Who will survive in America?
A pertinent question, at this time and all times. If you asked it surreptitiously, under your breath while you read the news at work or at school this week, your colleague might have looked up, pointed at you, and said, “Kanye. Nice.”
The question is a quote which from the first album of musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron, sampled in the final moments of the epic backhanded apology that is Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010). What began as “Comment #1” (1970), the war cry of a young black man looking to distance himself from white allies-until-graduation, was recontextualized as “Who Will Survive In America,” a cry-for-help from an overserved ubercelebrity.
To his own generation, Gil Scott-Heron was predominantly a writer and a poet who had a successful decade-long turn as a recording artist. Others know him through his infamous turn of phrase, “The revolution will not be televised.” To a few, he was the estranged artist son of Gil Heron, the first black player on Glasgow’s Celtic Football Club. But to many artists, journalists, and crate-diggers, he was the undisputed father of the Hip-Hop movement.
Whether Scott-Heron agreed or not (he didn’t), there is no denying the influence of his sound in rap nor the presence of his actual sounds in 21st century beats. Gil Scott-Heron is, if not the most often-sampled, then perhaps the most significantly sampled artist in recent Hip-Hop music.
No producer has been a more direct (or perhaps a more obvious) purveyor of Scott-Heron samples in Rap than Kanye . If you hadn’t heard Scott-Heron before 2005 then your first experience was probably “Home Is Where The Hatred Is” off of the 1971 album Pieces Of A Man. On a track called “My Way Home” (2005), West recorded Common over a loop of the original tune. Then, when Common didn’t want the track for his own Be album, West included it in his own somewhat underrated sophomore album Late Registration (and amazingly didn’t include himself on the track at all). Years later, DJ Rashad would also sample the track on the bittersweet “I’m Gone” (2011).
In another case of West and Common collaborating over a Scott-Heron anti-drug ballad, Kanye flipped the supremely funky “Angel Dust” into The Game’s “Angel” (2008, featuring Common). The original came from 1978’s Secrets, which Scott-Heron recorded with his most frequent collaborator, Brian Jackson.
To this day, “We Almost Lost Detroit” remains one of Scott-Heron’s and Jackson’s most celebrated songs. The two recorded it for their essential 1977 album Bridges in response to a 1966 nuclear meltdown in Detroit that writer John G. Fuller drew attention to in his 1975 book of that same title. Common’s “The People” (2007) includes West’s most creative Scott-Heron sample – a pitched-up loop of the singer’s trademark glottal melisma – and producer J. Rawls sampled the song more literally for “Brown Skin Lady” (1997) off of Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s equally essential collaborative album Black Star.
If “Steve Of Internet” was the top Heron-flipper in the aughts, Dilla Of Internet has the title in the teens. Knxwledge got to sampling Scott-Heron early and often in his now-widely-celebrated beatmaking career. One particular gem is “inamerika” (2012), which loops the frequently sampled title track off of Scott-Heron’s and Jackson’s 1974 album Winter in America.
Undoubtedly the most jaw-dropping, hand-over-heart sample of Scott-Heron ever is Knwxledge’s use of “The Bottle,” also off of Winter in America, to make the beat for his rhetorical pimp anthem with Anderson .Paak, “Suede” (2015). (N.B.: The songs have very different messages for the children.)
Completing the trifecta of Knwxledge samples from Winter in America is “Peace Go With You, Brother,” which the producer turned into “Dryice” in 2011. Most Knwxledge fans will also likely recognize the Rhodes keys from Freddie Joachim’s “Waves” which Joey Bada$$ used for his breakout track of the same name. And more attentive listeners may catch the segment of the song that was looped by Willie B for Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 cut “Poe Man’s Dreams” (I’m not going to tell you where exactly – listen for it ).
Gil Scott-Heron polished the instrumentation and production considerably for the sound of his 1980’s solo work. Yasiin Bey and producer D-Prosper harnessed the glittering keys of “Legend In His Own Mind” off of 1980’s Real Eyes for the reference-heavy “Mr. Nigga” with Q-Tip.
Scott-Heron also made an album with Jackson in 1980 called 1980, inevitably featuring the song “1980.” That title track includes lyrics that eerily seem to anticipate the poet’s impending downfall: “it’s 1980, and there ain’t even no way back to ’75.” Similarly, the 2Pac song “Ready For Whatever” (c. 1997) which samples “1980,” finds Pac wondering aloud if he will survive or die in the streets. That song was produced by Johnny J, who also died a tragic and early death.
Gil Scott-Heron was dropped by his long-time label Arista Records in the mid-80’s and descended into addiction and relative obscurity until more than ten years later, when he returned with the jazzed-out Spirits in 1994. The album finds Scott-Heron revisiting “Home Is Where The Hatred Is” in a series of variations titled “The Other Side,” which Jamie xx would later sample on the track “Home” for his album celebrating the poet and musician, We’re New Here (2011). The standout track of Spirits, however, is the Protean, mood-shifting “Give Her A Call,” which some may recognize from the Pro Era track of the same name.
Alignment with XL Recordings would bring Scott-Heron back to relevance – to serious hype, really – by combining the artist’s poetry and pared-down blues renditions with subtle UK bass production to create his 2010 album I’m New Here. The clap loop from the project’s title track made it an instant classic and has helped to do the same for the songs that have sampled it since – particularly Jamie xx’s “Rolling In The Deep” remix (2011) and Angel Haze’s “New York” (2012).
The Gil Scott-Heron canon of music and words strips and lays bare one of the deepest and darkest souls in 20th century music, not unlike that of Leonard Cohen in its scope. It’s difficult to say with confidence what song is Scott-Heron deepest, but it’s easy enough to say that this is his darkest. It certainly slaps, though: Flatbush Zombies rapped over it once and XL’s Everything Is Recorded just put Grime-lord-cum-OVO-darling Giggs on it for this year’s Close But Not Quite EP.
A swansong of sorts on a swansong-album – and itself a cover of an old Blues standard – Scott-Heron’s love ballad for no one would become his biggest hit after 1980 due in large part to Jamie xx’s We’re New Here remix, “I’ll Take Care Of U” (2011). Between the release of that remix and Drake’s co-opting it for his single “Take Care” (2011) Gil Scott-Heron would pass away in New York City in May of 2011. Though Drake very safely replaced Scott-Heron’s vocals with Rihanna’s for the song, a small and fast loop of the soul singer’s iconic melisma was included toward the end of the song and could be heard everywhere for months after his death. Few may have known that it was Gil Scott-Heron, but he was always a man who existed in pieces.