The iconic Gil Scott-Heron passed away on the afternoon of May 27 in New York City around 4pm EST at St. Luke’s Hospital.
The loss of Scott-Heron sent a shockwave throughout the worlds of Hip Hop and Soul music. Numerous amounts of current and past artists in both genres expressed their sentiments via Twitter and other outlets. His profound impact on Black culture throughout the 1970s and 1980s was immeasurable. To call him simply an artist does a great disservice to his contributions. He was much more than an artist. He was a prolific songwriter, author and poet that had a pulse on the circumstances he was surrounded by and with his words he moved a generation of disenfranchised people to become something bigger than the environment they were subjected to.
A prophet may be a more accurate description of Scott-Heron because his lyrics from 40 years ago are still eerily relevant today.
Gil Scott-Heron was born on April 1, 1949 in Chicago, Illinois to Bobbie Scott-Heron, a singer with the Oratorio Society of New York and Gilbert Heron, a Jamaican footballer who was the first black soccer player to play for Scotland’s Celtic Football Club. Scott-Heron spent his formative years in Jackson, Tennessee with his grandmother. After her death, a teenaged Scott-Heron returned to his mother’s care in the Bronx, New York. Upon returning to New York, he became best friends with NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. From the outset Scott-Heron was a proficient wordsmith and his gift was recognized early on by one of his high school teachers. As a result, he was granted a full scholarship to The Fieldston School in New York, New York.
Following in the footsteps of his idol Langston Hughes, Scott-Heron made the decision to attend Lincoln University in the late 1960s. This decision would prove to be a critical move by Scott-Heron as he would meet his long-time collaborator, Brian Jackson. These two men would provide the soundtrack for many of the black youths and young adults in America through the next two decades. In 1969, Scott-Heron took a leave of absence from college life to focus on writing two novels, The Vulture and The Nigger Factory. The Vulture was published in 1970 and in the same year he would launch his recording career.
Upon receiving production assistance from the legendary Bob Thiele, Scott-Heron released Small Talk at 125th and Lenox on Flying Dutchman Records. The 15 songs from the live album gave an insightful glimpse into the harsh realities that America and in particular black America was facing at the start of the 1970s. After the release of this album, he obtained his Master’s Degree in creative writing from John Hopkins University.
The following year Scott-Heron released Pieces of a Man, which featured the timeless record “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The 11 song offering delved more into the topics from the previous record and expanded more on his musical influences, but it also showcased Scott-Heron’s singing ability and contained more of a song structure as opposed to the long, free flowing poetry style used in his debut album. His song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” has been regarded by many as the introduction of Rap music. This album would peak at #25 on the Billboard Jazz Charts in 1972 and stay in the same spot for 6 consecutive weeks.
His next album, Free Will would be released in the late summer of 1972 and it was the last studio album he recorded for Flying Dutchman Records. This album experimented with having contrasting music styles on each side of the record. The first side features Scott-Heron and his band and the second side functions as a collaborative rap session with his music partner, Brian Jackson. It touched on the same popular topics of his previous albums. His next album would prove to be his most successful work to date.
After a dispute with his previous record label, Winter in America was released in May 1974 on Strata-East Records. The lead and only single from the album, “The Bottle” propelled the duo of Scott-Heron and Jackson into unknown commercial success. This album among his others showed an eclectic mix between funk, jazz and soul music. “The Bottle” would peak to #15 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart and the album would peak to #6 on the Billboard Jazz Albums Chart. This entire album was given the distinction of being one of the first rap albums alongside the works from The Watts Prophets and The Last Poets. His progression from poet to singer/songwriter was in full effect during this recording process. Many writers from the time period applauded the album for its jazzy overtones mixed with socially conscious lyricism.
The follow up to the classic album would be The First Minute of a New Day and it would be the first of nine albums to be released by Scott-Heron for Arista Records. Scott-Heron, Jackson and the Midnight Band put together another high quality album and with heavy promotion from the new record label they achieved unprecedented chart successes. The album peaked to #5 on the Billboard Jazz Albums Chart, #8 on the Billboard Black Albums Chart and #30 on the Billboard Pop Albums Chart. The next year in 1976 would see Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson release two albums, From South Carolina to South Africa and It’s Your World.
From South Carolina to South Africa was released in January 1976 and It’s Your World was released in November 1976. The former album was renowned for its detailed anti-apartheid and anti-nuclear sentiments as well as the introduction of autobiographical material. The ladder album was a double album, the first composed by the duo. Their sound expanded even more with the inclusion of Latin breaks and balladry. “Home is Where The Hatred Is” became one of the more popular tunes from this album as well as “Sharing,” “Tomorrow’s Trane” and “Must Be Something.” This album would be one of the duo’s best works to date.
As the 1970s came to a close, Scott-Heron would release two more albums, Bridges in 1977 and Secrets in 1978. Bridges featured the epic record “We Almost Lost Detroit.” This album gave Scott-Heron more of an edge as a singer and the sound of album strayed away from Scott-Heron and Jackson’s traditional format, which brought in a new audience of fans. Secrets would yield the duo another hit record; “Angel Dust.” “Angel Dust” peaked at #15 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart.
Scott-Heron would release only four albums in the 1980s; 1980, Real Eyes, Reflections and Moving Target. The album 1980 recalls the same political and social issues in which Scott-Heron addresses on his first album. This album would serve as a harbinger of lyrics to come that were aimed at Ronald Regan and his presidency.
These albums would continue to magnify the brilliance of Jackson’s arrangements, Scott-Heron’s lyrical gifts and welcome Malcolm Cecil as a new contributing producer. Some of the more popular singles from these albums would be “Alien (Hold on to Your Dreams),” “Shut Um Down,” “Willing,” “A Legend in His Own Mind,” “You Could Be My Brother,” “Gun,” “Inner City Blues,” “Fast Lane,” “Washington, DC,” and “Black History/The World.” It was also during this juncture where he was a steadfast supporter of Stevie Wonder’s movement to get Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a national holiday in the United States.
After being released from Arista Records in 1985, he stopped recording, but continued to tour extensively worldwide. In 1990, he published his third book, So Far, So Good and he returned to the music scene in 1994 when he released his 13th studio album on TVT Records entitled, Spirits. The lead single from the album “Message to the Messengers” became an instant classic among his faithful fans and a new generation of followers. For the rest of the decade, he lived in relative obscurity and he resurfaced in 2001when he was arrested for cocaine possession.
Between the years of 2001-2007, Scott-Heron spent the majority of his time in and out of prison and rehabilitation centers. During this time, it was rumored that the icon was HIV Positive. For the remaining years, 2008 until present he was performing at venues worldwide, documentaries were being recorded about him in the UK and books were being published about his contributions. He would release his final album, I’m New Here on XL Recordings in 2010. This would become his last recorded work before his untimely passing yesterday.
The influence of Scott-Heron can be found in past and current Hip Hop artists such as Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, MF Doom, Kanye West, Chuck D, Dr. Dre, Masta Ace and Grand Puba among others. His poignant lyricism and the richness of his baritone voice left in an indelible imprint on the fabric of America and the world. He embodied soul culture and was a transcendent figure in the emergence of a new art form. His voice became the staple for innumerable children and adults of color in a world that still treated them unfairly.
The true mark of greatness is the legacy you leave behind for future generations.
Gil Scott-Heron was indeed ahead of his time and his greatness will live on forevermore.