I’d long vaguely known that Gil Scott-Heron was around and doing a sort of half-sung half-spoken politicised thing. Oh… and he had a song with the splendid title “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Full stop.
One of the great things about this day-and-age is that it’s never too late to start exploring somebody who you’ve been hearing about for years without actually hearing. I’d seen this album come up in one of Richard Haslop’s “best of” lists. I didn’t check the details properly. This is the last album that Scott-Heron released in his lifetime. 15 months after he released this album he was dead. Talk about starting at the wrong end…
Not only was this his last album, but it came after a long lay-off. He’d been very ill (he had HIV) and had had spells in jail on charges stemming from a drug conviction. Sixteen years… so much had changed in that time that this might not be that typical an album.
In any event, I have no greater context to set it in. It’s the first time I’ve given Scott-Heron a concerted listening. But I’ll tell you, I intend to listen to some more.
He’s regarded as one of the precursors of hip-hop with his half-spoken vocal style. Here he doesn’t just suggest hip-hop, he goes right out and does it. And the results are potent and impressive.
In 2010 I went to a show in London that presented a sampling of political song – both current and historic. One of the high points was Tom Robinson who did a song written by Michael Franti of Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. The song was “Language Of Violence” and it shook me with it’s power and intelligence. It made a point that maybe shouldn’t need making – that hip hop is more than just chanting “yo” and “muddafucka”, misogyny and gratuitous sexualisation.
Not that rock fans have much room for complaint: Rock has a prominent streak of sexism and sexually dubious lyrics (not to mention over-the-top clothing), but we all know it can be and is more than that. We should make the same allowances for other genres.
So here we have hip-hop with real power and intelligence. And skill. Even when Heron’s not what you’d actually call singing (because pitch is not important and is de-emphasised) there’s effective and skilful use of timing in his performances, his delivery carefully synchronised with the underlying rhythmic structure so as to allow the words, the real payload, to hit their mark.
It’s mostly a stark affair with stripped down arrangements that offer enough but no more. After an opening monologue (backed by a looped sample of a Kanye West song) he delivers a deliciously potent and bang up-to-date cover of Robert Johnson’s “Me And The Devil”. The arrangement still works in a repeating blues lick, and Scott-Heron’s smoky baritone vocals are well judged and recorded so that they are intimate and seductive to the ear. Indeed Scott-Heron’s voice is a major sonic and musical weapon on this album – and he knows it.
“Me And The Devil” is a bit more sung than most tracks. “New York Is Killing Me” leans more towards the spoken (whilst still possessing timing and rhythm) and makes clever use of a looped sample of syncopated hand claps (as occasionally heard in 50s East Coast street music). The striking title track juxtaposes another skilfully delivered (and recorded) baritone vocal with an acoustic guitar track that reminded me of Nick Drake in his most pared down mode.
It’s all beautifully judged and delivered and very satisfying. The vocals are very much the point of it all – central to what he does and beguiling whilst also carrying each song’s message.
Or it would be very satisfying if it were just a bit longer. It clocks in at under half an hour, and about 5 minutes of that is the book-ending monologues and various spoken interludes (that don’t stay interesting as long as the music does). Another 10 or 15 minutes and he’d convince instead of leaving us thinking that we were just getting warmed up.
The quality is very high, though, and so it’s enough to work the old trick of leaving the audience wanting more – which may be the effect he wanted to achieve and certainly the effect that he does achieve.