Getty Images Legendary singer Diana Ross, hip-hop forefather Gil Scott-Heron…
- Posted on May 27th 2011 10:34PM by David Dacks
One of America's greatest cultural figures of the 1970s and an inspiration to generations since, Scott-Heron had been in fragile health for many years as a result of a decades-long battle with cocaine and HIV infection.
Scott-Heron was renowned for his vivid combination of music and poetry, defining new ways of incorporating spoken-word artistry within ambitious sonic settings right up until his death. He was a key figure in post-civil rights articulation of Black America, calling himself "an interpreter of the black experience," while his early works were a clear forerunner to hip-hop. Scott-Heron looms as large in the music of contemporary stars such as Kanye West (who largely based 'Who Will Survive in America?' on 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy' on Scott-Heron's sampled voice and music) as he did on Public Enemy's Chuck D more than 20 years ago.
Scott-Heron's music and words are arguably in greater circulation than ever before. 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' -- definitively recorded in 1971, and notoriously used by Nike in 2007 -- is his best known song, elevated to catchphrase status despite being an all-encompassing attack on both societal complacency and false revolutionaries. He is also well known for 1974's 'The Bottle,' one of his biggest chart successes, which dealt with the evils of alcoholism while scoring big in discos at the time.
He broke a prolonged absence from recording with 'I'm New Here' in 2010, produced by Richard Russell, the head of British-based XL records. Despite his ill health and troubles with the law, Scott-Heron played many shows to audiences who were far too young to have heard him in his 1970s prime. This year, XL released a remix of that album by the xx's Jamie xx entitled 'We're New Here.'
Scott-Heron, largely in partnership with musical partner Brian Jackson, who shares credit on many classic albums, released an incredible run of music during the 1970s. His combination of dense spoken-word pieces with spiritual jazz gradually transformed into more sung lyrics covering a wider range of topics over R&B and funk grooves. If 'Revolution' and 'The Bottle' are characteristic of his early, youthful righteousness, later jams like 1977's 'We Almost Lost Detroit' about a near meltdown in Michigan and 1981's 'B-Movie' are fine examples of the latter.
Born in 1949 in Chicago, Scott-Heron grew up in Tennessee with his grandmother, a period much recounted on 'I'm New Here.' Moving to New York after he finished school, he initially found success as an author before releasing his first record 'Small Talk at 125th St. and Lennox' on the esoteric jazz label Flying Dutchman in 1970.
Partnering with Jackson, they quickly developed a spacious sound over which Scott-Heron recounted the state of Black America while social and economic conditions worsened. His political commentary was explicit and, nearly 40 years later, sometimes sounds overly of its time. Nevertheless, the quality of the music ensures that these songs remain highly provocative.
Scott-Heron's growing cult status led him to be the first artist signed to Arista Records and one of the first musical guests on 'Saturday Night Live' (at the insistence of host Richard Pryor). Later in the decade, he became a prominent anti-nuclear activist and appeared in the film 'No Nukes' in 1979 alongside Bruce Springsteen, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Carly Simon, and Jackson Browne.
After releasing 'Moving Target' in 1983, Scott-Heron gradually withdrew from touring as rumours of cocaine and crack use began to circulate. The 1990s were a dark time which yielded very little new music, save for the so-so 'Spirits' in 1993, in which he took rappers to task for not fulfilling their social responsibilities.
For nearly a decade and a half, most of the news surrounding Scott-Heron was bad: arrests, jail spells and infection with HIV. However, his books continued to be reissued and fans, though distraught at this anti-drug crusader's battle with drugs, health and societal pressures, continued to keep the faith that he would recover enough to make new music. 'I'm New Here' and its subsequent tour found him haggard and of slurred voice, but were both very warmly received.
Scott-Heron remained wry to the last, explaining on an 'I'm New Here' track that "If I hadn't been as eccentric, as obnoxious, as arrogant, as aggressive, as introspective, as selfish as I am -- I wouldn't be me."
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