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R.I.P. Gil Scott Heron: Must-Reads From Around The Web

Ryan Faughnder |
May 28, 2011 | 3:11 p.m. PDT

Senior News Editor

When the news broke that spoken word artist Gil Scott-Heron had passed away Friday at the age of 62, it initiated a wave of tributes that illustrated the level of respect many had for him. Scott-Heron was often called the godfather of rap, though he rejected the title. His work combined poetry, jazz, blues and rhythmic repetition in ways that still sound fresh alongside contemporary recordings. 

Gil Scott-Heron. Photo by David Blumenkrantz (via Creative Commons).
Gil Scott-Heron. Photo by David Blumenkrantz (via Creative Commons).

Droves of artists, such as Vijay Iyer, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Eminen and Snoop Dogg, expressed sadness and respect on Twitter. "RIP GSH..and we do what we do and how we do because of you,” Chuck D, of Public Enemy, wrote. “And to those that don't know tip your hat with a hand over your heart & recognize."

Scott-Heron was best know for a piece of spoken-word media satire called “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” which he released in 1970 on a small label. He recorded thirteen albums between 1970 and 1982, but only two after two after that. He collaborated with hip-hop heroes and legendary jazz players.

Scott-Heron struggled with drug use and the law throughout his life. His lyrics vividly portrayed such aspects of urban life, along with class struggle and race relations.

His work and life recently drew an explosion of attention in the music community and elsewhere. His most recent album, “I’m New Here” (2010), his first in 16 years, was released to widespread critical acclaim. He even recently worked with Jamie xx of British pop band The xx. Kanye West sampled one of his pieces for the song “Who Will Survive In America?”

Here is a brief list of pieces written before and after Scott-Heron’s death that help capture the essence of this highly influential musician and poet.

1. Alec Wilkinson’s 2010 profile of Scott-Heron in the New Yorker may turn out to be the definitive piece of writing on the spoken-word artist. Scott-Heron comes off as important, thoughtful and perhaps wise, but also deeply troubled, in the piece. He smokes crack in front of the author. Here, Wilkinson describes the artist’s appearance and aura, while touching on the effects of his drug use:

Sometimes when I spoke to people who used to know Scott-Heron, they told me that they preferred to remember him as he had been. They meant before he had begun avidly smoking crack, which is a withering drug. As a young man, he had a long, narrow, slightly curved face, which seemed framed by hair that bloomed above his forehead like a hedge. The expression in his eyes was baleful, aloof, and slightly suspicious. He was thin then, but now he seems strung together from wires and sinews—he looks like bones wearing clothes. He is bald on top, and his hair, which is like cotton candy, sticks out in several directions. His cheeks are sunken and deeply lined. Dismayed by his appearance, he doesn’t like to look in mirrors. He likes to sit on the floor, with his legs crossed and his propane torch within reach, his cigarettes and something to drink or eat beside him. Nearly his entire diet consists of fruit and juice. Crack makes a user anxious and uncomfortable and, trying to relieve the tension, Scott-Heron would sometimes lean to one side or reach one hand across himself to grab his opposite ankle, then perhaps lean an elbow on one knee, then maybe press the soles of his feet together, so that he looked like a swami

Scott-Heron’s voice has always been more of a declaimer’s voice than a singer’s voice—when he was young, he sounded like a writer singing. In 1971, he recorded a second version of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and the bassist Ron Carter, who played on it, told me, “He wasn’t a great singer, but, with that voice, if he had whispered it would have been dynamic. It was a voice like you would have for Shakespeare.” Smoking cigarettes erodes a singer’s subtlety and range, and Scott-Heron has smoked for decades, making his voice less versatile but raspier and even more idiosyncratic.

2. A shorter piece in Mother Jones captured the difference between Scott-Heron’s recent work and his classic period, though he never strayed from his central themes:

Richard Russell of England's superhip XL Recordings (home of Radiohead, M.I.A., and Vampire Weekend) first visited Scott-Heron at Rikers Island in 2006, and began the lengthy and hard-fought process that led to the recording of I'm New Here. The album sounds markedly different from the jazz-inflected work of Scott-Heron's classic period. It's sparser, more purely rhythm based. And instead of reviving what he's best known for—a scathing critique of America's racial attitudes and social policies—it concentrates on family and more personal concerns. "What better place to go when really frightening things surround you?" he says. I'm New Here also contains a harrowing version of Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil," which may seem an odd choice for this urbane voice of protest. He says that the fit was a natural—and hearing Scott-Heron cry out "Me and the devil / Was walking side by side" certainly serves as a stark reminder of his own demons.

3. Richard Russell, the famous producer and longtime friend and collaborator with Scott-Heron, posted a moving tribute. Here’s an excerpt:

Gil shunned all the trappings of fame and success. He could have had all those things. But he was greater than that.

He seemed wholly uninterested in money.

To my knowledge he never accepted an award. He always wanted everyone else to receive credit for their work.

4. Jamie Byng was Scott-Heron's publisher and managing director of Canongate Books. He was responsible for the publication of Scott-Heron's books, The Vulture, The Nigger Factory and Now and Then: The Poems of Gil Scott-Heron. His deeply personal remembrance of the poet is breathless with memories of his courage. But it was the music that truly let Scott-Heron communicate with people:

Hundreds of thousands of people saw Gil perform live over the decades, always with remarkable bands, and few came away untouched by his magnetism, humility, biting wit and warmth of spirit. He was the most generous of bandleaders, inspiring great loyalty and love in his fellow musicians, infecting everybody on and off stage with his singularity of vision, his charismatic personality, his moral beauty and his willingness to take his fellow travellers through the full range of emotions.

Just listen to Work for Peace, from his penultimate album Spirits, to be reminded of just how consistently relevant and incredibly sharp his vision was and will remain. If you want to relive the joy and empathy he felt towards people and music, just play Lady Day and John Coltrane. If you want to hear again his railing against social injustice, replay Johannesburg. Who else was decrying and condemning apartheid in 1974? 

Who else, indeed?

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