By KCRW DJ Eric J Lawrence:
To hardcore music fans, the name Gil Scott-Heron is synonymous with poetic soul.
Even those who only know of him from his cutting track, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” would recognize him as one of the more fiery vocalists ever to record in the pop idiom. But all should agree that he was a man beset by personal demons that nevertheless created among the most powerful, provocative and socially-conscious music of the past 40 years. Sadly, poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron passed away Friday, May 27 at the age of 62.
Born in Chicago in 1949, and raised in the South, then the Bronx, Scott-Heron showed an aptitude for writing at an early age. By 1970, he had published both a book of poetry and a novel, and released his debut album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, recorded live in a New York City nightclub and which opens with his signature song. An auspicious beginning to be sure, but throughout the 70s, he recorded a series of successful albums that blended jazz, soul, funk and spoken word in an unforgettable fashion. Songs such as “The Bottle,” “Whitey on the Moon,” “Winter in America,” and “Let Me See Your I.D” revealed an angry, but thoughtful young artist.
Many people consider his work during this period to have been a key influence on the development of rap, with his rhythmic recitations and tricky poetic lines setting the template for hip-hop artists to come. But his presence in the jazz scene of the era is often overlooked, despite working with such key artists as Ron Carter, Hubert Laws, Bernard Purdie, longtime collaborator Brian Jackson and legendary producer Bob Thiele.
His recording productivity declined in the 80s and 90s, although he continued to tour. However the turn of the millennium found Scott-Heron struggling with substance abuse, and he was sentenced to a series of prison terms for drug-possession charges throughout the decade. But he resumed recording in 2010 with his first album in 16 years, I’m New Here, which received some of the best reviews of his career (including selection by KCRW’s own Mathieu Schreyer as one of the top 10 albums of the year). Beloved by new generations of fans, the album was also remixed by Jamie xx of the cutting-edge UK band The XX, under the name, We’re New Here, giving Scott-Heron’s work a wholly contemporary spin.
With his absence the music community has lost a powerful voice, and he will be missed. But his legacy is strong and his influence is long-reaching. His revolution continues to be broadcast here at KCRW and across the globe.
ERIC J. LAWRENCE