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Gil Scott-Heron is as influential today as he was when he first burst onto the scene in the 1970s. Despite being hailed as the father of hip hop, he is still largely overlooked, and never gained the widespread status of many of his contemporaries. It could be that his political commentary, expressed as rhythmic and soulful poems layered over a combination of funk, jazz, soul, and electronica are not easy for everybody to digest. It could also be that the outspoken performer was surprisingly modest about his own work, telling the New Yorker “I just think they made a mistake” when asked how he felt when people attributed the formation of rap music to him.
In any case, Gil Scott-Heron was a vanguard of black American music in the 1970s and beyond. He also displayed talent as a social commentator, poet, artist, writer, and musician, as well as a spokesman for generations of disenchanted. For those new to Scott-Heron’s work, get to know the prolific artist a little better through the 10 songs listed below.
Taken from his 1987 album Secrets, “Angel Dust” is the most persuasive and melodic anti-drug song you’ll hear. Scott-Heron delivers this anti-drugs rhetoric to the tune of his very particular brand of funk. One of Scott-Heron’s strongest attributes is that his songs and poems are unflinching in their messages, but he never preaches nor judges. This sentiment is echoed in his lines: “Children I know its hard to listen but/ I ain’t tryin’ to run your life girl believe me…” At the time, Angel Dust, a street-shorthand for PCP, was endemic in New York. Despite the hard-hitting subject, the song is catchy, and you’ll be singing along to the disco-style refrain of “Angel Dust” for the rest of the day.
“The Revolution Will Not be Televised” is an aural delight, but the declamatory and politically charged lyrics crafted with Gil Scott-Heron’s passionate poetry really constitute the glue of the song. He spits his passionate lyrics over the catchy metronomic bassline with such ease and eloquence that is hard not be drawn in. Often featured on lists of great protest songs, it’s fitting that during the attempt to overthrow Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, this very song was heard playing in Tahrir Square. Satirical and deadpan, this song has a far-stretching appeal and will appeal to everyone.
“Who’ll Pay Reparations on My Soul?” was released on Scott-Heron’s 1970 Small Talk at 125th and Lenox album. The title of this song indicates that we’re not in for an easy ride, but the twinkling and catchy piano chords lull us into a sense of comfort. The subject of “Who’ll Pay Reparations…” is existential and, in parts, fatalistic, as he questions the futility of trying to pay monetary due to a race of people whose life has been affected on a deeper and irreparable level. Written in 1970 when segregation was illegal but still rife in the consciousness of America, Scott-Heron’s song is just as powerful today as it was when it was written. He summarizes the situation concisely in his line “Cause I don’t dig segregation, but I/can’t get integration.”
Gil Scott-Heron introduces his “H2o Gate Blues” with a short and witty introduction of the history of the blues, claiming “For years it was thought that black people was the only ones who could get the blues so the blues hadn’t come into no kind of international fame…” Seamlessly, he moves from subtly discussing the appropriation of blues music to a damning indictment of the presidency at the time. Scott-Heron speaks over a minimalistic piano and drums duo, which never compete with his vocals. Consequently, this song is as comparable to Allen Ginsberg’s “America” as it is to Scott-Heron’s musical contemporaries. While some of his songs will have you tapping your feet or even dancing, this one keeps your feet strictly on the ground. For clarity, this song is based on the Watergate scandal. The poem is thought-provoking and articulate, but his dark humor is never far from the fore, describing America as the “international Jekyll and Hyde” before concluding the song with “Four more years of THAT?!”
Glass of wine in hand, you might start dancing along to this infectious flute-fueled number supported by poppy guitar riffs, before stopping to listen to the lyrics and realize that it’s a sobering tribute to the devastating effects of alcoholism. Scott-Heron recorded “The Bottle” with Brian Jackson in 1974 as part of his Winter in America album, and like many of his other songs, it covers the topic of substance abuse (something he struggled with himself). As with all his music, he never preaches nor judges and is as quick to turn his critical eye to his own shortcomings and vices.
Taken from Pieces of a Man, released in 1971, “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” is another impassioned song with potent lyrics which plays on the now cliched idiom of “Home Is Where the Heart Is.” Presumably referring to the ghetto, this song is more melodic than some of his other pieces, with symphonic vocals and catchy guitar bends layered over some simple but infectious drumbeats. If you like what you hear, check out Esther Phillip’s cover version.
Released in 2010 on his I’m New Here album after a long and famously drug-induced hiatus, “Me and the Devil” is an electronic adaptation of Robert Johnson’s 1937 “Me and the Devil Blues.” The song is representative of his musical innovation and his receptiveness to new musical forms. Despite his experimental nature, Scott-Heron never misses the mark — the performer’s wailing and gravelly blues-inspired vocals are supported by a unflinchingly modern electronic backbone. The ominous video which accompanies it cements its status as a dark and brooding urban ditty. This is one which will appeal to electronica and blues enthusiasts alike: this wide-ranging appeal is no mean feat.
Clapping sounds reminiscent of a playground skit run through this song, paired with echoing drums. Gil Scott-Heron manages to encapsulate the feelings of loneliness one can feel in New York while still remaining desperately attached to the city. The song is a defensive ode to the city he loves, as he sings “New York City, I don’t know why I love you” over and over again, with different iterations of the final line. This piece is more minimal and musical than his others; the lyrics are not politically charged, nor is he making any bold proclamations. Despite that, it’s a foot-tapping, head-shaking infectious number. Moreover, it’s been reworked over and over again, so if you like the stripped down version, be sure to check out the Jamie XX remix, as well as his collaboration with Nas.
Released in 1977 on Scot-Heron’s Bridges album, this song refers to the partial nuclear meltdown in 1966 in Detroit and takes its name from investigative journalist John Fuller’s book with the same name. Here, the artist touches upon another contentious issue in American politics at the time (and still today) — nuclear power. It takes a master to make such a hard hitting issue sound sexy without demeaning it, but somehow Gil Scott-Heron manages it, with slinky guitar hooks and his lyrical gymnastics.