Revolutionary poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron, best known for his 1970 work “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” died May 27th at a New York City hospital. The exact cause of death is currently unknown, though he had been battling a severe drug addiction and other health problems for years. He was 62.
Many hip-hop artists cite Scott-Heron as one of the forefathers of the genre, but Scott-Heron refused to take any credit. “I just think they made a mistake,” he told The New Yorker last year. He also feels that people misinterpreted “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” – a biting, spoken-work screed against the mass media and consumerist culture. “That was satire,” he told The Telegraph in February of 2010. “People would try and argue that it was this militant message, but just how militant can you really be when you’re saying, ‘The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner’? My songs were always about the tone of voice rather than the words. A good comic will deliver a line deadpan – they let the audience laugh.”
Scott-Heron was born in Chicago, but he moved to New York City as a teenager and received a scholarship to the prestigious Fieldston School in the Bronx after his teachers took note of his writing. Before he was even 20, Scott-Heron published a murder mystery novel called The Vulture. At Lincoln University he met his future musical partner Brian Jackson. In 1970 they released Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, which included a stripped-down version of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
The work failed to reach a mass audience, but was widely praised for its vivid depiction of urban decay and racism in American culture. Clive Davis signed Scott-Heron to Arista in 1974 and began releasing his records at a frantic piece, averaging more than one a year between 1970 and 1982. In 1979 he performed alongside Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne and many others at the MUSE benefits at Madison Square Garden, and in 1985 he sang the protest anthem “Sun City” with Bob Dylan, Steve Van Zandt, RUN DMC, Lou Reed and Miles Davis.
In the mid-1980s he was dropped by Arista as drugs started to take over his life. He continued to perform, but only released a single record between 1982 and 2010. Many hip-hop artists sampled Scott-Heron’s work in recent years, though he didn’t consider that an achievement. “I don’t want to tell you how embarrassing that can be,” he told the New Yorker last year. “Long as it don’t talk about ‘yo mama’ and stuff, I usually let it go. It’s not all bad when you get sampled—hell, you make money. They give you some money to shut you up. I guess to shut you up they should have left you alone.”
In that same piece, writer Alec Wilkinson found Scott-Heron living in a cave-like Harlem apartment. He openly smoked crack in front of the writer, and occasionally fell asleep in the middle of an interview. Despite his severe addictions, Scott-Heron still performed and occasionally recorded new music. In 2010 he teamed up with producer Richard Russell for the blues and spoken-work LP I’m New Here. He had just returned from a European tour when he fell ill and checked into New York’s St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center.
Tributes have been pouring onto Twitter ever since news of Scott-Heron’s death hit Friday night. “RIP Gil Scott-Heron,” Eminem tweeted. “He influenced all of hip-hop.” Public Enemy’s Chuck D, who has long pointed to Scott-Heron as one his biggest influences, wrote this: “RIP GSH..and we do what we do and how we do because of you. And to those that don’t know tip your hat with a hand over your heart & recognize.”