/ 30 May 2011

Godfather of a dangerous medium

In 1970, the American poet and jazz musician Gil Scott-Heron, who has died aged 62 after returning from a trip to Europe, recorded a track that has come to be seen as a crucial forerunner of rap. To many it made him the “godfather” of the medium, though he was keener to view his song-like poetry as just another strand in the diverse world of black music.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised came on his debut LP, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, a collection of proselytising spoken-word pieces set to a sparse, funky tableau of percussion. It served as a militant manifesto urging black pride, and a blueprint for his life’s work: in the album’s sleeve notes, Scott-Heron described himself as “a Black man dedicated to expression; expression of the joy and pride of Blackness”. He derided white America’s complacency over inner-city inequality with mordant wit and social observation:

The revolution will not be right back after a message ’bout a white tornado, white lightning or white people.You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, a tiger in your tank or the giant in your toilet bowl. The revolution will not go better with Coke. The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath.The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.

Throughout his 40-year career, Scott-Heron delivered a militant commentary not only on the African-American experience, but on wider social injustice and political hypocrisy. Born in Chicago, Illinois, he had a difficult, itinerant childhood. His father, Gilbert Heron, was a Jamaican-born soccer player who joined Celtic FC – as the team’s first black player – during Gil’s infancy, and his mother, Bobbie Scott, was a librarian and keen singer.

After their divorce, Scott-Heron moved to Lincoln, Tennessee, to live with his grandmother, Lily Scott, a civil rights activist and musician whose influence on him was indelible.

He recalled her in the track On Coming from a Broken Home on his 2010 comeback album I’m New Here as “absolutely not your mail-order, room-service, typecast black grandmother”. She bought him his first piano from a local undertaker’s and introduced him to the work of the Harlem Renaissance novelist and jazz poet Langston Hughes, whose influence would resonate throughout his entire career.

In the nearby Tigrett junior high school in 1962, Scott-Heron faced daily racial abuse as one of only three black children chosen to desegregate the institution. These experiences coincided with the completion of his first volume of unpublished poetry, when he was 12.

Precocious writing talent

He then left Lincoln and moved to New York to live with his mother. Initially they stayed in the Bronx, where he witnessed the lot of African Americans in deprived housing projects. Later they lived in the more predominantly Hispanic neighbourhood of Chelsea. During his New York school years, Scott-Heron encountered the work of another leading black writer, LeRoi Jones, now known as Amiri Baraka.

While he was at DeWitt Clinton high school in the Bronx, Scott-Heron’s precocious writing talent was recognised by an English teacher, and he was recommended for a place at the prestigious Fieldston school. From there he won a place to Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, where Hughes had also studied, and met the flute player Brian Jackson, who was to be a significant musical collaborator.

During his second year at university, in 1968, Scott-Heron dropped out in order to write his first novel, a murder mystery titled The Vulture, set in the ghetto. When it was published, two years later, he decided to capitalise on the associated radio publicity by recording an LP.

The jazz producer Bob Thiele, who had worked with artists ranging from Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane, persuaded Scott-Heron to record a club performance of some of his poetry with backing by himself on piano and guitar. The line-up was completed by David Barnes on vocals and percussion, and Eddie Knowles and Charlie Saunders on congas, and Small Talk at 125th and Lenox was released on the Flying Dutchman label. Pieces of a Man (1971) showed Scott-Heron’s talents off to a fuller extent, with songs such as the title track, a fuller version of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, and Lady Day and John Coltrane, a soaring paean to the ability of soul and jazz to liberate the listener from the travails of everyday life.

The following year, his university-set novel, The Nigger Factory, was published and his final Flying Dutchman disc, Free Will, was released. Following a dispute with the label, Scott-Heron recorded Winter in America (1974) for Strata East, then moved to Clive Davis’s Arista Records; he was the first artist signed by the newly formed company.

Arista steered Scott-Heron to chart success with the disco-tinged, yet brazenly polemic, anti-apartheid anthem Johannesburg, which reached No 29 in the R&B charts in 1975. The Midnight Band, led by Jackson on keyboards, was central to the success of Scott-Heron’s first two albums for Arista – The First Minute of a New Day and From South Africa to South Carolina – the same year.

Jackson left the band as producer Malcolm Cecil arrived. Cecil had helped the Isley Brothers and Stevie Wonder chart funkier waters earlier in the decade, and under his direction Scott-Heron achieved his biggest hit to date, Angel Dust (1978), which reached No 15 in the R&B charts. With its lyrical examination of addiction it became an ironic counterpoint to the cocaine abuse that dogged Scott-Heron’s later years.

During the 1980s, producer Nile Rodgers of the disco group Chic also helped on production as the Reagan era provided Scott-Heron with new targets to attack. B Movie (1981), a thunderous, nine-minute critique of Reaganomics, stands out as the most representative track of this period. As he put it:

I remember what I said about Reagan… meant it. Acted like an actor… Hollyweird. Acted like a liberal. Acted like General Franco when he acted like governor of California, then he acted like a Republican. Then he acted like somebody was going to vote for him for president. And now we act like 26% of the registered voters is actually a mandate.

Scott-Heron made a practical impact on American public life in 1980, after Wonder released Hotter Than July, on which the track Happy Birthday demanded the commemoration of the birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King with a national holiday.

Scott-Heron went on tour with Wonder, and in Washington they campaigned to support the black congressional caucus’s proposal. Wonder and Scott-Heron fronted a petition signed by 6 million people, and in November 1983 Reagan signed the bill creating a federal holiday in January, the first falling in 1986. Scott-Heron told the US radio station NPR in 2008 that the holiday served as a “time for people to reflect on how far we have come, and how far we still have to go, in terms of being just people. Hopefully it will be a time for people to reflect on the folks that have done things to get us to where we are and where we’re going.”

Rhythmic exuberance

He also eulogised the work of Fannie Lou Hamer, a black civil rights leader and voting activist, in his song 95 South (All of the Places We’ve Been), on the album Bridges (1977). However, though his work was often overtly political, he told the New Yorker magazine in 2010 that he sought to express more than simple sloganeering: “Your life has to consist of more than ‘black people should unite’. You hope they do, but not 24 hours a day. If you aren’t having no fun, die, because you’re running a worthless programme, far as I’m concerned.”

A sense of joyous, rhythmic exuberance comes through on tracks such as Racetrack in France (also from Bridges), where, moving away from his standard commentary, he describes a French audience erupting into a hand-clapping frenzy as his band performed.

Lightness of musical touch and tone were brilliantly fused in his 1980 single, Legend in His Own Mind, in which he mocks a nameless lothario over a shuffling beat and a loping jazz piano riff that somehow contrives to sound at once sardonic and gentle. The rhyming couplets, though, demolish his delusional victim over a descending slap bass sequence:

Well you hate to see him coming when you’re grooving at your favourite barHe’s the death of the party and a self-proclaimed superstarGot a permanent Jones to assure you he’s been everywhereA show-stopping, name-dropping answer to the ladies’ prayers.

Alcoholic abandon

The Bottle (1974) resurfaced as an underground classic in years following the British acid-house “summer of love” of 1988. Its incendiary rhythmic flow and compassionate lyrical exploration of the links between material poverty and the corresponding human response – a drive towards narcotic or alcoholic abandon – suited the spirit of those times perfectly and recruited a new generation of fans. Scott-Heron himself fell victim to the alcohol and substance abuse he had so long decried, and in 1985 he was dropped by Arista.

To the surprise of many, he returned to recording in 1994 with the album Spirits, on the TVT label. By then, hip-hop and rap had become the voice of young black America, and attention was again focused on his early role in the genre.

In the Spirits track Message to the Messengers, Scott-Heron sent out a warning to young, nihilistic gangsta rappers and implored reflection and restraint: “Protect your community, and spread that respect around,” he urged, and rejected their use of “four-letter words” and “four-syllable words” as evidence of shallow intellects. Meanwhile, he found fame of a more surreal, unexpected variety when he provided the voiceover for adverts for the British fizzy orange drink Tango, declaiming in stentorian tones: “You know when you’ve been Tangoed.”

The republication of his novels by Payback Press, an imprint of the radical Scottish publishing house Canongate, added to a new sense of momentum. However, it was not to last, and his frequent live performances became tarnished by less-than-perfect renditions of his classic works.

Nonetheless, he could bring a packed Jazz Cafe in Camden Town, London, to a profound, meditative silence in the late 1990s as he performed songs such as Winter in America, and all his gigs sold out weeks in advance. His regular performances on Glastonbury’s jazz stage through the 90s were also good-natured, well-attended events as a new generation rediscovered the roots of so much of the best music of that decade.

Fractured decade
But in 1999 his partner Monique de Latour obtained a restraining order against him for assault, and in November 2001 he was arrested for possession of 1.2g of cocaine, sentenced to 18-24 months and ordered to attend rehab following that year’s European tour. When he failed to appear in court after the tour finished, he was arrested and sent to prison. He was released in October 2002.

He spent much of that fractured decade in and out of jail on drugs charges, and released no new work, favouring instead live performance and writing. His struggle with addiction continued, and in July 2006 he was again jailed after he broke the terms of a plea bargain deal on drug charges by leaving a rehab clinic.

He returned to the studio in 2007, and three years later released I’m New Here, produced by Richard Russell, on the British independent label XL Recordings, to wide critical acclaim. On it, he turned his lyrical contemplation inwards, commenting in confessional and haunting terms on his own loneliness, his upbringing, and repentant admissions of his own frailty: “If you gotta pay for things you done wrong, then I gotta big bill coming!”

Tracks such as Where Did the Night Go and New York Is Killing Me set his touchingly weathered baritone over minimalistic beats and production, completing the redemptive reinstatement of one of America’s most rebellious and influential voices.

In 1978 Scott-Heron married the actor Brenda Sykes, with whom he had a daughter, Gia. He also had another daughter, Che, and a son, Rumal