Getty Images Legendary singer Diana Ross, hip-hop forefather Gil Scott-Heron…
- Posted on Jul 30th 2010 5:00PM by James Sullivan
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
Son of a librarian and her estranged husband, a Jamaican-born soccer player, Scott-Heron is best known for his timeless commentary on media and activism, 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.' The revolution will take place at the moment when minds are changed, he said -- before the advertisers arrive: "The theme song will not be written by Jimmy Webb or Francis Scott Key, or sung by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash, Engelbert Humperdinck."
Besides his intense social conscience, Scott-Heron became known for his unblinking portrayals of the perils of substance abuse in songs like 'Angel Dust' and the dance-oriented 'The Bottle,' the biggest "hit" of this hip-hop godfather's modest commercial career. So it came as a disappointment to many of Scott-Heron's fans when his long, frequent absences from performing beginning in the late 1970s were attributed to a lifelong struggle with booze and drugs.
He hasn't always acknowledged it. "I've never seen anybody abuse a substance," he told this writer a decade ago. "I've seen some substances abuse people." After a 2001 arrest for cocaine possession, he has been in and out of prison since. Earlier this year, Scott-Heron released his first album in years, the critically acclaimed 'I'm New Here,' a collaboration with XL Recordings owner Richard Russell.
Routinely cited alongside the Last Poets and the Watts Prophets as the writerly, politically motivated triumvirate that helped launch rap, Scott-Heron tends to downgrade his influence. The impact of 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,' he said, marked him as an activist.
"To tell the truth, I'm not qualified to analyze a lot of that stuff," he said when asked about the state of the nation in 1999. He prefers to be considered an "interpreter of the black experience."
Scott-Heron, who didn't graduate from college, nevertheless holds master's degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University. Having published his first book of poetry as a teenager and two novels, 'The Vulture' and 'The N----- Factory,' shortly thereafter, the wordsmith was encouraged to begin a recording career by legendary jazz producer Bob Thiele, who co-wrote 'What a Wonderful World' and ran Impulse! Records (John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins) in the 1960s.
From 1970 until the mid-1980s, Scott-Heron's subjects ranged from the government's apathy toward poverty ('Whitey on the Moon') and the threat of nuclear power ('We Almost Lost Detroit,' 'Shut 'Um Down') to the conservative revival led by Ronald Reagan ('Re-Ron,' ''B' Movie').
Though he was the first artist signed to Clive Davis' Arista Records and one of the first musical guests on 'Saturday Night Live,' by the mid-'80s Scott-Heron was starting to slip from notice. Invited to appear on an episode of the daytime talk show 'Donahue' about apartheid, he heard one well-known writer credit 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' to the Last Poets.
"I was standing right behind her," he recalled with a laugh, referring to poet and author Nikki Giovanni, "and I said, 'Excuse me, Nikki. I believe that was my piece.'"