I first saw Gil Scott-Heron perform in 1985 at the Brazilian club SOB’s in Manhattan, which during that period functioned as his home-base. His unique musical fusion of jazz, blues, rap, funk, and soul was captivating and his radical political vision was transformative, not just for me, but for a generation of musicians and activists especially in the hip-hop community.
The pioneering poet and musician is often credited as one of the progenitors of hip-hop with Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Aesop Rock, Talib Kweli, Kanye West and Common all citing the poet/songwriter as a chief influence.
Tragically, Scott-Heron died Friday afternoon in New York at the tender age of 62.
Best known for the song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" which firmly entered the cultural lexicon after appearing on his 1971 album Pieces of a Man, Scott-Heron later battled drug problems and was incarcerated for a period during the 2000s, but he never stopped touring, and in 2010 he released the well-received I’m New Here.
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. He wrote probably the most moving song ever about the perils of nuclear power ("We Almost Lost Detroit"), undoubtedly the catchiest tune decrying the exploitation of mine workers, ("Three Miles Down,") and what became the anthem of the anti-Apartheid movement, ("Johannesburg.")
In 1979 he performed alongside Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne and many others at the MUSE benefits at Madison Square Garden, and in 1985 he led the protest anthem "Sun City" in a star-studded line-up featuring Bob Dylan, Steve Van Zandt, RUN DMC, Lou Reed and Miles Davis.
His writing also touched on domestic violence, addiction, the increasing gap between rich and poor, political disillusionment and what a bad actor Ronald Reagan had been.
It’s impossible to select a top ten from Scott-Heron’s vast canon but the choices below represent an effort to highlight his astonishing musical range, his incisive political commentary and his incendiary live performances.
We’ll be compiling additional written and musical tributes in the next few days.
Home is Where the Hatred Is
We Almost Lost Detroit
Three Miles Down
Winter in America
Whitey on the Moon
Shut ‘Em Down
A Toast to the People