"The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
the revolution will be live."
--Gil Scott-Heron, "The Revolution Will Not be Televised"
Godfather of rap. Poet. Activist. Bluesologist. Jazz musician. Throughout his life, Gil-Scott Heron uneasily inhabited, but did not quite define, these labels. Instead, he transcended simple categories, forging his own identity and remaining committed to his beliefs and unique sound. Until his untimely death on May 27, 2011, Scott-Heron both inspired and challenged listeners with his brutally truthful words and heart-wrenching honesty about his struggles with alcohol and drugs.
Born April 1,1949 in Chicago, he began his journey as a teenager in New York, eventually attending Lincoln University in Pennsylvania (alma mater of Langston Hughes, who greatly influenced Scott-Heron's work). After two years, he left to pen two novels, The Vulture and The Nigger Factory. However, he learned that he could make an even bigger impact with his other great love: music. Along with college friend, musician Brian Jackson, they composed pieces that reflected the civil rights movement, but incorporated poetry, jazz, and blues. Their first album, 1970's Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (also featuring Eddie Knowles and Charlie Saunders on congas and David Barnes on percussion and vocals), warned listeners not to be seduced by mass media.
The album's most famous track, "The Revolution Will Not be Televised," urges people not to "plug in, turn on, and cop out"; staying home, becoming anesthetized through relentless commercials, mind-numbing sitcoms, and negative African-American stereotypes, is no longer an option. "The revolution," Scott-Heron concludes, "will put you in the driver's seat." Accompanied by a relentless conga beat, Scott-Heron's passionate reading still resonates, and the subject still applies today, despite some dated references. A full band version, featuring bassist Ron Carter, surfaced on Scott-Heron's second album, Pieces of A Man. While not as stripped-down as the original, the fierce beat (emphasized by Carter's throbbing, rhythmic playing) and sizzling flute punctuate Scott-Heron's anger and fire.
While he may be best known as a spoken word artist, Scott-Heron also possessed a voice that, while not perfect, still conveyed emotion and soul. In Alec Wilkinson's excellent profile of the artist, published last year in the New Yorker, he quoted Carter's assessment: “He wasn’t a great singer, but, with that voice, if he had whispered it would have been dynamic. It was a voice like you would have for Shakespeare.” After another album, 1972's Free Will, Scott-Heron embarked on one of his best Jackson collaborations, 1974's Winter in America. While the album sold well in jazz circles, the disc did not generate mainstream buzz until club DJs began spinning "The Bottle," a funky track that called listeners to the dance floor.