A legend's rough road
Drugs and prison sidelined Gil Scott-Heron, whom many credit with inventing rap. Now he’s back with his first album in 16 years.
His name isn’t as well-known as it once was, but you can still hear Gil Scott-Heron’s music everywhere — in the smooth rhymes of Kanye West, the jazzy rap of Mos Def, and the politically conscious lyrics of Common. He’s been called the Godfather of Rap, the inventor of hip-hop. And during his heyday in the 1970s and ’80s, when he performed on SNL and played in front of live audiences 200,000 strong, he was considered the Bob Dylan of the inner city, writing indelible songs about racism, substance abuse, and poverty, all sung in his signature silky-smooth baritone. By all rights, the 60-year-old father of three should be growing fat off royalty checks and getting props from a generation of musicians who followed the path he blazed. But that’s not how things worked out.
On a chilly winter afternoon, Scott-Heron answers the door of his East Harlem apartment wearing a corduroy blazer, loose black jeans, and a frisky grin. Inside, his dark, cramped home is cluttered with notebooks and sheets of paper full of scribbled poetry. He takes a seat on a ratty sofa pockmarked with cigarette burns. He’s reed-thin and full of a nervous energy that makes him stutter — especially when the subject of his comeback pops up.
”Comeback from what?” he says, uncorking a pack-a-day laugh. ”I haven’t been anywhere.” He stops and smiles. ”Well, I guess that’s not exactly true. I mean, I was in jail. But even then, I…I…I never stopped writing. They can put you in jail, but they can’t keep you from thinking, right?”
On the floor is a stack of CDs — copies of I’m New Here, his first album in 16 years (out Feb. 9). ”I’d like young people to hear my music,” he says. ”I mean, I’m not even a household name in my own house.” Reminded that he’s known as the Godfather of Rap, he waves his hand, dismissing the title. ”That’s someone else talking. I never said that. But if it is intended as a term of honor, then I accept it.”
Unlike the swaggering artists who came after him, Scott-Heron always let his music speak for him. He was a 21-year-old poet working on a master’s degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins when he recorded the spoken-word album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox in 1970. It featured an incendiary proto-rap song called ”The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and that title soon grew into a call-to-arms catchphrase. Overnight, he was a hipster prophet — an unignorable voice from the ghetto.
But by the early ’90s, Scott-Heron’s funky political message seemed less urgent. His tours got smaller, then stopped altogether, foreshadowing darker revelations to come. In 2001, after years out of sight, Scott-Heron was in the news again — for all the wrong reasons. ”I got caught with $20 worth of cocaine,” he says, although he denies that he’s ever had a serious drug problem. ” $20 worth of s— That’s not much of an addict! It was not something I had to have. I was just getting ready to have a good time.”
Scott-Heron pleaded guilty to the possession charge and served eight months in jail. Then, in 2006, he was sent back to jail for 10 more months after violating the terms of his plea bargain by leaving a mandatory drug-treatment program. Between his two prison stretches, Scott-Heron received a call from an ex, who informed him she was HIV-positive. She told him to get tested and see if he was too. He did, and he was. Since then, he’s taken several more tests. Sometimes they’re positive, sometimes negative. ”If I have it, I know how I got it,” he says. ”And if I don’t have it, I don’t know how I didn’t get it.”
It was during his second jail term that Scott-Heron got a visit from Richard Russell, a longtime fan who owns the super-hip label XL (Vampire Weekend, Radiohead). Russell proposed the two record together when he got out. ”When I met with him in jail, I was struck by how upbeat he was,” says Russell, who ended up producing the new album. ”He was just like, ‘No one wants to hang out with people who complain.”’
For anyone who grew up listening to Scott-Heron, I’m New Here feels like a letter from a long-lost friend. His voice is rawer, but the poetry in the lyrics is as soulful as ever. Whether there’s still an audience for his music is as much of a mystery as his whereabouts once were. But you get the sense that he’s been through too much to waste time on notions of second acts. ”I guess I’m more ‘heard of’ than ‘heard’ these days,” he says. ”But that’s cool. I don’t have a bone to pick. I’ve been blessed. For real.”