Now is time to pour one out to one of my favorite writers of the past 40 years, Gil Scott Heron. In the same vein of Upton Sinclair, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, John Coltrane, and Malcolm X, he was an artist who existed to push borders of music and spoken word with a socially-conscious flair. He rejected popular conceptions of music and poetry and helped pioneer the world between jazz, blues and soul. A candle slowly burning outside of the mainstream, his influence was far reaching. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Heron is spoiled in that respect. Thousands have imitated, remixed, or sampled his work.
Gil Scott-Heron’s records are a hip hop producers dream. Combining a powerful voice with confrontational yet inspiring lyrics, Scott-Heron’s first record, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, was recorded in 1970 when he was 21 years old, in a NYC nightclub. This simple, low budget recording indicted the government and out-of-touch middle class as exacerbating the problems that plagued urban America. With his following record, Pieces of a Man, Scott-Heron created the template for what would become hip-hop: breakbeat-esque percussion, jazzy instrumentation, and his fierce diction. By the mid-1970s he had two top 30 hits (Johannesburg and Angel Dust) and set the table for the rap revolution about to take over America. After releasing only a couple records in the 80s and 90s, XL Recordings put out his last record in 2010, entitled I’m New Here, with the grittiest beats he’s ever released, coupled with his inimitable social commentary and viceral wordplay.
Over time I have come to believe the best barometer of a great artist would be their impact over time – moreso after their passing than before it. “Timeless” is not a word that should be used trivially; it is an adjective that can only be bestowed through years, decades, or centuries of evidence. In his passing, Gil Scott-Heron will find new life as an important part of American culture, free from any labels, recognized on his merit alone.