Gil Scott-Heron: Back to the streets

Hip-hop's godfather returns to the scene of the rhyme

Reality is not a TV show. It's live and in your face. That message was brought to bear by Gil Scott-Heron nearly four decades ago when he set street poetry to music with "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." Poet, activist, pianist, composer and singer Scott-Heron stirred up the citizenry with lyrics like, "Black people will be in the streets looking for a brighter day."

At 59, Scott-Heron is a bit more mellow than he was in those days, but still has not retreated from the political dissension he voiced on "Revolution." He seems dismayed, however, that people remember him mostly for that piece and not for his whole body of work as a musician and composer. "People thought of us as if we were loudmouth muckrakers when all we were doing was trying to send some facts out," he said recently from his home in New York City.

In recent years, most of the facts surrounding Scott-Heron have overshadowed his musical legacy. From '01-'03, he served prison time for cocaine possession, and was incarcerated again from July '06 to May '07 for a parole violation.

But in recent months, he's busied himself with work on a new album, a book and a return to performing. Though Scott-Heron hasn't welcomed much conversation in recent interviews regarding his alleged bout with addiction, many of the rappers he has inspired over the years have taken heed.

"You hear that/what Gil Scott was hearin'/when our heroes and heroines got hooked on heroin."

When Kanye West raps that line in the song "Crack Music," from his sophomore album Late Registration, he links Scott-Heron to a host of activists – such as Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton – whose drug-related demise is attributed to a conspiratorial government that used tactics like COINTELPRO, drug trafficking and unfair sentencing guidelines to counter the "Revolution" Scott-Heron foretold.

Widely considered the godfather of rap, Scott-Heron's marriage of spoken word and music laid the groundwork for hip-hop. But as he revealed on his 1994 album, Spirits, he wasn't altogether pleased by what his legacy had wrought. "Four letter words or four syllable words won't make you a poet/It'll only magnify how shallow you are and let everybody know it," he relayed on "Message to the Messenger."

"I was a musician first," Scott-Heron says. Yet he still expresses admiration for rappers such as West and Common, whose work he says he likes, as well as Mos Def and Chuck D, whom he considers friends.

Scott-Heron introduced street poetry as a means to get his message across to the mainstream population. "Poetry used to be an elitist form of art," he says. "We were trying to relate to people who had had the experiences we had on the streets, trying to say things about the experiences they had, so people would understand we were talking to them." His elegant blend of funk-tinged jazz and street poetry is also heard in the current crop of soul and R&B singers.

Today, Scott-Heron works on a new album featuring most of the musicians who appeared on Spirits. It will include some new arrangements of his old material and a few covers. Meanwhile, he's wrapping up his long-delayed behind-the-scenes book, The Last Holiday, about backing Stevie Wonder on the 1980 tour campaign to have the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday established as a national holiday. "If it hadn't been for Stevie, a lot of people who were sent invitations would not have come," Scott-Heron says. "His appeal was so broad, it was something that the whole community could understand."

He's still reaching out to that same audience, and his political attitude hasn't changed much over the years. "Until you change directions, it doesn't make any difference who is at the front," he says. "The problem with what's going on in America is not who's leading it, it's that we're going in the same direction that we were going in when we started in the wrong way."

So how about a ticket with Gil Scott-Heron for president to straighten things out?

When asked if he would ever considering running for office, he responds with a laugh: "No, man," he says. "I'm too busy running for my life."