Given that Gil Scott-Heron is regularly referred to as the godfather of rap and this three-disc collection covers the raw, early stages of his career — recorded before Kool Herc and later Grandmaster Flash minted the touchstones of a nascent hip-hop culture — the temptation will be to highlight the historical importance of The Revolution Begins and discount its stand-alone value as musical commentary. But these tracks have always been destined to provide a visceral, socio-political jolt rather than become some academic shelf-filler.
For better or worse, the songs are organized in a non-chronological manner that discourages a straight historical overview anyway. Disc one corrals all the primary Flying Dutchman label collaborations between GSH and his former college classmate and most effective and empathetic musical partner, Brian Jackson. It includes the most polished rendition of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (often cited as the first real forebear of rap), the buoyant elixir that celebrates “Lady Day and John Coltrane,” and poignant, bitter ballads leavened by a soulful sweetness, such as “Home Is Where The Hatred Is,” “Pieces of a Man” and the woefully underrated vocal gem, “Did You Hear What They Said?” Jackson’s accompaniment on keys and flute is near-universally superb.
Disc two is almost entirely comprised of Scott-Heron’s early spoken-word performances. Many are prefaced by contextual explanations and describes as poems, which are then set to barebones beats and music. While the cadences are catchy, the delivery is raw and the emotions more-so. Some have been diminished by time — the bigotry of “The Subject Was Faggots” is as anachronistic as his calling out Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell on “No Knock”—but the racially infused fury of “Enough” and “Comment#1″ and the black-on-black truth-telling of “Billie Green Is Dead” and “The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues” is as riveting as it is incendiary.
Disc three contains alternate takes of varying quality, but, once again, should not be regarded as mere fodder for the Scott-Heron completists. This is an artist who consistently strove — perhaps especially so in these early years — to get up-close and personal by wearing his heart and soul on his sleeve, alternately lacquered with bile, balm and tears. It is sadly ironic that a recurrent theme in his Flying Dutchman material concerns the scourge of drug addiction and why black Americans are especially prone to fall prey to it out of despair. Dead at 62 in May of 2011, the haunting lament of “Home Is Where The Hatred Is,” and a half-dozen other songs here, can easily stand in as prescient eulogies. The artist is gone, but his words and music keep burning.