Gil Scott-Heron, the influential American poet and musician who greatly contributed to the formation of rap music, has passed away on Friday, aged 62. While soul and funk musicians such as James Brown and George Clinton are often credited with having the greatest influence on the music in hip-hop, there’s no doubt that one of the greatest influencers on the art of rap – its poetry, ideas, politics and flow, is Gil Scott-Heron.
Scott-Heron was born in Chicago and grew up in Jackson, Tennessee before moving to the Bronx and eventually settling in Manhattan in the late 1960′s. After writing two novels, he focused on performing and recording spoken word. His debut album, 1970′s Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, is a powerful example of his raw oratory style: hard-hitting, politically charged spoken word fired to a minimal backdrop of congas and percussion. His most widely known work is The Revolution will not be Televised, initially released on his debut album and later re-recorded for the album Pieces of a Man released in 1971. The track is a powerful political call-to-arms and has been referenced, sampled and covered numerous times, for example on Common‘s single The 6th Sense.
During the 1970′s, while collaborating with musical partner Brian Jackson, his style evolved to include singing as well as spoken word, to a backdrop of incredibly soulful, funky rhythms. The influence of the landmark albums released during that period is immense, and naturally they were sampled in many hip-hop tracks. Notable examples include:
- Home Is Where the Hatred Is sampled by Kanye West on My Way Home off 2005 album Late Registration
- The Bottle, a song about alcoholism that was sampled and covered by a diverse range of artists including Paul Weller
- We Almost Lost Detroit, a downtempo gem notably sampled by Air, Black Star, MF Doom and Common
- Angel Dust, an incredible track describing drug addiction, notably sampled on The Game‘s Angel off 2008′s LAX
Unfortunately Scott-Heron spent much of the last 20 years dealing with drug addiction. After a 16 year hiatus, Scott-Heron’s career enjoyed a revival in 2010. He released a new album, I’m New Here, on XL Recordings – a well-received album that matched his deep voice with downtempo electronica. The album included the single Me and the Devil, a mesmerising cover of Robert Johnson‘s 1938 blues classic. And in that year, he was probably sampled in the most prominent way yet: the entire ending of Kanye West‘s latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, comprised of the tracks Lost in the World and Who Will Survive in America, feature lengthy samples of Comment #1 off Scott-Heron’s debut album, exposing a new generation of listeners to his timeless words.
Whilst he was sampled and covered by many, Gil Scott-Heron’s influence stretches far beyond just that. His message and style can be widely recognized in the voices of many of today’s conscious rappers. Scott-Heron is sadly no longer with us, but his legacy lives on.