Monday, 22 August 2011

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised - The enduring legacy of Gil Scott-Heron

THE last straw for Ryan Tubridy's twitter account came when a barrage of abuse followed an obscure reference to popular culture he made in relation to the London riots. "Watching rioters dousing a car with petrol before the match is struck. Awful scenes. The revolution is being televised", he tweeted.

What the brave twitter etiquette warriors who criticised Tubridy for this didn't realise, is that the Late Late Show host was subtly touching on the work of a hugely influential yet unsung poet, singer, spoken word pioneer, novelist and musician. The late great Gil Scott-Heron died in May of this year and left a legacy that will endure for generations. Scott-Heron is to American hip hop what Jack Kerouac is to American literature. A thinker, an innovator and someone who left his stamp both artistically and commercially.

The son of Jamaican footballer, Bobbie Scott-Heron (the first black player to line out for Glasgow Celtic FC), Gil was raised in Chicago but later moved to New York.

 He released his first album, 'Small Talk at 125th and Lenox' in 1970 and it featured two of his most controversial tracks, the miscellany of popular culture references 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' and a dig at the US space programme 'Whitey On the Moon'.

The album was a critical triumph with music writers commenting on Scott-Heron's unique spoken word style, interspersed with Jazz chords and socially aware lyrics. His second long player, 'Pieces of a Man' added the influence of flautist and keyboard player Brian Jackson who was to work with Scott-Heron on many projects. The album included some of Scott-Heron's best known and most beautiful compositions. 'Lady Day and John Coltrane' is the sound of black America in the seventies, 'Pieces of a Man' is an introspective classic and 'I Think I'll Call it Morning' showed he could write pop music to please radio audiences.

The Illinois natives most important and enduring work came on his 1973  'Winter in America' album and the composition, 'The Bottle' a frank statement on alcoholism among black males in ghettoised America. Although the album was missed by the music press at the time it later received much critical acclaim and like much of his work, was cited by many modern artists as an influence. He continued to record until 2010 when he released his final album, 'I'm New Here'. Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan and Talib Kweli have all acknowledged a debt to Gil Scott-Heron. Without him the modern hip hop landscape would be much less interesting. I could go on but instead, I think I'll call it morning.

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