The news of the death of an icon is always sad, and it was particularly so with the passing of musical pioneer, visionary poet (and personal hero of mine) Gil Scott-Heron. Scott-Heron died in a Manhattan hospital May 27th at the age of 62. The cause of death was not immediately clear, but the musician’s tragic struggles with drug and alcohol addiction had been widely chronicled.
In obituaries in The New York Times, Guardian and Rolling Stone, among many others, a portrait of a troubled and often misunderstood genius appeared. Scott-Heron had been called the “godfather of rap” for his pioneering combination of spoken word poetry and danceable funk loops on songs like “The Bottle” and his searing, sardonic — and catchy — indictments of modern society in his biggest hit, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” This was not a title he embraced, however, preferring to regard himself as someone more akin to John Coltrane than Tupac. “[Rap is] something that’s aimed at the kids,” the Times’ writer quoted Scott-Heron as remarking. “I have kids, so I listen to it. But I would not say it’s aimed at me. I listen to the jazz station.”
Scott-Heron’s aforementioned battle with addiction was reported in detail in Alec Wilkinson’s 2010 New Yorker profile, “New York is Killing Me” (a title taken from one of Scott-Heron’s songs), which coincided with the release of his final album, “I’m New Here.” That work was more introspective than most of his previous recordings, dwelling on his upbringing, his failed relationships and his lessons learned. Beyond that, it was also some of his best work.
Scott-Heron’s departure will certainly leave a void, but his body of work remains and will remain unparallelled in any genre.