I remember when I first heard Gil Scott-Heron's voice. I was listening to Kanye West's "Late Registration" album. One of the songs had sampled Gil's "Home is Where The Hatred Is", and I was astonished by his melismatic baritone. Kanye West had also lowered the pitch on the portion he sampled; this took Gil's vocal and added a certain spooky factor that I thought was really cool. Not to mention that I love the way pitched-down highhat grooves sound, and those were present in the sample as well.
After doing some research, I found out where this sample came from. I looked into other works of Gil's and I was simply amazed by the many different awesome characteristics his music had.
For one... His band! They went by the name "The Midnight Band", in other words, the first minute of a new day. The musicians that Gil had on his projects were top notch. Ron Carter in particular is one of the best bass players ever in my opinion. If you need proof, listen to the addicting baseline on "Is that Jazz". (Below)
Now, let's get into the vocal beast that is Gil Scott-Heron himself. Take a deep baritone, add a pack of Marlboro Reds and incredible lyric wizardry. The way Gil would sing was truly unique. He would take a syllable, and run whole scales down from it. This type of singing is called Melismatic. This is what gives him his vocal character. His pitch wasn't always spot on, but sometimes the old dirty wurly sounds better than the brand new clean one.
The man's lyrics were simply incredible. He would take moments of everyday life and transform them into a palette fit for Bob Ross. One of my favorite songs is "A Lovely Day". Here's just a small excerpt of the lyrics:
"It's on a clear spring morning, there's not a cloud in the sky. And it's got me out here walking and waving to the ladies as they stroll by."
"And I ain't forgot for a moment, all the things I need to do. Cause when I see that old sun shining, it's makes me think that I can make it too."
"Yes and, all I, really wanna say is that the problems come and go, but he sunshine seems to stay, and hey. Just look around, I think we've found, a lovely day.
Gil spoke from his heart, he said what he wanted, just for him, and he made the simple things in life beautiful. He wasn't out to please anyone, he just made music that he felt was appropriate for what was going on in his life; a true artist.
I had the privilege to see Gil perform three times in the last 2 years. Once at Carnegie Hall as a special guest for Mos Def, once at Summerstage in Central Park, and the once in Harlem, Gil's neighborhood and stomping grounds. I am grateful that I got to see him so often before he passed.
I was deeply saddened when I heard the news of his sudden death last night. At only 62 years old, it's a real downer. The songs below are required listening: