The sudden death of the godfather of rap Gil Scott-Heron means that this week’s post will be dedicated to paying tribute to his timeless music. Before I get on to dissecting some of his best tracks I think it’s important to highlight the magnitude of his impact on rap, hip hop and, dare I say it, modern music in general. By no means am I equipped to document his life and work with the knowledge or respect it deserves, but suffice to say that his politicised words and poignant poetry paved the way for hip hop as we know it and shone a desperately needed light on the state of race relations in 1970s America. This article says it better than I ever could.
Time to take a look at the tracks this legend left behind. First up is ‘The Bottle’, arguably one of Gil’s most famous records and the first single release from his collaborative album with Brian Jackson, Winter in America. Gil tells the tragic tale of a society afflicted by alcoholism, letting his striking voice lie above the track’s funk-jazz feel. The flute on this is pretty captivating stuff and I dare you not to get down to the tight bass line. If you’re having trouble feeling it, just pretend it’s 1974 (this is an arbitrary date but I’m guessing it was a pretty groovy year).
A song I only recently discovered – yes shame on me – is ‘Not Needed’ from his 1980 album Real Eyes and the bass line is tight enough to restrict blood flow to your brain. A tip, remember to breathe after hearing the flawless intro, no one would blame you for forgetting to do so; slap base has been known to cause pretty insane reactions. The intermittent harmonica on this track will transport you to a different time and place entirely, and it hints at the melancholic lyrical content of the song. Gil’s ability to sing about life’s strifes – in this case being made redundant – whilst maintaing a solid groove is part of what made him so great.
A slightly less obscure choice – let’s face it not many people listened to Real Eyes – is ‘Home is Where the Hatred Is’ a track sampled by Kanye West on ‘On My Way Home’. If like me you heard Kanye’s version before hearing the original, then jump on it: the shuffle drum beat is enough to make a grown man cry. The reverb amplifies the poignancy of Scott-Heron’s words, ‘home is where the needle marks’, and adds a haunting layer to the song. The fact that Mr West used the chorus for his own track is testament to the timeless nature of Gil’s music.
Moving from timelessness to timeliness, listen to Gil Scott Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will not Be Televised’ which is one of his most famous offerings and has essentially seen him add a whole new expression to the English language. First appearing on his 1970 album Small Talk on 125th and Lenox this poem documents the hypocrisy of consumerist culture and the harsh truth of ghetto life. Accompanied by nothing more than a few bongos, this poem still has the ability to get the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end.
Lastly, because looking backwards can be a little depressing sometimes, I’d like to leave you with ‘Running’ from his latest collaborative album We’re New Here which sees Jamie xx remix Gil’s songs from his first album (made up of original songs) in 16 years, I’m New Here. The original track is effective enough and sees Gil return to his poignant and heart stopping poetry, but Jamie’s Remix gives it a sharper edge which I challenge anyone to dislike. The gritty beat and infectious chorus ‘r-r-r-r-run away’ brings Gil’s music really and truly into the 21st century, not that he needs a sampled beat to make his music relevant. Let’s hope that Gil will be pumping out of people’s stereos for years to come.