Very happy to read that seminal poet/musician Gil Scott-Heron is back from jail, cleaned up, and has recorded an album due for release in February 2010. I already pre-ordered it.
The first surprise is the album’s ironic title and the fact that the title song itself was not written by Gil Scott-Heron but by Bill Callahan of the American indie group Smog. Like the covers that producer Rick Rubin chose for the late Johnny Cash on his valedictory American Recordings series of albums, “I’m New Here” sounds like a song tailor-made for Gil Scott-Heron, the great survivor: “No matter how far wrong you’ve gone,” he sings, “you can always turn around.” My instinct, on first hearing it, was to cross my fingers tightly.
Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago in 1949. His mother, Bobbie Scott-Heron, was a librarian and an accomplished singer, his father, Giles Heron, from Jamaica, was an athlete who would later earn the nickname the “Black Arrow” when, in the 1950s, he became the first black man to play for Celtic FC. “I’m used to white British guys getting in touch with me,” says Gil, laughing. “There’s this guy, Gerry, who keeps me informed about the Celtics. He brings me a new shirt every time he’s in New York.”
[Click to continue reading Gil Scott-Heron: the godfather of rap comes back | Interview Music |The Observer ]
and how the album came to be:
The story of how Gil Scott-Heron’s new album came to be made is a long and convoluted one. It is, among other things, a testament to the abiding power of great music outside the mainstream to spread like a virus across cultures, across decades. It begins back in 1987 in a rented house in Edinburgh when a young student is mesmerised by his friend’s collection of soul and funk music from the halcyon days of the early 70s – albums by the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Sly and the Family Stone, the JBs, the Meters, Bill Withers and, most mesmerizing of all, Gil Scott-Heron. The first Gil Scott-Heron song the young student heard was called
H20 Gate Blues [from the Winter In America album]
one of the singer’s great spoken-word monologues that would later earn him the soubriquet the godfather of rap. It was ostensibly about President Nixon and the Watergate phone-tapping scandal, but it was also about wider issues of power, corruption and injustice and the great divide that is race in America.
“I was just taken aback by the voice, the words, the poetry,” remembers Jamie Byng who, 22 years on, is the director of Canongate Books and still a fervent soul fan. “I had been raised on rock but this was just breathtaking. The seasoned voice, the wryness of the delivery, the level of irony and satire in the lyrics, the whole thing just blew me away. Discovering those songs was an epiphanic moment for me.”
Those songs range from the reflective – “Winter In America”, “Lady Day & John Coltrane”, “I Think I’ll Call It Morning” – through the socially aware – “Home Is Where the Hatred Is”, “Pieces of a Man”, “The Bottle” – to the wry and satirical – “H20 Gate Blues”, “Whitey on the Moon” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, whose title has now entered the pop cultural lexicon.
So taken was Byng by those songs that, having bought and rebranded Canongate, he tracked down his hero and, in 1996, republished his two long-out-of-print novels, The Vulture and
The Nigger Factory. An unlikely friendship was forged that lasts to this day. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for Jamie,” Scott-Heron, who is the godfather of one of Byng’s sons, told me last week, before adding, “That’s why I agreed to this interview, bro’. You come with good references.”