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Gil Scott-Heron

American Visions,  June-July, 1998  by Hank Bordowitz

As recently as 1993, Gil Scott-Heron's recording could not be found in record stores. He had not released anything new in America since 1982. His old recordings, all issued on vinyl, had not made the jump to compact disc and went out of print. Yet people still listened--to their old LPs, to Scott-Heron's live shows, to rappers, such as KRS-ONE, who sampled a version of Scott-Heron's landmark "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." Then, Scott-Heron put out Spirits (TVT, 1994), the first new music he had released in over a decade, and RCA dug out his first three recordings (circa 1970-72) and released them in 1995.

The momentum continues in 1998. Soon, stores will finally be able to restock classic tunes, including the anti-drinking "The Bottle," "(What's the Word) Johnnesburg" and the anti-drug "Angel Dust." Scott-Heron's Rumal-Gia label will begin releasing the bulk of his catalog (the rights recently reverted to him), and he promises a CD of new music in time for summer.

"People would ask, `When are you going to do a new one?'" Scott-Heron says from his offices on upper Broadway in Harlem. "We'd tell them, `When you buy the old ones!' Who do more when people haven't caught up with the other sh-- yet?"

Maybe the wait has been too long. During his absence from record stores and the radio, contemporary music lost a voice of sanity and satire. From the time he declaimed, "The revolution will not be televised," when he was about 19 years old, by his reckoning, Scott-Heron became a major voice for social and political reality and against the increasing fantasy foisted on us by the media. As a political poet, he influenced an entire generation. He sang of scourges like alcohol and angel dust, Ronald Reagan and apartheid. He raised the idea that while America put people on the moon (white people, he pointed out), children starved in the cities ("Whitey on the Moon").

His first album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (Flying Dutchman, 1970/RCA, 1995), contained the first of many recorded versions of "The Revolution Will Not be Televised," as well as "Whitey on the Moon." By the time he recorded that album, Scott-Heron had already published a volume of poetry (with the same title) and a novel of drugs and death and ghetto intrigue, The Vulture. He had followed one of his literary heroes, Langston Hughes, to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and while studying writing there, he started setting some of hits poems to music, working with a younger keyboard player named Brian Jackson.

"Brian and I were songwriters," Scott-Heron recalls. "We weren't trying to record in particular; we were trying to get some songs picked up by some of the artists who were working on Plying Dutchman at the time." Instead, Flying Dutchman owner Bob Thiele gave Scott-Heron a shot at recording the poetry and percussion that he had been performing on college campuses in the Philadelphia area. "It did well enough for Bob Thiele to have us come back and do the music. That's what we wanted to do. I didn't particularly want to sing the songs, but I wanted to get them recorded."

After recording three albums for Thiele, he recorded one for the ill-fated artists' collective Strata-East. That album, Winter in America (Strata-East, 1974), contained some of the most remarkable work of Scott-Heron, Jackson and their Midnight Band, including the hit "The Bottle" and the melancholy title track. With the success of "The Bottle" under his belt, Scott-Heron became the first artist signed by Arista Records. Arista's Clive Davis told Rolling Stone in 1975, "Not only is he an excellent poet, musician and performer--three qualities I look for that are rarely combined--but he's a leader of social thought."

On Arista, Scott-Heron put out nine "survival kits on wax"--his take on why he recorded--in eight years. His songs developed into a unique amalgam of blues and jazz that he referred to as "bluesology, the science of how things feel."

By then, he was teaching writing at Federal City College in Washington, D.C., and he continued to balance his educational endeavors with his musical ones, until the two pursuits became too demanding together. "What was happening was the band couldn't work unless I did, so we had to go out to play these things," he recalls. "I was just doing a sh--ty job, as far as I was concerned, as a professor. I was marking the papers on planes. I wasn't available for the students to come in and talk and that kind of stuff. The kids were fine with it. They were into having a teacher who was on TV. It was worth it to see me doing something that they all wanted to do someday, or something they really appreciated, something that elevated the community. But I didn't think I was doing a good enough job as a teacher, and that's what I was there for."