Singer, poet ‘set the template’ for rap
Gil Scott-Heron, a singer, songwriter, poet and author whose social commentary and combination of spoken words with musical grooves are widely cited as a seminal influence on rap music, died Friday. He was 62.
The Associated Press reported that a friend, Doris C. Nolan, who answered the telephone number listed for Scott-Heron’s Manhattan recording company, said he died at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York after becoming sick upon returning from a trip to Europe.
Scott-Heron, who recorded and performed prolifically from the early 1970s until the mid-'80s before being derailed by drug addiction, was a vital link between the percussive polemics of New York’s the Last Poets of the 1960s and such politically charged hip-hop forces as Public Enemy and Talib Kweli.
“Gil set the template, it’s as simple as that,” Public Enemy’s leader Chuck D said in an interview Saturday. “He set the template for being able to put some sort of rhythm and opinion and expressive thought and a sense of voice and musicality together....
“As far as black people are concerned, Gil Scott-Heron is like Bob Dylan.... You know, they’re equals.”
His best-known song was one of his first. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was a witty, acerbic recitation about the way modern media can trivialize and compartmentalize a complex process. He skewered Ronald Reagan in the song “B Movie” and brought the then-obscure troubles in South Africa to the charts in the 1975 composition “Johannesburg.”
“For me and lot of other young people, he put Johannesburg on the map,” author and culture critic Nelson George told The Times on Saturday. “I didn’t really understand apartheid, didn’t really know much about South Africa. ‘Johannesburg’ was a big record in terms of developing consciousness about apartheid. He was a unique part of the political consciousness of that time.”
Scott-Heron’s songs also addressed the dangers of nuclear power, the effects of drugs and alcohol on the black community, the impact of a layoff notice and the malaise that gripped the U.S. in the wake of Watergate.
Scott-Heron wasn’t fond of his designation as “the godfather of rap,” often noting that his subject matter included more than just social and political observation.
Testifying to his diverse following, word of his death Friday prompted tributes on Twitter and websites from performers ranging from Eminem to Radiohead, Usher to Sarah Silverman.
“We’re well-rounded individuals,” Scott-Heron told the OC Weekly in 1999, speaking about himself and his collaborators. “We’re concerned with ourselves and the government and Mexican farmworkers and Iranians and coal miners and a song for a lady, and there’s no musical category or direction that fits that. See, some people have been limited in their exposure to the songs we’ve done. But we know all the songs. See, we’re not limited.”
Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago on April 1, 1949. His mother, a librarian, and father, a professional soccer player from Jamaica, split up when he was 2, and he went to live with his grandmother in Jackson, Tenn.
There he had firsthand experience with racial issues: He was among a group of black children who integrated a local elementary school. He also began playing piano and encountered one of his major influences.
“I was a big fan of Langston Hughes, who wrote a weekly column in a black newspaper,” he said in a 1999 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “My grandmother used to get it every Thursday, and we used to sit out on the front porch and read it.”
The Harlem poet and author triggered Scott-Heron’s literary side, and after he moved to New York to live with his mother, his talent led him to the prestigious Fieldston School. He went on to Hughes’ alma mater in Pennsylvania, Lincoln University, and in 1970 published a novel, “The Vulture,” followed by a volume of poetry, “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox.”
The latter was also the title of Scott-Heron’s first album, which he made at the urging of noted jazz producer Bob Thiele. It included the signature “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” with the writer speaking the verses over a percussive groove:
“You will not be able to stay home, brother. You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out. You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip out for beer during commercials because the revolution will not be televised.”
That set the pattern for the albums Scott-Heron made in the early 1970s for Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label, though he also sang, in a rough but engaging voice. The music was crafted largely by his former Lincoln University schoolmate Brian Jackson, leader of his Midnight Band.
Scott-Heron wasn’t tremendously successful from a commercial standpoint, but he had a strong cult following and critical acclaim. He also earned a master’s degree in writing from Johns Hopkins University and taught at the University of the District of Columbia.
One notable fan was Clive Davis, who made Scott-Heron the first artist signed to his new label Arista in 1975. He remained with Arista for a decade, finding some chart success with “Johannesburg” and “The Bottle,” about the devastation caused by alcohol abuse. He also appeared on two rock-leaning protest projects, “No Nukes” and the “Sun City” album.
Scott-Heron’s output dropped sharply after he left Arista in 1985. His main musical activity was live shows, with one album, “Spirits,” coming out on TVT Records in 1994.
In 2001, he pleaded guilty to felony possession of cocaine in New York and agreed to enter a residential treatment program. When he didn’t show up and missed a court date, he was sentenced to one to three years in jail.
In 2003, he was arrested at New York’s La Guardia Airport and charged with possession of a controlled substance. Three years, later he was sentenced to two to four years for violating the terms of his parole.
He continued touring in recent years, releasing an album, “I’m New Here,” in 2007 and appearing at the Coachella festival in 2010, but a profile last year in the New Yorker described him smoking crack cocaine and falling asleep during interviews.
“He was a very funny man, a very wry sense of humor,” George said Saturday. “He also had a tragic quality to him. When you look at the big scope of his career, he should have actually been a bigger artist. His own personal demons got in the way of that.... It’s one of the sad ironies that the man who made ‘The Bottle’ ended up a victim of his own abuse.”
Information on survivors was not available.
Cromelin is a former Times staff writer.