Musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron, whose biting and lyrical fusion of verse and rhythm made him a formidable forefather of rap and hip-hop, died Friday in New York. He was 62.
Scott-Heron had become ill upon returning from a trip to Europe but a cause of death has not been determined.
Thanks to his fiery fusion of soul, jazz and free-flowing versification, inspired by such black literary precursors as poet Langston Hughes, he was recognized as one of the most forward-looking black musicians of the ’70s. Best known for his mordant critique of race in the media “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” he essayed such topical concerns as nuclear power, apartheid and Ronald Reagan’s presidency in his pointed work.
His career was derailed in the new millennium, however, by a deepening addiction to crack cocaine, which led to more than one drug conviction. However, Scott-Heron briefly appeared to be back on track in 2010 when he issued his first album in 16 years, “I’m New Here.”
Scott-Heron’s music was championed and sampled by a host of latter-day hip-hop stars, most prominently Kanye West, whose 2010 album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” concluded with a track that employed a lengthy sample of Scott-Heron’s work.
Born in Chicago and raised in Tennessee, Scott-Heron went to high school in the Bronx before attending the progressive Fieldston School (on a full scholarship) and Lincoln U., where he began his longtime collaboration with keyboardist-flutist Brian Jackson.
After penning two novels, Scott-Heron embarked on a musical career with his live debut album “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox” (1970) for producer Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label. The album led off with the original version of the caustic “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” He recut the track for his studio bow. “Pieces of a Man” (1971). Scott-Heron was viewed as a vanguard figure in the mold of the Last Poets and the Watts Prophets, who similarly melded poetry and contemporary R&B.
After a third Flying Dutchman release, he issued “Winter in America” (1974), his first formal collaboration with Brian Jackson. They were subsequently signed to Arista Records, and their top-30 album “The First Minute of a New Day” (1975) inaugurated a run of nine chart albums through 1982.
During Scott-Heron’s tenure on Arista, his biggest commercial efforts were the anti-apartheid single “Johannesburg” (No. 29, 1975) and “Angel Dust” (No. 15, 1978), a somber look at the horrors of PCP. In 1979, he appeared at the No Nukes concert at Madison Square Garden; his song “We Almost Lost Detroit,” about a narrowly averted nuclear disaster, was featured on the live album drawn from the show.
Scott-Heron and Jackson ended their partnership in 1980, and Scott-Heron recorded with diminishing commercial returns before being dropped by Arista in 1985. A one-off album for TVT Records, “Spirits,” would be his last for more than a decade and a half.
Despite a pair of drug convictions in the 2000s and another 2007 possession arrest, Scott-Heron continued to be lionized by such prominent rap figures as West, Mos Def, Grand Puba, Dr. Dre and MF Doom.
After years of studio inactivity and sporadic live appearances, he reappeared in 2010 with “I’m New Here,” issued by the U.K. indie label XL. While the collection, which contained a chilling track inspired by Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues,” stirred renewed interest in Scott-Heron and his music, the musician continued to wage war with his demons. An August profile by Alec Wilkinson in the New Yorker depicted Scott-Heron openly smoking crack during one interview session.
Survivors include a son, two daughters and a half-brother.