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‘Godfather of hip-hop’ Gil Scott-Heron played by his own rules

In life Gil Scott-Heron played by his own rules but in death his influence is heralded by the music establishment. Jazz FM DJ Anne Frankenstein salutes the artist as he is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Singer, author and poet Gil Scott-Heron is set to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame this weekend as a posthumous recipient of an Early Influence Award alongside Kraftwerk and Charley Patton.

Electronic music wouldn’t be the sprawling powerhouse it is today without Kraftwerk’s influence, and hip-hop owes an equivalent debt to Scott-Heron.

He was rapping truth to power since 1970 when his debut album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, opened with the now-celebrated The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a track which, despite containing dozens of cultural references specific to the era, somehow seems more and more eerily prescient as time presses on.

Being included with Patton on this year’s honours list feels perhaps even more apt – Patton was the blues musician’s blues musician, credited by artists like Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf as the man who lit the torch paper of their own musical ambition.

Scott-Heron liked to refer to himself as a ‘bluesologist’ – in his words “a scientist who is concerned with the origin of the blues”.

He treated the credit he got for influencing the hip-hop movement with ambivalence and occasionally irritation, even after its commercial and critical appeal blew up in the Eighties and Nineties, asserting his lack of interest when asked and insisting he still preferred to listen to jazz and blues.

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Despite his contrary opinion, Scott-Heron’s influence on hip-hop is undeniable.

Titans of the genre, from A Tribe Called Quest to Chuck D to Kanye West, have cited his impact. His music has been sampled in more than 400 commercial tracks. Boogie Down Productions’ 1989 release Why Is That? begins with a snippet of Scott-Heron’s H2O Gate Blues, a drum-tight Nixon take-down which returns to the rhetorical “just how blind will America be?”, before getting frank about Vietnam, Russia, Cambodia, nuclear war and the Watergate scandal.

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I first discovered the track through that sample, and I got an eight-minute history lesson which resonated more than any schoolbook. That led me to one of Scott-Heron’s most acclaimed albums, Winter In America, written with his long-term collaborator, producer and accompanist Brian Jackson.

The album is a bleak, brilliant, sharply focused take on what the pair saw happening all around them politically and socially in the 1970s.

Scott-Heron dismissed the ‘Godfather of Hip-Hop’ title because the bluster and posturing in most of the hip-hop lyrics he heard left him unmoved and unimpressed.

He didn’t recognise his music in it. He valued music as a means to bring specific attention to things he cared about, things he could use his wit and charisma to make other people care about too, to unify and empower people, to break through their apathy and encourage them to demand something better, for their community and for themselves.

In 1985 Scott-Heron played a gig at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre. A young kid called Malik Al Nasir, recently made homeless after his care order came to an end, had snuck in with a friend and was awed by what he saw.

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He approached Scott-Heron outside afterwards to shake his hand, and the singer asked him pointedly about the Toxteth riots which had buffeted the city a few years earlier.

Al Nasir gave him a tour of the area and a running commentary of exactly what had happened during the nine-day stand-off between police and Liverpool’s black community.

The pair connected deeply; Scott-Heron invited Al Nasir on tour, mentored him and took him under his wing as an honorary son. On discovering that Al Nasir had never learned to read, Scott-Heron, a former English teacher, encouraged him towards literacy and education.

Al Nasir began writing poetry, subsequently entering academia and becoming a musician, filmmaker and writer.

In his latest book, Letters To Gil, written about their enduring friendship, he credits Scott-Heron with saving his life.

Its release is a timely counterpoint to the Hall Of Fame induction and is perhaps a better reflection of the kind of early influence Scott-Heron really cared about.

Despite the credit he received from the industry, Scott-Heron was dropped by his record label, eventually becoming addicted to crack cocaine and spending several stints in prison.

In 2010, the year before he died, he released his final album – the highly acclaimed I’m New Here, created with the UK producer Richard Russell. The tracks are short, sparse and full of self-reflection, broken up by monologues in Scott-Heron’s gruff voice, including the perfect line in lieu of an acceptance speech: “If I hadn’t been as eccentric, as obnoxious, as arrogant, as aggressive, as introspective, as selfish, I wouldn’t be me.”

Anne Frankenstein is a broadcaster on Jazz FM
@DJAFrankenstein

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