Gil Scott-Heron, mind blower

They actually played Gil Scott-Heron on the radio in central Wisconsin in the ’70s. Late at night, of course. Then I rediscovered him in the ’80s.

(Here’s that story. I wrote this for the original Jefitoblog in August 2007 as part of a series celebrating what Jeff Giles called suburban rap’s 21st birthday.)

My mind was being blown anyway, so what was another genre?

Twenty-five years ago this summer, I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, one of the most liberal, most eccentric places on the planet. Think Berkeley. Think Austin.

There, I discovered a radio station like none I’d ever heard, like none I’ve heard since.

Because I worked nights, I spent my early afternoons listening to the volunteer DJs on WORT, 89.9 FM, listener-sponsored Back Porch Radio. They spun a staggeringly diverse mix of local bands, indie rock, R&B, soul, dance, jazz, punk, country and performance art.

The Chili Peppers and Fishbone, side by side with Camper Van Beethoven and Mojo Nixon, side by side with Husker Du and fIREHOSE, side by side with Laurie Anderson and Stan Ridgway, side by side with John Hiatt and Richard Thompson

And, yes, side by side with the hip-hop we now recognize as old school.

In that summer of 1982, I was careening through my mid-20s and still rocking out, having been raised on Top 40 radio. AM, then FM, if you will.

Yet some of my formative FM was the late-night, free-form variety. During its heyday in the mid-’70s, I heard Gil Scott-Heron for the first time. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was quite a revelation to a kid from a small town in central Wisconsin.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the door to hip-hop had opened.

One afternoon, one of the WORT DJs played something new. The voice was a direct, vaguely familiar baritone:

“Well, the first thing I want to say is, mandate, my ass.”

Then the laid-back beat of “B Movie” kicked in and Gil Scott-Heron, circa 1981, ripped Ronald Reagan for the next 6 minutes, 52 seconds.

“B Movie,” Gil Scott-Heron, from “Reflections,” 1981. This version is the radio edit. It runs 6:52. The album version runs 12:10. The LP appears to be out of print. A live version of this tune is available digitally as a cut from “Tour de Force,” a 2004 CD release also titled “The Best of Gil Scott-Heron Live.”

Some other appreciations of Gil Scott-Heron:

Larry Grogan at Funky 16 Corners: “In a word, Gil Scott-Heron was deep.”

Tris McCall, in an excellent piece in the Newark Star-Ledger: “Like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, Gil Scott-Heron demonstrated that popular music could be as effective a vehicle for serious ideas as a broadside or a political speech.”

Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune: “Public Enemy’s Chuck D once said hip-hop was black America’s CNN. If so, Gil Scott-Heron was the network’s first great anchorman, presaging hip-hop and infusing soul and jazz with poetry, humor and pointed political commentary.”

The Associated Press via the Los Angeles Times: “Scott-Heron’s influence on rap was such that he was sometimes referred to as the Godfather of Rap, a title he rejected. … He referred to his signature mix of percussion, politics and performed poetry as bluesology or Third World music. But then he said it was simply ‘black music or black American music’.”

David Hinkley in the New York Daily News: “Perhaps Scott-Heron’s more lasting legacy, though, lies in his lifelong insistence that music has to say something and mean something.”

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4 Comments

Filed under May 2011, Sounds

4 responses to “Gil Scott-Heron, mind blower

  1. Pingback: Five Things About . . . Gil Scott-Heron

  2. I’m really glad you chose this particular GSH song for your tribute (which was well-put). I probably heard a lil Gil when I listened to WMSE. I spent my teens in Oconomowoc. But I didn’t really HEAR him until I went off to college in 1984. When Reagan was re-elected, and I had to register for the Selective Service, this song finally started to, well, register with me. It was played at almost every party I went to that year: “This ain’t really life, ain’t really life, ain’t really nothin’ but a movie.” Thanks for sharing it. (BTW I moved to Atlanta after I graduated, and married a girl who introduced me to the music of the Producers, so I enjoyed your post on that band as well.)

  3. Stuart James

    Would it be churlish to compare Mr. Reagan’s popularity to Scott Heron’s?
    And with particular reference to ‘Whitey on the Moon’. Would an artist – protest singer or otherwise – who used ‘darky’ in a song title, get a free pass?

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