Poet, author, proto-rapper, and political soul/jazz singer-songwriter Gil Scott-Heron died Friday, May 27, aged 62. The cause of death has not been confirmed, but the BBC has reported that he had fallen ill after a visit to Europe.
The Chicago-born artist attended Lincoln University because Langston Hughes did. He wrote two novels (The Vulture and The Nigger Factory), before banding with such notables as Brian Jackson and Ron Carter in the New York City scene in the 1970s to record such acclaimed albums as Pieces of a Man and Winter in America. The latter spawned "The Bottle," a surprise dance hit that took his improbable mélange of spoken poetry, jazz flute, disco backbeat, and bluesy subject matter to #15 on the R&B singles chart. But unlike most jazz-fusion or left-field disco peers, and closer to Tom Waits or Laurie Anderson's journeyman status, Scott-Heron continued evolving through the 1980s and forward, partly because his commercially viable spoken grooves predated hip-hop, which went on to become a dominant pop songform. 1983's "Re-Ron" was a jarring Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash-style electro-rap protesting Anybody But Reagan ("Hell, we'd take Michael Jackson!") and last year's I'm New Here, his first album in 16 years, was an eerie Tricky-style soundscape that warranted an entire 2011 makeover remix in collaboration with Jamie xx of the xx.
Scott-Heron's immeasurable influence on generations of rap after his thriving mid-'70s musical run can be summed up in one well-repeated phrase: "The revolution will not be televised." Almost certainly the only R&B tune to mention Bullwinkle (and "Jackie Onassis blowing her nose"), the 1970 song antedated Public Enemy and De La Soul, among countless others (one more recent referent was Jay Electronica's "Exhibit C"). "Revolution" was the B-side, meanwhile, to "Home Is Where the Hatred Is," which almost comprises the entire musical backbone of Kanye West's "My Way Home," from Late Registration. West also chose an entire unadorned minute of Scott-Heron performing "Comment No. #1" (now forever to be known as "Who Will Survive in America?") to end last year's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Scott-Heron's own critically acclaimed 2010 comeback returned the favor by opening with a sample of West's own "Flashing Lights" beneath the poem "On Coming from a Broken Home." He had a great voice, and his music is as influential and vital as ever, and his hunger for political necessity that didn't distract from a great groove is not likely to be paralleled any time soon.