Gil Scott-Heron (born , 1949) is an American poet, musician, and author known primarily for his late 1960s and early 1970s work as a spoken word soul performer and his collaborative work with musician Brian Jackson. His collaborative efforts with Jackson featured a musical fusion of jazz, blues and soul music, as well as lyrical content concerning social and political issues of the time, delivered in both rapping and melismatic vocal styles by Scott-Heron. The music of these albums, most notably Pieces of a Man and Winter in America in the early 1970s, influenced and helped engender later African-American music genres such as hip hop and neo soul. Scott-Heron's recording work is often associated with black militant activism and has received much critical acclaim for one of his most well-known compositions "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised". On his influence, Allmusic wrote "Scott-Heron's unique proto-rap style influenced a generation of hip-hop artists".
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 Oratorial Society. Scott-Heron's father, Giles "Gil" Heron of Jamaican descent, 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. 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 Nigger Factory. He returned to New York City, settling in Chelsea, Manhattan, which was a multiracial and multicultural neighborhood. The Vulture was published in 1970 and well received. Although Scott-Heron never received his undergraduate degree, he has a Masters degree in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University.
"Small Talk at 125th and Lennox"
The early live recording of Scott-Heron's debut features poetic, spoken word vocal delivery and African style congas.
"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"
One of his most well-known songs contains hip hop elements such as rapping, cultural and political references, heavy drumbeats and a minimalist production.
Winter in America's only single is a rhythmic social commentary has Scott-Heron on keyboards and Brian Jackson playing the flute.
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. The album's 15 tracks dealt with themes such as the superficiality of television and mass consumerism, the hypocrisy of some would-be Black revolutionaries, white middle-class ignorance of the difficulties faced by inner-city residents, and homophobia. In the liner notes, Scott-Heron acknowledged as influences Richie Havens, John Coltrane, Otis Redding, Jose Feliciano, Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Nina Simone, and the pianist who would become his long-time collaborator, Brian Jackson.
Scott-Heron's 1971 album Pieces of a Man used more conventional song structures than the loose, spoken-word feel of Small Talk. He was joined by Johnny Pate (conductor), Brian Jackson on keyboards, piano, Ron Carter on bass and bass guitar, drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, Burt Jones playing electric guitar, and Hubert Laws on flute and saxophone, with Thiele producing again. Scott-Heron's third album, Free Will, was released in 1972. Jackson, Purdie, Laws, Knowles, and Saunders all returned to play on Free Will and were joined by Jerry Jemmott playing bass, David Spinozza on guitar, and Horace Ott (arranger and conductor).
1974 saw another LP collaboration with Brian Jackson, the critically acclaimed opus Winter in America, with Bob Adams on drums and Danny Bowens on bass. The album contained Scott-Heron's most cohesive material and featured more of Jackson's creative input than his previous albums had. Winter in America has been regarded by many critics as the two musicians most artistic effort. The following year, Scott-Heron and Jackson also released Midnight Band: The First Minute of a New Day. A live album, It's Your World, followed in 1976 and a recording of spoken poetry, The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron, was released in 1979. Another hit success followed with the hit single "Angel Dust", which he recorded as a single with producer Malcolm Cecil. "Angel Dust" peaked at #15 on the R&B charts in 1978.
In 1979, Scott-Heron played at the No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden. The concerts were organized by Musicians United for Safe Energy to protest the use of nuclear energy following the Three Mile Island accident. Scott-Heron's song "We Almost Lost Detroit", written about a previous accident at a nuclear power plant, was included in the No Nukes album of concert highlights. Scott-Heron was a frequent critic of President Ronald Reagan and his conservative policies.
Scott-Heron recorded and released only two albums during the 1980s; Reflections in 1981 and Moving Target in 1982. Ron Holloway on tenor saxophone was added to Gil's ensemble in February 1982. He toured extensively with Scott-Heron and contributed to his next album, Moving Target that same year. His tenor is prominently featured on the songs "Fast Lane" and "Black History/The World". Holloway continued with Scott-Heron until the summer of 1989, when he left to join Dizzy Gillespie. Several years later, Scott-Heron would make cameo appearances on two of Ron Holloway's CD's; Scorcher (1996) and Groove Update (1998), both on the Fantasy/Milestone label.
Scott-Heron was dropped by Arista Records in 1985 and quit recording, though he continued to tour. He also appeared in the Sun City (album) track, "Let Me See Your ID" in 1985. In 1993, he signed to TVT Records and released Spirits, an album that included the seminal track "'Message to the Messengers". The first track on the album criticized the rap artists of the day. Scott-Heron is known in many circles as "the Godfather of rap" and is widely considered to be one of the genre's founding fathers. Given the political consciousness that lies at the foundation of his work, he can also be called a founder of political rap. Message to the Messengers was a plea for the new generation of rappers to speak for change rather than perpetuate the current social situation, and to be more articulate and artistic. On hip hop music in the 1990s, Scott-Heron later said in an interview:
They need to study music. I played in several bands before I began my career as a poet. There?s a big difference between putting words over some music, and blending those same words into the music. There?s not a lot of humor. They use a lot of slang and colloquialisms, and you don?t really see inside the person. Instead, you just get a lot of posturing.
In 2001, Gil Scott-Heron was sentenced to one to three years' imprisonment in New York State for possession of cocaine. While out of jail in 2002, he appeared on the Blazing Arrow album by Blackalicious. He was released on parole in 2003. On , 2006, Scott-Heron 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 drug rehabilitation center. Scott-Heron's sentence was to run until July 13, 2009. He was paroled on May 23, 2007. The reason given for the violation of his plea was that the clinic refused to supply Scott-Heron with HIV medication. This story led to the presumption that the artist is HIV positive.
After his release, Scott-Heron began performing live again, starting with a show at SOBs in New York on September 13, 2007. On stage, he stated that he and his musicians were working on a new album and that he had resumed writing a book titled The Last Holiday, previously on long-term hiatus, about Stevie Wonder and his successful attempt to have the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. declared a federally recognized holiday in the United States. He was arrested October 10, 2007, the day before a scheduled (but ultimately cancelled) second SOBs performance, on felony possession of cocaine charges. However, he has continued to make live appearances at various US venues during the course of 2008 and 2009, including further appearances at SOBs in New York. He has also stated in interviews that work is continuing on his new album, which will consist mainly of new versions of some of his classic songs plus some cover versions of other artists' work.
Having originally planned to publish The Last Holiday in 2003, before it was put on hold, Canongate Books now tentatively intend to issue it in January, 2011. The book was due to be previewed via a website set to be launched on April 1, 2009, but this did not appear.
Mark T. Watson, a student of Scott-Heron's work, dedicated a collection of poetry to Gil titled Ordinary Guy that contained a foreword by Jalal Mansur Nuriddin of The Last Poets. The book was published in the UK in 2004 by Fore-Word Press Ltd. Scott-Heron recorded one of the poems in Watson's book Black & Blue due for release in 2008 as part of the album Rhythms of the Diaspora by Malik & the OG's on the record label CPR Recordings.
The music of Scott-Heron's work during the 1970s influenced and helped engender later African-American music genres such as hip hop and neo soul. On his influence, a music writer later noted that "Scott-Heron's unique proto-rap style influenced a generation of hip-hop artists". The Washington Post wrote that "Scott-Heron's work presaged not only conscious rap and poetry slams, but also acid jazz, particularly during his rewarding collaboration with composer-keyboardist-flutist Brian Jackson in the mid- and late '70s."