Poet, singer, activist and proto-rapper Gil Scott-Heron passed away yesterday in New York City. He was 62.

Best known for the track “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, Scott-Heron’s booming, authoritative voice often decried the struggles of black people as we advanced through the Civil Rights movement in the Seventies and Eighties. His recitative style has been imitated by everyone from (name your person at a poetry slam here) to Kool Moe Dee, Chuck D and 2Pac. Also blessed with a character-filled if reedy singing voice, Scott-Heron also occasionally performed more traditional love songs, combining funk and jazz like many other artists of his era, like Roy Ayers and Donald Byrd.

Despite dealing with a substance abuse problem that landed him in prison several times in recent years, Scott-Heron had recently undergone a career resurgence. Rappers such as Kanye West and Common began referencing him explicitly in their songs (major portions of Kanye’s Late Registration and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy feature his voice), and last year’s I’m New Here (his first studio album in sixteen years) won critical raves (and was seriously one of 2010’s best albums. Buy it.)  A remixed version of the album, featuring production by Jamie XX, was released this past winter.

Much as I love pop music-I’m a sucker for a great hook and a danceable beat- Gil Scott-Heron’s work cuts much deeper for me than most of the music I listen to. It’s the true definition of soul music. I don’t know if Gil necessarily cared to make you dance (although a good chunk of his work is actually quite danceable) or make you sing (or speak) along. His aim was to touch the heart, mind, and soul. There’s a haunting, almost uncomfortably honest quality about I’m New Here (which I reviewed for Popdose last year) that becomes even more pronounced in light of his passing.

Gil Scott-Heron was a true original and a genius. He will be missed.


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