Gil Scott-Heron has never been one to wait around for life's battles to come to him. He's expended enormous amounts of energy publicly lambasting three U.S. presidents (Nixon, Ford and Reagan), and yet he has still managed to publish three influential novels and three volumes of poetry. When he first informed us in 1971 that the revolution would not be televised, he was singing about the liberation of South Africa a decade before it became a hot topic in the American media. The first artist signed to Clive Davis's Arista label, the pianist/singer/orator supreme has been crowned the godfather of rap on the weight of his classic work from the 1970s, a healthy portion of which is in the process of being reissued. So it would seem that now is as good time as any to glance back at the career of an artist who's spent most of his life moving forward.
A published author by the age of 19, Gil Scott-Heron was 21 when he made his first recording, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. Released in 1970 on the Flying Dutchman label, it was, in essence, a poetry reading accompanied by conga beats and various percussion instruments. But the young writer with the authoritative, yet sensitive voice could also sing, which he proved without a doubt on the classic 1971 release Pieces of a Man. With its top-caliber jazz musicianship and powerfully eclectic compositions, it was easily one of the best albums of that year. Although the release was teeming with insights about love, children and the problems of inner-city life, it was the controversial "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" that received all the attention. A strong, early foreshadowing of rap, it is at once a stinging salvo aimed at the media and commercialized society, and a portrait of urban turmoil. Indeed, the track's militant vibe was all-consuming for some critics of the day, much to the dismay of its author.
"[It] was the only political piece [on the album]," Scott-Heron says today. "Very few people heard 'Save the Children,' 'Lady Day and John Coltrane' or 'I Think I Call It Morning.' They just missed the point. The point became one of the 11 pieces. The least inventive one on the album was the one that was the most heralded."
Nonetheless, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" represents the birth of rap -- or, at the very least, its politicized baptism. While a number of performers before Scott-Heron were rappers in their own right -- including Isaac Hayes and Lou Rawls back in the '60s, and the beat poets of the '50s -- "Revolution" took the nascent form and ran with it. While Hayes's raps were romantic devices and Kerouac and his contemporaries came from a perspective far removed from the mainstream, Scott-Heron combined approachable street smarts with liberal political discourse. In so doing, he set the stage for rap as a form of sociopolitical expression for the masses.
Gil Scott-Heron's compelling narratives tended to steer the focus to the message rather than to the music, often overshadowing the contributions of one-time collaborator Brian Jackson. A pianist, flautist, arranger and singer, Jackson co-wrote most of the tracks on Pieces of a Man; his role was so important on subsequent releases that by 1973 Scott-Heron was giving him equal billing. The partnership would last until the former tired of the demands of the music industry in the late 1970s. In the process, they hit on a uniquely arty jazz/ R&B fusion.
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Jackson's compositions incorporated African flavors, heavy percussion and chants with interludes reminiscent of Pharaoh Sanders and Abdullah Ibrahim. When need be, Jackson could also write more straight-ahead material, often incorporating classic jazz bridges into his work. As chief lyricist, vocalist and social commentator, Scott-Heron had better pop sensibilities and a knack for creating indelible hooks out of assorted R&B influences. Combined, their rich, multicultural stew precipitated the world-music trend, yielded several albums and was far and away Scott-Heron's most commercially fruitful period. While much of his work at the time was not overtly political, an acute social consciousness was always looming in the foreground.
"Maybe people were intimidated by the things that we felt were normal to comment on because they were part of our lives," Scott-Heron says. "To ignore part of your life and not speak on it because it might intimidate somebody is not to be very mature."
In 1985, Scott-Heron took a break from recording after 15 years of studio work; the hiatus lasted almost a decade. "I didn't know it until I read it in the reviews that I was dead or something," he quips. "That's where they put you when they don't see you. Between [my] own recordings and appearances on other people's albums, [I] had about 20 albums out. [I] figured anyone who got all those, they win. The record business was not the center of my life."
During that period, Scott-Heron continued to tour, but most of his catalog fell out of print; aside from 1994's Spirits and the Flying Dutchman catalog, his albums had been unavailable on CD. But now that he's acquired complete ownership of his recordings (with the exception of the Dutchman material), Scott-Heron has initiated an ambitious reissue project on his own Rumal-Gia label. The first three CDs in the set -- Winter in America, From South Africa to South Carolina and The First Minute of a New Day -- have just been released, and contain bonus tracks and new liner notes written by the artist.
Winter in America, originally released in 1974 on the small Strata/East imprint, is the first album on which Brian Jackson got co-billing. Out of print for more than two decades, it had extremely limited distribution in the first place, and is considered by many to be the great lost Gil Scott-Heron album. An important link between his Flying Dutchman and Arista material, Winter in America lacks the supporting cast and slick production of his other albums. But the scaled-down lineup of Scott-Heron and Jackson, with drummer Bob Adams and bassist Danny Bowens on a few cuts, provides an effective forum for the pair's increasing reliance on African and R&B influences. Among the best tracks: "The Bottle," a strong anti-alcohol rant with a funky bass hook and chilly flute fills, "Peace Go with You Brother," with an opening chant and intoxicating chorus, and "H20gate Blues," an eight-minute, state-of-affairs commentary with supporting blues motifs. The CD includes four live bonus cuts, including a 1982 version of "Winter in America" and an 11-minute take on "The Bottle." Still, of the three Rumal-Gia reissues, Winter sounds the most dated.
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Scott-Heron and Jackson's next album, The First Minute of a New Day, was their first for Arista and featured the nine-piece Midnight Band. Benefiting from a larger supporting cast and better production, the songs are stronger, as are the funk and African influences. Fueled by the haunting "Winter in America" (the tune never appeared on the album of the same name), the back-to-basics funk exercise "Ain't No Such Thing as Superman" and the requisite political rap "Pardon Our Analysis (We Beg Your Pardon)," The First Minute falters only when the extended jams become too dense and monotonous. Bonus tracks include a live "talk" recorded in 1982 that features a recitation of "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and a solo interpretation of "Winter in America" that has to be heard to be believed.
Last among the Rumal-Gia reissues is 1975's From South Africa to South Carolina. More refined and accessible than its predecessor, it contains the breakaway R&B hit "Johannesburg" and the nuclear-power protest piece "South Carolina," with compelling harmonies. But South Africa's best moments are the beautiful lament "Beginnings," which is rife with bittersweet harmonies, and "A Lovely Day," a light, poppish, medium-tempo number that builds to a smart climax. Again, some extended jams go overboard, but South Africa is the most enjoyable and well-crafted of the rereleases. Among the four bonus cuts, the most striking is a live version of "Save the Children."
All in all, the Rumal-Gia CDs provide a convincing portrait of an artist striving to reconcile his diverse interests and tastes, and breaking down barriers in the process. That most of the songs hold up today shouldn't be surprising, as Scott-Heron has long been ahead of his time.
"They are nothing but love songs," Scott-Heron says about his '70s work. "We already had this information. We didn't have to share it if we didn't care about people.