The first I was really aware of Gil Scott-Heron – and I mean really aware– was hearing Paul Ubana Jones perform an a cappella take on Home Is Where the Hatred Is. (Here’s the Gil Scott-Heron original.)
I had heard of Gil Scott-Heron; I knew this famous piece. But hearing Jones speak and sing the words…well, that really made me take notice.
The compilation album Evolution and Flashback: The Very Best of Gil Scott-Heron was one of the most important/influential/amazing albums to come into my collection. I picked it up at Fisheye Discs – the place you could always go to find something like that (pity not enough people had the same idea; maybe they would still be there).
And I followed up that purchase with a copy of the book, Now and Then: The Poems of Gil Scott-Heron – it’s one of the very few books on my shelf that I have read and re-read; several slivers of paper bookmarking favourites…favourites such as:
Picture a man of nearly thirty
who seems twice as old with clothes torn and
Give him a job shining shoes
or cleaning out toilets with bus station crews.
Give him six children with nothing to eat.
Expose them to life on a ghetto street.
Tie an old rag round his wife’s head and
have her pregnant and lying in bed.
Stuff them all in a Harlem house.
Then tell them how bad things are down South.
On the page and on compact disc I devoured the work of Gil Scott-Heron. There is so much to enjoy in this work – the “godfather of rap” antecedents; the connections to R’n’B, soul and jazz; the work with Brian Jackson, Ron Carter and Bernard Purdie; the politics – the humour…the anger…
Often – as with Whitey on the Moon – the politics, humour and anger would all flow, informing one another – then falling in on each other.
It is possible to listen to Gil Scott-Heron just for the words; he is a writer first and foremost, a poet of the page and for the stage. But it is also possible to listen to his poems and songs for the music; for the arrangements and playing of Brian Jackson, of Gil himself (a very soulful singer and a talented composer/pianist) and of the jazz and funk musicians who contributed to the records. Then there’s the musicality of his spoken-pieces, the sound of his voice telling you the words. There are also the early percussion-and-poem jams, combining the rhythms of the tongue with conga and cowbell rhythms. Check out his 1970 debut album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, for the best of that sound.
Gil Scott-Heron released poems as songs, recorded songs that were based on his earliest poems and writings, wrote novels and became a hero to many for his music, activism and his anger. There is always the anger – an often beautiful, passionate anger. An often awkward anger. A very soulful anger. And often it is a very sad anger. But it is the pervasive mood, theme and feeling within his work – and around his work, hovering, piercing, occasionally weighing down; often lifting the work up, helping to place it in your face.
And for all the preaching and warning signs in his work, the final decades of Gil Scott-Heron’s life had him succumb to the pressures and demons he has so often warned others about.
It stands to reason really…you can’t write a song like Home Is Where the Hatred Is without first living it, or later dreading it; without being so close to it as to feel it. That’s the difference in this work as a hip-hop antecedent and so much of what it allegedly (often very indirectly) influenced.
Gil Scott-Heron turned up on an album (Blazing Arrow) by Blackalicious. This introduced him to a few. And served as a reminder for others. There were some gigs. But there also some arrests. Possession of cocaine. Parole violations. Always the anger.
But most importantly he reminded/reintroduced the vitality and passion that was there (and hangs forever) in his best work. It was 15 years between albums. And then this one was delayed by another arrest.
That album was a fierce and fragile triumph; proud, beaten, fighting back…
Then there was the remix album with Jamie xx. Maybe it was even better? It was certainly its own thing.
He was a genius. His anger was palpable. His music and words meant the world to me. And still do.
Finding my way to his work mean the world to me. He was Sinatra and Chuck D and Hendrix and Stevie Wonder and Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and James Brown and James Baldwin all rolled into one. He was so much more – or could have been if he’d only allowed himself.
Maybe he never let himself break free, but his words let others be themselves – and see others; let them be free. That was his gift, his true evolution, the actual revolution.
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