Gil Scott-Heron Biography
“There are 500 shades of the blues,” he told a club audience on ‘74’s Winter In America. “There’s the I-ain’t-got-me-no-money blues. There’s the I-ain’t-got-me-no-woman-blues. There’s the I-ain’t-got-me-no-money-and-I ain’t-got-me-no-woman-blues - which is the double blues.” Back then, the club crowd laughed and singer-poet went into a razor-sharp satire of Nixon’s rogue’s gallery. Now, thirty-six years later - after hip-hop’s total corporatisation of spoken-word, the nation’s rightward lurch, and his own troubled path through jails and addiction – Gil Scott-Heron could easily sing his own brand of blues: The I-can-out-rhyme-Kanye-West, I-can-out-write-Cormac-McCarthy, I’m-a-60-year-old, ex-con genius blues. And we might reasonably assume that I’m New Here, his first album in 13 years, will reflect the bitterest man on earth.
Ten seconds of the title track sets things straight. “I did not become someone different,” he declares with gnomic gravity. “That I did not want to be.” He speaks a few more lines over the nodding acoustic guitar of Pat Sullivan, from Oakley Hall, then, giving it the full weight of 60 hard years, gently the hopeful chorus: “No matter how wrong you gone/You can always turn around.”
It’s one of many highlights on an album that sees Gil Scott-Heron sounding as vital as ever; a record that reveals something unexpected at every turn; one that sees Scott-Heron pushing, probing and testing the boundaries just as he always has. Alongside his I’m New Here collaborator – producer and XL Recordings head Richard Russell – Scott-Heron has made an album that eschews the cosy arrangements and retrospective leanings one might expect from an artist over forty years into their career. Instead. I’m New Here sees Gil Scott-Heron still looking forward, still challenging conventions and expectations.
On much of I’m New Here, Scott-Heron reflects on his life and this moment with his trademark vocal power and insight, sharing his visions among Russell’s flickering, electronic soundscapes which at various times conjure up thoughts of Burial and The xx, as well as a host of hip-hop influenced sounds. Against the low, buzzing miasma of “Crutch,” Scott-Heron observes a sidewalk junkie from both inside the addict’s head and out: “His eyes half-closed reveal his world of nod/A world of lonely men and no love, no God…” Against the metallic pulse of “Running,” he narrates a cold-sweat, 3 a.m. epiphany: “Because it’s easier to run/Easier than staying and finding out you’re the only one/Who didn’t run.” And, on the blues holler of future single “New York City is Killing Me,” he manages to sound like a raw-throated blues singer from a ‘30’s field recording and an existential narrator trapped in some post-industrial wasteland. Occasionally the electronics are stripped right back – as they are on the beautiful, heartfelt “I’ll Take Care Of You” – or on “I’m New Here”, a cover of indie-band Smog, of all things, where Scott-Heron’s weathered baritone completely owns the lyrics, transforming them with the force of own history. At other times in stark contrast, they’re ramped right up – just listen to the crashing, hip-hop beat and primal vocal boom of “Me And The Devil”. Elsewhere, along with brief ruminations and tape-recorded insights, Scott-Heron sings over the airy, funk arrangements that recall his ‘70s work, given a modern day reboot by Russell. But through all of it runs the thoughtful, provocative and still rebellious voice of Gil Scott-Heron.
Long after bringing the ‘90s British rave scene into global fame with The Prodigy, XL head Richard Russell has become arguably the most groundbreaking independent force in the music industry, releasing records by everyone from The White Stripes, to M.I.A. to Devendra Banhart, Vampire Weekend, Dizzee Rascal and Radiohead. Connect those dots and you get a good sense of why Russell first made contact with Gil Scott-Heron In Rikers Islands Prison Facility in June 2006 with the proposal of making a new album together. Russell has been an occasional artist and producer throughout his time as a label head and the possibility of collaborating musically with a personal hero was too exciting to ignore. It would turn out be an ideal fit for Scott-Heron too, as an artist who has remained consistently relevant throughout his life and lately, almost too much so. He now looks out on an America much like the one he saw in the Nixon-Reagan eras, only with the volume cranked. The 2000 election victory was a cartoon of Reagan’s pseudo-populist triumph in 1980 (which then prompted Scott-Heron’s song “B Movie.”) The economic meltdown is a disaster-film ‘70s recession. Iraq is a crack-buzzed Vietnam. The revolution will be streamed.
But on I’m New Here, which was started in 2007 but mostly recorded in New York over the last twelve months, Scott-Heron speaks less as prophet of doom than as the empathic social portraitist of ‘70 songs like “Peace Go With You Brother,” or “Your Daddy Loves You.” On “I’m New Here,” or “On Coming From a Broken Home,” you hear the huge, banged-up heart that shows the only genuine motivation any activist or artist should have, a bone-deep, unsentimental love for humanity. “If I hadn’t been as eccentric as obnoxious as arrogant as aggressive as disrespectful as selfish, I wouldn’t be me,” he says, on one brief interlude. “I wouldn’t be who I am.”
And who is exactly is that? Is Gil Scott-Heron - as they’ve said about everyone from the Last Poets to Lou Reed - the founding father of rap? Not at all. Just the smart rap. Just the soulful, socially aware, verbally dexterous style of artists like Public Enemy, Mos Def, and Kanye West, who, born in 1977 and raised by an English prof mom, probably heard Gil Scott-Heron before he heard the Sugar Hill Gang and later, like countless other rappers, sampled him. (Scott-Heron returns the favor by borrowing some from West’s “Flashing Lights” for the misty backdrop to “On Coming From a Broken Home.”) But this songwriter is also well represented in the sharp, honest songwriters in today’s indie- and folk-rock margins and there’s the slightly ominous possibility, hinted at in the second chorus of “I’m New Here,” that Gil Scott-Heron now, after a 40-year-career, may be hipper than any of them: “Turn around, turn around, turn around,” he gently sings. “You may come full circle/And be new here/Again.”
Gil Scott-Heron Bio from Discogs
Born: April 1, 1949 (Chicago, IL, USA)
Died: May 27, 2011 (New York, NY, USA)
American poet, musician, and author known primarily for his late 1960s and early 1970s work as a spoken word soul performer and his collaborative work with musician Brian Jackson. His collaborative efforts with Jackson featured a musical fusion of jazz, blues and soul music, as well as lyrical content concerning social and political issues of the time, delivered in both rapping and melismatic vocal styles by Scott-Heron. The music of these albums, most notably Pieces of a Man and Winter in America in the early 1970s, influenced and helped engender later African-American music genres such as hip hop and neo soul. Scott-Heron’s recording work is often associated with black militant activism and has received much critical acclaim for one of his most well-known compositions “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. On his influence, Allmusic wrote “Scott-Heron’s unique proto-rap style influenced a generation of hip-hop artists”.