Gil Scott-Heron, the man described time and again as a major influence in Beat movement of the 1970’s and the socially aware hip hop 1980’s, has died earlier this weekend at 62 (Apr. 1, 1949 – May 27, 2011). Born in Chicago and raised in Tennessee and New York, Mr. Scott-Heron died at a hospital in Manhattan. He was a longtime resident of Harlem where he spent much of his life and completed a great deal of his monumental works. The official cause of death has not been confirmed, but according to the Associated Press Mr. Scott-Heron had fallen ill recently after his return from a trip to Europe.
Mr. Scott-Heron left many in mourning but he also left a legacy behind, one that many claim to have paved the way for the likes of Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions. A poet and recording artist, he was a revolutionary, an idealist who saw the blight facing black America and a ray of hope for its future. Although he many times dismissed his contributions to hip hop, Mr. Scott-Heron’s early work, exemplified by “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” built a foundation for early and modern rap groups, from Public Enemy to Kanye West.
“You can go into Ginsberg and the Beat Poets and Dylan, but Gil Scott-Heron is the manifestation of the modern word,” Chuck D told The New Yorker in 2010. “He and the Last Poets set the stage for everyone else.”
Mr. Scott Heron began his career focused on more literary rather than musical works. In his early years he wrote detective stories, and at age 19 had already finished his first mystery novel: “The Vulture.” He attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the same historically black school where poets such as Langston Hughes graced the hallways and courtyards.
“Revolution” solidified Mr. Scott-Heron as a vocal leader in the black social movement, with its funky, cool and educated rhetoric. The words speak to a culture that has been numbed to reality’s harsh truths and a consequential indifference to them:
“The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox in four parts without commercial interruptions.”
“You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip out for beer during commercials because the revolution will not be televised.”
The lyrics and instrumentation put any listener in a dank, dark coffee house somewhere where the poetry means more than just words and you feel like you’re a part of some greater purpose just by listening to them. Later in his career Mr. Scott-Heron faced addiction and persecution for it, landing him a stretch in New York’s Riker’s Island prison. He was so ashamed of his drug abuse that he refused to look into mirrors and face his deteriorated appearance.
The song “Revolution” and many of his other works have been said to have pioneered the hip hop movement has we know it today, but Mr. Scott-Heron always took these statements with a sense of humility:
“It’s something that’s aimed at the kids,” he once said. “I have kids, so I listen to it. But I would not say it’s aimed at me. I listen to the jazz station.”
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”