Gil Scott-Heron brought rap to the 'hood – to everyone's neighborhood. Whether you were poor, middle-class or simply someone experiencing all the things he sang about, Scott-Heron reached you where you lived.
"He had great insights lyrically and great insights musically," Richard Harrington, a music critic for The Washington Post, told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
A poet, lyricist and musician, Scott-Heron infused spoken word with political insight and, with his Midnight Band, took rap to a level where it became a staple of urban radio, basement parties and heated discussions about the treatment of black people in this country in the 1970s and '80s.
The son of a Jamaican professional soccer player and a black American librarian, Scott-Heron was born in Chicago in 1949. After his parents divorced, he lived with his grandmother in Lincoln, Tennessee. It was there he was introduced to music and literature. His precocious writing talent was encouraged, and by the age of 13, he had written a book of poetry.
Scott-Heron was one of three children chosen to integrate an elementary school in nearby Jackson. The firsthand experience with racism was difficult for the young Scott-Heron, and he soon moved to New York to live with his mother, first in the Bronx and, later, in the heavily Hispanic Chelsea section of Manhattan.
In New York, Scott-Heron discovered the works of black poets, including Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones. He went to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, dropping out after a year to pursue a writing career and finish his novel, "The Vulture," which was critically well-received. At Lincoln, he met Brian Jackson, whom Thom Jurek of the All Music Guide called "the musical architect" of Scott-Heron's spare sound.
A book of poetry, "Small Talk at 125th and Lennox" caught the attention of legendary jazz producer Bob Thiele of Flying Dutchman Records, who encouraged Scott-Heron to consider a career in music. In 1970, Thiele recorded Scott-Heron reading from the book as a group of jazz and funk musicians -- including bassist Ron Carter, flutist Hubert Laws and Brian Jackson on piano - played in the background.
The debut album "New Black Poet: Small Talk at 125th and Lennox," which contained the seminal "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," was followed the next year with the more musically mature "Pieces of a Man," which featured "Lady Day and John Coltrane" and "I Think I'll Call It Morning."
In 1974, he signed a one-album deal with Strata East and released "Winter in America," with the original version of "The Bottle," an infectious hit that addressed problems of addiction, abortion and incarceration and was an instant staple of parties. It hit No. 15 on the R&B chart.
In 1975, Scott-Heron signed with Arista Records and released a string of albums, including "From South Africa to South Carolina," which hit the charts with "Johannesburg," a song that focused on the issue of apartheid long before it became a mainstream subject of concern.
Somewhere in all of this, Scott-Heron found time to go back to school and ultimately earn a master's degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and teach literature at Federal City College (which later became part of the University of the District of Columbia) in Washington.
He parted ways with Brian Jackson in 1978, following the release of the album "Secrets" that featured another drug-themed song, "Angel Dust." Production duties were taken over by veteran producers Nile Rodgers and Malcolm Cecil.
Throughout the '70s and '80s, Scott-Heron took on the presidencies of Richard Nixon ("H2O Gate Blues") and Ronald Reagan ("B-Movie").
"I grew up in Detroit, where we had tons of mom & pop record stores. I walked in and, with my weekly allowance, I bought 'Pieces of a Man,'" said Jurek, a music writer and cultural critic.
Of Scott-Heron's "First Minute of a Brand New Day," which featured the songs "Winter in America" and "Ain't No Such Thing As Superman," Jurek maintains that "to this day, it is the perfect blend of sophisticated soul music, jazz and poetry. Very few people did it that well. I remember the exact moment I heard the first note."
More importantly, Jurek said, Scott-Heron had the ability to connect with the average person. "What he was talking about was on the TV every night."
And while Scott-Heron clearly was influenced by the seminal spoken word group The Last Poets, "there was a certain kind of next-door neighbor quality" about Scott-Heron's work that got the message across in a less visceral way, Jurek told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
"Vietnam, Nixon and San Clemente, and then Reagan - the issues themselves were not theoretical. They were issues you dealt with everyday," Jurek said.
"One of my favorite things about him was at concerts when he'd often come out, without the band, to talk to the audience and rap about a whole range of things," The Post's Harrington told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
Scott-Heron and Arista had a parting of the ways in 1985, and he hit the tour circuit. He didn't record again until he signed with TVT Records in 1993 and released the album "Spirits" in 1994, which took on gangsta rappers. His song "Message to the Messengers" targeted the rappers who for better or worse, Scott-Heron noted, had become the voices of influence to the children of the '90s. He challenged and praised today's rappers and thanked them for the respect they have shown him.
"In his music, you have Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson, all the way through to Huey Newton and Angela Davis, and then you can move into the hip-hop era of Chuck D and Alicia Keyes. He crosses cultures," Jurek said, adding that Scott-Heron's lyrics have not only held up over time, but "kids are talking about him even today."
Jurek said a number of artists have been influenced by Scott-Heron, including Mos Def and Alicia Keys. In fact, Scott-Heron once skipped out on a drug rehab session in order to appear on stage with Keys.
Even British singer Fiona Renshaw has gotten rave reviews for her cover of Scott-Heron's "Home Is Where the Hatred Is."
"Probably the person who comes closest to his style is Michael Franti and Spearhead," Harrington said.
Franti is known for blending his political activism and socialized lyrics with soul, funk and hip-hop melodies. The Disposable Heroes of Hiphophrisy, which Franti fronted, "were wickedly political and socially overreaching, but they were more involved in activism than Gil was; he was more of a commentator and narrator," Harrington said. "Even Chuck D of Public Enemy, I can't image him not listening to Gil as inspiration when he was growing up."
He added that rapper Talib Kweli has "a spiritual kinship there, but he's coming more out of the hip-hop thing. Gil, of course, was influenced by the Last Poets and by other black poets."
Ironically, the man who sang about some of society's deepest problems ended up hit by some of them. Scott-Heron was sentenced to one to three years in 2001 by a New York judge for failing to deal with a persistent drug problem and resulting charges.
He was sent back to prison last year for violating the terms of his probation and leaving a drug rehabilitation facility. Scott-Heron told a judge that he was HIV-positive and that officials at the facility had refused to give him the drugs related to his treatment. Jurek told BlackAmericaWeb.com that Scott-Heron was released by the New York State Department of Corrections about a month ago.
"It's interesting and tragic that someone who spoke for so many people succumbed to some of the same things," Jurek said. "We like to make our heroes myths, but we don't take care of them."
"It's so sad," Harrington said. "I really thought he was going to be like this major force in music in general and black music particularly. He had such a distinctive voice, in terms of his writing. It was deep, but it was accessible."