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Gil Scott-Heron - RIP

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Initial post: 28 May 2011 14:18:31 BDT
Mr. P says:
Legendary Jazz vocalist, Musician, Author, Activist and Spoken Word poet Gil Scott-Heron has died at the age of 62, having fallen ill after a European trip.

Scott-heron was known as the Godfather of Rap but he vocally disapproved of the title, preferring to describe what he did as "Bluesology" - a fusion of poetry, Blues and Jazz, all shot through with a piercing social conscience and strong political messages, tackling issues such as apartheid and nuclear arms.

Scott-Heron was brought up to the sounds of Black Jazz and Jazzoetry [spoken word over Jazz music] which heavily influenced what he called his own "Bluesology" or 'Midnight Music.' He sited his major influences both musical and political as amongst others John Coltrane, Malcolm X, Billie Holiday, Huey Newton, Count Basie, Langston Hughes and Nina Simone.

Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago, Illinois, but spent his early childhood in Jackson, Tennessee, the home of his maternal grandmother Lillie Scott. Gil's mother, Bobbie Scott-Heron, sang with the New York Oratorical Society. Scott-Heron's Jamaican father, Gilbert "Gil" Heron, nicknamed "The Black Arrow", was a football (soccer) player who, in the 1950s, became the first black athlete to play for Glasgow's Celtic Football Club. Gil's parents divorced when he was young and Gil was sent to live with his Grandmother Lillie Scott. When Scott-Heron was 13 years old, his grandmother died and he moved with his mother to the Bronx in New York City, where he enrolled in DeWitt Clinton High School. He later transferred to The Fieldston School after one of his teachers, a Fieldston graduate, showed one of his writings to the head of the English department at Fieldston and he was granted a full scholarship.

Scott-Heron attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, as it was the college chosen by his biggest influence Langston Hughes. It was here that Scott-Heron met Brian Jackson with whom he formed the band Black & Blues. After about two years at Lincoln, Scott-Heron took a year off to write the novels The Vulture and The N***er Factory at the tender age of 19 years. He returned to New York City, settling in Chelsea, Manhattan. The Vulture was published in 1970 and well received. Although Scott-Heron never received his undergraduate degree, he had a Masters degree in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University.

By now Scott-Heron had begun performing his poetry in coffee houses and Jazz clubs, where he was approached by the Jazz producer Bob Thiele who, as head of the Impulse label, had recorded such artists as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie.

At 20 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. This debut included the incendiary 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.'

In 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised', first recorded in 1970, he issued a fierce critique of the role of race in the mass media and advertising age. "The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning or white people," he sang.

Along with his debut album Scott-Heron's next three albums 'Pieces of a Man' [1971], 'Free Will' [1972] & the critically acclaimed opus 'Winter in America' [1974] which all displayed his singing abilities over Blues and Jazz balladry along with some loose, spoken-word joints, are often considered his best. These classic albums featured the cream of US Jazz musicians including bassist Ron Carter, flutist Hubert Laws, flautist, pianist, singer, composer and long time collaborator Brian Jackson.

With Jackson, Scott-Heron refined an intoxicating hybrid of Jazz, Latin and Afro idioms that established him in the vanguard of black American music in the 1970s. The success of a single version of The Bottle in 1974 led to his being signed to a major label, Arista. He enjoyed further chart success in 1976 with Johannesburg and, in 1978, with the anti-drug song Angel Dust.

He performed at the No Nukes concerts, held in 1979 at Madison Square Garden. The concerts were organised by a group called Musicians United for Safe Energy and protested against the use of nuclear energy following the meltdown at Three Mile Island.
He was one of the first artists to use his music to speak out about the apartheid in South Africa, some time before the issue became the focus of a popular global campaign.

Tragically, the lyrics to 'Angel Dust' were to prove ironic, for by the end of the 1980s Scott-Heron was himself beginning to be undermined by drugs use. Between 1970 and 1982 he made 13 albums, but it would be a further 11 years before the release of his 14th, Spirits; the album's centrepiece was a gruelling three-part explication of the hells of drug addiction, The Other Side. While he continued to perform intermittently, Scott-Heron became a notoriously unreliable figure.

In 2000 Scott-Heron was sentenced to 18 to 24 months of in-patient rehabilitation for possession of cocaine and two crack pipes, but given leave to complete a European tour. After failing even to turn up at a subsequent court hearing he was sentenced to between one and three years in prison. Released on parole, in 2003 he was again charged with possession of a controlled substance after cocaine he had hidden in the lining of his bag showed up on an airport x-ray. And in 2006 he was sentenced to two to four years in a New York State prison for violating a plea deal on a drug possession charge by leaving a rehabilitation centre.

Scott-Heron said despite some "unhappy moments" in the past few years, he still felt the need to challenge rights abuses and "the things that you pay for with your taxes".

In 2010 there was a resurgence of interest in his work when he returned with his first studio album in 16 years, the critically acclaimed 'I'm New Here'. The record had come about after an English fan and record producer, Richard Russell, had written to Scott-Heron and then visited him in prison on Rikers Island in 2006.

The 'comeback' record put Scott-Heron into an abrasively contemporary musical setting, placing his gruff, time-worn spoken-word recitations and Blues wailings - including a reworking of the Robert Johnson Blues 'Me and the Devil' - in a setting of dark, down-tempo beats, loops and samples.

The influential musician and poet was often given a 'Godfather Of Hip-Hop' nickname which he vocally rejected and deplored. Scott-Heron was very conscious of the history of Spoken Word poetry in Black culture and music .He understood the spoken word artist preceeded all forms of contemporary Rap and could be traced back to African Griots via the Harlem Renaissance poets such as Langston Hughes. This tradition would also later give birth to the Beat generation poets of the 50'sand be manifest in Reggae DJ culture of the 70's.

Scott-Heron was also verbally critical of many of the so-called 'Gansta Rap' acts in the 90's declaring:

"They need to study music." "There's a big difference between putting words over some music, and blending those same words into the music." don't really see inside the person. Instead, you just get a lot of posturing."

He later went on to send out a warning to this type of 'acting out' in his 1994 comeback album 'Spirits' with the seminal spoken word joint "'Message to the Messengers".

Not surprisingly, Scott-Heron has however had a major influence on many conscious rappers such as Common [an artist endorsed by Scott-Heron himself], Mos Def, The Roots, The Fugees, Chuck D and Blackalicious [with whom Scott-Heron collaborated on their 'Blazing Arrow' album.]

Scott-Heron's influence has also been heard and sited by the more conscious contemporary R&B artists of the so-called 'Neo-soul' movement including Lauryn Hill, Bilal, Ursula Rucker, Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, The Roots and Erykah Badu.

Over the course of some 20 albums Gil Scott-Heron has produced a series of sardonic and biting commentaries on ghetto life and racial injustice, including `Whitey's On The Moon', `Home Is Where The Hatred Is', `The Bottle' (a lamentation about people squandering their lives on liquor, set to an irresistibly seductive Latin beat).

But Scott-Heron's music was also dominated by a Blues based `late night melancholy balladry' that lyrically displayed his depth and insight into the human condition including: 'Pieces Of A Man', 'The Get Out of The Ghetto Blues', `Beginnings (The First Minutes Of A New Day)' and 'A Sign of the Ages'.

Scott-Heron died on the afternoon of May 27, 2011 at St Luke's Hospital, New York City, after becoming sick upon returning from a European trip. In response Public Enemy's Chuck D stated "RIP GSH..and we do what we do and how we do because of you." on his Twitter account.

His UK publisher, Jamie Byng, called him "one of the most inspiring people I've ever met".

Gil Scott-Heron was married to the actress Brenda Sykes, with whom he had a daughter.

Music critic Neil Tesser described Scott-Heron's singing voice for the album 'The First Minute of a New Day' as ....."mahogany, sunshine, and tears."
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Initial post:  28 May 2011
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