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Gil Scott-Heron’s Influence on Modern Hip-Hop Music


Gil Scott-Heron can be reasonably called one of the most influential artists of all time, and he will always be remembered as one of the individuals who spoke freely and put their soul and mind into their music (Vincent 27). More to say, Scott-Heron was not only a godfather (literally) of hip-hop but also an enthusiastic soul and blues performer. His influence prolonged even further because he was a revolutionary novelist and a vigorous poet of his time (Cresswell 90).

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The most common theme of his performances was the failure of the country to unite and become integral on more than one level. In perspective, Gil Scott-Heron can be perceived as one of the street Afro-American voices that received recognition and became valuable. Evidently, the impact of Scott-Heron on other musicians could not have been possible if he had not been influenced by certain events himself.

His parents divorced early, and Scott-Heron was forced to live in the State of Tennessee with his grandmother where he had to attend an all-white school. The saddest part of this situation was the incredible amount of racism to which young Scott-Heron was exposed. Ultimately, that changed him forever, and he could not get rid of the feeling that injustice was everywhere (Edmondson 55). After the death of his grandmother, Scott-Heron moved to the Bronx so as to live with his mother.

Once again, he became exposed to the most undeserved inequalities of urban life in the United States. It is interesting that the intro from the album “Spirits” contained Scott-Heron’s message for the gangsta rappers (a lot of them considered him to be their influence). Looking back at history, it can be safe to say that Gil Scott-Heron is one of the most influential artists in the history of soul, rap, funk, and hip-hop. This supposition will be scrutinized further in the paper, and all the associations between hip-hop artists and Gil Scott-Heron will be addressed right away.

Influence on A Tribe Called Quest

One of the very first hip-hop and rap artists that were influenced by Scott-Heron’s music were the group A Tribe Called Quest. Their debut album seriously adhered to the style that was developed by Gil Scott-Heron. Commonly, A Tribe Called Quest are called the pioneers of rap that followed Scott-Heron’s path. The main single from their first album was rather playful while all the special attention was paid to the lyrics of the song.

In terms of their performance, A Tribe Called Quest did not cover the same exact topics that Gil Scott-Heron did. Nonetheless, some of the most prevalent topics in their songs were vegan lifestyle, safe sex, and teenage experiences (Peterson 161). One of the ways in which A Tribe Called Quest bear a resemblance to Scott-Heron’s songs is their distinctive sense of humor. The group opposed themselves to the hardcore hip-hop and shared their leftist views with the audience.

Influence on Kanye West

To say the least, the influence of Scott-Heron on Kanye West’s music can be seen in the performances of the latter. There are at least three well-known songs coming from Kanye that sampled Gil Scott-Heron. The 2000-2007 era of Kanye West can be easily characterized as Scott-Heron-esque due to the messages that Kanye sent out to the audience. All the messages in Kanye West’s songs tend to be rather subliminal and soft as soul music, but they are down to earth, and Kanye himself is able to share his energy through the songs (Beaumont 102). It is not the rhythm or the samples that Kanye uses but his approach to the creative process.

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Kanye West’s rhyme schemes bear numerous resemblances to Scott-Heron’s poetic lyrics. All the metaphors that are used by Kanye always have at least two or three explanations and do not always even relate to the same topic of discussion. The way in which Kanye performs on stage can also be aligned with how Scott-Heron performed due to an incredible amount of energy coming from both artists (Rabaka 70). The so-called “new” Kanye is far less conscious in terms of dwelling on politics and inequalities, but the rhyming scheme and the power of his messages did not change a bit. West’s music became more electronic but then again, the lyrical genius of this hip-hop artist is still at the top level.

Influence on Common

Common is currently known as one of the most intellectual rappers in the game. It is not surprising that he is also one of the followers of Gil Scott-Heron’s music and references him a couple of times throughout his songs. In terms of the content of the songs, Common’s art is similar to A Tribe Called Quest’s albums. On the other hand, Common’s poetic abilities are comparable to those of his fellow Chicago rapper, Kanye West. Despite the somewhat political content of his songs, Common managed to stay within the limits and provide poetic and allegorical lyrics that became critically acclaimed as soon as they hit the stores (Harkness 48).

Common’s early career music also bears numerous resemblances to the songs of Gil Scott-Heron due to the fact that the former always covered only the most relevant topics in his songs. One of the major differences between the two may be the fact that Common did not put inequality at the forefront while Scott-Heron exposed this theme as one of the major refrains of his music (Baram 45). Despite this, Common was able to convey the mood in a manner that was similar to what Scott-Heron did in his own songs and this can be rightfully considered to be one of the key factors that predestined the way in which Chicago rap developed throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s.

Influence on Kendrick Lamar

One of the artists that also showcases a unique attitude toward his delivery, flow, and content is Kendrick Lamar. Even though he is not from Chicago, Lamar perfectly paints the pictures in his songs. Storytelling skills of this modern rapper are comparable to those of Scott-Heron’s as they are able to share powerful messages with the audience despite an unlikable appearance (Hur 152).

While being a West Coast representative, Kendrick Lamar is shockingly lyrical, and the content of his songs never disappoints the listeners who are looking for deep lyrics coming from an artist that is actually aware of what goes around him. There are not a lot of political references in Lamar’s songs, but the themes of racism and inequality are two of the central topics of discussion (Hutnyk 76). Kendrick Lamar did not sample Gil Scott-Heron as much as his Chicago counterparts, but the overall vibe is almost identical to what we can hear in Scott-Heron’s songs.


After researching on the topic of Gil Scott-Heron’s music and his other art manifestations, one can easily conclude that Scott-Heron became the very first poet of his time who was able to accentuate his powerful messages with music. There were not a lot of artists that were as fantastically influential as Scott-Heron was. Without any doubt, it can be claimed that his 1970 album titled “Small Talk” became the catalyst that led to the advent of rap and hip-hop as music genres.

In perspective, it is Scott-Heron who is responsible for such modern artists as Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. He paved the way for them and showed them how rap music could and should be done. For a number of artists (even after his death), Scott-Heron still remains a manifestation of genuineness and impartiality of the modern world. His voice, both literally and metaphorically, was an embodiment of soul music. His powerful messages were sealed in a smooth and hazy manner.

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Even though it was repeatedly stated that Scott-Heron did not have the best voice ever, everyone agreed that he brought dynamics in music with his voice. Gil Scott-Heron’s legacy still lives on as the modern classics of Chicago rap such as Kanye West continue sampling his music in their songs. Preceding his death, Scott-Heron released an album and left this world on a major note. Gil Scott-Heron’s path is a real-life motivational story that ends with the motto saying that you can always turn around and choose the right way as long as you want it.

Works Cited

Baram, Marcus. Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man. St. Martins Press, 2014.

Beaumont, Mark. Kanye West: God and Monster. Overlook Press, 2015.

Cresswell, Toby. RocKwiz Decades: The Greatest Songs of Our Time. Hardie Grant Books, 2015.

Edmondson, Jacqueline. Music in American Life: An Encyclopedia of the Songs, Styles, Stars, and Stories That Shaped Our Culture. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2013.

Harkness, Geoffrey. Chicago Hustle and Flow: Gangs, Gangsta Rap, and Social Class. University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Hur, Michael. Shadows of the Music Industry. Lulu, 2014.

Hutnyk, John. Pantomime Terror: Music and Politics. Zero Books, 2014.

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Peterson, James. Hip-Hop Underground and African American Culture: Beneath the Surface. Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.

Rabaka, Reiland. The Hip Hop Movement: From R&B and the Civil Rights Movement to Rap and the Hip Hop Generation. Lexington Books, 2013.

Vincent, Rickey. Party Music: The Inside Story of the Black Panthers’ Band and How Black Power Transformed Soul Music. Chicago Review Press, 2013.

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