In the documentary, Who Is Gil Scott-Heron?, his old friend from Johns Hopkins University, Dr Ron, opens proceedings by describing his old friend as follows: “If David slung a rock and hit Goliath in the centre of the head, which is how the Bible described it, and down he went. And then [David] went over and took up a sword that was bigger than he was and cut his head off. If you saw somebody do that, almost no matter what happens later you’d [be applauding]. [Gil Scott-Heron] was David to me!”
The official logline for the documentary encapsulates the impact he made pretty aptly: “Gil left behind a body of work that has influenced writers, academics and musicians. He’s been called ‘the godfather of rap’ and ‘the black Bob Dylan’, and his words have influenced every generation of hip-hop.”
He was the son of a former Jamaican international footballer, Gil Heron, who even spent a year at Celtic FC, becoming the first Black man to play for the club. His mother, Bobbie Scott, was an opera singer. With those genes combined, his iconoclastic stardom seemed predestined. However, it would seem that, although he obviously had a performative edge, his stage persona was merely a means to propagate his poetic and philosophical voice.
As Charlie Steen, from the band Shame, recently told us, “The words, rhythm and subject matter that Scott-Heron tackles and masters are what causes him to be an unstoppable force, an undoubted poet and a genius.” Gil Scott-Heron wasn’t just an artist concerning himself with the charts, or even pushing musical boundaries for that matter, he was determined to make a difference in the world, and he wasn’t willing to dilute or dumb down any of his ethos in order to do so. His music and poetry speak of direct action from an introspective point of view, hence quotes like, “Man is a complex being: he makes deserts bloom – and lakes die,” and his iconic revolution of the mind line, “The revolution will not be televised.”
Over the course of his career, he produced 17 studio albums while also teaching creative writing, producing poetry and novels, and influencing everything from the Civil Rights Movement to Environmentalism. He is truly one of music’s great forces for good. Let’s take a look at the tracks that define him.
Gil Scott-Heron’s six best songs:
‘Small Talk at 125th & Lenox’
When exploring the annals of musical history, it can be easy to forget just how revolutionary pieces of music like ‘Small Talk at 125th & Lenox’ must have been when they first came out. As his old pal, Dr Ron, said, Gil was not only knocking Goliath down, he was cutting off his head in style. We might have heard music like this since, but at the time, it was a relative Promethean feat.
Over the top of a fevered bongo beat, Scott-Heron reads a rhythmic poem that details life in Black neighbourhoods at the time. Lines like, “Who cares if LBJ is in town,” display his bold bravery when it came to calling out power, and poetic lines like, “Get high as you can on Saturday night / Go to church on Sunday to set things right,” show the wild intellect and insightfulness behind that bravery.
‘Whitey on the Moon’
“One small step for man, one giant leap mankind,” was a pretty difficult line to stomach for the millions needlessly suffering. To many, it seemed more like a sideways step for mankind in a ‘my cocks bigger than your cock battle’ between America and The USSR. This is the argument that Scott-Heron put forward in his famous song-poem ‘Whitey on the Moon’.
This iconic piece of work showed that he had a humanised approach to his work that allowed it to resonate with so many. Despite the poignant subject matter, there is a dark humour to this piece that illuminates the insanity of such vast societal disparities in the ongoing human comedy.
Rarely has a point been made so forcefully while artfully avoiding the full brutal bludgeon of the nose.
‘I Think I’ll Call It Morning’
“He always reduced himself down as just a piano player for Tenessee, just like it was no different from just being a carpenter from Jerusalem,” Joked the audio engineer regarding Lawson White.
Aside from encapsulating the humble spiritual reverence surrounding Scott-Heron, it also helps to elucidate that Gil was also concerned with the expression of music, not just a platform, but as a beautiful way to make a point and wonderful thing to spend time playing.
‘I Think I’ll Call It Morning’ makes that point perfectly clear. It is pure poetry, both in terms of melody and lyrics. Scott-Herring calls it the sort of morning where the coffee isn’t too bitter, and sunshine makes it all the sweeter. It’s an absolute gem of a tune.
‘Lady Day and John Coltrane’
Pieces of a Man is undoubtedly Gil Scott-Heron’s masterpiece. Thus it seems only right that a second track makes it into this beginner’s guide, for there is no better place to start.
In ‘Lady Day and John Coltrane’, Scott-Heron eulogises the healing power of music. In the process, he not only throws out two firm recommendations, but he also lays out a glowing, grooving balm to life’s grind himself.
Poetry and songwriting might seem similar, but they are two very different crafts; Scott-Heron proves he has as much of an eye for a chorus and chord change as he does for the written word.
‘Gun’ saw Scott-Heron transition into the glossy music style of the 1980s without losing any of his raw, visceral edge. The melody and musicology are smooth, but the point is still razor-sharp.
“The philosophy seems to be / At least as near as I can see / When other folks give up theirs, I’ll give up mine,” it’s a line that sadly still just as relevant 41 years later as it was upon release.
‘I’ll Take Care of U’
Gil Scott-Heron has always remained relevant. He never hung up his political boots after the fall of the 1970s and moved on. He always remained on the frontline, and that same ethos applied to his music.
In 2011 he teamed up with the English musician, DJ and record producer Jamie xx. Together the pair crafted Scott-Heron’s most modern piece. Following a period of personal and legal troubles with drug addiction, Scott-Heron recorded and released his first album of original material in sixteen years.
Thanks to the modernised guidance of Jamie xx, it turned out to be an acclaimed revival, propagating his vital voice over sparse and bass-driven dance beats. This final push at the end of a flowering career reaffirmed Scott-Heron as a seminal artistic force.