Gil Scott-Heron is thought to be one of the progenitors of hip-hop, approaching his early efforts with a spoken word ‘rap’ as backed by an insistent groove, with some counterbalancing jazz flute acting as a foil to his strident vocal delivery. His was the street-level voice of a black man concerned that the larger American culture was leaving his community behind in the wake of cultural distractions.
Among these distractions was television and commercialism which took attention away from what was happening in neighbourhoods in cities all over America – that the poverty cycle and disillusionment caused by it was reaching a breaking point. Where Marvin Gaye was angered and saddened by this same trend as expressed in his “Inner City Blues” put out that same year, Scott-Heron is full of disdain and sarcasm, listing off the banalities of white America measured against the anger and rising tension that stood in contrast with it.
Whether or not Scott-Heron can be traced to today’s hip-hop in general is arguable, although his connection to individual hip hop artists like Grandmaster Flash (‘The Message’), The Disposal Heroes of Hiphoprisy (‘Television, The Drug of the Nation’), and Public Enemy (‘Fight the Power’) is pretty undeniable in terms of tone and subject matter. What Scott-Heron was trying to do with this piece and other early poetry pieces he’d done while working in the same vein as contemporaries the Last Poets was to shed light on what was happening in the inner cities.
Hip Hop today, for the most part with those listed exceptions in mind, is about rising out of what is happening there, and escaping it. Absent from modern hip hop is the concern for the community that is so endemic to Scott-Heron’s work, it seems to me. In its place is the same banal materialism that he is speaking out against in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”.
What do you think, good people? I’m sure there are examples which prove this generalization of mine wrong. Are there some striking examples of social commentary and concern left in modern hip hop? I’d love to be turned on, hip hop fans!