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by World Music Network June 04, 2011


Gil Scott Heron: 1949 - 2011

Gil scott

The American poet, musician, authour and 'the godfather of rap', Gilbert “Gil” Scott Heron died on May 27 2011. He was a hugely respected musician whose influence runs deep in the veins of many of jazz, funk, soul and hip-hops greatest contemporary exponents.

Warm bluesy keys and gently swinging drums make up the base of his signature sound. On top he variously involved funk bass, fluttering jazz flute, hand-drums and shimmering tambourines. And of course, the glue that stuck it all together; his own caramel-smooth vocals. Timelessly cool in both melismatic and recitative style, like a wise oracle, he intoned socially conscious messages.  Tracks like ‘Johannesburg’ tackled a South African mining strike and ‘Winter in America’ spoke for a disillusioned American populace. ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ (1970) is a three minute recitation of satirical poetry over congas and bongo drums. Scott Heron quotes adverts and laconically notes, ‘The revolution will not go better with coke’. ‘The rhythmic style is clearly a precursor to MC rap styles that came to popularity during the late 1970s and 1980s. If Hip-hop was born in the South Bronx then it was Gil Scott Heron who planted the seed deep in the earth.

Gil was born in Chicago, Illinois. He attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Despite never gradating as an undergraduate he received a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from John Hopkins University, Maryland. In 1970 he recorded his first spoken-word album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. In 1971 the album, Pieces of a Man marked a move towards full band accompaniments and more recognisable song structures. During the 1970s up until 1985 Gil Scott continued to record and enjoyed success with tracks like ‘Angel Dust’ (1979), which reached number fifteen in the charts. Most recently, Gil released the album I’m New Here, in 2010. Scott Heron spent many years battling drug addiction. In a 2008 interview with The New York Timeshe confirmed he had been HIV positive for many years. The reason for his death remains undisclosed. He is survived by his four children.

Raddled by addiction, Gil Scott Heron cut a waif-like figure on stage at WOMAD last year. His set was heavy in mood. His words echoed out across the field to a reverent audience. Most memorable was his rendidtion of 'The Bottle' (1974), which he grooved with as much effortless style as his younger self. His fragile presence was matched by poetry that was deeply dark and melancholy, but strong. And that after all was always his talent; words so strong they could cut clean through silence and make people stand up and take note. May Gil Scott Heron rest in the peace he was always searching for. His music lives on.