'The Godfather of Rap'

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Greg Tate on the departed Gil Scott Heron:


​You know why Gil never had much love for that ill-conceived Godfather of Rap tag. If you're already your own genre, you don't need the weak currency offered by another. If you're a one-off, why would you want to bask in the reflected glory of knock-offs? If you're already Odin, being proclaimed the decrepit sire of Thor and Loki just ain't gonna rock your world. 

Gil knew he wasn't bigger than hip-hop--he knew he was just better. Like Jimi was better than heavy metal, Coltrane better than bebop, Malcolm better than the Nation of Islam, Marley better than the King James Bible. Better as in deeper--emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, politically, ancestrally, hell, probably even genetically. Mama was a Harlem opera singer; papa was a Jamaican footballer (rendering rolling stone redundant); grandmama played the blues records in Kentucky. So grit shit and mother wit Gil had in abundance, and like any Aries Man worth his saltiness he capped it off with flavor, finesse and a funky gypsy attitude. 

 He was also better in the sense that any major brujo who can stand alone always impresses more than those who need an army in front of them to look bad, jump bad, and mostly have other people to do the killing. George Clinton once said Sly Stone's interviews were better than most cats' albums; Gil clearing his throat coughed up more gravitas than many gruff MCs' tuffest 16 bars. Being a bona fide griot and Orisha-ascendant will do that; being a truth-teller, soothsayer, word-magician, and acerbic musical op-ed columnist will do that. Gil is who and what Rakim was really talking about when he rhymed, "This is a lifetime mission: vision a prison."

While I don't see much point in the comparison, I agree that The Godfather Of Rap label never made much sense. I also think it offers a bit of passive disrespect to both Heron and hip-hop. It's true that Heron offered poetry over music, but if that's all he was to you then I don't think you listened to much of Heron's music.

Likewise, rap isn't simply free-form poetry over a beat. (Not that there isn't anything wrong with that.) Rappers are more akin to sonneteers--the beat is a structure which they write to, as sure as Shakespeare wrote to syllables and rhyme scheme. 

Gil Scott was an original. He doesn't need rap to make him significant, nor does rap need his gravitas. The two are surely related. But rap is related to a lot of things. One might just as easily make the case that George Clinton or James Brown were the godfathers of rap.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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