Gilbert “Gil” Scott-Heron (April 1, 1949 – May 27, 2011) was an American poet, musician, and author known primarily for his work as a spoken word performer in the 1970s and 80s, and for his collaborative soul works 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”. His poetic style has been influential upon every generation of hip hop since his popularity began. In addition to being widely considered an influence in today’s music, Scott-Heron remained active until his death, and in 2010 released his first new album in 16 years, entitled I’m New Here.
Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago, IL His mother, Bobbie Scott-Heron, sang with the New York Oratorio Society. Scott-Heron’s Jamaican father, Gil Heron, nicknamed “The Black Arrow”, was a soccer player who, in the 1950s, became the first black athlete to play for Glasgow Celtic Football Club in Scotland.
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. He has been described by music writers as “the godfather of rap” and “the black Bob Dylan”.
Scott-Heron’s influence over hip-hop is primarily exemplified by his definitive single “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” sentiments from which have been explored by various rappers, including Aesop Rock, Talib Kweli and Common. In addition to his vocal style, Scott-Heron’s indirect contributions to rap music extend to his and co-producer Brian Jackson’s compositions, which have been sampled by various hip-hop artists; among the most notable is rapper/producer Kanye West, who has sampled Scott-Heron and Jackson’s “Home is Where the Hatred Is” and “We Almost Lost Detroit” for his song “My Way Home” and the single “The People,” respectively, both of which are collaborative efforts between West and Common. Scott-Heron, in turn, has acknowledged West’s contributions, sampling the latter’s 2007 single “Flashing Lights” on his latest album, 2010’s I’m New Here. Scott-Heron admitted ambivalence about his association with rap, remarking in 2010 in an interview for the Daily Swarm, “I don’t know if I can take the blame for it”, referring to rap music. He preferred the moniker of “bluesologist”. Referring to reviews of his last album and references to him as the “godfather of rap”, he said, “It’s something that’s aimed at the kids.” He added, “I have kids, so I listen to it. But I would not say it’s aimed at me. I listen to the jazz station.”
West named Scott-Heron, among others, as a major influence on his own latest offering, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, where portions of his work “Comment #1” appear on the album. “We Almost Lost Detroit” has also been sampled by Brand Nubian member Grand Puba (“Keep On”), Native Tongues duo Black Star (“Brown Skin Lady”), and underground notable MF DOOM (“Camphor”). Furthermore, Black Star MC Mos Def has sampled Scott-Heron’s “A Legend in His Own Mind” on the Q-Tip-featuring song “Mr. Nigga,” and producer Dr. Dre (some of whose early G-Funk compositions mirror Scott-Heron’s musical style in both texture and sentiment, specifically “Lil’ Ghetto Boy,” which in fact samples Scott-Heron contemporary Donny Hathaway) recorded the song “Blunt Time,” on which former Death Row Records rapper RBX interpolates the opening lyrics from Scott-Heron’s recording “Angel Dust.” In 2000, CeCe Peniston as well used a sample of a Heron’s song (“The Bottle”) while recording her single “My Boo”.
Scott-Heron died on the afternoon of May 27, 2011, at St. Luke’s Hospital, New York City, after becoming ill upon returning from a European trip. He is survived by daughter, Gia from his marriage to Brenda Sykes. Scott-Heron had confirmed previous press speculation about his health, when he disclosed in a 2008 New York Magazine interview, that he had been HIV-positive for several years, and that he had been previously hospitalized for pneumonia. The cause of Scott-Heron’s death has yet to be announced.
In response, Public Enemy’s Chuck D stated “RIP GSH…and we do what we do and how we do because of you.” on his Twitter account. His UK publisher, Jamie Byng, called him “one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met”.
On hearing of the death, R&B singer Usher stated “I just learned of the loss of a very important poet…R.I.P., Gil Scott-Heron. The revolution will be live!!”. Richard Russel, who produced Scott-Heron’s final studio album, called him a “father figure of sorts to me”.
Eminem stated that “He influenced all of hip-hop”.
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