Somewhere along the line of a rich oral tradition that stretches back to the griots of West Africa, through the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance and right up to the contemporary output of artists such as Kendrick Lamar, there is a thin, wiry, humorous, deeply empathetic, passionate, humane, damaged and eloquent force of nature called Gil Scott-Heron.
I first encountered his music and poetry on the dancefloors of London as a teenager in the ’90s. Songs like ‘The Bottle’ and ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ would become links between the strains of music – deep funk, jazz, soul, hip hop and rock ’n’ roll – that I fell in love with over the years to come. This Sunday, I will find myself reinterpreting the music of Gil Scott-Heron at the Roundhouse with a cast of very special contemporary artists including Jamie Woon, Anna Calvi, Joan As Police Woman, Gwilym Gold, Kwabs, Floating Points and Loyle Carner.
Whether or not you agree with the definitions of him as the ‘black Dylan’ or ‘the godfather of rap’, it’s hard to imagine artists like Public Enemy, Ice Cube or D’Angelo finding a voice without the template that Scott-Heron had set before them. His impact on the architecture of modern music may not often be celebrated, but it is incontestable. Through his expression with long time collaborator Brian Jackson and a host of incredible musicians (including Bernard ‘The Hitmaker’ Purdie, Ron Carter, Hubert Laws, Harvey Mason… you get the picture) he was able to give voice to the burning concerns of the time. In doing so he reached a worldwide audience – right down to that teenager on a dancefloor in Brixton.
Previously: Why I love David Bowie’s ‘Low’