Each month we take a look at a classic track or album and discuss it from a music production perspective, examining any sonic innovations that took place during its recording. This month we discuss Gil Scott-Heron's 1971 recording of 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised'.
Scott-Heron had previously recorded the track on 1970's Small Talk At 125th And Lenox with a sparse percussion backing, but this new version provided a much richer musical backdrop, masterminded by the vocalist's long term collaborator Brian Jackson. The message of the lyrics is as relevant today as it has ever been, summarised in Peter Dogett's book There's A Riot Going On as 'a sardonic commentary on white America's inability to process any reality that had not been interpreted and distorted by the mass media'.
This wasn't the first track to critique television's mind-numbing power, although as Dorian Lynskey notes in 33 Revolutions Per Minute, it was the first to do so using the language of TV itself: 'The revolution will be no re-run, brothers. The revolution will be live.'
If the message of the song was radical, so was the delivery method. Scott-Heron has a soulful singing voice, but his background was in poetry. 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' is his defining musical statement and his performance here is that of a spoken word poet rather than that of a singer. The rhythmic, spoken delivery provided over a sparse jazz-funk backing is generally considered one of the blueprints for hip-hop. Recorded in New York just a few years before hip-hop would evolve in the same city, many of the elements were already in place on this record.
Indeed, the music of Gil Scott-Heron was to prove inspirational to later generations of hip-hop artists. Lyrical themes from 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' were explored by rappers including Aesop Rock, Talib Kweli and Common. Meanwhile Brian Jackson's compositions were sampled for records by the likes of Kanye West, Mos Def and MF Doom.
Fifty years after it was recorded for the first time, 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' retains an enduring power and still carries an essential message.
Audio Ear Training for Music Producers and Sound Engineers