In the most famous song of his career, back in 1971, Gil Scott-Heron assumed the stance of a fiery street-corner agitator and proclaimed that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
In light of more recent events, you could argue that he had it all wrong in that angrily satiric broadside, whose confrontational tone and spoken, machine-gun cadences presaged today’s politicized hard-core rap music.
Whether it has been a wall falling in Berlin, Boris Yeltsin clambering atop a tank in Moscow, or beatings and burnings in Los Angeles, the tumultuous events of our time have been brought to us live and in color. But Scott-Heron, who plays tonight in Long Beach and Sunday in Santa Ana, thinks the underlying argument of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” still holds.
In watching those epochal changes on television, he said during a recent phone interview, “we’ve seen the results take place. But what we were talking about (in the song) was that people had to change their minds first,” before events could begin to unfold in a way that cameras might capture. “The revolution that takes place in your head, nobody will ever see that.”
Scott-Heron, now 43, recalls writing the song in his student days at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, while watching a newscast of a demonstration.
‘It started off as a crack when we were watching television, me and the guys in one of the dorms. We were watching some demonstrators, and (the newscasters) were talking about how many people were participating. We said, ‘People got to get out there and do something; the revolution won’t be televised.’ A cat said, ‘You ought to write that down.’ ”
Scott-Heron spun that title phrase into a funny but ferocious lampoon of televised notions of reality. “We came up with it because we were trying to encourage people to be active instead of watchers.”
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was an underground hit back in the days of free-form FM radio, and it launched Scott-Heron on a career as one of the most persistent and wide-ranging social critics in pop music. Through the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, he could be heard on record inveighing against alcohol, heroin and angel dust as scourges of ghetto life, warning against the dangers of nuclear power or, in “Whitey on the Moon,” ridiculing the space race.
In spoken monologues that recalled the likes of Dick Gregory and Lenny Bruce, he attacked the Nixon and Reagan presidencies. With his song “Johannesburg” in 1975, he decried South African apartheid at a time when the issue wasn’t yet a staple among pop acts with a social conscience.
But he also can point to less overtly political themes in his 17-album catalogue (only two best-of collections are now in print in the United States). Among them are songs that deal with fatherhood and romantic love, that offer deeply personal visions of hope, or that focus on the individual impact of social wrongs with such aching, tender, closely observed narratives as “Pieces of a Man.”
He and his bands--the current five-member group is called the Amnesia Express--have couched these themes in varied settings that range from straight blues and soul balladry to the cool jazz-funk grooves that have become his trademark.
Scott-Heron’s relevance for rappers is obvious not only in his social commentary but in his delivery on early ‘70s tracks like “No Nock,” in which he blasted the abuse of police power in spoken tones over an African conga beat, with results strikingly similar to the sound of contemporary rap.
His influence is clear in the work of such politicized rap groups as the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Public Enemy, whose track in 1991 about the impact of alcoholism in the black community, “1 Million Bottlebags,” updated and alluded to “The Bottle,” one of Scott-Heron’s best-known songs.
“I know some of those guys--Flavor and Chuck D (of Public Enemy) and Michael Franti (of the Disposable Heroes),” Scott-Heron said, adding that “quite a few” rappers have acknowledged him as an influence. “It’s just something they do out of respect.”
But he doesn’t try to stake a claim as a godfather of rap, which he sees as a natural extension of musical currents that existed before he came along.
“It’s dance music, and it also communicates on what’s going on. It’s the same as the songs when we were growing up. Mike (Franti) and I did an interview together recently for Musician magazine. He talked about the influence he got from me, I talked about the influence I got from Oscar Brown Jr.,” a storytelling R&B; humorist of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Scott-Heron doesn’t exactly classify himself as a fan of rap. “It’s something that’s aimed at the kids. I have kids, so I listen to it. But I would say it’s not aimed at me. I still listen to the jazz station.
“There are certain things I would not like to see my kids bring home--2 Live Crew and some other things,” added the father of three, ages 12 to 15. “Those are rough. It’s sexist and racist, attitudes I would not want my kids to be part of.”
His own youth was split between the small-town South of Jackson, Tenn., and New York City. He was born in Chicago but was sent to live with his grandmother in Tennessee after his mother, a librarian, split with his father, who went on to play professional soccer in Scotland.
“Some of the things that happened to me were unique, and they helped me a great deal” in forming a political outlook. “I was one of the first three black students to go to an all-white school in Tennessee” in 1961, when he entered the eighth grade. “We were tolerated. I would say for the most part it worked out very well.”
He started playing piano at age 10. “The place next door to us was a funeral home. They were closing it down and a man came to take this beat-up old upright piano to the dump.” Instead, Scott-Heron’s grandmother bought it for $6. “She tried to give me lessons for about six months and I couldn’t handle it. The lady who was teaching me was into hymns. I learned ‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘The Old Rugged Cross,’ then I went back to playing ‘Duke of Earl.’ ”
After his grandmother died, Scott-Heron rejoined his mother and they moved to New York City when he was 13. For a while, he entertained dreams of being a sports hero “but I decided if I was going to play something, I ought to play the piano.” One result of hanging out on New York City playgrounds, though, was the friendship he struck up with a tall kid named Lew Alcindor, who went on to pro basketball fame as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“He was the best man at my wedding; he introduced me to my wife” who had been a UCLA classmate of Jabbar’s (himself a noted jazz fan who Scott-Heron says sat in with his band on percussion during some late-'70s gigs in Los Angeles).
While developing as a musician, Scott-Heron was emerging as a writer. By the time “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” had introduced him to a wide musical audience, he had published a novel, “The Vulture,” and a book of poetry, “Small Talk at 125th & Lenox.”
“I think my mother and I bought three or four of ‘em,” he said of his first novel’s sales. “The second one (“The Nigger Factory,” published in 1972) was a little more successful.”
Through the early and mid-'70s, he divided his time between music, writing and teaching. After earning a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University, he taught creative writing at the University of the District of Columbia, and it wasn’t until 1976, after he had graduated to a major-label deal with Arista Records, that he pursued music full time.
“I miss (teaching),” he said. “I was a better writer when I was teaching. I was constantly going over the basics and constantly reminding myself, as I reminded my students, what made a good story, a good poem.”
He was part of two high-profile music-as-protest efforts, the “No Nukes” concert album spearheaded in 1980 by Jackson Browne, and “Sun City,” the anti-apartheid album organized by Little Steven Van Zandt in 1985. On his own, though, he hasn’t had a U.S. record release since “Re-Ron,” a techno-funk single in 1984 that ridiculed Ronald Reagan’s reelection effort.
A British label issued Scott-Heron’s most recent album, a 1990 double-CD release, “Live Somewhere in Europe.” He said he has a new album in the works but hasn’t vigorously pursued a stateside deal.
Even without new records, he has kept up a steady touring presence, both in Europe and America. “I tour more than I need to, more than is good for you,” he said, wryly. “But it’s my favorite part of music. I much prefer it to studio work.”
One of his new song titles, “Watergate to Daryl Gates,” suggests that his eye for commentary hasn’t blinked in the ‘90s.
In “Johannesburg,” his anti-apartheid song, he raised with some ambivalence the crucial question of whether it’s proper to use violence as a means for social change: “I hate it when the blood starts flowin’,/But I’m glad to see resistance growin’. “
Asked about that couplet and its implications, he quoted the famous slogan of Malcolm X: “Some things you have to have, by any means necessary. The basic right to live as a human being, the right to eat, to have an education--people have to force you to not have those, so (by resorting to violence) you’re just responding in the manner in which you’re being approached.”
Gil Scott-Heron plays tonight at 8:30 and 10:30 at Birdland West, 105 Broadway, Long Beach ($20. (310) 436-9341) and Sunday at 8 p.m. at the Rhythm Cafe, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. ($16 in advance; $17.50 at the door. (714) 556-2233.)