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Throughout 2023, thoughtful tributes to the Bronx’s greatest creation have fueled and uplifted hip-hop and the artists who have contributed to its meteoric rise. However, too often omitted from the 50th year tributes and top 5 lists is the ‘Godfather of Rap’ himself: Gil Scott-Heron.
Born on April 1, 1949, in Chicago, Illinois, Gil Scott-Heron was destined for greatness from a young age.
His passion for literature and music converged to create a body of work that continues to resonate with audiences today.
Scott-Heron was an artist in more ways than one
His memoir is The Last Holiday (2012); his novels are The Nigger Factory (1972) and The Vulture (1970); his collections of lyrics and poems are Now and Then (2001), So Far, So Good (1990), and Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (1970).
Gil Scott-Heron recorded at least twelve studio and live albums.
His debut album, “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox,” released in 1970, was an arresting fusion of spoken word and jazz, setting the stage for his revolutionary career.
Also known as the “Prophet of Soul,” Gil Scott-Heron’s unique blend of poetry, jazz, and soul-transcended genres delivered piercingly poignant messages of social justice, civil rights, and being Black in America.
From songs about “Whitey On The Moon” to “Pieces of a Man”, “We Almost Lost Detroit” and “Did You Hear What They Said?”, Heron told stories with courage and charisma in a style that your favorite rapper has probably sampled.
The story of hip-hop runs through the veins of Gil Scott-Heron
Travis Scott, Kendrick Lamar, Common, Q-Tip, Nas, Ye West, Freddie Gibbs, 2pac, and so many more have sampled from the artist who once declaratively stated “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
With its powerful spoken-word verses and rhythmic intensity, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” delivered a stark message about the media’s complicity in societal apathy, urging people to rise up and take action.
His most recognizable work, it became a 1970s civil rights movement anthem much like Kendrick Lamar’s “We Gon’ Be Alright”.
He would go on to earn an MFA at Johns Hopkins University, and taught at Federal City College, which later became the University of the District of Columbia.
Gil Scott-Heron was a ‘legend in his own mind’ and others
Among his many career accolades, in 2014, Heron was recognized with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. At the time, Common said, “I know Gil Scott-Heron shared his soul in every note, lyric and song we heard from him. I will always appreciate the influence and impact he had on me and the world. I will forever work to keep his inspiration alive.”
In April, Jay-Z performed at Paris’ Louis Vuitton Foundation, “New York (Concept de Paris).”
The song mashes up “Empire State of Mind” with Gil Scott-Heron’s iconic I’m New Here song “New York Is Killing Me.”
Scott-Heron’s songs reflected the juxtaposition of beautiful empathy and unabashed brutality. With vocal runs as distinct as a Rick Ross “Ugh” ad-lib, Scott-Heron’s style was difficult to define but easy to love.
Throughout his career, Gil Scott-Heron fearlessly tackled themes such as racism, inequality, addiction, and political corruption.
His album “Pieces of a Man” (1971) showcased his poetic prowess and storytelling versatility, while live tracks like “The Other Side pt. 1-3” and “Angel Dust” addressed the ravages of drug addiction with raw honesty.
Gil Scott-Heron’s influence extended far beyond the realms of music.
Despite battling personal demons, Gil Scott-Heron’s commitment to his art and his messages never wavered.
He continued to release thought-provoking albums throughout the 1970s and 1980s, leaving behind a profound legacy that transcends time and trends.
A consummate performer with natural stage presence, Scott-Heron’s light-hearted personality often shined bright during live shows.
In a world where music evolves constantly, Gil Scott-Heron’s sampled songs stand as a testament to the enduring power of his artistry.
His message of hope, resistance, and social consciousness is as frustratingly relevant today as it was during the turbulent times in which he lived.
Heron had a word for rappers over 40 years ago
In his song, “Message To The Messengers,” like the elder who taught you behave in public, Scott-Heron sits the upcoming wave of lyricists down and tells them a thing or two about the culture they’ll soon represent.
We lost a leader and gained a legend
On May 27, 2011, the world lost a dedicated educator, creative genius and literary legend when Gil Scott-Heron passed away. A daughter also lost her father.
Though physically absent, the “Spirits” he recorded decades ago continue to guide hip hop closer to the North Star.