I have to admit, I didn’t really know much about Scott-Heron — outside of associating him with his noted song/poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” — prior to reading a heartbreaking New Yorker profile of him last year. As our comrades over at The Smoking Section already noted, he was one of the “forefathers of spoken word” and his influence on rap and hip-hop is still felt today — his words have been sampled often by many of today’s prominent artists — with artists like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common and Kanye West among the many he influenced.
In fact, the last track on Kanye West’s latest release, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — “Who Will Survive In America” — is sampled from a Gil Scott-Heron classic. Here’s a pretty amazing tribute video for the track made by a fan I found earlier today…
In his aforementioned New Yorker profile of Scott-Heron, writer Alec Wilkinson depicts an aging icon living largely in isolation, and severely addicted to crack.
Scott-Heron calls himself a bluesologist. He is sixty-one, tall and scrawny, and he lives in Harlem, in a ground-floor apartment that he doesn’t often leave. It is long and narrow, and there’s a bedspread covering a sliding glass door to a patio, so no light enters, making the place seem like a monk’s cell or a cave. Once, when I thought he was away, I called to convey a message, and he answered and said, “I’m here. Where else would a caveman be but in his cave?”
Recently, I arrived at his apartment while he was watching fight films with Mimi Little, whom he calls Miss Mimi. Miss Mimi helps run his affairs and those of his company, Brouhaha Music; the living room of his apartment is the company’s office. They were watching Muhammad Ali knock down George Foreman in the eighth round of the Rumble in the Jungle, in Zaire, in 1974 … All you could see then of Ali in the blending swarm was his head and shoulders, so he looked like a bust. “Ali’s thirty-two, having been exiled to nowhere,” Scott-Heron said. “Unbelievable odds. I like to see unbelievable odds, because that’s what I’ve been facing all these years. When I feel like giving up, I like to watch this.”
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.
When I first began visiting Scott-Heron, he would leave the room at intervals and go into his bathroom. The next time I went to his apartment, he went into his kitchen and a stream of smoke drifted out. One day, I turned around, and he had his crack pipe to his lips, and after that he didn’t bother to leave the room anymore. Sometimes he would fall asleep in the middle of an interview, and I would excuse myself.
Monique de Latour, an artist who lived with Scott-Heron for three years beginning in 1997, says that he would smoke crack for four or five days without rest. The longest she saw him stay awake was seven days. She knew he was getting tired when the things he said no longer made sense. “He would be talking about baseball and say someone had scored a touchdown,” she told me.
Here is the piece for which he’ll always be remembered…
One other takeaway from the New Yorker profile on him: Gil Scott-Heron was not comfortable with people labeling him, as many have, as the “godfather of rap.”
A strict honoring of rap origin legends would say that it begins with d.j.s in the Bronx, among African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Jamaicans, in the summer of 1973, and especially with a d.j. named Kool Herc. The people involved were going to parties where they could dance to a spare form of recorded music that had been arranged so that the pulse was foremost. The language and the stories that went along with them were simple. “Hip-hop has its own superheroic myths and stories,” Greg Tate, the hip-hop critic, says. “Gil is a genre to himself.”
The legacy of the Last Poets and Scott-Heron was more deeply embraced by second-generation rappers with social convictions. Among these was Chuck D., of Public Enemy, who told me that he first heard Scott-Heron when he was a teen-ager, in the nineteen-seventies. Scott-Heron and the Last Poets are “not only important; they’re necessary, because they are the roots of rap—taking a word and juxtaposing it into some sort of music,” he said. “You can go into Ginsberg and the Beat poets and Dylan, but Gil Scott-Heron is the manifestation of the modern word. He and the Last Poets set the stage for everyone else. In what way necessary? Well, if you try to make pancakes, and you ain’t got the water or the milk or the eggs, you’re trying to do something you can’t. In combining music with the word, from the voice on down, you follow the template he laid out. His rapping is rhythmic, some of it’s songs, it’s punchy, and all those qualities are still used today.”
When I asked Scott-Heron what he thinks when people attribute rap music to him, he said, “I just think they made a mistake.”
Here’s a track from Scott-Heron’s last release in 2010 titled “New York Is Killing Me.”
Gil Scott-Heron left his mark and will be missed. May his soul rest in peace.