Gil Scott-Heron doesn’t suffer no fools. During an afternoon phone call from his office in New York, the 61-year-old author and performer fielded interview questions with the same combination of humor, bluntness and insight that have made his poetry, novels and lyrics so valued and influential over the last four decades. When asked about his relationship with hip-hop, he replied, “I haven’t seen hip-hop lately. I see rappers as individuals.” While I was trying to ferret out information about his forthcoming book, The Last Holiday, he told me he has 628 pages right now, and while he’d love to talk about each and every one of them, he’ll let everyone read the book themselves. Towards the end of our conversation, he said “I told you everything except my DNA. Don’t you think you have enough for a story?”
His patience may have been tested, but his capacity for storytelling was barely tapped. Born in Chicago and raised in Tennessee and the Bronx, Scott-Heron’s literary ambitions and social conscience quickly manifested themselves. After writing a novel in 1968 at age 19, The Vulture, Scott-Heron began a long musical career with the release of Small Talk at 125th & Lennox in 1970. He’s collaborated with musicians such as Brian Jackson, Malcolm Cecil and industry legends like Bob Thiele and Clive Davis. The influence of his blend of socio-political commentary and R&B and soul — as heard on seminal tracks like “The Bottle” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” — has never waned and is in face considered a key element in the evolution of hip-hop. But Scott-Heron’s recent recorded output was sparse until the release of I’m New Here, which came out earlier this year. A set of modern tracks paired with the poet’s frank observations, it was a pet project of XL Recordings’ owner Richard Russell that found its genesis in Russell’s 2006 visit to see Scott-Heron at Rikers Island, where he was serving time for cocaine possession. Scott-Heron’s baritone voice may have aged, but his focus and literary integrity will never go out of style.
Tell me about growing up with your grandmother in Tennessee, which you discuss on the first track of the new album. How did she influence you?
She didn’t have much of a formal education. She was a firm believer that you needed to have one of those if you want to know something. Her own children all graduated from college with honors, so there was a firm desire to get an education and to read. She had a big library in Tennessee and I spent a lot of time in it.
Any books from that time that really influenced you?
I read a lot of Langston Hughes. He had a newspaper column in the Chicago Defender, the Amsterdam News and all the black papers. We were subscribers to the Defender. I think we paid twenty-five cents a week. It was actually a big influence.
When you moved to NYC later in your life, you wrote a paper about Langston Hughes, right?
Yeah, he was a reporter downtown working for the New York Post. He was giving a speech and I was able to go down to see him. I got a tape recorder and recorded him and wrote a paper from what he spoke about. I wanted to be a writer from the time I was 11. That’s what I told everyone. You decide you want to be an astronaut or baseball player. I wanted to be a writer.
What about the work of guys like Jean Toomer and Langston Hughes that really spoke to you?
Langston was very literate and wrote all kinds of different things, but he had a sense of humor. I think a lot of people at that particular time didn’t have much of a sense of humor. People were angry and outrageous, and the fact that he managed to maintain his sense of humor impressed me because I think it’s one of our most important senses.
That’s something that’s reflected in all your work, like “B Movie,” the track about Reagan.
Of course, it’s a big part of being a human being. If you’ve lost your sense of humor, I think you’ve lost your sense of humanity. It connects me to some of the people I most admire, people who either mixed comedy with art or art with comedy, people like Dick Gregory or Richard Pryor. They had a point to make, they tried to make some improvements and humor was the foundation of it. You can’t just start screaming at everybody. Everybody knows there are things wrong with this planet. But in order to make it through all the things that are going to happen to you in your life, you need to maintain humor. It’s the most important aspect of yourself.
Was that really important to you when you were in prison?
Well, yeah, it’s been important to me all my life. Not just in prison but everywhere else. I was in prison for having twenty dollars worth of cocaine. If I was in any other Western country, I would have been given community service, a fine or a ticket and told to get on out of the way.
How did you occupy your time, and what did you take out of the experience of being in prison?
I did a lot of reading. I did a lot of writing. I did a lot of studying and had a chance to catch up with myself. You sort of resolve yourself to it. You see, I had to confess to the crime to go on tour. They let me out to do a tour in Europe and I came back and had to report to them.
When you were in prison, did anyone say to you, hey, you’re Gil Scott Heron, you wrote “The Bottle.” What are you doing here on a drug charge?
They asked what I was doing in prison at all, and I said time. Like, twenty dollars worth of cocaine doesn’t mean I’m the next one to go on methadone. Look at Robert Downey, Jr. There are a whole lot of people with problems. It’s when you get caught and what you get caught with, not that you got caught. Did you ever smoke reefer?
Ever get caught with it?
Yeah, see, same thing. There was a time when getting caught with a bit of reefer would have landed you in jail. So I’m saying that I got caught with what I got caught with and I got put in jail. It was me instead of someone else.
How you met up with Brian Jackson and many of the other guys in the Midnight Band while at Lincoln University?
I was working with a vocalist named Victor Brown. We did different things around campus at coffee shops, and I was writing a song for him one day in a practice room. And Brian was in a room next to the one we were occupying. I told Vic, “There’s the guy I’ve seen playing around here. You need him as a piano player.” I introduced him to Vic and he worked with him for a while on a few other tunes. Brian told me that he had some compositions that would work well with lyrics, and we talked about it and we got together. The first couple of things he brought to me worked out really well. I ended up with a recording contract, and Brian was a musician, so he was included with the sessions that we got to do with Bob Thiele.
How did the composition process work with you guys?
Music always came first. Brian would work on a composition, we’d talk about what he was thinking about when he wrote it, and I would try to work from that.
Why do you think you two worked together so well?
There have been far more prolific partnerships than ours, but we worked well together. The songs were unusual. They came from someone with a jazz and classical background, and a writer who appreciated those same influences.
At that time, or throughout your career, did you ever feel like you had a big message to broadcast to people?
Every songwriter you talk to feels like they have a message. I don’t think I had more of a message than anybody else. I thought I was a better writer than some. The question is whether or not you’re successful.
Before you recorded 1974’s Winter in America, you moved down to D.C. with Brian and some of the guys in the band. Why did you make the move?
I went down there to teach. I was teaching creative writing, poetry, fiction and composition at the University of D.C., after I left Baltimore, where I got my masters at Johns Hopkins. Brian came down, and we continued to work together.
How did the city and maybe the surroundings influence what you wrote on Winter in America? Were there specific people you were thinking of when you were writing these songs?
Yeah, “The Bottle” came from some folks who had gathered out in the parking lot near where I was staying. They’d gather in this parking lot and trade in the bottles they’d collected the previous night. A guy running a liquor store would open the back and give them what they wanted. I went out there to talk to them a couple times to see who they were and what they were doing and I met some of their friends. It was fascinating, in all seasons, under all conditions, that those people would be there. I was fascinated by their dedication.
Who were they, what did they do?
One had been a doctor. Abortions were illegal in those days, but he had done a couple of them and somebody told on him and he lost his license. And when he lost his license, he lost his wife and she took the children. He didn’t know how to get his license back, and he lost his life. Somebody had begged him to do it and then ratted him out for performing the operation. One lady had worked for social services and saw someone she was trying to help overdose. She felt like everything she was doing didn’t mean anything, everyone she was working with was a tragic figure, and she couldn’t take it anymore. One guy was an air traffic controller who had misdirected a flight. He had two Navy jets on his screen. One was directed to lower its altitude and it lowered into the side of a mountain and four people were killed.
No one set out to be an alcoholic. All of them had something happen in their lives that turned them around. This was right at the time when doctors were starting to determine that alcoholism and drug addiction was an illness, not just a social feeling or something weak about your character. It struck me that something needed to be done to help these people, not just jump on down on them like that.
Winter in America was about a dark period, and we’re in a pretty dark period in America now. Do you feel things have gotten better nowadays?
Of course they have. I mean, you know, things change. America was in a dark period because all people who had been trying to do something positive had been lost: both of the Kennedys, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers; all those people had been killed. We were trying to say that’s how you get to winter. You put out the lights. People who were trying to bring sunshine to us had been extinguished.
Part of your critique at that time — that America was becoming a consumer, not a producer, and we needed to change — is still pretty timely.
We needed and need to change our perspectives on other countries. America is very arrogant, very obnoxious. We have so much arrogance. We haven’t been around for that long and we’re trying to kick around countries that have been around for thousands of years. That’s seems to be very prominent in what’s happening to us. We were admired by everyone, then there was a certain point where the arrogance overruled what people liked about us.
How did Clive Davis enter the picture?
He just entered the picture. We were playing one night at the Beacon Theatre, and someone from my management company said they had someone they wanted me to talk to. It was Clive Davis. He was starting Arista and he was looking for people who had songs and had production experience, since he was starting out from a flat start, he didn’t have producers or A&R people over there yet. So we had been working on a new album, what turned out to be [1975’s] The First Minute of a New Day, and we named it that because Clive was having the first minute of a new day. He didn’t like the picture of the gorilla sitting on the front, but it was done in his name.
It sounds like he treated you guys pretty well, and he really pushed the “black Bob Dylan” angle.
Now, I didn’t know about Bob Dylan. I had heard a few songs he had written, “Just Like a Woman” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” and I liked both of those. But as far as him being something special that people wanted to be like, I’d never heard of him in that context. Clive said that so people could relate to what we did. But he never said that to me. As far as I knew, Dylan played harmonica, and I played piano, Dylan couldn’t sing and I could, that made us different right there.
You’re finishing up a book called Last Holiday about Stevie Wonder’s work to get Martin Luther King’s birthday declared a national holiday. How important do you think Stevie’s tour was to making that holiday a reality?
I think it brought a lot of attention to it. It was Stevie’s tour and his campaign, and he allowed me to participate, and I was glad to do it. If you want to change America, you have to change the law. That’s the only way to do it. You can burn down a lot of shit. You can tear down a lot of shit. You can go crazy and riot or whatever you want to do. Until you change the law, you haven’t really changed the country. Stevie Wonder wanted to change the law to make it a national holiday and that’s what happened. I don’t feel Stevie has received enough credit.
Do you feel that people get mixed up, especially when it comes to your lyrics, and confuse the difference between educating and being political, or educating versus inciting?
I don’t believe that everyone understands that everything they do is more or less political. Because almost everything they touch has to do with taxes, and taxes sponsor their political society.
Are you very anti tax?
No, I just feel that I pay taxes, so I have a right to say where they’re spent. I’d rather not see them spent killing people, that’s all. I’m not against soldiers. I’m against war. I’d rather have money spent to do good. I’d rather Americans have the right to say where their tax money is spent. I’d like to see more spent on education.
I heard Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was your best man. Is that true?
Yeah, he introduced me to my wife. He lived in Dyckman House in New York and we used to play ball together. When he went to UCLA, one of his classmates was the lady I ended up marrying. We used to play at the projects over there.
How did you do against Kareem?
Same way anybody else would have done. I was six foot three. When we started the band, he used to come over to the Roxy and sit in on percussion. Evidently, he played an album of ours that [my ex-wife] Brenda [Sykes] heard at his house, and she said she wanted to meet me. That’s how I met her, and when we got married, he was our best man. We got married at Wayne Shorter’s house, the guy in Weather Report. That was a great night. Kareem had to leave early because he was in training, left at eleven o’clock. But things went off without a hitch.
On the new album, I’m New Here, you sample Kanye West on “On Coming from a Broken Home.” Did it feel good to sample someone else instead of getting sampled?
Not particularly. I worked with Malcolm Cecil, and he invented all those instruments that sampled things. Richard thought that was comic. He sampled us, we sampled him. I thought it was funny.
Your track “Message to the Messengers,” from 1994’s Spirits, addressed rappers, telling them to be responsible. How do you feel your relationship has changed with them and with hip-hop?
I don’t know. I haven’t seen hip-hop lately. I see rappers as individuals. I know Mos Def. He’s a good dude. We played Carnegie Hall together. Common, Kanye West and those fellas, they’re doing a great job. They’re popular independently. You can’t review someone’s career when they’re 25. They’re just getting on their feet. But I think they’re going to be alright.
I remember talking with someone in the Last Poets and he said when he was starting, the idea was to get more people to express themselves. Now that you look at the world that is hip-hop, do you feel responsible and happy that there are more people expressing themselves?
Yeah, I’m happy, but I wish they would express themselves instead of expressing something about the last rapper they heard.