Re-released in tandem with a recent documentary about the man, this extensive set of Gil Scott-Heron reissues may be acclaimed as part of hip hop’s ancestry. But they reflect an anger, a conscientiousness and striving spirituality that’s all but evaporated in that genre. A New Black Poet, from 1970, was his introduction to the world, musically minimal (mainly accompanied by beatnik bongos) but lyrically maximal, as Heron declaims, spits and inveigles with a verbal tumult than even today is hard to keep up with. This isn’t merely trite, anti-racist didacticism. Sure, the irony of “Whitey On The Moon” is clear enough (“A rat done bit my sister Nell/While whitey’s on the moon”) but his injunctions against white hippies to “go find your own revolution” and the still-resonant “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” suggest he was trying to extract a notion of pure and righteous black struggle from the countercultural chaos and material thraldom of his times. Sadly, the giggling, homophobic “The Subject Was Faggots” blights this set.
On 1971’s Pieces Of A Man, Heron adopts his trademark jazz-funk sound, underpinned by the great Ron Carter on bass, with Hubert Laws’ flute fluttering about like an elusive bird of paradise. On “Home Is Where The Hatred Is” and the title track, Heron hints at the toll taken by discrimination on African-Americans, alluding to the drugs problems that would scar his own life. Although not a natural singer, his phrasing is movingly beautiful. Free Will (1972) is largely rendered in rap verse, including “The King Alfred Plan”, about plans for “preventative detention” of blacks, an indicator of the rage and pessimism, rather than hope, with which African Americans embarked on the ’70s. By 1981’s Reflections, Heron had further cause for despair in the form of Reagan, whom he castigates on the brilliant “B-Movie” ?a career bookend to “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, an elaborate diagnosis of a declining America taking pathetic solace in nostalgia for the days when “the films were black and white and so was everything else”. Following 1982’s Moving Target, he went under for a while. Today, more than ever, he needs to be heard.