One of the most important progenitors of rap music, Gil Scott-Heron's aggressive, no-nonsense street poetry is equal parts politically conscious activism, cultural awareness, polemic, and social commentary, inspired a legion of intelligent rappers. His engaging songwriting skills — often with longtime musical partner Brian Jackson — placed him on the jazz charts, and later in his career, the R&B charts as well. Early recordings, such as 1971's Pieces of a Man and 1975's Winter in America, showcased his spoken word poetry and commentary, and more conventional songwriting chops that scored him a deal with the then-fledgling Arista Records run by Clive Davis. With Jackson and the Midnight Band, Heron delivered seminal jazz-funk outings including 1975's First Minute of a New Day, It's Your World (1976) and Bridges (1977), all of which placed in the upper half of the Top 200; in all, between 1974 and 1980, they placed nine albums on that chart. The group also delivered a par of R&B radio singles in "Angel Dust" and "Shut 'Em Down." That group split in 1980 and Scott-Heron formed the Amnesia Express, which functioned as both his live and studio outfit. He continued releasing albums for Arista until 1982 and Moving Target. After a dozen years of recording inactivity, personal problems, and only occasionally playing live, Scott-Heron returned to the studio in 1994 and issued Spirits. After another 15 years, he signed with Richard Russell's XL Recordings and delivered the acclaimed I'm New Here in 2010. A remixed version in collaboration with Jamie xx titled We're New Here, was issued in 2011, just a month before Scott-Heron's passing.
Born in Chicago but transplanted to Tennessee in his early years, Scott-Heron spent most of his high school years in the Bronx, where he learned firsthand many of the experiences that later made up his songwriting material. He had begun writing before reaching his teenage years, however, and completed his first volume of poetry at the age of 13. Though he attended college in Pennsylvania, he dropped out after one year to concentrate on his writing career and earned plaudits for his novel The Vulture.
Encouraged at the end of the '60s to begin recording by legendary jazz producer Bob Thiele — who had worked with every major jazz great from Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane — Scott-Heron released his 1970 debut, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, inspired by a volume of poetry of the same name. After recording for Thiele's Flying Dutchman Records until the mid-'70s, he signed to Arista soon after and found success on the R&B charts. Though his jazz-based work of the early '70s was tempered by a slicker disco-inspired production, Scott-Heron's message was as clear as ever on the Top 30 single "Johannesburg" and the number 15 hit "Angel Dust." Silent for almost a decade, the proto-rapper returned to recording with the release of his 1984 single "Re-Ron" in the mid-'90s, with a message for the gangsta rappers who had come in his wake; Scott-Heron's 1994 album Spirits began with "Message to the Messengers," pointed squarely at the rappers whose influence — positive or negative — meant much to the kids in the '90s.
In a touching bit of irony that he himself was quick to joke about, Gil Scott-Heron was born on April Fool's Day 1949 in Chicago, the son of a Jamaican professional soccer player (who spent time playing for Glasgow Celtic) and a college-graduate mother who worked as a librarian. His parents divorced early in his life, and Scott-Heron was sent to live with his grandmother in Lincoln, Tennessee. Learning musical and literary instruction from her, Scott-Heron also learned about prejudice firsthand: he was one of three children picked to integrate an elementary school in nearby Jackson. The abuse proved too much to bear, however, and the eighth grader was sent to New York to live with his mother, first in the Bronx and later in the Hispanic neighborhood of Chelsea.
Though Scott-Heron's experiences in Tennessee must have been difficult, they proved to be the seed of his writing career, as his first volume of poetry was written around that time. His education in the New York City school system also proved beneficial, introducing the youth to the work of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes and LeRoi Jones. After publishing a novel called The Vulture in 1968, Scott-Heron applied to Pennsylvania's Lincoln University. Though he spent less than one year there, it was enough time to meet Brian Jackson, a similarly minded musician who would later become a crucial collaborator and integral part of Scott-Heron's band. Given a bit of exposure — mostly in magazines like Essence, which called The Vulture "a strong start for a writer with important things to say" — Scott-Heron met up with Bob Thiele and was encouraged to begin a music career, reading selections from his book of poetry Small Talk at 125th & Lennox while Thiele recorded a collective of jazz and funk musicians, including bassist Ron Carter, drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, Hubert Laws on flute and alto saxophone, and percussionists Eddie Knowles and Charlie Saunders; Scott-Heron also recruited Jackson to play on the record as pianist. Small Talk's most important track was "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," an aggressive polemic against the major media and white America's ignorance of increasingly deteriorating conditions in the inner cities. Scott-Heron's second LP, 1971's Pieces of a Man, expanded his range, featuring songs such as the title track and "Lady Day and John Coltrane," which offered a more straight-ahead approach to song structure (if not content).
The following year's Free Will was his last album for Flying Dutchman, however; after a dispute with the label, Scott-Heron recorded Winter in America for Strata East, then moved to Arista in 1975. As the first artist signed to Clive Davis' new label, much was riding on Scott-Heron to deliver first-rate material with a chance at the charts. Thanks to a more focused push, Scott-Heron's "Johannesburg" reached number 29 on the R&B charts in 1975. Important to Scott-Heron's success on his first two albums for Arista (First Minute of a New Day and From South Africa to South Carolina) was the influence of keyboardist and collaborator Jackson, co-billed on both LPs and the de facto leader of Scott-Heron's Midnight Band.
Jackson, however, had left by 1978, leaving the musical direction of Scott-Heron's career in the capable hands of producer Malcolm Cecil, a veteran who had midwifed the funkier direction of the Isley Brothers and Stevie Wonder earlier in the decade. The first single recorded with Cecil, "The Bottle," became Scott-Heron's biggest hit yet, peaking at number 15 on the R&B charts, though he still made no waves on the pop charts. Producer Nile Rodgers of Chic also helped on production during the '80s, when Scott-Heron's political attack grew even more fervent with a new target, President Ronald Reagan. (Several singles, including the R&B hits "B Movie" and "Re-Ron," were specifically directed at the President's conservative policies.) By 1985, however, Scott-Heron had been dropped by Arista, just after the release of The Best of Gil Scott-Heron. Though he continued to tour around the world, Scott-Heron chose to discontinue recording. He did return in 1993, though, with a contract for TVT Records and the album Spirits. For well over a decade, Scott-Heron was mostly inactive, held back by a series of drug possession charges. He began performing semi-regularly in 2007, and one year later, announced that he was HIV-positive. In 2005, Scott-Heron returned to the studio. He met XL Recordings label boss Richard Russell in 2007 and signed to the label. They continued working together until early 2011, when the acclaimed I'm New Here was released. In February of 2011, Scott-Heron and Jamie xx issued a remixed version of the album, entitled We're New Here. Later that year, Scott-Heron died in a New York hospital, just after returning from a set of live dates in Europe.
On February 7 of 2020, XL celebrated the tenth anniversary of I'm New Here (to the day) with a limited-edition, expanded version. In addition to the original album, the anniversary edition included a pair of unreleased tracks: a cover of Richie Havens' "Handsome Johnny" and the previously unheard Scott-Heron song "King Henry IV." Also included in the multi-disc package was a selection of other recordings from the original sessions previously available on a vinyl-only deluxe version. On the same day, XL Recordings also issued Makaya McCraven's We're New Again: A Reimagining. Titled after the Jamie xx remix set, the celebrated Chicago drummer, conceptualist, and composer offered his own interpretation of Scott-Heron's final album. ~ John Bush