As far as the hip-hop community is concerned, Gil Scott-Heron is one of the pioneers. Listen to his most political work -- recordings like "Johannesburg," "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" or the Reagan-bashing "Re-Ron," and it's easy to hear how Scott-Heron's trenchant wit and acerbic social commentary set the stage for rap performers like Grandmaster Melle Mel, Public Enemy and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.
Mention this to Scott-Heron, though, and he reacts more with bemusement than pride.
"I think I did the hip part," he laughs over the phone from a tour stop in Rochester, N.Y. "Somebody else came along and did the hop, and there it was. It was painless. It's not like hipping and hopping nowadays, buddy."
He's being facetious, of course. But beneath the surface of his flip remark lies a deeper truth: Anything that rap might have taken from him ultimately came from someone else further down the line.
"Some of it is connected," he says of the rappers. "But I'm connected with some folks also, you see? The people who I heard and listened to: Oscar Brown Jr. and Melvin Van Peebles and Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Leroi Jones. People who recited and chanted and delivered and presented.
"So I'm saying that the influences that perhaps other folks pick up from me are some of the ones I picked up from those folks, just as certainly."
It's like they're all part of a larger fabric, although Scott-Heron insists that his own work is far from being at the front of this particular thread. "There are very few people musicians respect as having started a particular thread," he explains. "Like people go back to Bird on that, and to Art Tatum and to Satchmo, to say those are ones who shaped the sound of that instrument. Those are threads that started.
"Now, I just happen to know for a fact that what I'm working on was here when I got here."
True, the art form was in place, but Scott-Heron has a knack for going after big issues well before other songwriters see that there's something to protest. He warned of the dangers of PCP way back in 1974 with "Angel Dust," attacked South African apartheid in 1975 with the hit song "Johannesburg," and spoke out against nuclear power in 1977 with the single, "We Almost Lost Detroit."
Yet he seems reluctant to take sole credit for his vision. "I've been touched by a lot of people," he says. "The things that most of them contributed were things that made the songs we play together sort of special.
"That's just a blessing, though. If you could do it all the time, it would be no fun. And if it was as easy as they said it was, they'd do it. So you can't come out with something that people remember unless the spirit's there."
Doesn't he feel, though, that his songs have been instructive and enlightening?
"Aren't they all supposed to be, man?" he laughs "I miss with more than I hit with.
"I'm saying, you see, that the advantage of albums is that you only present the ones that you got right. It's really like a stacked deck. People don't know how many you threw away, how many didn't make it. So, not to be mystic or psychic or psycho, but there are really other factors that you cannot count on."
One thing you can count on, though, is that Scott-Heron's performances will always include something about the importance of African-American history and culture. He isn't preachy or didactic, but he does think it's important for younger blacks to get a sense of the traditions to which their world connects.
"We continually try to encourage young brothers and sisters to study, and be sure they can get some correct responses to who is responsible for a lot of the things they talk about now," he says. "These are like 17-, 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids trying to put that together. So if they read, perhaps, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Bowen, they will see the fabric of things that they want to build into their selves actually developed in another form that they can adapt from."
That's one of the reasons Scott-Heron likes to be out on the road in February -- because it's Black History Month.
"Black History Month is always big fun," he says. "It's something to try and share that's really worthwhile. Whether people get it or not, you know? Whether or not they get it right then. You cannot be certain what folks are going to pick up in, but you know that over the course of time, if you're doing something that's focused around this, you're going to say something that's important to them about what the theme is.
"This is a good time to be aware of folks who try to do things to help folks," he adds. "Because it's time to help. It's a very good time to look back at examples of folks who tried to help and were successful.
"Because there's no more questions called, 'What can I do?' We're seeing brothers on the street ain't got nothing to eat, nowhere to live, sisters ain't got nothing like that. I mean, you can't go in any direction and not do something to somebody. You have to be deliberately not doing something, you know?
"So I'm saying: The complaining department is closed. People who are doing things are the easiest people to influence to do the right thing. We lost a bunch of folks. But we have to go on from where we're at."
When: Tonight at 8
Where: Max's on Broadway
Call: (410) 675-6297 for information; (800) 551-7328 for tickets