Obituary: Gil Scott-Heron


by Brian Morton

It may not ease Neil Lennon’s woes a whit to know that his beloved football club has a small but significant connection to the evolution of hip-hop and rap culture. In 1951, ‘the Black Arrow’ became the first Afro-Caribbean player to don the famous ‘hoops’. He’d been signed as a 30 year old from Detroit Corinthians after a Celtic scout spotted his quality and after he scored twice at a trial. It didn’t quite work out and the following season ‘Flash’ was sold to Third Lanark.

His name was Gil Heron, and his son was the poet and spoken word performer Gil-Scott Heron whose ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ is the Ur-text of contemporary rap and whose anti-Reagan rants provided a focus for political opposition across racial lines in the 1980s.

In the event, Scott-Heron – who was raised by his maternal grandmother Lillie Scott – only outlived his father by three years. Gil Heron died in Detroit in 2008. His son had only recently been paroled from a two-to-four year prison sentence for violating a plea-bargained requirement to attend a drug rehabilitation centre. Scott-Heron’s defence was that he had been denied essential medication for the maintenance of his HIV+ condition. He was subsequently arrested on drug possession charges. Such headlines, and a partial return to performing, re-established Scott-Heron as a significant figure in the counter-culture.

Scottish publishers Canongate had reissued some of his writings, notably The Vulture and The Nigger Factory and a new generation of musicians, poets and ‘slammers’ were rediscovering his incendiary voice on record. His albums Pieces of a Man, Winter in America and From South Africa to South Carolina, all made in the first half of the 1970s, and largely in collaboration with musician Brian Jackson who Scott-Heron had met at college, represent the best of his work. His 2010 comeback album I’m New Here was a pale shadow of earlier work, but it communicated the familiar blend of wit, social conscience and an innate – and often underrated – musicality.

Scott-Heron was suspicious and to a degree dismissive of his supposed legacy, arguing fiercely in ‘Message to the Messengers’ that hip-hop’s essence lay in social responsibility, protest and activism, and pouring scorn on a generation of bling-flaunting egotists who’d abandoned the traditions of Langston Hughes (Scott-Heron went to the same college, a generation later) and the Last Poets.

Nor did he express much admiration, when I spoke to him in Edinburgh at the end of the 90s, for the rabid rhetoric of gangsta rap. “Those are just right-wing values turned upside down and put in ghetto clothes. A political gift for a racist establishment”, he said. I found Scott-Heron, who was already in uncertain health, to be quieter and more measured than I expected, but with a dry and pawky sense of humour. Fulfilling a long-standing reputation for coming back with a story, but not the story I’d set out to collect, I spent much of the time talking about his father and about the fate of black sportsmen in Britain and America.

Scott-Heron was born in Chicago in 1949, and was raised for a time in Tennessee after his parents divorced. His birthday was April 1, “and I’ve been a joke ever since”. At Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, he and Jackson founded a group called Black & Blues, but Scott-Heron wanted to write fiction and took time off to write his novels and study creative writing. By the time he graduated, though, he had already recorded Small Talk at 125th and Lenox for the legendary producer Bob Thiele, who had previously worked with John Coltrane and others in the jazz avant-garde. Before his death in 1996, Thiele told me that Scott-Heron was ‘a man who didn’t really fit the record business. The record business is all about committees, about taking a good idea and putting nine or ten different spins on it, so that it doesn’t come out like a good idea any more, more like a camel or a platypus. There was no way that Gil Scott-Heron was ever going to be a committee artist’.

A committed artist, though. Scott-Heron’s work in the 1970s was a direct counterblast to the sparkly hedonism of Philadelphia soul and the nascent disco scene.  Pieces of a Man was a compromise effort, an attempt to blend Scott-Heron’s work into songs that drew something from jazz form (hence the personnel on that album) and urban funk.  Winter in America was a reunion with Jackson and a return to more natural form, as was the spoken-word record The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron, which remains his most personal work, if that doesn’t seem too ironic a term for an engage artist.

Before the prospect of successive terms by ‘Ronnie Ray-Gun’ – ‘we don’t need no re-Ron’ – handed him an easy target for satire, Scott-Heron became a regular spokesman on America’s ills.  His song ‘We Almost Lost Detroit’ was a ready-made when the Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred. By this time, though, Scott-Heron’s instinctively adversarial nature had been colonised by a liberal consensus. ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ was spun in wine-bars and at publishers’ parties without a hint of irony.

The near-coincidence of Scott-Heron’s death and Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday underlines a connection long hinted at. Both men achieved a blending of music and words that few of their rivals and epigones can claim, or could even appreciate, and both of them largely rejected the use of culturally-specific slang or dialect in favour of a poetically transparent English in which surreal effects, savage criticism, intense lyricism and a certain personal fragility have equal weight.

If Scott-Heron was ‘the black Bob Dylan’, then the former Robert Zimmermann was ‘the Judaeo-Christian Gil Scott-Heron’.  His prison sentences and deliberate distancing from the younger generation of rappers – though current star Kanye West claims a direct Scott-Heron influence on his recent My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – has meant that Scott-Heron’s writings and recordings have been more influential on the younger generation of African-American performers than any personal contact might have been.

Scott-Heron’s complaint that his work was ‘cherry-picked’ – uttered with venom through those snaggled, waggling teeth – is well justified. He isn’t a rent-a-quote activist. Nor is he easy to ‘sample’ in either the conventional or the musical sense, though fragments of his songs and poems turn up everywhere. To understand him, one has to listen to it all, and in the context of the times. He was, invariably, ahead of the headlines.

* Gil Scott-Heron (born Chicago, Illinois, April 1 1949; died New York City, May 27 2011)