There are few people that have successfully managed to merge music and the spoken word, as seamlessly as the great Gil Scott-Heron. There are very few, if any, to compare him too.
From the humanity and vulnerability in his voice to the political strain to his music, Gil raised issue with the injustices and inequalities of his day that he found very important. What he was able to do better than anyone was find a way to make it all personal. He made the politics personal and he used himself and his own experience as the fulcrum around which all these things revolved. If you listen to “The Bottle” or “Home Is Where The Hatred Is”, they’re very political, but also very personal. And that may have been one of his most profound gifts.
Classic LPs like Free Will, Winter In America and Pieces Of A Man reveal seamlessly combined poetic lyricism and melody. The fact that he could play the piano meant that he could construct melodies around his poems, not to mention he worked closely with Brian Jackson throughout his carer who was instrumental in helping craft Gil’s jazz, soul sound via his prolific keys. While Gil is often regarded as the “Godfather of Rap”, he would often try and escape the title, citing that there were people before him. There was Amiri Baraka, The Last Poets, Oscar Brown Jr. and a whole range of artists before that were doing spoken word, back to the 50’s. He came at a particular time when James Brown was also doing this sort of proto rap thing, there was the Last Poets and this feeling of protest and the voice being heard, so he got caught up in that. His work is very different from the Last Poets and the militant black rhetoric of the time, because his work, is very personal, very tender and vulnerable at times. That balance is what made Gil so successful, why he is so beloved, and why we still talk about him, because he showed us his pain.
The rhythm of the blues shaped the way he wrote poems—he would emphasize certain words on certain beats, anticipating by a decade the revolution of hip-hop, with its emphasis on rhythmic speech over music. It was his sentiment, his style, and the beats he used to carry his poems that have made his music rampant in hip-hop, more than one would ever realize. In fact, there are somewhere around 90 different tracks listed as having sampled Heron’s music. In 1999, Mos Def sampled Gil Scott-Heron’s “Legend In His Own Mind” in his song featuring Q-Tip called “Mr. Nigga” off “Black on Both Sides.” Even more recently, NxWorries (Anderson .Paak & Knxwledge) sampled Heron’s “The Bottle” in their song “Suede” off their 2016 album, “Yes Lawd!” Other artists like Kendrick Lamar, Common, The Game, Flatbush Zombies, Drake and Kanye West have sampled his music before as well.
What make’s Gil’s music so prolific is that it is still relevant. That’s what all art tries to do, to remain relevant. But there’s a quality and a need to ground things in a particular time and Gil did that particularly well with “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. That’s very much of its time and it was important to have that at the time, and now, maybe it’s not so relevant and maybe a lot of the references are not there, but the sentiment is still valid.