Gil Scott-Heron was a pioneering poet and musician. His unique musical fusion of jazz, blues, rap, funk, and soul was captivating and his radical political vision was transformative for a generation of musicians and activists especially in the hip-hop community.
Tragically, Scott-Heron died recently in New York at the age of 62. His political legacy was vast and his connections to social movements deep. He was particularly active in the civil rights struggle and the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s and wrote dozens of socially conscious tracks touching on a wide range of political, social and personal issues. This slide show surveys Scott-Heron's prolific canon and attempts to highlight some of his lesser-known material.
Gil Scott-Heron's debut album was a collection of recording sessions done at a nightclub at 125th & Lenox in New York. The release featured social and political poetry, like “Comment No. 1,” recently featured on the last track of Kanye West’s 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Fantasy and the first recorded version of Scott-Heron's most well-known song, "The Revolution Will Not be Televised."
The album was his first studio album. It featured less spoken word than his debut and included the polished track that he would become the most well-known version of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” which he would say later in his career overshadowed the other tracks produced for the album. “The Prisoner,” is one of the tracks he must have been thinking about. It speaks to how alienation and fear can trap a person.
Free Will was the first album that prominently featured flute virtuoso Brian Jackson, who would become a long-time collaborator. Songs on the album dealt with police brutality, violence and self-exploration. “Get Out of the Ghetto Blues” mused on personal responsibility. “Ain’t No New Thing” confronted the appropriation of black culture by mainstream America, with Scott-Heron highlighting the history of white people ripping off black artists.
A definitive album in Scott-Heron's career, Winter in America explored stagflation, the 1973 oil crisis, the 1973 stock market crash, urban poverty and the Watergate scandal. It featured “The Bottle,” a story of addiction and alcoholism that would become another of Scott-Heron's most well-known works. “H20Gate Blues” also appeared on the album, a proto-rap that riffed on the corruption of the Nixon Administration.
Featuring the eight-piece Midnight Band, the album touched on spirituality and included a sequel to “H20Gate Blues” called “We Beg Your Pardon.” Jackson again collaborated with Scott-Heron to produce songs like “The Liberation Song,” a meditation on revolution.
South Africans were getting closer and closer to throwing off the chains of apartheid. Scott-Heron sung about their struggle on “Johannesburg,” which became an anthem of the movement to abolish apartheid. At the same time, in South Carolina and other parts of the United States, the movements of the Sixties were no longer as robust and vibrant. The decline provided the inspiration for “South Carolina,” which featured the lyrics, “Whatever happened to the protests and the rage?/Whatever happened to the voices of the sane?/Whatever happened to the people that gave a damn?/Or did they just apply to dyin’ in Vietnam?”
The album warned of the over-commercialization of society with the song “Madison Avenue.” “Show Bizness” provided a blunt take on working in the music industry. But, one song, “Angola, Louisiana,” continues to have particular resonance. Gary Tyler, who was charged and convicted of killing a 13-year old white boy in a trial the Fifth Circuit US Court of Appeals determined was “fundamentally unfair,” provided the inspiration for the song. He's still imprisoned in Angola today.
With beats and rhythms comparable to disco songs of the era, the album featured “Shut ‘Em Down,” a response to the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster that called on people to shut nuclear power plants. Less known but also superb was “Aliens (Hold on to Your Dream),” a soulful take on the experiences of Mexicans immigrating to Los Angeles.
Scott-Heron used this album to further reflect on life in America. The album featured “Waiting for the Axe to Fall,” a reflection on people losing their jobs and homes. He also sang about the Ku Klux Klan and, with “Your Daddy Loves You” and “You Could Be My Brother,” optimism and hope. And, the “Train from Washington” was his anthem to the people on waiting for politicians to deliver the American Dream.
The classic riff against then-President Ronald Reagan, “B Movie,” highlighted this album. Scott-Heron also covered Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” injecting funk and groove into a soul classic.
Heavily influenced by the death of reggae legend Bob Marley, this was the last album Scott-Heron released in the 1980s. Both “No Exit” and “Ready or Not” experimented with reggae beats. One song that stood out was “Blue Collar,” a shout-out to those from the working class who occupy a variety of jobs and professions in America.
It had been more than ten years since Scott-Heron had released an album. It featured “Work for Peace,” a song influenced by the first Gulf War which became a well-known protest song against US militarism. Also, rap music was going through a renaissance but to Scott-Heron the lyrics of many of the songs and the culture of “gun toting young brothas” that was being celebrated was bothersome and led him to record, “Message to the Messengers.”
Scott-Heron's final album featured the title track, "I'm New Here," a cover of a song by indie-rock band Smog, to which he brought a new gravitas. The album sampled other artists like Lupe Fiasco and would inspire the release of a remix album. It showed how Scott-Heron remained relevant to the current generation of musical artists. And, if one song stands out (besides the title track), it is “New York is Killing Me," a warning on what urban life can do to a person.
For more on Gil Scott-Heron, read Peter Rothberg's appreciation, "Remembering Gil Scott-Heron."