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Gil Scott-Heron: A Pocket Legend

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Karen Miller Karen Miller | 13:35 UK time, Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Gil Scott-Heron, the man credited with being the father of rap music died at the weekend at the age of 62 after returning from a European trip.

Gil Scott-Heron.  Photograph copyright Mischa Richter.

Gil Scott-Heron. Photograph copyright Mischa Richter

The Chicago-born, Tennessee/New York raised poet, novelist and musician completed his first book of poetry at the age of 13 and first novel, The Vulture, at 19. He dropped out of college in Pennsylvania after only one year to concentrate on his writing career. His debut album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, was released in 1970 and included his best known song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised". Signing to Arista Recording in 1975 Gil had some success in the US R&B Charts with Johannesburg reaching no 29 and the single, The Bottle peaking at no 15.

Much of his music was inspired by the events and movements of the day including Apartheid and Civil Rights, President Reagan's conservative policies and nuclear energy. In 1985 Arista dropped him and he stopped recording until 1993. He spent much of his later life held back by a number of drug possessions although he did record the album "I'm New Here" in 2010.

Many people were influenced by Gil, not least after "Black Wax" was shown on British television in the early eighties, as evinced by the remix album Jamie Smith of The XX did shortly before Gil's death of "I'm New Here". The tributes from musicians as diverse as Public Enemy's Chuck D and Chic's Nile Rodgers show that it wasn't just his politics and words (Chuck D) that mattered, but that his musicality (Nile Rodgers) did too. He was not just the proto-rapper he's often pigeon-holed as, with a social conscience, he was a great singer and very charismatic live performer.

He wasn't afraid to snap at his admirers, and in songs like "The Message to the Messengers" he more or less told rappers off writing about being against misogny and violence in lyrics.

There was, obviously, quite a dichotomy between the lyrics of anti-drug songs like "Angel Dust" and addiction morality tales like "The Bottle" and Gil's lifestyle, but the songs still stand as great lyrics, and people held a lot of affection for him, even after no-shows and wasted performances, as demonstrated by his selling out The Picture House (Edinburgh) last year, and doing so quite quickly.

As Stephen mentions in this 2009 edition of The Jazz House, Pocket Legend Gil did have a Scottish connection - his Jamaican born father played briefly for Celtic football Club, the first black man to do so. Gil toured Scotland regularly and had his early novels republished by Edinburgh's Canongate. This Pocket Legend was broadcast on 21 January 2009, the week of President Barack Obama's inauguration as US President.


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