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An old photo of Gil Scott-Heron, hard-jawed and softly Afro'd and intensely handsome, appeared in the Random Notes section of last week's Rolling Stone. But it was part of another, newer picture: conscious-rap group the Roots and hip-hop chanteuse Erykah Badu were smiling for the camera after a recent concert together. Scott-Heron got in the shot only because his face—in fact, the cover of his 1971 album, Pieces of a Man—was plastered across a T-shirt one of them was wearing.
The image served as another appropriate tribute to the enduring legacy of Scott-Heron's trailblazing style of audio collage and sociopolitical expression. In the shattering aftermath of the murders of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., when there was no one left to deny the Vietnam War was a mess, while the nation was exhausting its remaining patience waiting for Watergate, Scott-Heron emerged to baptize the baby that would grow up to become rap. His amalgamation of musical riffs (sometimes original, sometimes borrowed), poetic license (sometimes spoken, sometimes sung), and unflinching theme (sometimes love, sometimes anger, sometimes the confusion in between) summarized the tangents of those times. Ours, too. His message assured people that there was still something to hold on to: themselves, one another, their very lives, every moment. Translated, he chanted the mantra of today: keep it real.
Well, didn't he? Doesn't he? On his most recent studio album, 1994's Spirits, even Scott-Heron seemed to acknowledge his place in hip-hop's ancestry. He began the record with "Message to the Messengers," a gentle-but-firm—and appropriately bass-bumpin'—advisory to today's MCs, calling on them to consider carefully the power of their words. And the rest of the album was filled with reminders to everybody else about our interconnectedness.
Wasn't it? On the phone from New York, where he is calling during a visit to his mother's home, Scott-Heron's 50-year-old voice bubbles into a fuzzy-throated cackle full of soft exasperation and deep with tolerance. He's laughing at all this heavy analysis, but he's offering the chance to laugh along. "I don't relate my place to everyone else's," he says, his murmur continuing to ripple with chuckles. "Ya see, that's gonna put me between lawdy and dawdy. I'll admit my name is Scott-Heron—which puts me, alphabetically, between 'R' and 'T'—but that's as far as I'll go."
Scott-Heron is the man who informed us "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." He had a Top 40 hit with "Johannesburg," a springy song that foreshadowed the end of South African apartheid before most Americans had ever heard of Nelson Mandela. And lest those Americans get too self-righteous, he wrote another song called "South Carolina." He addressed the denial of alcoholism ("Bottle") and drug abuse ("Billy Green Is Dead"), and he warned the police against brutality ("No Knock").
Scott-Heron's songs weren't appeals for help; they were calls to action because he refused to kid himself about America's priorities ("Whitey on the Moon"). But 30 years after Apollo 11, Woodstock and his first album, Small Talk at 125th and Lennox, the godfather of rap is playing a bill of pop jazz. Scott-Heron is one of the featured attractions at this weekend's upscale and laid-back Long Beach Jazz Festival, three days of wine and cheese and Chuck Mangione. Meanwhile, in the back pages of that same issue of Rolling Stone, the new album by the blotto loudmouths in Limp Bizkit is the brand of hip-hop that's No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
Whitey is still on the moon. And Scott-Heron just doesn't sound very embarrassed or angry or frustrated about it. "You play your music for the people who show up, not for those who don't," he offers. "The fact is wherever I play, whatever the setting and whatever they're wearing, the people in the audience have paid me a great deal of respect just by showing up. And if Limp Bizkit or whatever is No. 1, then all you can surmise is that the people buying records prefer limp biscuits to hard bread or corn bread. It's nothing new for white folks to do the music we do; I already wrote a song about that, too ["Ain't No New Thing"]. I was in Norway and saw a white kid rappin' with his hat on backward. We're never gonna get the money. But maybe now they'll at least give us the credit. Credit where it's due—that'd be a new thing."
This isn't Scott-Heron's first appearance at the Long Beach Jazz Festival, and he's back because he's still glowing from the standing ovation he received at the 1990 festival before he had played a note. "The way we were greeted—on a weekend when legendary people like Cab Calloway and Les McCann were performing—was one of the highlights of my highlights," Scott-Heron says. "They weren't applauding me getting there on time because I don't think I did. They were applauding what we'd done over a long period of time, through a lot of different music and a lot of different feelings. I'm rarely moved that way, that much, and I appreciated it."
Although parts of Scott-Heron's playlist this weekend will undoubtedly stir long-stagnant memories and social consciences, anybody who expects him to be some bitter pill fizzing away in the grape soda doesn't know enough about his repertoire. "Whether or not you think my music fits a certain type of crowd depends on which song you're talking about," Scott-Heron says. "Maybe all you want to talk about is 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,' but that was the only song like that on that album, and I don't want to be pinned up like a paper doll for one song. Maybe you should look at some of the other songs on that album, like 'Save the Children' or 'Lady Day and John Coltrane' or 'I Think I'll Call It Morning.'"
In a sense, some of Scott-Heron's sweetest songs—such as the rarely played gem "A Very Precious Time," which achingly recalls the sensations of first love—may do the most political work of all. "From the beginning and throughout, our intention has been to accurately and positively represent all aspects of the black community," says Scott-Heron. "We're well-rounded individuals. We're concerned with ourselves and the government and Mexican farm workers and Iranians and coal miners and a song for a lady, and there's no musical category or direction that fits that. See, some people have been limited in their exposure to the songs we've done. But we know all the songs. See, we're not limited."Gil-Scott Heron performs as part of the Long Beach Jazz Festival at the Rainbow Lagoon, Shoreline Dr., behind the Hyatt Regency, adjacent to the Long Beach Convention Center, Long Beach, (562)436-7794; www.longbeachjazzfestival.com. Sat., 1 p.m. $30-$135. All ages.