High Times Greats: Gil Scott-Heron

A 1977 conversation with the renowned musician and spoken-word performer.
High Times Greats: Gil Scott-Heron
Gil Scott-Heron by Melanie Rogers

From the March, 1977 issue of High Times comes David Fenton’s interview with the late, great Gil Scott-Heron, who would have been 72 years old on April 1.

Gil Scott-Heron is a singer, songwriter and bandleader who is also a poet, philosopher, novelist and political revolutionary. First acclaimed for his composition “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” he has recorded seven albums in the past six years—establishing himself as a star of urban jazz and R&B and at the same time as one of the most militant and politically incisive artists working any musical vein.

Gil Scott-Heron’s nine-member “Midnight Band” (named “for the first minute of the new day”) is a tight R&B rhythm machine that combines cool, mellow jazz with the explosive saxophone of Bilal Sunni-Ali, a soaring solo artist in the tradition of Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp and John Coltrane. The group is orchestrated by Brian Jackson. Gil Scott-Heron sings in a superb, raspy, deep-throat style. But the real star of the show is the message—a poetic, political message that hits you where you think and where you dance.

Gil doesn’t sing about the same old things. Like any great soul artist, he sings about love, but he also sings about Watergate, nuclear power, black liberation, heroin. Gil shows that the way to deal with them is to keep on thinking while you keep on living. His angry songs—like “In the Bottle,” about ghetto alcoholism, and “Johannesburg,” an anthem of South African liberation—were R&B hits despite their hardline stance. Gil’s first career was as a novelist, and his first published work was The Vulture, a novel about a black man murdered while dealing pot and pills. Next came The Nigger Factory about an uprising at a black college campus. His volume of poetry, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, is out of print but a new book of poems will be out soon.

Gil and the Midnight Band started out with Flying Dutchman Records, a jazz label, which released Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, Pieces of a Man and Free Will, all of which are still available. Then, Gil recorded an album called Winter in America for the nonprofit, artist-controlled Strata-East Records. Clive Davis was impressed enough to sign them as his first new act on the new label, Arista. Since then, Gil has released three albums: First Minute of a New Day, From South Africa to South Carolina and It’s Your World.

A Midnight Band performance combines the words political and party in a new way—clenched-fisted dancers boogie-ing on tabletops.

High Times: As a musician and poet who draws much of his inspiration from social affairs, do you consider yourself part of the minstrel tradition?

Scott-Heron: We call it the Griot tradition. The Griot were African drummers and storytellers who walked from village to village carrying the news and history of what was happening, so they had a large impact on the affairs of the day.

High Times: What kind of impact do you think music can have?

Scott-Heron: It seems to me that music has changed—and is changing—the world. People whose medium is music are leaders of social thought and philosophy. Fela in Nigeria has become the number one folk hero of the Third World through his aggressive musical approach to the problems affecting the people of Nigeria. Bob Marley, of course, has become a leader in social thought and the revolution that’s happening today. You probably won’t ever have revolutions like they’ve had in the past.

Not to take it too far out, but to say where I’m coming from: Mao was a poet. Che Guevara was educated in the university. Martin Luther King was a poet, an orator. And just as sure as our band will tune up and I’ll sing, they tuned up and sang. I think there was a certain music, if you can dig it, within all of that Southern Baptist, rhythmic, booming bass approach to speaking that could take Martin Luther King into an audience of 200,000 and have him come out with 200,000 followers. Because there was something beyond what he was saying. Even though he was well educated, he used simple terms and images. The same is true of Malcolm X and all great speakers. They’re singers, they’re poets, they’re thespians, they’re actors: they dramatize.

This stems from the Griot tradition, where the poet or bard would rap to the drums. We base our act around the drum and its effects. We introduce each set with the drum, and we more or less close out with it too. The drum is the first instrument. It’s of wood and of goat- or muleskin. It is of nature. And everybody relates to rhythm—everybody’s heart beats. Everybody has a center around which they flow, and the drum focuses on that.

You know, tribes from one section of the Nile could send messages up to 20 miles at a time on a drum called a tumbau. When black people came to this country, they took the drum from us, because they knew it helped start revolutions. You know what the drum is communicating, but the man don’t. All he knows is that you’re playing drums, having a good time. So they took the drum when they learned.

High Times: If you look at the pop record charts this week you’ll see white musicians like Boz Scaggs, James Taylor and the Bee Gees getting hit records by playing modified black rhythm and blues or “disco.” Do you think black music is becoming more popular?

Scott-Heron: I think they always got to come back home. They go to England to get it, they go everywhere, but they always got to come right back down to 125th Street to find out what’s happening and play that, you know. Boz’s lick is a Buddy Miles thing, for example.

That whole phenomenon comes in waves. As soon as they get a white xerox copy of the original black groups, they slide them out there. So Chuck Berry disappeared when Elvis Presley did “Hound Dog.” Little Richard disappeared when Tom Jones did “What’s New, Pussycat?”—or was it “It’s Not Unusual,” or was that a medley? You know the Jackson Five almost got rubbed out by the Osmond Brothers. Double your pleasure, double your groups.

I notice that more of the hits that are making the white Top Ten are also in the black Top Ten. Like the Bee Gees are part of the white pop market, right? Well, now they’re a part of the soul market. There are white groups that sound kind of black and black ones that sound kind of white, which is homogenizing the pop music scene. To a certain extent this helps break down racism, if only because you can’t tell what color they are just by listening.

High Times: We notice on your latest album that you dedicate a song to John Coltrane. What kind of impact did Trane’s music have on you ?

Scott-Heron: Every facet of music has its innovators, people who step a little bit out ahead. Trane was a tremendous innovator, and I feel he had a large impact on people interested in avant garde music. Despite the fact that he is considered a true master of the tenor saxophone, Trane is still not that well known or appreciated.

Our Midnight Band has an appeal that is developing across several of the marketing lines looked at by the record companies, so we have an opportunity to talk to some people who might not otherwise have been exposed to avant garde music. We like to make sure that we educate as well as perform and entertain and share vibrations. People don’t really have the opportunity to hear Trane’s music on commercial radio. There’s not a lot of Trane or Miles or Diz programmed. People may be looking for progressive musicians and ideas, but they may not know where to find them.

High Times: Do you think John Coltrane made a distinct impression on the popular music of today?

Scott-Heron: Oh, sure. The whole texture of his horn was adopted. You can hear Trane-flavored horns and riffs on your disco jukebox.

High Times: What do you think of the state of radio today?

Scott-Heron: Well, the state of radio is generally like the state of the nation. Right now, stations are being run on the same old gamut of safe to safety in terms of what they play. I think people are less into radio right now, because they know they’re going to hear pretty much the same set of tunes on whichever end of the dial they tune in. The play lists at the FM stations have shrunk over the past few years. But there are some good college stations.

You know, who owns radio stations? Check it out. That’s the thing that people always need to be checking out on the bottom line: who owns it? Let’s face it: most of American communications, transportation and power is owned by conservatives who have taken over many aspects of the media, strangled the First Amendment and are working on the rest of them. Information that is negative about corporate control of communications will not come through on their airwaves. They will not be the ones to sponsor getting that message across.

During the late Sixties and early Seventies a lot of the independent stations that came up in the ratings by doing radical things were bought by conservative investors who changed the format around. It’s a conglomerate thing happening, man. You can see more and more of the world being eaten up by it and—well, I guess I’m like Woody Allen—I’m always aware of creeping fascism.

Another thing about radio is the ratings—the Arbitron and Pulse ratings services for radio stations. Generally they’re extremely bogus. I mean, not only are they off percentages but they’re off by months, in terms of what people are listening to. But whatever stations people are listening to, according to those numbers, that’s where advertisers buy their commercial time. And that determines what they program. The tunes are cut to fit between the commercials.

High Times: Do you think the media is consciously manipulated?

Scott-Heron: See, the media was different ten years ago. They were taken by surprise when all that protest activity happened. Without meaning to, the media communicated to everybody that they were not the only ones who didn’t dig what was going down; look at those people demonstrating over there. It brought a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise know black people into educational contact, and they became sympathetic.

The media stirred things up back then. See, you were taught all this stuff in high school—George Washington, apple pie and Chevrolet. But then you forgot. Started hanging out with them niggers, smoking that reefer. But as the thing snowballed and more people got involved with social protest, America fought back. Now we’ve got to relearn you—so look at this picture, because here comes “Policewoman” and “The Rookies” and “The Sophomores” and “The Veterans” and “The Blue Knight” and “The White Nun.” And they be coming at you with all them guns and SWAT teams and trucks and shit, and you say, “Oh, my God, I can’t fight them.”

See, the program now is total inertia. They’re trying to freeze-dry everybody. Suspended animation. Because they know it was activism that brought about a lot of positive changes. The counterculture, the subculture—underground, or whatever— it still exists in America. It’s as potent as ever, but right now, it’s freeze-dried. There just have to be some new approaches. We have to get us some TV stations, I guess.

High Times: Your song “Winter in America” describes the lull in activism that has so far characterized the Seventies. Could you explain that concept?

Scott-Heron: Well, you know how they used to say, “The long hot summer’s coming”? Well, when law and order came, and the cutbacks in social programs came, and assassinations and imprisonment and that kind of thing came, it brought about Winter in America. They killed King, they killed Kennedy; they whipped heads in Chicago, killed Fred Hampton and Mark Clark [members of the Black Panther Party], They visited violence on white students for the first time at Kent State.

They gave everybody the news that to stand up from now on was going to cost you all the way to the max. And this brought about a disillusionment, a certain amount of discouraging news to Americans of the younger generation who had been committed more to the ideals of America than to the realities. It brought about a lesson in the now that connected them with the entire American past. Because America has always been a gangster organization.

You know, the English and the French had deals with the Indians. Once America broke its association with the mother country it no longer had to respect those deals; we could go and kill them if we wanted to. And the Indians were not hip. They couldn’t believe, as much of this land as there was, that somebody would want to have it all. From day one they’ve had killers in this country. People who have no respect for human life—they’ll take it from you. And a lot of people who approached America once felt that demonstrations by masses of people would bring about the implementation of justice. But they forgot that justice doesn’t work to the benefit of the rich.

This is a cold-blooded organization. We killed them Vietnamese people just yesterday, and if we had the wrong man at the top at the wrong time we’d be over there killing them Africans. I’m telling you, there was a whole lot of Indians. Beautiful people. You meet them now and their connections with their cultural ancestry will hip you to another dimension of living.

See, American is like Jekyll and Hyde. They got a half a hip thing and half an ugly thing. And they only want to stand with one part of their face to the mirror, so they always see Robert Redford instead of Lester Maddox as who they are. But they are Lester Maddox in their hearts and souls. There’s two sides to America, and we only be looking most of the time at half of it. As a creator that cuts off half of his creative potential. There’s ugly with beautiful, and we try to keep them both in perspective.

High Times: Will Winter in America thaw out eventually?

Scott-Heron: I think it will, because people are still concerned. But the leaders have been killed. People have been put to work for the rest of their lives paying court costs, thrown in jail or just assimilated through coercion, as well as through fatigue. There’s a directionlessness, if you can dig it, because there are so many fronts. People don’t know what to do first. It’s like we say in the song, “Nobody’s fighting because nobody knows what to say.” But the people and the problems are still out there, and as long as they are, a response will eventually develop.

High Times: Now that the CIA and FBI’s dirty tricks have been somewhat revealed, do you think the government has stopped that kind of activity?

Scott-Heron: They just don’t do the kinds of things that can be so easily revealed anymore. Now they have a “do-not-write-it-down” kind of thing going, so it’s your word against theirs. No evidence can be produced.

High Times: Certainly the government, through the CIA’s Operation Chaos and the FBI’s Cointelpro activities, moved to neutralize the movement. But didn’t that movement also contribute to its own demise?

Scott-Heron: Of course. But you can’t underscore enough how they effectively turned us against each other—the old “divide and conquer” routine. They had us shooting at one another. They wrote phony letters purportedly identifying activists as police agents, causing incredible suspicion and paranoia. They stopped a whole lot of people cold.

High Times: Don’t you think at times the Left played into the government’s hands with “kill-the-pig” rhetoric and endless internal bickering ?

Scott-Heron: Sure. And another thing was going on TV every time we had an idea. That’s why I wrote “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” We talked ourselves into a hole, overpromising this and that, because the TV nationalism appealed to our egos. We made all our speeches at press conferences and lost contact with the folks we were supposed to be the leaders of.

High Times: You were once quoted as saying, “I want to interpret politics in terms of cash.” What do you mean?

Scott-Heron: That’s all politics is: money, like on the bottom line. New York City has been robbed blind. But we’re blaming the victim instead of the criminals. It’s like you see somebody get raped and you run up and say, “Why didn’t you defend yourself? Didn’t you see the man was about to rape you?” New York City’s been mugged by a whole lot of different people who’ve run off with the money. So now the money’s not here to pay the bills. The 8 million people who are here suffering are not the people who committed the crime; therefore, they shouldn’t have to pay for it. They shouldn’t have all these services knocked out of the budget because of these corporate crooks who made all the interest and the politicians who mismanaged the money to the point where they can’t pay the bills. I’m saying cancel a few of them bonds and pay the motherfucking bills!

This is what you got to do in your life, and in your country. You’ve got to cancel some Fl4s and put them to work building houses. If the money ain’t here, we know it was here once, so they should check out whoever has those houses in the Alps and the bank accounts in the Bahamas—or is it the other way around?

High Times: You penned and popularized the song “Johannesburg,” which predicted the Soweto uprisings in South Africa two years before the fact. What do you think of the situation in Africa today?

Scott-Heron: Africa is going to be a continent to be dealt with. The American government is starting to wake up to it, but it took them a long time. You know, in Rhodesia they were saying we’ll turn this nation over to black people in two years, as long as there’s no guerrilla activity. That’s giving the South Africans two more years to shore up their thing so that the Rhodesians can fall back across the border. Then together they’ll try and hold onto that tip of Africa forever. And South Africa has nuclear weapons, which they say they’ll use.

That’s one thing about them: they be down front. These South Africans are Nazis, you understand. Vorster is a Nazi. This is what disappointed me about him getting down with Rabin. [Yitzhak Rabin, the president of Israel, recently allied with Prime Minister Vorster of South Africa.] That’s coldblooded, Jim. That’s irony for your ass. But it isn’t that far away from the Central Intelligence Agency, which kills people and poisons them and assassinates them and makes them fight wars against one another all for the advantage of United States corporations.

See, I’m not trying to create drama by saying all this. I’m just trying to say face it, man. Face the kind of things they be doing. Face John Foster Dulles. Face Dean Rusk. Face Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara.

High Times: Are you ever optimistic?

Scott-Heron: The thing that keeps me alive, I suppose, is the fact that I don’t really believe people want it to be that way. I don’t believe they want it at the expense of all those lives and the chaos that is created in their names in all those other countries. And sooner or later we got to pay heavy dues. The sins of the fathers fall on the heads of the children—karma.

You see, I don’t think I’m that clever, that I’m the only one to think this. You know, it is the right, it is the duty of the American people to overthrow the government. You look it up: this isn’t something I made up. It’s in the Declaration of Independence. All people are created equal. Justice, liberty and equality. It’s in the rules, and we read the rules. They should never have written that shit down. The only one who can’t forget is Sam Ervin, and I think he was around when they put the shit together.

High Times: Being a Southerner by birth, what do you think of Jimmy Carter?

Scott-Heron: I don’t think he means much. He doesn’t represent a symbol of justice to me. Again—justice, liberty and equality. I didn’t make this slogan up. I read it somewhere. We don’t have that in this country.

High Times: You say it doesn’t mean much, but can’t the president affect things in some ways, like Supreme Court appointments? Certainly Carter is popular in the black communities.

Scott-Heron: Compared to what? Ain’t but two running, and he’s the only one who came. He was popular compared to who? Oatmeal Ford?

High Times: What about his being a Southerner?

Scott-Heron: I believe that there’s a voice in the South that speaks to justice. People in the South have come to learn things the hard way, and now they have the potential to teach the rest of the country, so they won’t have to go through it. But what I’m saying is that on the bottom line the economic relationships won’t change because of Carter. I do believe the Democrats have a certain obligation to their constituency, which resides in many of the Northern industrial areas, to push through something extreme in order to correct previous mistakes. And at least under Kennedy and Johnson it became possible to dig upon the possibility of change —they raised our expectations.

High Times: On the album From South Africa to South Carolina, you have a song about the perils of nuclear power related to a waste storage facility. How did you come to write that?

Scott-Heron: It’s a plant in Banwell, South Carolina, on the Savannah River. There’s about 40 million gallons of radioactive waste material there and they’re checking out other areas where to put these things, and they should put them away. They should quit playing with that shit, because this stuff lives forever and we don’t. And we won’t live as long as we would have. This is dangerous. You see, it sounds like goddamn crazy talk. This is why I usually don’t talk, you know. Because it sounds so dramatic, and people today would rather not deal with no drama.

High Times: Some cynical writers and critics say that you’re a relic. How do you react to that?

Scott-Heron: To say that songs of social discontent or social content are part of the Sixties is to say that social injustice is a part of the Sixties and not a part of the Seventies. If it was only a part of the Sixties, I guess I’d be on the Golden Oldies circuit. These writers resent that I should still be around saying this kind of shit because it reminds them of the commitment they used to have. See, we’re still talking about dealing with the problems that exist. They’re trying to ignore the problems. It’s the old troublemaker rap.

I feel as though what I’m doing is continuing a school of thought and a tradition that has existed for ages, and that I’m no more responsible for the things I have to talk about than they are. There’s a saying in the Bible: “The guilty fleeth when no man pursueth.”

High Times: We’ve talked a good deal about politics because you’re so identified with that. But you’ve written and performed songs of love, relationships and personal experiences, too.

Scott-Heron: Yeah, and they hardly ever ask me about those at interviews, you know? I feel that part is the less dramatic. I have fun doing tunes. I’ve written novels, plays and poems. I’ve been a lot of places. I lived down South and up in New York. I was born in Chicago, have roots in Jamaica. I’ve been fortunate. The experiences I’ve written about have covered 360 degrees.

High Times: As a black artist with white sales, how do you relate to the white part of your audience?

Scott-Heron: I relate to the black experience. That’s who I am. You know what I mean? Like when Bobby Vinton sang “My Polish Lullaby,” nobody asked, “Why is he singing a Polish lullaby?” We present things that approach the intellectual sensitivity of a mature black audience. And a lot of people are still not willing to admit that that exists.

We’re saying that with the black community there is a sensitivity to all of the problems that affect humankind, including the political problems. It does stem from the ideas and concepts of some young black men, you know, and it’s being presented in a masculine fashion, and it’s being presented out front, you know. In other words, we’re not scratching our heads and apologizing about a motherfucking thing. We are not guilty. We have not done anything to hold back America from the millennium. We have pushed it, and we continue to push it. We continue to represent the conscience of America. And for the media that exists nowadays that want their freedoms and their progressive ideas maintained, they should be pushing us harder than they’ve pushed anything since hula hoops.

High Times: Do you have any special message for the audience of High Times?

Scott-Heron: I enjoy High Times. Do I smoke? Of course. I don’t shoot smack, I don’t trip—up, down, sideways. I don’t do a lot of booze. But the highest I get is when I’m playing. There’s a feeling there that relates to an energy that takes me out there and brings me back. It’s the communication that goes on between me and the audience and the band. Collectively, we become more sensitive to each other.

I’ve taken psychedelics and they’ve played a role, but I personally don’t do that anymore, because I found that I’d be exhausted afterward and not agreeable to nothin’. That shit is serious. I can do without, and I do. As far as my songwriting goes, the only thing I’m so specific on is heroin, like on “Home Is Where the Hatred Lies.” Because heroin is the most deadly thing out on the streets.

High Times: Do you support the movement to legalize heroin for addicts to cut down on crime and paranoia in urban areas?

Scott-Heron: Well, I think it could possibly reduce the black-market impact on the community and some of the crime that is usually associated with that, which would be a good thing. Would I support it? As opposed to what? As opposed to damn near anything happening today? Yeah. I support things that help people, but methadone is worse.

I’ve been asked why I don’t get more specific about drugs than just saying that smack is out. I feel as though we’re trying to direct people, trying to advise them in the proper direction. We’re not trying to make up their minds; we’re trying to show them some pictures or some negative things that happen in certain situations.

And it would take far more time than you get on a record to go into all the different brands and all the different concepts about the difference between grass and coke and smack and hash. So just say what you can say for sure. That’s why we’re very definite about smack, you know, and we’re very negative on people drinking more than they should. I’m saying most people know when they’re drinking more than they should. Their body is like, a Chinese fire drill.

High Times: Like a what?

Scott-Heron: A Chinese fire drill —everything going everywhere. Like you get warned, you know, about all of these things. Your body is very hip—it has itself together and tries to keep you with it.

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