Gil Scott-Heron, soul poet, dead at 62Public Enemy’s Chuck D once said hip-hop was black America’s CNN. If so, Gil Scott-Heron was the network’s first great anchorman, presaging hip-hop and infusing soul and jazz with poetry, humor and pointed political commentary.
Scott-Heron died Friday at the age of 62, according to his U.K. publisher. The Pitchfork Web site said the report was confirmed by a record-company publicist.His songs, including “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “The Bottle” and “Johannesburg,” were hard-edged yet melodic, influencing subsequent generations of soul and hip-hop artists who revered him as a pioneer, including Common, Erykah Badu, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest and Kanye West.Scott-Heron was born in 1949 in Chicago and spent most of his childhood in Tennessee and then New York. He showed an affinity for writing at an early age. His first novel, “The Vulture,” was published when he was 19, then he shifted to music in an effort to reach a wider audience. He teamed with Brian Jackson, a gifted musician he met while attending Lincoln University in Oxford, Pa.”I had an affinity for jazz and syncopation, and the poetry came from the music,” Scott-Heron told the Tribune in a 1998 interview. “We made the poems into songs, and we wanted the music to sound like the words, and Brian’s arrangements very often shaped and molded them.”Together they crafted jazz-influenced soul and funk that brought new depth and political consciousness to ‘70s music alongside Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. In classic albums such as “Winter in America” and “From South Africa to South Carolina,” Scott-Heron took the news of the day and transformed it into social commentary, wicked satire, and proto-rap anthems. He updated his dispatches from the front lines of the inner city on tour, improvising lyrics with an improvisational daring that matched the jazz-soul swirl of the music.Though celebrated for his political broadsides, Scott-Heron was a master of many styles. He could be playful and mischievous, and he found joy in the power of words and their ability to transform the tragic and tawdry into the comical and uplifting.His “H20gate Blues,” for example, took President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew to task as the Watergate scandal was unfolding: “If Nixon knew, ‘Ag’ knew/But ‘Ag’ didn’t know enough to stay out of jail.” On “Jaws,” he identified with the shark in the Steven Spielberg movie; common sense and trespassing laws were on the big predator’s side, Scott-Heron argued. Mixed in with the laughs were songs about love, addiction, childbirth, spirituality.”If you only focus on the political aspects of our work, you change us,” Scott-Heron said in the ’98 Tribune interview. “We’ve done 20 albums and not all of the songs on them are political. We acknowledged politics, just like we acknowledged the existence of condoms, guns, family, neighborhood issues. We were songwriters who tried to represent all the different aspects of the community.”After nearly a decade away from the record business, Scott-Heron returned in 1994 with the album “Spirits,” in which he addressed a new generation of rappers and urban poets who were in his debt with tracks such as “Message to the Messengers.”His work slowed to a trickle in recent years as he battled drug addiction and spent several years in prison for drug-related crimes. A 2010 album, “I’m New Here,” received acclaim, but also offered aural evidence of his declining health.
Scott-Heron never had any chart hits, but his work never really went out of style. Kanye West closed his latest album by including an excerpt from Scott-Heron’s spoken-word piece, “Comment No. 1,” on the track “Who Will Survive in America?”
“We never had a lot of airplay, so I never miss it,” Scott-Heron told the Tribune. “I wrote my first book before I knew how to get it published, and we started making music before we knew there was a marketplace for it. I have always worked like that, because the work itself should be motivation enough.”