Happy Birthday: Gil Scott-Heron
b. 1 April 1949, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Raised in Jackson, Tennessee, by his grandmother, Scott-Heron moved to New York at the age of 13. His estranged father played for Glasgow Celtic, a Scottish soccer team. Astonishingly precocious, Scott-Heron had published two novels (The Vulture and The Nigger Factory) plus a book of poems (Small Talk At 125th And Lenox) by 1972. He met musician Brian Jackson when both were students at Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, and in 1970 they formed the Midnight Band to play their original blend of jazz, soul and prototype rap music. Small Talk At 125th And Lenox was mostly an album of poems (from his book of the same name), but later albums showed Scott-Heron developing into a skilled songwriter whose work was soon covered by other artists: for example, LaBelle recorded his ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ and Esther Phillips made a gripping version of ‘Home Is Where The Hatred Is’. In 1973, Scott-Heron had a minor hit with ‘The Bottle’, a song inspired by a group of alcoholics who congregated outside his and Jackson’s communal house in Washington, DC. Winter In America (on which Jackson was co-credited for the first time) and The First Minute Of A New Day, the latter for new label Arista Records, were both heavily jazz-influenced, but later sets saw Scott-Heron and Jackson exploring more pop-orientated formats, and in 1976 they scored a hit with the disco-based protest single, ‘Johannesburg’. During this period they began working with pioneering electronic producer Malcolm Cecil from Tonto’s Expanding Headband, with the duo’s musical emphasis naturally shifting to synthesizer-based sounds.
One of Scott-Heron’s best records of the 80s, Reflections (1981), featured a fine version of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Inner City Blues’; however, his strongest songs were generally his own barbed political diatribes, in which he confronted issues such as nuclear power, apartheid and poverty and made a series of scathing attacks on American politicians. Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Barry Goldwater and Jimmy Carter were all targets of his trenchant satire, and his anti-Reagan rap, ‘B-Movie’, gave him another small hit in 1982. An important forerunner of today’s rap artists, Scott-Heron once described Jackson (who left the band in 1980) and himself as ‘interpreters of the black experience’. However, by the 90s his view of the development of rap had become more jaundiced: ‘They need to study music. I played in several bands before I began my career as a poet. There’s a big difference between putting words over some music, and blending those same words into the music. There’s not a lot of humour. They use a lot of slang and colloquialisms, and you don’t really see inside the person. Instead, you just get a lot of posturing’.
In 1994, Scott-Heron released his first album for 10 years, Spirits, which began with ‘Message To The Messengers’, an address to today’s rap artists: ‘… Young rappers, one more suggestion before I get out of your way, But I appreciate the respect you give me and what you got to say, I’m sayin’ protect your community and spread that respect around, Tell brothers and sisters they got to calm that bullshit down, ’Cause we’re terrorizin’ our old folks and we brought fear into our homes’. Scott-Heron’s life was becoming increasingly bedevilled by drug addiction, however, and in 2001 he was imprisoned for three years for cocaine possession. It was a tragically ironic fate for an artist who had preached so eloquently about the danger of drugs. Scott-Heron and Jackson revived their musical partnership following the former’s release from prison in 2003