how he’s influenced them. Put it this way: without Gil Scott-Heron there would be no Kanye talking about ‘New Slaves’.”
In Kanye West’s case, Scott-Heron’s influence was so pervading that he felt compelled to perform at his funeral in New York’s Riverside Church. Although it may operate on a more subliminal level at this stage, Scott-Heron’s blueprint for fighting the ‘get-out-of-the-ghetto blues’ can be explicitly detected in the spirit of activism that punctuated West’s early work, such as “Crack Music”, “Spaceship”, and “Heard ’Em Say”, before later re-emerging on Yeezus. First interpolated on Late Registration’s “My Way Home” on, Ye’s take on “Home Is Where The Hatred Is” set the stage for a grander homage to a cornerstone of his musical tutelage on “Who Will Survive In America”. Positioned towards the end of the sprawling My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West collocated his hedonistic existence with the poignant simplicity of Scott-Heron’s words from “Comment #1” to great effect as he enquired, “What does Webster say about soul? All I want is a good home and a wife, and children and some food to feed them every night.”
In the capable hands of heirs such as Q-Tip, Mos Def, and Common, the pertinent sentiments of “Angel Dust” and “Legend In His Own Mind” were imbued with a modern flavour that kept artistic resistance high on the agenda. From Travis Scott and T.I. drawing from “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” on “Apple Pie”, to eccentric rapper Lil B, and even 80s house duo S’Express plundering his catalogue for inspiration, these reinterpretations all helped to fill in the blanks of his wilderness years and propagate his work to a generation of new, unsuspecting listeners. Away from the realm of samples, new torchbearers for his perceptive brand of poetry have come in the form of artists such as Noname, Rapsody, Saba, and Ghostpoet, while Mick Jenkins and TDE’s Isaiah Rashad have both based solo projects around his 1971 classic Pieces Of A Man.
“Scott-Heron’s intention was never to self-righteously evangelise. All he had was the power to communicate the inequities that arose in his community with eloquence and empathy”
While one English pairing dabbled with music on “Theme From S’ Express”, it was two of their fellow Londoners who were entrusted with helming Scott-Heron’s final opus. After visiting him in prison (he’d spent years in and out of the penal system on drugs charges), XL Recordings owner Richard Russell felt compelled to get Scott-Heron back into the studio. In 2010, 16 years after his last album, Scott-Heron released the sparse and intimate I’m New Here, comprised of original material, revelatory covers of blues standards, and conversational interludes.
Jamie xx was tasked with delivering a remix album from its scant, sinewy frame. Constructed when Jamie xx (real name Jamie Smith) was just 22, We’re New Here juxtaposed the gravelly brogue of the ailing legend with the ingenuity of a producer that was only finding his feet. While Scott-Heron expressed concern over a couple of tracks, he gave Smith his blessing to exact his own vision after he wrote him a letter. “He said I was free to do whatever because he knew what I was doing,” Smith told Pitchfork. A year after untimely his death, We’re New Here would elevate Scott-Heron to his highest peak in the Billboard Hot 100 after Drake borrowed his vocalisations for the Rihanna-assisted “Take Care”.
His voice wizened by the ravages of a life in constant flux, these twinned albums reflected the tumult of his later years but proved that his acerbic intellect had remained intact. Once a touring partner of Stevie Wonder, he fell victim to the corrosive nature of substance abuse that he forewarned of on “The Bottle” and “Angel Dust”. Beset by a crack cocaine addiction, extended periods of self-imposed exile would follow, and his appearances in the public eye grew few and far between. While some found irony in his inability to practice what he preached, a conversation with Dazed from 2000 proved that he never saw himself as any messianic figure or social leader, despite how many people looked up to him: “My community is often damaged by things that other people do and I like to be sure that my neighbours understand that I’m going through the same things they are.”
Much like how Kendrick Lamar, who sampled his work on Section.80’s “Poe Man’s Dreams”, will speak on societal ills before lamenting over his own personal woes, Scott-Heron’s intention was never to self-righteously evangelise. All he had was the power to communicate the inequities that arose in his community with eloquence and empathy. Whether at the peak of his powers or in the embers of his career, Scott-Heron’s words didn’t occupy allegorical spaces, but were crafted with the goal of affecting change as quickly as possible. When he reminded everyone that “We Almost Lost Detroit”, or our duty to “Save The Children”, he did so in the manner of a war correspondent tasked with promulgating the horrors that he saw to the masses and it’s a tradition that is alive and well in both hip hop and R&B. As Chuck D so strikingly put it after his death, “we do what we do and how we do because of you”.
A true radical in every sense, his work possessed an earnestness that his descendants carry with them to this day. No words that summarise his legacy quite like his probing self-evaluation to percussionist Larry McDonald: “I saw some shit that needed to be spoken on and nobody was speaking on it. So, I just said it.”