By Kaye Blum
As a musician, poet and socio-political commentator, Gil Scott-Heron influenced generations of performers and was dubbed “the father of hip-hop”, although he preferred to call himself a “bluesologist”. Sampled and covered countless times, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is probably his most widely recognised recording. Since passing in 2011, his prolific writings and fusions of jazz, blues and soul music continue to inspire. Next week, an incredible line-up of Australian hip-hop, soul, R&B and jazz artists will perform a one-off tribute to him in a specially curated show for the Stonnington Jazz festival.
The line-up includes jazz legend Vince Jones, N’fa Jones (12,000 Techniques, No Fixed Abode), Hue Blanes (Jazz Party, The Melodics), Hailey Cramer (Pez, Blue King Brown), Walter Saluni (Grand Wazoo, Heatwave), and Ryan Ritchie (True Live, The Raah Project). They’ll interpret and perform selected Scott-Heron tracks, backed by a band with musicians from The Putbacks, The Meltdown and ATM15.
Ryan Ritchie is stoked to be in the line-up. The producer, songwriter, arranger, vocalist/MC and multi-instrumentalist is a huge fan of Scott-Heron. “I’ve got so much of his repertoire, I transcribe a lot of Gil,” he says. Ritchie explains that as a jazz musician and as a rapper, it’s his responsibility to at least try and learn what Scott-Heron was doing, in the same way a trumpet player will learn Miles Davis. “To understand the rhythm and the nature of it, particularly like on [the album] Small Talk At 125th and Lenox, that African root underneath it all is just fantastic for your musicianship, and it’s so beautiful to try and sing on those cross-rhythms.”
He discovered Scott-Heron as a teenager, going through a social evolution of his own. He vividly remembers the moment he first heard The Revolution Will Not Be Televised one afternoon while he was tuning in to PBS radio in his car. “I can still see the hill I was driving down – it hit me.”
Ritchie’s admiration for Scott-Heron runs deep and has influenced his writing for both True Live and The Raah Project. “I stole from him,” he jokes, explaining they credited Scott-Heron on the True Live song TV he wrote, which reached the ARIA Singles Chart. “‘You can’t tune in, turn off and drop out weekly’ is like this rip of this section of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” he says.
Nothing Matters, from The Raah Project’s 2015 album Take Me Elsewhere, is another Scott-Heron inspired song he’s written. “That was in tribute to him, talking specifically about the pictures he painted for me,” he says. “I’ll probably continue writing songs about him for the rest of my life. He’s a great figure to me I guess.”
Ritchie was lucky enough to witness Scott-Heron performing live in New York in 2010 and recalls he was very frail, but he was “like a straight-up muso, you know, just great – a great vibe.”
For the Stonnington Jazz gig, Ritchie will perform four of his favourite Scott-Heron tracks. “I’m doing The Revolution Will Not Be Televised with N’fa, so I’m gonna go toe-to-toe with N’fa from 1200 Techniques,” he says. “And then I’ve got Whitey On The Moon, New York Is Killing Me, and Home is Where The Hatred Is. I’m doing a medley into the Kanye West track when he sampled that line and we’re going to do a rap over the top so we’re mixing it up with all kinds of shit. It should be fun.”
Part of the fun is collaborating with the other artists – some of which he’s worked with previously, including the show’s musical director Lachlan McLean. Hue Blanes was in True Live and has played in The Raah Project’s line-up; and Ritchie has done gigs with N’Fa before, so the tribute show is going to be one very happy family of talented Scott-Heron devotees. “I haven’t worked with Vince [before], he’s a god!” he adds, “He’s like an enigma of genius and he’s still brilliant.”
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised – Pieces of Gil Scott-Heron is on Friday 20 May 2016 at Chapel Off Chapel in Prahran as part Stonnington Jazz 2016.
This interview first appeared in Beat magazine issue number 1524, May 11, 2016