Gil Scott-Heron Makes A Striking Return His hugely influential 1971 spoken-word piece "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" has inspired generations of imitators. Today, after multiple stints in prison, Scott-Heron returns with a more introspective collection of music: I'm New Here. It's his first new recording in 16 years.
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Gil Scott-Heron Makes A Striking Return

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Gil Scott-Heron Makes A Striking Return

Gil Scott-Heron Makes A Striking Return

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GUY RAZ, host:

Since 1970, poet, author and songwriter Gil Scott-Heron has been best known for one thing - revolution.

(Soundbite of song, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised")

Mr. GIL SCOTT-HERON (Poet, Author, Songwriter): (Singing) You will not be able to stay home, brother. You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out. You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip out for beer during commercials because the revolution will not be televised.

RAZ: This is Gil Scott-Heron's masterpiece, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." It inspired generations of imitators - hip-hop artists from Public Enemy to Kanye West have scoured his back catalog for samples. But it's been 16 years since Gil Scott-Heron last released an album. He spent more of that time in prison than in the recording studio. Now, he's back.

Gil Scott-Heron's latest comes out on Tuesday. It's called "I'm New Here."

(Soundbite of song, "On Coming From a Broken Home")

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) I wanted to make this a special tribute to a family that contradicts the concepts, heard the rules but wouldn't accept, and womenfolk raised me and I was full grown, before I knew I came from a broken home.

RAZ: The new record is a collection of poetry, songs and snippets of conversation. This first track features a looped instrumental sample from a Kanye West song.

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: It's payback.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Payback, he says, for years of being the one sampled. The album's a departure for Scott-Heron, a more introspective minimalist approach. These are songs less about where he's going and more about how did he get there.

I recently stopped by Gil Scott-Heron's house in East Harlem. It's a small, sparsely decorated apartment with little more than a few pieces of furniture and a couple of vintage concert posters on the walls with pictures of the old Gil - massive afro, stern gaze.

The Gil in front of me wears a floppy wool hat to cover his thinning gray hair tinged with blond. He's quick with a smile and a joke. A vintage Harlem Globetrotters jersey dangles from his rail-thin frame. So when I introduced myself as a Laker fan, he starts talking about his old friend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: You (unintelligible), Kareem's my best man at my wedding.

RAZ: I didn't know that. Really?

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: Yeah. He introduced me to my wife.

RAZ: I had no idea.

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: And I'm going to pay him back for that too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Gil's home is just across the river from Rikers Island. That's where the story of this album begins. The owner of London-based XL Records, Richard Russell, had been a fan of Gil since the late 1980s.

Mr. RICHARD RUSSELL (Owner, XL Records): I always felt a connection to what he did. I knew there was something very special in it.

RAZ: In 2005, Russell sent a letter to Scott-Heron while he was locked up at Rikers for a parole violation following a conviction for cocaine possession. Russell wanted to help Gil get back into the recording studio once he got out.

Mr. RUSSELL: It just struck me that he needed to be heard. I found it inconceivable that he didn't have things to say.

RAZ: And a few years later, it finally happened. Gil Scott-Heron walked out of Rikers Island in the summer of 2007, and by that winter, he was back in a recording studio.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: Gil hadn't written any music while he was in prison, so he and Richard Russell sat around listening to music they might cover.

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: He had some weird songs he wanted me to sing on.

RAZ: Weird songs but songs Russell thought might just work. And once they settled on the right mix of music, they got down to recording.

(Soundbite of song, "I'll Take Care of You")

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) I know you've been hurt...

He wanted to do something (unintelligible). I thought that some of my best records was when there wasn't a lot of work being done on it, like "Winter in America" and "Secrets" and when there weren't a whole lot of people in the studios. It's whole lot of good music I played on, even if it was just a piano and vocal or something like that.

(Soundbite of song, "I'll Take Care of You")

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) I'll take care of you...

RAZ: You're listening to a cover of Bobby Blue Bland's "I'll Take Care of You." Producer Richard Russell usually works with alternative acts like the Prodigy and Tom York or Radiohead.

In Gil Scott-Heron, he found an artist willing to push his own musical boundaries.

Mr. RUSSELL: You know, we started off doing something quite traditional -acoustic piano and nice microphones. I suppose that was phase one. And then phase two is as we started to introduce some programming and using drum machines and stuff and playing those things. And he was open to those ideas, which was incredibly exciting for me.

(Soundbite of song, "New York is Killing Me")

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) (Unintelligible) don't know but New York is killing me.

RAZ: One song that Gil Scott-Heron did write for this album is an ode to the city he's called home since he left his grandmother's house in Tennessee at age 12. It's called "New York is Killing Me."

(Soundbite of song, "New York is Killing Me")

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) Well, I need to go home and take it slow down in Jackson, Tennessee...

RAZ: Do you have a love-hate relationship with New York?

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: It ain't no love-hate - just specific things I hate and the rest of it is all right. Even what I don't love is all right. But I'm saying the taxes, the pollution, the ego, the arrogance, the obnoxious thing that they do to other people, I'm saying that's killing me and that's killing my neighbors and their friends and everybody. That'll kill you.

(Soundbite of song, "New York is Killing Me")

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) Yes, I lay down, I lay down, and try to take it all in. Yeah, lay down, lay down and try to take it all in (take it all in). You got eight million people and I didn't have a single friend...

RAZ: The title track to "I'm New Here" comes from a song Richard Russell introduced to Gil by an alternative band called Smog. The haunting chorus speaks to Gil's troubled past.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm New Here")

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) No matter how far wrong you've gone, you can always turn around...

RAZ: No matter how far wrong you've gone, you can always turn around. It actually sounds like a lyric that you could have written.

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: Yeah, I could have. You know, like, it's divine. You find somebody that never made a mistake, you help them start a religion. They value me. They've done things that they wish they hadn't done or they wish people didn't know they done or whatever like that. And so, that was a good line.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm New Here")

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) I may be crazy, but I'm the closest thing I have to what's real. Turn around, turn around, turn around. You become full circle. If you hear again(ph)...

RAZ: This song might suggest a shot at redemption or a fresh start from a rough past. But one critic of this album noticed there's one thing missing - a statement of recovery and a commitment to sobriety. When I asked Gil about this, he shows a discomfort by fidgeting with a pack of cookies laying on the sofa.

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: Like I have not recovered from anything. I was doing 18 months for a (unintelligible). Didn't do a year one time. That's a small enough price to pay for all the crimes I committed. You know, they call it your first offense. That's just for a time to cuss(ph) you. Like, I did a lot of (BLEEP) I shouldn't have done and do a lot of (BLEEP) nowadays, you know, if they catch me, I ain't going to be able to do that no more.

RAZ: Here's producer Richard Russell's take:

Mr. RUSSELL: People are very, very quick to make judgments about all this stuff. And Gil's unrepentant, unapologetic. He's who he is. He doesn't pretend he's anything else.

(Soundbite of song, "Running")

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: Because I always feel like running - not away - because there's no such place. Because if there was, I would have found it by now. Because it's easier to run, easier than staying and finding out you're the only one who didn't run.

RAZ: There's a haunting moment on this record and it's this track called "Running." I'm wondering if you can tell me what that's about.

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: About trying to catch up with yourself. Man, no matter how fast you go, like, you miss things. So much information, so many things happened to your relationships you had nothing to do with. It's very difficult to put yourself together. It's like you got (unintelligible). I mean, to have true symmetry and balance so you can sit down and now you say, got this done and I'm all right.

(Soundbite of song, "Running")

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: And because you're going to see me run soon and because you're going to know why I'm running then, you'll know then because I'm not going to tell you now.

The record came out pretty much the way we wanted it to. It said pretty much what we tried to say. It was as good a job as I could've done right there.

RAZ: Gil Scott-Heron's first album in 16 years, "I'm New Here," comes out on Tuesday. You can hear full tracks on the record at our Web site,

(Soundbite of song, "Me and the Devil")

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) The rain is falling...

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