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Gil Scott-Heron: the essentials

Kiah Welsh

Before Public Enemy, Tupac and Kendrick Lamar there was Gil Scott-Heron. He’s often called the godfather of hip-hop. Though his roots stem from jazz, he crossed over into other genres, fusing jazz, soul, and blues.

Richard Russell, the owner of British record label XL Recordings, describes Scott-Heron’s music as innovative. “Gil Scott-Heron was doing rhyming and spoken word over a backbeat as long ago as 1970. The music that became hip-hop and rap — that’s what he was doing,” he says, adding, “He is undisputedly one of the people who invented that type of music. And it’s gone on to be incredibly important, and affect the culture in an enormous way.”

Through his music, Scott-Heron commented on various issues — from policing to the environment, to drug abuse and addiction — that are still relevant today. And while he passed away nearly six years ago, his music still lives on through remixes and samples on popular tracks, including Drake's "Take Care" and Common's "The People."

To his 68th birthday on April 1, we look at the songs by Scott-Heron that should be on your radar.

Song: "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"
Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (1970)

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is an anthem for African-American activism. In an interview, Scott-Heron said the song is all about your mind. “You have to change your mind before you change the way you live and the way you move. The thing that’s going to change people is something that no one will ever be able to capture on film. It will just be something you see and all of a sudden you realize, ‘I’m on the wrong page,” he says.

Scott-Heron's lyrics for "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" was a call to action for marginalized black youth in America. His lyrics critiqued mass media and misrepresentation in the 1970s: "There will be no picture of you and Willie Mays/ Pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run." As RedPepper notes, the song sets "to wrench its audience from the cultural opiates of mass media news, sitcoms and, above all, advertising."

Song: "Lady Day and John Coltrane"
Album: Pieces of a Man (1971)

Scott-Heron wrote “Lady Day and John Coltrane” in honour of Billie Holiday and John Coltrane. His lyrics address how music is able to rid feelings of loneliness, and can move you into a positive realm. The song describes the cycle of emotions some people go through on a day-to-day basis: “Ever feel kinda down and out, you don’t know just what to do/ Livin’ all of your days in darkness let the sun shine through/ Ever feel that somehow, somewhere, you’ve lost your way/ And if you don’t get help quick you won’t make it through the day.”

Song: "Home is Where the Hatred Is"
Album: Pieces of a Man (1971)

Scott-Heron’s “Home is Where the Hatred Is” embodies a living metaphor for human survival. His lyrics are a reflection of what he saw around him while living in Harlem: “A junkie walking through the twilight/ I’m on my way home/ I left three days ago, but no one seems to know I’m gone/ Home is where the hatred is/ Home is filled with pain and it/ Might not be such a bad idea if I never, never went home again."

Song: "Winter in America"
Album: Winter in America (1974)

Winter in America is an album from Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson that not only described the political climate at the time, but gave a voice to the voiceless on a national platform. In particular, “Winter in America” addresses the struggle of those wanting to get their messages across but are silenced: “The Constitution/ A noble piece of paper/ With free society/ Struggled but it died in vain/ And now Democracy is ragtime on the corner/ Hoping for some rain/ Looks like it’s hoping/ Hoping for some rain.” Familiar subjects like urban deprivation and Afrocentricity recur here.

Song: "The Bottle"
Album: Winter in America (1974)

A liquor store called the Log Cabin, located in Northern Virginia, inspired Scott-Heron to write “The Bottle.” In an interview with Newsnight, he talked about his conversations with alcoholics outside the liquor store, revealing their steady decline. "I watched these people lining up every morning, bringing back their empties for a discount. I discovered one of them was an ex-physician, who'd been busted for abortions on young girls,” he says.

His lyrics describe the downfall of drinking: “And don’t you think it’s a crime/ When time after time, people in the bottle/ See that gent in the wrinkled suit/ He done damn near blown his cool to the bottle/ He was a doctor helpin’ young girls along/ If they wasn’t too far gone to have problems.”

Song: "Johannesburg"
Album: From South Africa to South Carolina (1976)

“Johannesburg” is from a period in which Scott-Heron began to take an active approach to global justice issues. “Johannesburg” was one of the first songs in American pop culture that addressed the problem with apartheid. His lyrics underline the similarities between race relations in the U.S. and South Africa. “Sister/woman have you heard/ ‘Bout Johannesburg?/ I know that their strugglin’ over there/ Ain’t gonna free me.”

Song: "We Almost Lost Detroit"
Album: Bridges (1977)

“We Almost Lost Detroit” is a song about the dangers of nuclear power. Scott-Heron wrote it after reading about the Fermi power plant, situated outside Detroit, that suffered a near meltdown in 1966. “Just thirty miles from Detroit/ There stands a giant power station/ It ticks each night as the city sleeps/ Seconds from annihilation/ But no one stopped to think about the people/ or how they would survive.”

Song: "Angel Dust"
Album: Secrets (1978)

“Angel Dust” is an anti-drug song. The track describes the consequences of drug addiction: “They were standin’/ Ev’rybody in a circle/ The whole family/ Listening to the preacher’s words/ Sis was cryin’/ She alone held all the secrets/ ‘Bout his dyin’/ Tears fallin’ to earth/ Maybe her fault/ He was trusting/ God only knew why/ They was dustin’!"

Song: "I'll Take Care of You"
Album: I'm New Here (2010)

“I’ll Take Care of You” was written by Brook Benton and originally recorded by Bobby Bland in 1959. But, it has since become a jazz staple, covered by many musicians, including Scott-Heron. His version was recorded and released on his final album, I’m New Here. In 2011, British DJ Jamie xx, remixed Scott-Heron’s version, and reworked the song. “I’ll Take Care of You” is best known for being sampled by Canadian rapper Drake on his second studio album, Take Care featuring Rihanna.

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