Gil Scott Heron—What Happened?

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Gil Scott Heron
Tom and Gil Scott-Heron (1980) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, there is a profile of singer-songwriter Gil Scott-Heron. His star burned brightly for many albums, first in the 1970s for Flying Dutchman Records, later on Arista Records. He was quickly snapped up by record mogul Clive Davis, who was blown away by one of Gil’s concerts that he had attended.

I remember interviewing Gil at KCRW in 1980 (click here to stream tribute). He was in LA, opening for Stevie Wonder at The Forum. I still have the cassette aircheck, a signed album, and a picture of him at John Adams Middle School (above photo), which was the original site of KCRW’s studios until 1984. Only 31-years-old at the time, Gil Scott-Heron had already accomplished so much: he had a Master’s in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University, had published books of prose and poetry, and had released a number of great albums that are still popular today. Among his best known works are the classic “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Johannesburg,” and “The Bottle.”

Heron wrote elegantly-wrought and streetwise poetry and was respected not only by his peers, but by sucessive generations of hip hop artists who have followed. He has influenced them all, from Public Enemy to Michael Franti.

But after 1983, Gil pretty much vanished. After such a prolific period of creating great records—fourteen between 1970 and 1982—he stopped touring and released only a handful of albums. The sad truth was that this supremely influential artist—some have called him the “father of hip hop”—fell victim to the crack pipe. It was sad to watch such a gifted artist go down that path.

So it was hugely heartening when Gil Scott-Heron made his comeback earlier this year with his recent release, I’m New Here, an at times harrowingly poignant recounting of what I can only presume the past years were like for him. Touching upon tales of tragedy and loss, the man—the legend—himself has thankfully overcome his inner demons, summoning yet again the strength of his convictions with a work that will undoubtedly continue to inspire generations of musicians and fans. It’s good to have him back.

“Me and the Devil,” a rather ominous video produced by his new label, XL Recordings: 

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Click here to listen to the Gil Scott-Heron tribute show I did for Morning Becomes Eclectic, featuring rare and classic tracks, plus interview segments from 1980–1983.


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