And I was hurt and scared and shocked when Lillie Scott left suddenly one night, and they sent a limousine from heaven, to take her to God, if there is one. So I knew she had gone.
– Gil Scott-Heron, On Coming From a Broken Home
You can measure the complexity of a life by the inadequacy of the thumbnail obit. When Gil Scott-Heron died on Friday afternoon, the news reports invariably called him “Godfather of Rap”. It’s not entirely untrue but it does him a huge disservice, making him the prologue to someone else’s story instead of the hero of his own. When the New Yorker’s Alec Wilkinson asked him what he thought when people told him he had pioneered hip hop he shrugged, “I just think they made a mistake.”
The figure he most resembled wasn’t an MC but Bob Dylan. A tough, scrawny prodigy, wiser than his years. A poet, storyteller and comedian as well as a musician. Restless, slippery, always two steps ahead. As a protest singer, he usually got to a topic before anyone else (Watergate, apartheid, nuclear power), and his treatment was cleverer and funnier than anyone else’s. Unlike Dylan he knew his stuff and stuck with it. He wrote personal songs too, but his greatest achievement was to turn politics into art with more consistent skill and commitment than pretty much anyone else.
He disliked slogans and platitudes. People sometimes forget that The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was meant to be satire, not prophecy. While the Last Poets were rapping about impending revolution, Scott-Heron stood to one side with a sardonic smile, trusting nobody. High ideals struck him as promises just waiting to be broken, whether it was Whitey on the moon or a Black Power preacher on a street corner. He cared about the individuals he sang about, cooped up in their tenements, drowning in booze, walking through the twilight. Few songwriters excel at both satire and empathy, but Scott-Heron did because he made a distinction between politics as national theatre — absurd, comic, ripe for ridicule — and the way politics permeates the warp and weft of everyday life, which is as serious as it gets.
He had a rich, charismatic singing voice but he was above all a great talker. It was when he was addressing an audience, speaking so fluidly and confidently that you couldn’t tell where the between-song banter ended and the song itself began, that he seemed most in command of his art: what he called “throwing words at things and having them stick to the sense of it”. Topical raps like B Movie, H2O Gate Blues or Pardon Our Analysis (We Beg Your Pardon) should by rights be as dead as the presidents they skewered, but they’re kept alive by the agility of the language, the precision of the jokes, the sly authority of his voice. Furthermore, he was invariably right without being self-righteous. “There’s a difference between being a piano player from Tennessee and an international crusader,” he said in an interview last year.
He was promoting I’m New Here, his first album in 16 years and his first great one in 29. The record is a memoir in fragments. The cackling, earthy spoken interludes are as integral as the songs, and more candid. While the title track, a Smog cover, seemed to promise a document of catharsis and redemption after fruitless years in and out of jail and addicted to crack (“No matter how far wrong you’ve gone/You can always turn it around”), Scott-Heron’s tarry, guttural voice said it was more complicated than that. I will not be your reformed character. I will not be your elder statesman. I will not be your ghetto conscience. I retain the right to fuck up. In the New Yorker profile, he was still using drugs and still estranged from Brian Jackson, his musical partner throughout the 70s.
I tried and failed to speak to him for the book and again, a few months ago, for a magazine, but at least I saw him live last year. Not what he used to be but so much better than he might have been. He had been silent for so long and now I could hear his voice again: defiant, erratic and rattling with history. And then they sent a limousine for him.
If I hadn’t been as eccentric, as obnoxious, as arrogant, as aggressive, as introspective, as selfish, I wouldn’t be me. I wouldn’t be who I am.
– Gil Scott-Heron, I’ve Been Me
RECOMMENDED READING: A tribute from his friend and publisher Jamie Byng, Alec Wilkinson’s New Yorker profile and Sean O’Hagan’s Observer interview. ALSO: Alec Wilkinson’s thoughts on the New Yorker blog and Nate Patrin’s Pitchfork tribute, with links to dozens of songs that GSH recorded and inspired.