Despite his passing away last May, Gil Scott-Heron published his memoir The Last Holiday earlier this month. The Last Holiday is a great read if you’re interested in Gil Scott-Heron’s life; it’s a great way to see the inner workings of his mind and opinions. In the book, he comes off as a completely unpretentious person, so much so that it almost seems like he doesn’t necessarily recognize his own import and influence on the younger generation.
If you’re not familiar with Gil Scott-Heron, you should be. If you have ever cared about hip-hop, Scott-Heron matters to you. His first album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, released in 1970, consists of spoken word poetry against percussion and keyboard grooves, clearly anticipating the development of hip-hop. His second album, Pieces of a Man, features a more diverse sound, involving both the spoken poetry with beats (on tracks like “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” and “Whitey on the Moon”) and some more traditionally sung songs (like “Pieces of a Man” and “Home Is Where the Hatred Is”). The music on this record is somewhat fuller and more jazz-influenced, which can be attributed to the bass, provided by jazz great Ron Carter (a living legend, perhaps most famous for his work in the second great Miles Davis quintet), and the flute/saxophones of Hubert Laws. [Additionally, with any mention of Ron Carter and hip-hop, I feel obligated to mention that Carter played on the song “Verses from the Abstract” on A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory.] The songs and sounds of this record have been sampled by more hip-hop artists than anyone can count. Bob Thiele’s presence as producer on this album also gives it a certain jazz credibility; Thiele is well known for producing much of Coltrane’s later work and some of Mingus’s work, among countless great jazz projects.
I’ve chosen to feature both “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” and “Home is Where the Hatred Is” to show both sides of Pieces of a Man. Check out the minimalist instrumentation featuring prominent flute and bass, which clearly allude to hip-hop music, on “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” and Scott-Heron’s powerful political poetry. “Home is Where the Hatred Is” is notable for its strong groove and for showcasing Carter’s driving bass. And while Gil Scott-Heron wasn’t the greatest singer of his time by any means, his lyrics and vocal performance on this song show true emotion and pain.
So, if you’re unfamiliar with this forefather of modern hip-hop, check out his music and his recent book.