Without doubt one of the most important voices in 20th century music, Gil Scott-Heron has been called a Vietnam-era Langston Hughes, a proto-rap pioneer, and - offensively but not inaccurately - the black Bob Dylan, someone whose unfailingly sharp and ironic eye spared neither black-power phonies or scheming presidents. In 1971 he laid out the blueprint for the whole rap genre with his slinky, bad-as-fuck anthem "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" - on which the then 23 year old poetically dismantled the entire 70s culture - while throughout a career spanning five decades, Scott-Heron's deep, soulful voice spoke of nukes, Reaganomics or apartheid, always from deep inside the tradition.
"There are 500 shades of the blues," he told a club audience on '74's Winter In America. "There's the I-ain'tgot- me-no-money blues. There's the I-ain't-got-me-no-woman-blues. There's the I-ain't-got-me-no-money-and- I ain't-got-me-no-woman-blues - which is the double blues." Back then, the club crowd laughed and singerpoet went into a razor-sharp satire of Nixon's rogue's gallery. Now, thirty-six years later - after hip-hop's total corporatisation of spoken-word, the nation's rightward lurch, and his own troubled path through jails and addiction - Gil Scott-Heron could easily sing his own brand of blues: The I-can-out-rhyme-Kanye-West, I-canout- write-Cormac-McCarthy, I'm-a-60-year-old, ex-con genius blues. And we might reasonably assume that I'm New Here, his first album in 13 years, will reflect the bitterest man on earth.
And who is exactly is that? Is Gil Scott-Heron - as they've said about everyone from the Last Poets to Lou Reed - the founding father of rap? Not at all. Just the smart rap. Just the soulful, socially aware, verbally dexterous style of artists like Public Enemy, Mos Def, and Kanye West, who, born in 1977 and raised by an English prof mom, probably heard Gil Scott-Heron before he heard the Sugar Hill Gang and later, like countless other rappers, sampled him.