The chances are we’ll never be blessed with a figure like Gil Scott-Heron again. Someone who delivers social and political critique in such an accessible, cutting and witty manner and combines it with groove that puts him on a par with the jazz, funk and soul greats. In an age where music trends are fleeting, Gil’s work still endures alongside his impact as a social commentator. Look hard enough and you can still see his continued relevance and importance at a time that shares many attributes with the Reagan era that gave way to his most productive period. You only need to listen to two songs from the below mix; how he laments a dying city in ‘We Almost Lost Detroit’ or how he criticises a celebrity president without a clear mandate in ‘B Movie’.
For another tribute to a music great, check out Bill’s 150 minute Prince mix with words from DJ History co-founder Frank Broughton.
Bill Brewster’s tribute to Gil
The first time I ever heard Gil Scott-Heron’s music was the spring of 1982, almost exactly 35 years ago. In the early 1980s, the NME started to do beautifully curated compilation cassettes that were, for me at least, a treasure trove of new discoveries. On the second in the series, Jive Wire, was a song called ‘B-Movie’, a proto-rap tune railing against the then new president Ronald Reagan (the song was originally released on 1981’s Reflections). Given the arrival of Donald Trump onto the political stage, it seems just as apt now. The 1980s was a politically-charged decade and Gil’s music seemed to speak of everything that was wrong about the world: inequality, racism, right-wing demagoguery, drugs. And, unlike most of the left-wing punk bands around then, it was funky and soulful.
Of course, this is not where the story of Gil Scott-Heron begins at all. By the time I’d discovered him, he was onto his 13th album either as a solo artist or with his long-standing collaborator, the jazz musician Brian Jackson. Even more strangely was the career of his father, Gil Heron, a Jamaican footballer who was the first black player to play for Celtic in Scotland (he also briefly played for Third Lanark and Kidderminster Harriers before returning to his home in the US).
Scott-Heron was born in Chicago on April 1st, 1949, growing up in Tennessee and The Bronx before heading to college in Lincoln, Pennsylvania, where he met Brian Jackson. After graduating he relocated back to New York, recording and releasing his first album, the freeform Small Talk At 125th and Lenox, on Bob Thiele’s legendary Flying Dutchman label, but it was on Pieces Of A Man in 1971 that Scott-Heron’s sound began to coalesce thanks to an all-star session line-up that included Ron Carter, Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie, Hubert Laws and Brian Jackson.
Although there were obvious forebears to Scott-Heron’s half-sung, half-rapped style – Last Poets, Huey Newton, Nina Simone, Malcolm X, Pigmeat Markham – there was something unique about the breadth of black styles he managed to parse into his music: soul, jazz, funk, reggae, rap. Over the next 11 years, he was a prolific figure in alternative music, releasing a succession of albums, either in collaboration that captured the spirit of the decade.
Ironically, when I discovered Gil, this incredibly fertile creative period was about to expire. He released Reflections in 1981, followed it up with Moving Target the following year, then released only two more original albums until his death in 2011. There were sporadic singles, the disappointing proto-electro ‘Re-Ron’, but his creativity was stifled by spiralling addictions that he’d documented himself in songs like ‘The Bottle’ and ‘Home Is Where The Hatred Is’. In the early noughties, he was in and out of jail – and rehab.
I saw Gil play three times in total. The first time, in the early 1980s in Nottingham, accompanied by a spliff the size of the Shard, his band were taut and funky, driven by Robbie Gordon, the man Gil dubbed the Secretary Of Entertainment. But Scott Heron’s performances gradually declined and by 1994, when he played the Jazz Cafe, with an impish Jay Kay in the crowd, the magic had dissipated, even if the feeling and message were still there.
Scott Heron’s influence on acts like Public Enemy and countless others is immeasurable. But although his music was deeply political what brings me back to him time and time again is his compassion. Happy birthday, Gil.