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Music

How Gil Scott-Heron did more than invent rap

@TylerGolsen

All epitaphs are bound to leave out some crucial information. When remembering someone’s life and work in such a short amount of space, the most notable and eye-catching elements are usually the ones that get printed and sent out into the world. For Gil Scott-Heron, the legendary singer and poet who left a permanent stamp on music history thanks to his one-of-a-kind style and presentation, the epitaph usually includes the phrase “the man who invented rap”.

A distinctly American art form, hip hop traces its roots back to the black neighbourhoods of New York City, where house music DJs began to make beats that became ideal for writers to start improvising over. Combining the best elements of Jamaican toasting, party MCing, and slam poetry, the combination of disco-infused rhythms with hard-hitting spoken word birthed America’s most essential musical genre since jazz.

One of the first figures who recognised the untapped potential of pairing R&B, jazz, and other traditionally African-American forms of music with direct vocal stylings explicitly stated the black experience rather than padding it with melodies and metaphors, Scott-Heron’s music was primed for maximum impact. That’s best remembered through his classic song ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, a direct kickback against the images that saturated American culture through advertising and mainstream media. Featuring Scott-Heron’s preferred jazz-infused backing track, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ completely unique when it appeared as the first track on Scott-Heron’s 1971 studio debut Pieces of a Man.

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Over the next five decades, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ became Scott-Heron’s major legacy in popular music. But Pieces of a Man actually reveals more about Scott-Heron’s astounding range as a vocalist and as a musician. Take, for instance, the track that immediately follows ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ on the album’s tracklisting, ‘Save the Children’.

Whereas ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ is as potent and direct as a song could possibly be, ‘Save the Children’ is a classic early 1970s soul track in the same vein as Marvin Gaye’s song of the same name that was released on What’s Going On just a month after Pieces of a Man was released. By incorporating a gentle flute line and a central melody that was absent from ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, Scott-Heron recognised that sugar-coated hooks were just as effective at communicating a message as combative prose was.

The fact is that most of Pieces of a Man is a more traditional R&B/funk record than Scott-Heron’s reputation might indicate. Only the opening track features Scott-Heron’s influential proto-rap, with the rest of the album showing off his singing voice. Does Scott-Heron have a strong singing voice? Not particularly, but his idiosyncracies catch your ear in ways that might otherwise simply wash over a listener if it was a more traditional and more anonymously sonorous voice. That edge gives Scott-Heron’s performances a potency and immediacy that make his words all the more powerful.

Whether it’s the inner-city realities of ‘Home Is Where The Hatred Is’, the optimistic impressionism of ‘I Think I’ll Call It Morning’, or the experimental nine-minute closing track ‘The Prisoner’, Scott-Heron found multiple avenues to communicate his messages. They weren’t all political either: his personal strife is laid bare on the album’s title song, where Scott-Heron details the loss of a man’s job and his subsequent deterioration through his child’s eyes. But the overwhelming power of ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ took over the narrative, not just of the album but of Scott-Heron’s entire artistry.

“Very few people heard ‘Save the Children’, ‘Lady Day and John Coltrane’ or ‘I Think I Call It Morning’,” Scott-Heron observed to the Houston Press in 1998. “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… Maybe people were intimidated by the things that we felt were normal to comment on because they were part of our lives: to ignore part of your life and not speak on it because it might intimidate somebody is not to be very mature.”

When he’s referenced today, Scott-Heron is often watered down to just his contributions that eventually formed into hip hop. But thankfully, that’s beginning to change. On his write up for his 2021 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, the terms “rap” or “hip hop” were not even mentioned. Instead, his commitments to spirituality and illuminating the rest of the world to the black experience frame his legacy. It will always be necessary to include the mark that Scott-Heron left on rap, but Gil Scott-Heron was much more than just ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’.

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