Our top 10 Gil Scott-Heron songs introduce us to an American musician whose art is a blend of jazz, blues, soul, and rap music. Born in 1949, Gil Scott-Heron was raised in a family with some musical background and her mother being an opera singer. On the other edge, his father was a Jamaican footballer who became the first black man to play for Celtic F.C. it was at Lincoln University that Gil Scott-Heron would lay the foundations of his music career. This came after meeting Brian Jackson, with whom he formed a band going under the moniker Black & Blues. However, Gil Scott-Heron would take a year off to write novels that received positive reviews upon publishing.
Despite not finishing his undergraduate degree, Gil Scott-Heron got admission to the John Hopkins University’s Writing Seminars. This resulted in receiving an M.A. in creative writing in 1972, which had him become an iconic creative writer and literature lecturer while maintaining his music career. Gil Scott-Heron would become an avid spoken-word performer and poet. He became renowned for the fusion of his creative works with music-making him unique in the music scene.
His recording career started in 1970, having him shortly release his debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. The fourteen-track album had the songs deal with mass consumerism, the hypocrisy of some black revolutionaries, the frivolity of television, and white middle-class ignorance. Most of his song’s lyrics spelled in bold his musical influences such as Billie Holiday, Malcolm X, Jose Feliciano, Richie Havens, Otis Redding, Brian Jackson, and Nina Simone. A sophomore album, Pieces of a Man, came from Gil Scott-Heron in 1971. Unlike the debut album, which prominently featured a spoken-word feel, Pieces of a Man (1971) was delivered in a more conventional song structure. Years of album releases and tours followed after Gil Scott-Heron received a cult following for his unique delivery, which balanced melodic vocals and rapping.
Gil Scott-Heron referred to himself as a bluesologist, a term he defined as the scientist concerned with the origin of blues. His self-given title remains a matter of debate between his fans and critics. However, both can agree on Gil Scott-Heron’s influence and foreshadowing of the hip-hop and neo-soul music genres, which were dominated to date by African-Americans. Credit to his aggressive and fearless street poetry, Gil Scott-Heron has been considered one of the most crucial progenitors of the rap music scene. Gil Scott-Heron’s art inspired a legion of smart rappers with his awe-inspiring songwriting skills enabling him to rub shoulders with iconic R&B artists on the charts.
Until his death in 2011, Gil Scott-Heron remained active on the music scene, having him release an album I’m New Here a year before meeting his death. Gil Scott-Heron received a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award a year after his death. The National Museum of African American History exhibits him for his achievement in the entertainment industry. Gil Scott-Heron was inducted into the highly coveted Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, receiving an Early Influence Award only ten years after his death. Here are the top 10 Gil Scott-Heron songs sampled from his long list of studio albums.
#10 – Home is Where the Hatred Is
Ushering us to the top 10 Gil Scott-Heron songs is the ballad “Home is Where the Hatred Is,” featured on his album Pieces of a Man (1971). While sampling the best Elvis Presley songs, I met with a song that feels like the exact opposite to our number ten on the top 10 Gil Scott-Heron songs. Would it have been that Gil Scott-Heron was responding with his perception of home to “Home is Where the Heart Is” in his 1971 album?
Gil Scott-Heron releases this somber composition in a melodic sound depicting his dangerous and hopeless surroundings and how they affect him. Without a doubt, the lyrics show themes of hopelessness and social disillusionment prominently. Esther Phillips, Bossa Nostra, and The Archives are some artists/acts to deliver a mesmerizing performance of the Gil Scott-Heron masterpiece.
#9 – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
As mentioned earlier, the debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (1970) by Gil Scott-Heron was more of a poetic album. The album helped Gil Scott-Heron establish himself as a singer with a high affinity for creative writing, making him even do something closely related to his writing and teaching career. One of the songs that vividly brings his poetic side is the release “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
The first time I heard this song, I was like, “What a Poem!” The song’s title was initially famed for being a slogan used by the 1960s Black Power movements in the US. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” has its lyrics bringing out Gil Scott-Heron’s perception of freedom, proving that it’s not a spectator sport. The rhythmic ballad served as an impenitent wake-up call to people who thought freedom could be gained by sitting by the sidelines.
#8 – Whitey On the Moon
Just a few months after the moon landing, poet and rap godfather, Gil Scott-Heron, made a contemptuously critical under the title “Whitey On the Moon.” While many termed the moon landing a big achievement, Gil Scott-Heron lamented in this song about the trip to the moon. What would have possibly gone wrong after all Gil Scott-Heron?
Perfect answer from the poet- everything! For Gil Scott-Heron, it was all a matter of priority. So, how do you spend millions just to get to the moon while you could have used these resources in helping the less privileged make life better? The song, or rather spoken word poem, looks at the high taxes, medical debt, and poverty levels at the time of the moon landing. “Whitey On the Moon” was released in 1970, only to have Marvin Gaye released “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” a song that concurs with Gil Scott-Heron’s idea, in 1971.
#7 – I’m New Here
Unlike previous albums, which took a political stance, Gil Scott-Heron’s album I’m New Here (2010) took on his personal life. The album also departs from Gil Scott-Heron’s rhythmic jazz-funk and soul style, taking on some acoustic and electronic minimal sound. “I’m New Here” is delivered in an awe-inspiring baritone voice showing us how much his vocals ability had changed in this album. Sadly, Gil Scott-Heron would pass on shortly after what felt like a creative resurgence and reestablishment of his heartrendingly aging vocals.
#6 – Winter in America
Number six on our top 10 Gil Scott-Heron songs is the hit “Winter in America.” The song is an original composition by Gil Scott-Heron, released in 1975. “Winter in America” is famed for its examination of the United States’ colonialism and racism. Gil Scott-Heron’s influence in the rap industry echoes to date, having Freddie Gibbs take on some inspiration from him and later releasing a cover to the song in his album Alfredo. Gibbs had teamed up with The Alchemist in the release of this album which would become the highest-charting album earn the duo a Grammy nomination for the Best Rap Album.
#5 – The Bottle ft. Brian Jackson
Before reviewing this song, something just crossed my mind! Why do many artists get hooked on drug and substance abuse? Gil Scott-Heron also had a struggle with substance abuse. However, unlike many, Gil Scott-Heron would often address the issue in his music in “The Bottle” featured in Winter in America (1974). “The Bottle” serves as a social commentary on alcohol abuse. Brian Jackson’s input in this song is its Caribbean beat which he delivers with his flute solo. The song is sampled by tons of artists, including The Brother to Brother, with covers by The Christians, Jamiroquai, C.O.D., and Paul Weller.
#4 – NY is Killing Me
Gil Scott-Heron brushes a line of color to New York’s City canvas with his release “NY is Killing Me.” While his life in the 1970s had him establish himself as a legendary artist in rap music, Gil Scott-Heron still had his share of a tough life. Outside music, Gil Scott-Heron has struggled with drugs which saw him serve a sentence while still living with HIV took a toll on him.
He would later release the song “NY is Killing Me” in his album, I’m New Here, which came after sixteen years without a single release. The song paints a glaring and cold city far detached from post-9/11 rekindling. Gil Scott-Heron spells out several personal misfortunes with a tuneful ear. His grizzled baritone craves and demands attention.
#3 – Me and The Devil
The song “Me and The Devil” is one of the best releases from Gil Scott-Heron’s album I’m New Here (2010). The song combines a poem written by Gil Scott-Heron in his 1970 ‘The Vulture’ and the 1938 song “Me and the Devil Blues” by Robert Johnson. In his 1938 song, Robert Johnson narrates how he woke up one day to the devil knocking on his door, telling him it was time to go.
Hold on for a second! Did Gil Scott-Heron know that he was dying soon? I tend to think that his soul was speaking to him about his death unconsciously since Gil Scott-Heron was no more the following year. With all these getting personal and words of death in his new song, we should have seen it coming that a legend was going to rest.
#2 – We Almost Lost Detroit
Self-appointed “bluesologist” Gil Scott-Heron released the song “We Almost Lost Detroit” in his album Bridges. The song was inspired by the 1966 partial meltdown at the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station. While there were no injuries, the accident caused an alarm for evacuation. Gil Scott-Heron references the inherent dangers of the massive devastation of nuclear plants in the song. And true to the word, from time to time, we have lost lives and have the environment at detriment due to nuclear accidents.
#1 – I’ll Take Care of U
Number one on our top 10 Gil Scott-Heron songs list is the hit “I’ll Take of Care of U.” The song was originally written by Brook Benton and recorded by Bobby Bland under the title “I’ll Take Care of You” back in 1959. His exquisite version peaked at number eighty-nine on the Billboard Hot 100 chart making it one of the greatest songs of the time. Gil Scott-Heron is among the many artists to cover the song. Other artists who covered the song’s original version include Van Morrison, Irma Thomas, Elvis Costello, Mark Lanegan, and Jackie Payne. Jamie xx later remixed Gil Scott-Heron’s cover having Drake and Rihanna collaborate in reworking the song into “Take Care.”
Feature Photo: Adam Turner, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Top 10 Gil Scott-Heron Songs List article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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