Gil-Scott Heron, dead today at 62, was equal parts social commentator, freedom fighter and pop star. Known as the Godfather of Rap, a title he vehemently denied in an interview I had with him in 1995, he none-the-less influenced generations of rappers and was sampled dozens of times. Most rappers ignored his plea to “not lean so heavily on rhyme and concentrate on the message” (and he meant the socio-political message).
When I talked to Scott-Heron that first time, he had just ended 12 years of recording silence with Spirits. The opening track, “Message To the Messengers” (“if you gonna be teachin’ folks, you gotta know what you’re sayin’…”) was directed at the hip-hop generation, asking them to see where their movement had come from and what it should be about. I was in New York and was hoping to talk to Scott-Heron in person on his own turf. Complications ensued and I suspected, not without reason, that the man who wrote “Angel Dust” and “The Bottle” was chasing his program, whatever it might be (what did Elridge Cleaver say in Soul On Ice about the sensitive and their vulnerability to drugs?). Most likely, despite a new recording, he just didn’t want to spend time with a reporter from L.A., or anywhere for that matter. There was a certain irony in our cellphone conversation as he pursued something around the city’s Upper Westside. The signal kept cutting out.
“Message To the Messengers” is a lecture of sorts, a plea for peace in a movement that had turned on itself (“they’re glad we’re out there killin’ each other…”). Scott-Heron’s was asking the rap community to remember what had gone before, to show respect and generational brotherhood. It’s also a call to action : “what we did was to tell our generation to get busy/because it wasn’t going to be televised.” Knowing that the revolution has not and will not be televised is as appropriate today as it was in 1972 and 1994: the media is not our message but theirs, we are in this together but not everyone is together with us. “[Rappers] have to know they’re not going through anything new” he told me, “it’s the same stuff I went through back then. They’ve got to remember it’s not about them. It’s about community and the people.”
One of my favorite Scott-Heron tunes, “Lady Day and John Coltrane,” addressed the power of music in our lives. Scott-Heron’s music, socially relevant and politically charged, brought truth to that power. Sing on. — Cabbage Rabbit