Good morning everyone. The recent passing of Gil Scott-Heron is on my mind heavy, and I had some more thoughts I want to share with my readers. I guess this is my way of coping because it’s hard for me to let it out in another way. If I go any deeper into that, this will become a whole different kind of post. Regardless, all day yesterday I was just thinking about Gil, his music, and his influence on Black culture and hip-hop. While Gil influenced countless emcees, there is one element that few have picked up from him that is painfully obvious. In listening to some of Gil’s catalog, (its hard to listen to it all in one day) it hit me harder than usual yesterday that his music was music first, and the message was skillfully weaved in. Gil had a way of speaking to political and social issues in his songs that did not come off condescending or preachy. In a perfect example, in the song “The Bottle” is how he talks about the dangers of alcoholism. In the last line of the song, he sings “Look around on any corner, if you see some brother looking like a goner, its gonna be me.” He did not put himself “above it all” Some artists put themselves above life’s challenges, when we really as people aren’t above it, we’re in it.
Its little nuanced things like that which current conscious hip hop artists sort of lack. I say this as a fan of hip-hop, and conscious hip hop, which I generally lean towards. But there are even sometimes when current conscious rap can sound like a rhymed lecture over a beat. Its cool to suggest to folks that they should consider changing their mindset, but the danger is when you come off as a know-it-all, you become sort of disconnected from folks. The relationship between your music and the listener becomes teacher/student instead of entertainer/entertained(and some folks aren’t entertained at all)
Music is music. Gil understood that, and was able to finesse his message into it. This is not to say that hip-hop was unable at all to do it. For the best examples in my opinion of a good balance between listenable tracks and message, see Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” and “Can’t Truss It”. Or KRS-One’s “My Philosophy” and “Outta Here” It just seems to be a rare skill to get folks heads nodding and minds going at the same time. With Gil gone, a huge void is now present in spoken word.. and hip-hop as well. With the template for conscious hip-hop laid down, who will pick up the mantle? Will socially aware music “survive in America” or will it continue to be marginalized, in some parts due to its own inability to come off its high horse? We shall see.
Gil will be sorely missed. Hip-Hop salutes you!
-Marc W. Polite