Back in the early-'70s golden age of free-form rock radio, when a disc jockey felt it was time to pierce the airwaves with a crackling voice of protest, odds were that he or she would cue up "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" by Gil Scott-Heron.
More than 20 years after its release, the song still stands as an agit-pop classic, relevant and immediate even though its lyrics (carried in confrontational, machine-gun bursts that presaged today's hard-core rappers) are full of pop-culture references from 1971.
Today, Scott-Heron's satire on television's trivializing tendency to package and sell all facets of human experience sounds thoroughly current; so is its underlying message that the crucial moment of revolution occurs with a spark in the individual mind, not with events that get saturation coverage on TV.
Like much of Scott-Heron's subsequent music, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" also worked purely on musical merits. Hubert Laws' flute floated ironically around the singer's voice, while bassist Ron Carter and drummer Bernard Purdie laid down a supple, probing funk groove.
"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" launched Scott-Heron's career as one of pop's most persistent and wide-ranging commentators on the sociopolitical scene. As the '70s and '80s passed, he could be heard inveighing against alcohol, heroin and angel dust as scourges of ghetto life, warning against the dangers of nuclear power, or calling attention to South African apartheid at a time, 1975, when that issue wasn't yet a staple among pop acts with a social conscience.
Scott-Heron also tackled the Nixon and Reagan Administrations with barbed humor in extended monologues that placed him in the satiric tradition of Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory. His spot on the A-list of protest-minded pop performers led to appearances on two high-profile protest albums, "No Nukes," a 1980 concert album spearheaded by Jackson Browne, and "Sun City," the 1985 anti-apartheid release organized by Little Steven Van Zandt.
Scott-Heron's relevance for rappers is obvious in such early-'70s tracks as "No Knock," a hard-rhythmed response to abuses of police power, and "Whitey on the Moon," a bitter but hilarious spoken-rhyme piece that wondered how America could mount a race in space when it hadn't yet solved morally and socially crippling problems of race at home.
On its album, "Apocalypse 91 . . . The Enemy Strikes Back," the politicized rap group Public Enemy acknowledged a debt to Scott-Heron with a track called "1 Million Bottlebags," a cautionary tale about the ravages of alcohol in the ghetto that updated his mid-'70s hit, "The Bottle." Scott-Heron's influence also is apparent in the work of one of this year's most praised new rap groups, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.
While Scott-Heron is best known for his political commentary, his work has gone beyond a firebrand's rehashing of headlines to convey, often with great tenderness, the emotional and personal impact of social wrongs. "Winter in America," from 1974, sounded a sad death-knell for '60s hopes of transforming change. It continues to serve as a wonderful mood piece, capturing what it's like to feel oppressed in your soul by outer-world events that seem out of control.
"Pieces of a Man," from 1971, remains all-too-relevant: It registers with haunting anguish and terse poetic detail the shattering effect on a single household of a layoff notice. "Lady Day and John Coltrane" is an affecting appeal to the power of music to "wash your troubles away" when the harsh realities Scott-Heron addresses elsewhere become too oppressive. Stylistically, Scott-Heron's recordings move comfortably through soul and straight-blues influences, settling most often into a cool, jazz-funk groove.
Scott-Heron, 43, learned piano while growing up in small-town Tennessee and began playing in bands after moving to New York City in his teens. He also cultivated literary passions and published a mystery novel, "The Vulture," and a volume of poetry, "Small Talk at 125th & Lenox," before he became nationally known as a musician.
While his recording career developed during the early '70s, Scott-Heron earned a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University and made his primary living teaching creative writing and poetry at the University of the District of Columbia. It wasn't until 1976, after he had become the first artist signed by Arista Records, that Scott-Heron gave up his teaching career to pursue music full time.
Scott-Heron hasn't issued any new recordings in the United States since 1985, when he left Arista. His most recent album, the 17th of his career (counting two best-of compilations) was the 1990 double-CD release, "Live Somewhere in Europe," issued on a British label.
Although most of Scott-Heron's work is out of print in the United States, two compilations offer a decent overview. "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," on Bluebird/RCA, is drawn from his first three albums. "The Best of Gil Scott-Heron" features highlights from his Arista period. "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" is included on both albums.
Based in New York, Scott-Heron has continued to tour steadily with his five-member band, the Amnesia Express. Concert audiences can expect a selection of prime oldies, but the title of one of Scott-Heron's latest compositions, "From Watergate to Daryl Gates," indicates that a satiric eye honed in the '70s and '80s remains open on the '90s.