Listen to the entire interview – the audio follows the text
by Minister of Information JR
Gil Scott Heron is one of the greatest legends that Black music has breathing in this country. To many, his music is the soundtrack to different eras, the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. This piano player, songwriting and composing poet, has set the bar very high when it comes to passionately expressing a wide array of emotions.
He is also a beast at getting a political message across through song, right next to people like Fela Kuti, Peter Tosh, Nina Simone and the likes. This is Part 3 of a four-part interview. Here’s Gil Scott Heron in his own words …
M.O.I. JR: When you sang the song, “We Almost Lost Detroit.” I saw you speak on YouTube in one of your concerts where you were saying that that was written for Three Mile Island …
Gil Scott Heron: No. No. No. No. That was written before Three Mile Island. It was written about a place called En Rico Ferm 1, which is 30 miles outside of Detroit, where they had a nuclear accident before Three Mile Island, before Chernobyl, before them other places. And there was a book written on it called “We Almost Lost Detroit,” because when they asked a guy who worked there what happened and how close did they come to having a real meltdown, he said, “We almost lost Detroit.”
M.O.I. JR: I named you and Tupac, but the third person that I would put in there with my favorite artists would be Marvin Gaye, and I think that your music and his music is very similar in content; your lives are similar – the struggles that you both have been through. They call him one of the most political of the Soul artists of the period – I guess him and Sam Cooke.
How do you look at the work of someone like Marvin Gaye when he has songs like “Inner City Blues,” which you remade later on. He also has songs like “Home is Where the Hatred Is.” But he has the song about cocaine: “Flyin High,” I believe it is called. How do you look at the work, in particular, of somebody like Marvin Gaye?
Gil Scott Heron: Well, I think that the things that you are naming is from the “What’s Going On” album. This is after Marvin had been overseas for a while and had not been particularly popular with the record label over here. He did an album about a Vietnam veteran coming back from the wars and seeing what had been happening in the streets while he was over there.
The album goes on to say that he had become addicted. He didn’t know what was happening on the streets, he didn’t know what kind of perspective he should take because the world was so different from what the United States sees as the world.
I did “Inner City Blues” because I thought that people needed to hear those ideas and that the lyrics needed to be clearer and in context, so I did that. Marvin was born on the second of April; I was born on the first. We were both people who put our things together musically in Washington, because that’s where Marvin was.
Marvin was raised by his parents; I was raised by my grandmother. The connection between us goes to like … I didn’t do “Let’s Get It On.” I didn’t do “Hitch Hike.” I didn’t do songs wit’ Tammi Terrell or anybody who corresponded with her. The connection may be because we’re both Aries, and we both did a lot of music.
M.O.I. JR: It’s interesting that you put it out there like that because that is one of the connections that I have with both of y’all. You’re born on the first, he’s born on the second, and I’m born on the seventh. And I know that Billie Holiday is born on the seventh also.
Gil Scott Heron: And we put the two things together that most naturally need each other, fire and air, when we did “Lady Day and John Coltrane,” because she was Aries and John Coltrane was born on the 23rd of September. He was a Libra. And we did one of his songs, “Equinox,” about the second time of the year that the sun is directly over the equator, and both day and night are exactly 12 hours long. If you’re looking for balance in your life, those are the two days – the beginning of spring and the beginning of Libra – when those things are most available.
M.O.I. JR: Well, let’s get into a what made you do a song about John Coltrane and Lady Day, Billie Holiday? What inspired you to write lyrics about them? And specifically for my generation, what is their importance to Black music internationally?
Gil Scott Heron: Well, see both of them have individual voices. You know right away when you are listening to John Coltrane. You know right away when you hear Billie Holiday’s voice. They are Aries and Libra. A fire needs air in order to grow and to expand.
I think that any artist, in general, that you recognize right away and you know that that is their music and that that’s their voice, they’ve touched upon something individual, and they bring an individual contribution to music and to your life. I don’t want to listen for an hour and figure out who it was later.
I like to know who it is that is talking to me. And I like to feel as though something of them has been contributed to the music that I’m listening to. And when I hear those people, I recognize their individual touch. I recognize their voices immediately. I recognize Nina Simone. I recognize Richie Havens. I recognize Andy Bey. I recognize Tupac. I recognize those people and I gravitate towards them because I know something personal is in there.
M.O.I. JR: You just mentioned Tupac and that’s one of the people that I would definitely – and I think that a lot of people, particularly in my age range and a little bit above me and definitely below me – would rank Tupac up there as one of the greatest rap artists to ever touch a microphone, particularly from our generation. How do you see somebody with a political message like Tupac, and I know that before we were taping, we were having a brief conversation about Tupac. I wanted to know if you could share that with the listeners?
Gil Scott Heron: Well, I said that he did one of my compositions on his album “Ready for Whatever.” One of our tunes was deeply submerged into it. I recognized the genius in Tupac, but I think that you would have to be blind not to. The tragedy, of course, is that he didn’t reach more people when he was alive, and people kept going and seeing him do what he does.
He was a genius onstage as well as in the studio. You can’t disconnect one genius from another. This brother was outstanding and quick on his feet and quick with the words.
I think that we need to read more to understand where Tupac was coming from. We need to read Langston Hughes. We need to read Countee Cullen and Claude McKay and these people to understand what he understood and that there has always been a struggle as long as we been here. And that different people had said different things that are stepping stones for us to get to the next level. And I got to be honest: This is one that folks is stepping on now trying to get to the next level.
Gil Scott Heron in conversation with Minister of Information JR: Listen to the entire interview as broadcast on KPFA
While the Bay View is presenting the text of this extraordinary interview in four parts, we want you to hear the audio in its entirety. It’s so warm, it will turn your winter day into summer.
The interview was broadcast Monday, Oct. 19, 8 p.m., on Greg Bridges’ Transitions on Traditions on KPFA 94.1 FM. It begins 32 minutes into the show. Just click on the area marked “Track #1” and move the slider to the 32-minute point.