Gil Scott-Heron dies, aged 62

As confirmed by a publicist for his record label, Gil Scott-Heron, the singer-songwriter and poet, has died yesterday. He was 62.

Influential in R&B, spoken word, and hip-hop, Scott-Heron had a strong run of albums in the 1970s. He wrote the song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and the phrase entered the cultural lexicon after appearing on his 1970 album Small Talk at 125th & Lennox. Scott-Heron later battled drug problems and was incarcerated for a period during the 2000s, but he returned to music in 2010 and released the acclaimed “I’m New Here” followed by the Jamie xx collaboration “We’re New Here” earlier this year.

Scott-Heron began his recording career in 1970 with the LP “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox”. Bob Thiele of Flying Dutchman Records produced the album, and Scott-Heron was accompanied by Eddie Knowles and Charlie Saunders on conga and David Barnes on percussion and vocals. The album’s 15 tracks dealt with themes such as the superficiality of television and mass consumerism, the hypocrisy of some would-be Black revolutionaries, white middle-class ignorance of the difficulties faced by inner-city residents, and homophobia.

Scott-Heron’s 1971 album “Pieces of a Man” used more conventional song structures than the loose, spoken-word feel of “Small Talk”. He was joined by Johnny Pate (conductor), Brian Jackson on keyboards, piano, Ron Carter on bass and bass guitar, drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Burt Jones playing electric guitar, and Hubert Laws on flute and saxophone, with Thiele producing again. Scott-Heron’s third album, “Free Will”, was released in 1972.

1974 saw another LP collaboration with Brian Jackson, the critically acclaimed opus “Winter in America”, with Bob Adams on drums and Danny Bowens on bass. The album contained Scott-Heron’s most cohesive material and featured more of Jackson’s creative input than his previous albums had. “Winter in America” has been regarded by many critics as the two musicians most artistic effort. The following year, Scott-Heron and Jackson also released “Midnight Band: The First Minute of a New Day”. A live album, “It’s Your World”, followed in 1976 and a recording of spoken poetry, “The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron”, was released in 1979.

In 1979, Scott-Heron played at the No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden. The concerts were organized by Musicians United for Safe Energy to protest the use of nuclear energy following the Three Mile Island accident. Scott-Heron’s song “We Almost Lost Detroit”, written about a previous accident at a nuclear power plant, was included in the No Nukes album of concert highlights. (We Almost Lost Detroit is the title of a book about the accident by John G. Fuller.) Scott-Heron was a frequent critic of President Ronald Reagan and his conservative policies.

Scott-Heron recorded and released only four albums during the 1980s. He was dropped by Arista Records in 1985 and quit recording, though he continued to tour. Also that year, Scott-Heron helped compose and sing the song “Let Me See Your I.D.” on the Artists United Against Apartheid album Sun City, containing the famous line, “The first time I heard there was trouble in the Middle East, I thought they were talking about Pittsburgh.” In 1993, he signed to TVT Records and released “Spirits”, an album that included the seminal track “‘Message to the Messengers”.

Scott-Heron is known in many circles as “the Godfather of rap” and is widely considered to be one of the genre’s founding fathers. Given the political consciousness that lies at the foundation of his work, he can also be called a founder of political rap. “Message to the Messengers” was a plea for the new generation of rappers to speak for change rather than perpetuate the current social situation, and to be more articulate and artistic.