If you know anything about jazz, beat poetry, funk, spoken word, or rap, then you’ve heard of Gil Scott-Heron. Hailed by many as the godfather of rap, Scott-Heron adamantly refused that title, going as far as to criticize rap music in 1993’s Message To The Messengers. But whatever he was, Scott-Heron’s life, career, and art was tinged – at different times – with brilliance, hypocrisy, revolution, tragedy, innovation, and myriad more adjectives.
I’d rather not discuss his politics; needless to say there are those who agree with him and those who disagree. I also don’t want to focus on his crack habit, or the New Yorker article written last year. Nor do I think the years he spent in jail are important enough to focus on. While all of these things make up who he was, and lend themselves to his music, poetry, and art – they are not his legacy. His legacy are the songs he sang, the poems he wrote, and the immense influence he had on both art and music.
He tied music and poetry like no one before him did. Sure, Dylan was one of the first musician-poets, but his lyrics are more stories than poetry. Listen to The Revolution Will Not Be Televised; it reads more like a poem than a song. It was an entirely new art form – spoken word music on top of a beat. Sure, it was the natural direction for poetry to go in – all Scott-Heron needed to do was add the drums – but what makes him great is that he did it first, he was that innovator.
Listen to the four tracks below. The first two are off his first album, and they’re primarily spoken word political rants. The final two are off his final album, and they’re introspective songs with a full backing band. It’s easy to see the progression of his career – from an idealistic and minimalistic 21 year old, to a hardened addict and jailbird singing about his experiences and his need to figure out how to live again.
But it’s when you focus on the content of the songs, that you risk dismissing Scott-Heron as a hypocrite who changed his tune when he became more widely known. Try to step back and focus on the music: The beats and the words and the way they mesh together. The way he uses the spoken word not just to get across a message, but to create a feeling and a beat. Because at the core, when you take away the lyrical content and the politics involved, Gil Scott-Heron spent his entire life creating art using the rhythm of his words, combined with simple drum and hand-clapped rhythms. In some ways it’s the most basic music, but it’s also the most powerful. Stripped down, pure, and different.
Gil Scott-Heron was an innovator. He was an artist. He was a rapper. He was a jazzman. He was a poet. He influenced every single one of those genres, and this makes him great. And though the end of his life was marred by controversy, his artistic and musical legacy remains intact – brilliant, creative, and beautiful.
Gil Scott-Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Gil Scott-Heron – Comment #1
Gil Scott-Heron – Me and the Devil
Gil Scott-Heron – New York Is Killing Me