Great Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron tells Jim Car­roll why it’s good to be back

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

TRACKING down Gil Scott-Heron is a tale in it­self. As many live mu­sic pro­mot­ers have learned over the years, Scott-Heron can some­times have an in­ter­est­ing re­la­tion­ship with time and ar­range­ments.

I was told that he would be at home at 3pm to do this in­ter­view, but the phone in Scott-Heron’s New York home keeps ring­ing out. He may have a fan­tas­tic new al­bum to plug

( I’m New Here, his first in 15 years), but that doesn’t mean he’s go­ing to pick up the phone and talk about it. Over a cou­ple of hours, I keep ring­ing, but ev­ery call gets his an­swer ma­chine. I can now re­cite that mes­sage by heart.

The fol­low­ing day, I de­cide on a whim to hit the re­dial but­ton and see what hap­pens. I mean, it’s his home num­ber and the dude has to turn up at some stage. This time around, some­one picks up the phone and says hello. You wouldn’t mis­take that voice. Gil Scott-Heron is home and ready to talk. The trick now is to keep the cagey man – who is known to treat press in­ter­views like a 15-round box­ing match – on the line.

To para­phrase one of his own tunes, we al­most lost Scott-Heron. Some­where along the line, the god­fa­ther of rap’s lengthy run of acer­bic, tart lyrics and jazz-supreme grooves came to an undig­ni­fied end. The Spir­its al­bum ap­peared in 1994 and was fol­lowed by, well, noth­ing. There may have been spo­radic tours and live shows, but the creative well seemed to have run dry.

How­ever, he didn’t quite turn into the mu­si­cal ver­sion of the re­cently de­ceased JD Salinger. In the last decade, the man who gave the world Win­ter In Amer­ica, The Bot­tle, I Think I’ll Call It Morn­ing, Lady Day and John Coltrane, Home is Where the Ha­tred Is, We Al­most Lost Detroit and The Revo­lu­tion Will Not Be Tele­vised be­came bet­ter known for his mul­ti­ple ar­rests and jail terms. With that sort of rap sheet, no one was pre­pared to take a gam­ble on a Scott-Heron re­vival.

While many may have won­dered what had hap­pened to him, there were some folks who ac­tively went looking for him. Richard Rus­sell is the head of XL Records, the la­bel that is home to The White Stripes, Vam­pire Week­end, Sigur Rós, MIA and many more. Back in 2006, Rus­sell trav­elled to meet Scott-Heron (see panel), who was at the time in­car­cer­ated on Rik­ers Is­land prison in New York, with an of­fer to make a new record.

By early 2008, the pair were work­ing to­gether and the long, long wait for a new Scott-Heron al­bum seemed to be com­ing to an end.

“When Richard Rus­sell first ap­proached me, I didn’t know him or his la­bel at all,” says Scott-Heron. “I’d heard of one or two of his artists, yeah, but noth­ing more. By the time we got to the stu­dio, I knew a lit­tle about him and the la­bel. By the time we signed a con­tract, though, I knew some more.” What’s im­me­di­ately strik­ing about I’m

New Here is the sound. In­stead of the jazzy grooves which were once the norm, Rus­sell whips up bleak, min­i­mal, dark sound­scapes for Scott-Heron’s spo­ken-word per­for­mances and songs. The al­bum may be short (28 min­utes), but its in­ten­sity packs a punch.

Scott-Heron, af­ter all, was never one who was go­ing to take the power of words for granted.

“We talked a lit­tle about the sound at the start,” he says. “Richard had some ideas and I had some ideas. But as the pieces came to­gether, it was ob­vi­ously that the sparse sound suited the ma­te­rial, so I just went along with it.”

Scott-Heron has been go­ing with the flow all his life. His mu­si­cal ed­u­ca­tion be­gan at his grand­mother’s pi­ano when he was a young­ster in Jack­son, Ten­nessee. “I was al­right, I was no ex­pert,” he says of his pi­ano skills. “I could read mu­sic and play a bit.” His grand­mother also in­tro­duced him to po­etry and ac­tivism.

“Langston Hughes was one of her favourites and she’d point out his work in pa­pers like the Chicago De­fender to me. That was my start­ing point. She also talked to me about what was hap­pen­ing around us, the prob­lems folks like us were fac­ing. She thought that I should know about those is­sues and what peo­ple were try­ing to do to sort them out.”

He doesn’t seem too con­cerned that it has taken him so long to get his record­ing mojo back. “Man, I could have recorded any old time,” he says. “There’s a stu­dio right down the street from my house and I could have gone there. But I spent most of my time day to day work­ing on a book [about Martin Luther King] and try­ing to get that edited and ready for pub­li­ca­tion. That was my main job, you know. I hadn’t been think­ing much about record­ing mu­sic, only fin­ish­ing the book to have it ready to come out later this year.”

When he did go search­ing for mu­sic, he reached for the clas­sics. “I lis­ten to my favourites like Miles Davis, Nina Si­mone, John Coltrane and Bil­lie Hol­i­day all the time and what­ever new stuff catches my ear, peo­ple like Com­mon, Mos Def and Kanye West.”

Scott-Heron’s re­la­tion­ship with hip-hop has been an in­ter­est­ing one. You can cer­tainly join the dots be­tween his clas­sics and the work of rap’s MCs, but his Mes­sage to the

Mes­sen­gers track saw him gen­tly chid­ing some of them for their ap­proach.

“I sup­pose I feel the same way now about hip-hop as I did back when I recorded

Mes­sage to the Mes­sen­gers,” he ex­plains. “I al­ways be­lieve it’s a good idea for mu­si­cians to try to learn how mu­sic works so they can talk to mu­si­cians and have a bet­ter con­ver­sa­tion. But, you know, artists can change and will change. Any­one who tried to sum me up when I was a kid start­ing out would have been mak­ing a big mis­take. Peo­ple like Mos Def, they’ve changed and grown as they’ve re­leased more al­bums and found their groove.”

Scott-Heron seems a lit­tle scorn­ful of the po­lit­i­cal tag usu­ally ap­plied to him. “That hap­pens when peo­ple pick one par­tic­u­lar tune to de­cide what kind of artist you are. But you don’t just do one tune and let it rep­re­sent you. Every­one should know that there’s more to me than The Revo­lu­tion Will Not Be

Tele­vised and those ideas. Pol­i­tics is just part of the mix, it’s part of life. I pay taxes so, of course, I’m po­lit­i­cal. It’s not about protest­ing, it’s about get­ting what I think I’ve paid for.”

When the con­ver­sa­tion turns to the trou­bles he’s had in the last few decades, such as mul­ti­ple jail spells for drug charges and pa­role vi­o­la­tions, Scott-Heron is quick to de­flect the ques­tion. That’s the past, he says, this is the present.

“I had some trou­bles a few years ago, but I haven’t had any re­cent trou­bles. I’ve been out of jail for over a year now so I hope peo­ple will get over that and see past that. My­self, I don’t dwell on that. I’m mov­ing on.”

At the height of his pow­ers, few could bet­ter Scott-Heron when it came to ar­tic­u­lately and pas­sion­ately ex­press­ing the fears, hopes and re­al­i­ties of black Amer­ica. He ad­dressed all the big is­sues: racism, poverty, al­co­holism, ad­dic­tion, apartheid.

He must feel some pride about see­ing a black man in the White House, right? “I haven’t had much feel­ing about that event one way or the other. Did I ever think I’d see black man in the White House dur­ing my life­time? Well, I never knew how long I was go­ing to live, did I?” he chuck­les.

“I was sur­prised to be pleased and proud and happy that Amer­ica had fi­nally turned a cor­ner, but things don’t change just be­cause of colour. We’ll al­ways crit­i­cise who­ever is in the White House be­cause we think they should be do­ing bet­ter. And we’ll al­ways tease who­ever is caught with their pants down like Tiger Woods last year. That doesn’t change, that won’t change.”

When he looks around at his home­land, he sees a coun­try which is still try­ing to work it all out. “Amer­ica still has some grow­ing to do. It’s a very young coun­try. We think of it some­times as hav­ing this long, long his­tory full of events, but we don’t have a long his­tory of any­thing. So the fact that it’s start­ing to feel some grow­ing pains is not un­usual.

“There was no black Amer­ica when they started this coun­try. Black peo­ple were in­volved in this coun­try be­fore it was a coun­try, but as far as any op­por­tu­ni­ties to take ad­van­tage of it, that just started in the last 30 or 40 years.”

Scott-Heron will spend the rest of this year mak­ing the most of the at­ten­tion which I’m

New Here has brought. There’s some se­lec­tive Euro­pean shows in April, talk of fes­ti­val shows in the sum­mer and that Martin Luther King book too.

So what can we ex­pect from a Scott-Heron show in 2010? “It’s a mix­ture of stuff,” he says. “There’s spo­ken word, there’s what some might call rap and there’s the songs that peo­ple will know that we’re fa­mous for. Noth­ing from the new al­bum, though. I never try to cre­ate a false de­mand like oth­ers. I’ll start do­ing songs from that al­bum when the al­bum comes out and when peo­ple hear it and when peo­ple want to hear me per­form some. I doubt any­one has heard all 25 of my al­bums any­way.”

And be­yond that, the old trooper says don’t write him off yet be­cause there may well be more to come. “I’m hop­ing that I have enough ma­te­rial and enough strength to fin­ish out the con­tracts that I have al­ready signed. That will do me.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.