January wasn’t a regular month. While people were chattering about how 2010 is going to be a better year, one musical heavyweight of the 1970s and 1980s decided to drop a new video. Gil Scott-Heron hasn’t been heard from for ages. In the mid 1970s, he was on top of his game as a musical genius battling racism with his microphone and uplifting the Black Power Revolution with his words. By 2010, Scott-Heron seems to be a battled man. In the middle of the month, I saw his video for “Me and the Devil,” a Robert Johnson cover about his musical relationship with the Devil. The video is a black and white night scene in New York following a Warriors-inspired group of skaters painted like skeletons and the entities they come across in their travels. I thought it looked dope and it pulled this audio/videophile into a compare and contrast contest with Nas‘ 2004 music video “Thief’s Theme.” Nice battle, eh? They look similar and both are influences to the Hip Hop community. With one exception, while the videos can be visually seen as being alike, the messages of the two men are vastly different.
As a photographer, I often watch music videos to freeze scenes because they would make a dope photograph. While looking at both music videos, it was cool to see how they were similar. Both videos document one night in New York through a distorted lens. New York is famous worldwide for being a background location for movies and television and for the sake of this website, it is the original birthplace of Hip Hop culture. Scott-Heron has often been sampled for beats (Kanye West and Common’s “My Way Home” and Mos Def’s “Mr. Nigga”) and Nas seems to be the kind of cat that listens to him on Saturday afternoons. The distorted view of New York in both videos allows the viewing audience to see a different, less clean and tourist-friendly city. Nas exposes the everyday thieves in neighborhoods while Heron’s video exposes the spirits that come out at night or a group of creepy, roaming death skaters. Both make obvious storytellers of the music artists themselves. Their performance scenes show both musicians unmasked in both forms (photographs of Heron through the decades replace him actually performing). At the end of “Thief’s Theme,” Nas finally dons his skeleton-printed ski mask to join the rest of his goons in a night to not act right. At the end of “Me and the Devil,” Scott-Heron’s song transforms the video to a poem he recites to about a vulture and its prey. Similarly portraying how sometimes the lines between good/evil and right/wrong can be very blurry in the middle of the night.
Last but not least, both videos are centered towards young kids between ages 18 to 25. There’s a stylish appeal about both videos in how the lighting is either natural or harshly bright. In particular, both videos are directed to the young kids that are at a stage where they can be easily influenced into hood life. Evil and wrong are then transformed as Nas becomes one of the thieves and Heron begins to recite his poem about death. Here’s where the contrast between the two videos begin.
Gil Scott-Heron has been a musical artist since the 1960s and has been down for the Revolution since. His poem about a scavenging, evil vulture solidifies his lyrical legacy that has influenced many emcees through the decades. Spoken word artists such as him and the Last Poets describe stories about hood life and Ghetto America in a clear, concise language that is reflective of the same communities they grew up in. For a while, Scott-Heron seemed to be a tragic soul man whose life was almost taken over by drugs. This album that’s about to come out, XL Recordings’ I’m New Here, is his first in quite some time. Longer than another heavyweight, Sade, whose album drops the same week. I’ve got to have both of them before the week is over. But, back to “Me and the Devil,” the poem he recites in the end is a haunting, Edgar Allen Poe-like tale of an evil vulture that can penetrate the ghetto at ease.
“Standing in the ruins of another black man’s life
or flying through the valley separating day and night,
‘I am death!’ cried the vulture,
‘For the people of the light.’
Charon brought his wrath from the sea that sails on souls
and saw the scavenger departing taking warm hearts to the cold.
He knew the ghetto was a haven
for the meanest creature ever known.
In a wilderness of heartbreak
and a desert of despair,
Evil’s clarion of justice shrieks a cry of naked terror.
Taking babies from their mamas
Leaving grief beyond compare.
So, if you see the vulture coming
flying circles in your mind;
Remember, there is no escaping
for he will follow close behind.
Only promise me a battle
for your soul
Ain’t no place like the hood if a character like Charon, aka Death’s homeboy, can see the hood and see its wreckage caused by another hand unnatural to the area. Enter the vulture. In Nas’s video, the vulture could be seen as every person that wore a mask to hide his or he face. However, there seems to be no ugly ending for these characters. They don’t meet face to face in a battle for his or her soul against a vulture. They aren’t plucked out of their mother’s arms as babies either. They had a choice to become a thief. For Scott-Heron, it seemed to be a choice he wished he could take back which he somberly shares at the very end of the video.
In the end, all I can share about these two videos is that while one seems to glorify a constant, ghetto state of becoming a thief in different forms, the other video shared tales of how and what happens when evil and wrong overcome your life. Robert Johnson was a Bluesman known for selling his soul to Devil to become a great (arguably thee greatest) Blues guitarist. He got his wish but upon death his soul had to be handed over to the Devil as it now and for eternity belonged to him (sounds like a music contract). That’s one hell of an autobiography to pull inspiration from when thinking about Gil Scott-Heron. I can understand why he would cover someone like Johnson at this point in the century and why his song was chosen for the first single. Everyday is battle between his soul and materialistic, decadent Earthly possessions. As he succumbed to them in his youth, similar to how Nas finally becomes a “thief” at the end of his video, he is now in a battle against them in his older age. This makes for the beginnings of a great Bluesman with an anticipated album dropping this week. Blues is often credited as a grandfather to Hip Hop and both are indigenous creations to American music. Scott-Heron has a rightful place in music history as someone whose lyrical creativity and musicianship are able to transcend decades even while overcoming something as strong as drug addiction. He’s better than the aging rockers of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. He’s Gil Scott-Heron and he’s forefathered Hip Hop since 1970, a Black American Gothic original.