Saturday, June 18, 2011

Emcee of the Month: Gil Scott-Heron

Here is Gil Scott-Heron's 1974 track "The Bottle".

Some time ago I remember having a conversation with my friend Mark, around the time Kanye West released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, about the trend of featured/guest artists on the majority of hip hop albums. Rap music has seemed to retain, and rightfully so, its ties to a foundation based in cipher (a cyclical rap session with multiple emcees rhyming one after the other). However, the first ciphers were mostly attended by emcees of like beliefs and experiences, and the cipher itself was a way in which these artists collectively told the stories of their communities.

I think Mark's reservation with the current practice of guest artists in hip hop is that many times a featured emcee functions more as a marketing tool rather than an additional voice to support or amplify a given aesthetic. I also think he's absolutely right.

For me, the most glaring example of this was during the LL Cool J and Canibus beef that captivated the hip hop world during the summer and fall of 1998. In the build-up to the war of words that followed their collaboration on LL's "4, 3, 2, 1", Canibus and LL had a phone conversation in an attempt to extinguish an inferno of hype and instigation that eventually led to their legendary battle. During that call, LL exposes how the higher-ups at his record label wouldn't allow Canibus to be in the video for "4, 3, 2, 1" and forced LL to replace 'Bus's verse with a rhyme from Master P; all in service of marketing to the South. (Listen to the entire call here. The part about Master P begins at 1:31. Note: this recording is not family friendly.)

What does all of this have to do with Scott-Heron, you ask?

Well, as I was listening to this track I began to wonder how a Gil Scott-Heron album would look and sound if it were released today. Setting aside anything about proper marketing or promotion, or whether or not Clear Channel or Viacom would ban him from their broadcasts for advocating against their corporate tyranny, what would it be? Who would produce the first single? Who would direct the first video? And who would possibly be able to appear as a guest on the album?

My first impulse is no one, at least not in a recording context. Any attempt to cram another singer or poet onto one of his tracks may only serve to weaken it through excess, dilution, or lack of focus. Gil is an absolute archetype and absolutely relentless in a way that is exceedingly specific to his own work. I've listened to quite a few poets and emcees over the years, and I simply can't imagine too many of them finding their footing within Gil's sense of political sophistication. That was the very root of his influence. Even though we've seen echos and remnants of it in recent times, the core of his impact will never be duplicated.

However, a live setting would be much different. And with the right guest artists (of which there are plenty) it would have been something to see.


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