Sunday Book Review: The Revolutionary Life of Gil Scott-Heron

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Sunday Book Review is a recurring feature devoted to bridging the gap between music fans and music books. We aim to give you a taste of new and classic books that dive deep into the psyches of musicians.

In his June 11 New York Times interview, Kanye West declared himself to be “in the lineage of Gil Scott-Heron,” the lineage of “great activist-type artists.” Though the extent to which this statement is true is debatable, it clearly shows the profound impact Gil Scott-Heron had and continues to have on hip-hop. Many “pop” listeners were introduced to Scott-Heron through Drake’s 2011 track, “Take Care.” The track is a morass of musical references, with Drake sampling parts of “I’ll Take Care of U,” off Jamie xx’s full album remix of Scott-Heron’s album I'm New Here, and then using Rihanna to replace most of Scott-Heron’s vocals. In the larger context of Scott-Heron’s influence this jumble makes sense. Much of his work has seeped into contemporary music in ways that are not immediately apparent.

Though Scott-Heron dwelled in many genres, the spoken-word, jazzy style epitomized by one of his most enduring hits, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” is often cited as “proto-rap.” In spite of this, Scott-Heron never went on to make any records that could be truly labeled "hip-hop," though he is often referred to as the “Godfather of Rap.” In typically complicated fashion, this title was one that Scott-Heron disliked, as he considered rap "aimed towards kids.”

This speaks to the seriousness with which Scott-Heron took his work. He was a musician, writer, and professor, who maintained a commitment to revolutionary thinking throughout his entire life. Though he publicly struggled with legal troubles, drugs, and HIV during his later years, his final studio album, 2010's I’m New Here, was considered a triumph by many fans and critics. After his death in 2011, Grove Press released a memoir titled The Last Holiday, which Scott-Heron was working on at the time of his death. We’ve extracted 16 of the most thought-provoking aspects of this posthumous work.

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  • Steph

    This was awesome. Thank you,

  • Zach Bellas

    Great article! Well done.