By Steve Weinstein
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"I didn't watch the whole thing—I know what state the union's in," says Gil Scott-Heron, sizing up his reflection in his living room's enormous TV—it's half the size of the wall, glossy, and incongruous in the 60-year-old's small, cluttered Harlem apartment. He doesn't see so well, he explains, returning to the couch; gripping a fresh cigarette lit precariously from the stove (as always), he'll nearly reach the filter by the time he's done dissecting Obama's recent address in a casually dexterous solo that weaves through 20 years of Shiite-Sunni population percentages, U.N. resolutions, and Bush I policy betrayals without pause. And the point, he's insisting avidly—not just to me, never for a minute—is to give the man time to fix these propellant forces. Solutions don't appear overnight. Not in one year, not in one speech.
Even on a TV that huge, you still won't see the revolution.
When Gil Scott-Heron, now widely considered a progenitor of rap, released his galvanic 1970 debut, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, he was just 21 years old, a preternaturally focused kid who'd dropped out of school to play piano and complete a novel (The Vulture). He'd just learned to combine his gifts, laying down proto-jazz keys under his incredible poetry—sharply barked, bitingly critical blasts of political frustration and the struggles of the black community. He was an immediate sensation, buoyed on Small Talk's now-iconic commercialism satire "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" ("The revolution will not go better with Coke!"), and, over the next two decades, became a leading dissident, sung and spoken, for some of the most incendiary protests of the time: nuclear combat ("We Almost Lost Detroit"), apartheid ("Johannesburg"), Ronald Reagan ("B Movie," "Re-Ron").
When I meet Scott-Heron, it's been two weeks since his triumphant Martin Luther King Jr. Day show at S.O.B.'s—an electrifying melange of acid-jazz agility, smooth stories (his account of John Lennon's death brought actual sobs), and a rare, uniform reverence radiating from the packed crowd, mostly composed of young artists themselves. It's also been 13 years since his last studio album, which he's remedying this week by unexpectedly partnering with XL Records, home of Radiohead and Vampire Weekend, for an entirely reinvigorated LP, I'm New Here, that upends his stable jazz/soul sound with strains of hip-hop and minimalist electronica—a sign of his interests and also "what time it is" musically.
"I listen to the same stuff I always have: Miles, Coltrane, Nina Simone," he says. "And among the young folks, I listen to Kanye West, Mos Def, Chuck D." He smirks. "Hey, Chuck D made my children aware of me. Until he said he listened to me, my kids used to call me 'him.' I wasn't even a household name in my own household."
It's a good line he's used before, but Scott-Heron's home doubly confirms this diffidence—a small, quiet one-bedroom on a rough stretch of East 112th Street, a space scattered with dusty appliances, a mop perched against the DVD player, and two vases of lilies and red roses that pop shockingly against the subdued confines. He's tall, with sunken cheeks and thinning, mussed hair, owner of a baritone as deep as rattling subway tracks and a hep-cat phone manner to match—"This is Brouhaha," he answers whenever the landline screeches. Oh, and he's polite but barely tolerating my presence; he dislikes interviews. "I don't like to talk, period," he clarifies. "I figure, you've put out as much as I have, I've said it already."
In that vein, what may be most radical about I'm New Here, for all its adroit next-generation influence, is that it's more emotional, more optimistic, than his past political provocations, and he hasn't sounded this lively in ages (certainly since the early-'80s Arista discs Reflections and Moving Target). On the two-part intro/outro bookend set "On Coming From a Broken Home," he samples Kanye's "Flashing Lights" ("repayment," Scott-Heron chuckles, for the several times Mr. West nicked his beats), and resets the synth percolations to a lovely tribute to his grandmother and mother; the extended poem first appeared in his 1990 release Now and Then. Lead single "Me and the Devil," a Robert Johnson cover, pushes his brittle blues wail into its upper registers over Burial-style electro blips, the influence of XL head/album producer Richard Russell. "New York Is Killing Me," an animated a cappella lament for childhood home Jackson, Tennessee, ratchets along on handclaps and distorted percussion, pulsing with light but dirty and forlorn at the edges. The title track is most startling, a heartrending Smog cover that finds the singer calling gently for redemption over sparse acoustic guitar.
"That song says a lot—you can turn right back around if you want to," he explains gravely. "A lot of people could use that. I don't think I know anyone who doesn't have something they'd like to turn around."
Scott-Heron may dislike interviews solely for the questions that inevitably follow that kind of statement—he's an ex-felon and not hiding it (XL's press release anoints him an "ex-con genius"), and has been arrested several times in recent years for possession of illegal substances and subsequent parole violations. In 2006, he served a year at Rikers Island for cocaine possession; there, he fortuitously received a letter from Russell, who arranged a meeting at the prison and signed him to the label upon release. Scott-Heron is frank but touchy on the topic of drugs, not least because his half-brother and ex-girlfriend have been quoted in the Times as saying he needs rehab; he maintains that he's never been nor needed to go, yet the topic chases him.
"Lots of people write stories and are so half-assed about their facts; all they had to do was call me up," he notes irritably. "They said I went to rehab for cocaine? You wanna rehab from cocaine? Stop taking it."
Scott-Heron plans to tour this year in the U.S. and in Europe; he'll get to see more of his family, including his three children and his new granddaughter in Atlanta. He's also finishing a book, tentatively set for publication next year on Canondale Press, about his 1981 tour with Stevie Wonder and their successful campaign to get MLK Day recognized as a national holiday—a story he's proud of for one reason, the same one that applies to I'm New Here: "It makes you think," he says, a hint of a challenge in his smile. "And that may turn out to be dangerous, but this ain't Inherit the Wind. To hell with sponges! This is the 21st century—let's keep on movin'."