Jim Carroll

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Archive: Gil Scott-Heron

As reported yesterday, the great Gil Scott-Heron died in a New York hospital on Friday night at the age of 62. After the jump, you’ll find an interview I did with him when he was promoting the “I’m New Here” …

Sun, May 29, 2011, 18:50


As reported yesterday, the great Gil Scott-Heron died in a New York hospital on Friday night at the age of 62. After the jump, you’ll find an interview I did with him when he was promoting the “I’m New Here” album, which was published in The Ticket in February 2010. The piece also contains an interview with XL Records’ boss Richard Russell on working with Scott-Heron on that album.

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

His record label cheerfully told me that he’ll be at home at 3pm his time to do this interview, but the phone in Scott-Heron’s New York gaff keeps ringing out. He may have a fantastic new album to flog (“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 at the other end and says hello. You wouldn’t mistake that voice for anyone else. Gil Scott-Heron is home and ready to talk. The trick now is to keep the cagey man, someone who seems to treat press interviews as a sport akin to 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 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 multiple arrests and jail terms. With that sort of rap-sheet, no-one was prepared to take a gamble on a Scott-Heron revival or new music.

While many may have wondered from time to time 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 which is home to The White Stripes, Vampire Weekend, Sigur Ros, MIA and many more. Back in 2006, he travelled to meet Scott-Heron, who was then imprisoned on Rikers Island prison in New York, with an offer to make a new album. By early 2008, the pair were working on that album 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”, growls 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 know 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.”

It was his grandmother too who introduced him to poetry and activism. “Langston Hughes was one of her favorites 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 to 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 lttle 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, nuclear power.

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 twenty-five 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.”

Album producer and XL label boss Richard Russell on working with Gil Scott-Heron

In 2005, I decided to approach Gil Scott-Heron to see if he wanted to make a new album. I’ve been a fan of his music since I was a teenager. When I went to see him play at Dingwalls in London, I tried to get in touch with Gil. Don Letts led me to book publisher Jamie Byng, who put me in contact.

On June 14 2006, I went to Rikers Island prison to meet with Gil. I’d sent him a letter explaining my intention and my ideas, and I had received a call from his friend Mimi telling me Gil was up for seeing me.

Gil has achieved things that few can imagine – he was making songs that would change the course of music forever when he was 20 years old – and he has seen things most could not dream about. He’s been in better places than most, and now he was somewhere worse.

I don’t think Gil had heard about XL until we met, but he told me he asked around! He seemed immediately open to the idea of us working together, or at least intrigued by it.

The first proper recording session with Gil was in January 2008. I was only apprehensive because of my lack of production experience; I’ve made lots of tracks and remixes over the years, I co-produced the Aluminium album, and I’ve helped lots of artists in an A&R capacity. But I’ve never produced a whole album on my own, let alone with a genuinely legendary artist. Gil’s abilities were never in doubt, he’s never stopped performing.

The recording experience was quite extraordinary. There isn’t another artist like Gil on earth and I learnt a massive amount. We worked out the sound as we went along. I always thought it should be minimal, and Gil pushed me to stick to that when i tried to over-embellish. Gil has been incredibly open-minded to make a record this current sounding; it’s been easy to forget he’s sixty years old. He’s a very intense person, but then so am I.

I think we could do something else and we’ve kind of touched on it. “New York Is Killing Me” was the last thing we recorded last September. It started as a blues cover then turned into something else. We recorded it over a sparse, distorted groove and Gil wrote the lyric in the studio. That would be a good starting point for something else.

© 2010 The Irish Times