Rap pioneer Gil Scott-Heron functions in his own time zone.
Take his dealings with Dakota Jazz Club proprietor Lowell Pickett, who has booked Scott-Heron for Sunday night. The club owner is "90 percent sure" that the cantankerous and mercurial Scott-Heron will make it.
"I talked to him on Monday," Pickett told a recent Dakota audience. "He said he was going to parachute in." So Pickett promised to have a target for his landing -- because the Dakota is in the first floor of Target world headquarters.
Watch out for Scott-Heron's landing, though.
"Gil," warns his road manager, Danielle Beckom, "is not good with schedules."
But he is wonderful with words -- even if it involves his own concept of time.
Ask Scott-Heron why he disappeared for the past 16 years before releasing this year's comeback album, "I'm New Here," and the wordsmith says, "We never disappeared. People just quit buying it. From '98 to 2002, we were doing reissues of things I'd recorded earlier and added at least 20 to 30 minutes of new material on each of them."
The spoken-word legend has reappeared in potent form on his new CD, which arrived last month on England's XL Recordings, home of such hip acts as White Stripes, Vampire Weekend and M.I.A. XL owner Richard Russell knew the publisher of Scott-Heron's two novels ("The Vulture" and "The Nigger Factory") and in 2006 he made a pitch to the singer-pianist, who was serving time for drug possession in New York's Rikers Island jail. After Scott-Heron was released, producer Russell played him music by Robert Johnson, Smog, Bob Dylan and Kanye West to illustrate some possible approaches for an album. Then they recorded a shortish, half-hour album using loops, drum machines and other common hip-hop techniques, except with a chilling sparseness.
"I think we both went into this session with some trepidation," producer Russell told the Independent, a British newspaper. "His lyrics, timing and phrasing are still beyond compare. We work with samples and drum machines, and have found a way for Gil to express himself within this more modern context."
Take Scott-Heron's reading of Johnson's "Me and the Devil" -- it's minimalist, modern and moody, but still the blues.
"I've always referred to myself as a bluesologist," Scott-Heron said last weekend from his Harlem apartment. "I come from Tennessee, so blues is what I do, but I hadn't done one that way."
"Me and the Devil" is earning exposure on Minnesota Public Radio's the Current and other stations. Airplay is something Scott-Heron hasn't received since his "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and "Angel Dust" were FM staples in the 1970s.
Said the influential but overlooked New Yorker: "I've been 'heard of' more than we've been heard."
"I'm New Here," a song by the indie-rock band Smog, sounds different from Scott-Heron's previous works. It's just a voice, repeating the same lyric over and over again, accompanied by an acoustic guitar, repeating simple, circular patterns. It sounds like a folk tune, but it's just as alluring as Scott-Heron's more familiar spoken-word over soul/jazz piano washes.
The so-called "black Bob Dylan," who turns 61 on Thursday, established himself in the 1970s on Clive Davis' Arista Records with such politicized tunes as "Johannesburg," but this new CD is more personal than political.
"We never considered ourselves as political," said Scott-Heron. "I always thought what we were doing was rather personal."
In the opening selection, "On Coming From a Broken Home," he talks about being raised by women -- especially his maternal grandmother -- and being "full grown before I knew I was from a broken home."
These women were responsible for his love of words. "My grandmother taught me to read very early, and my mother was a librarian in Chicago," said Scott-Heron, who earned a master's degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and taught at the University of the District of Columbia. "I took a leave of absence to play music -- and I've been absent ever since," he says.
He has written a new book, "The Last Holiday," about his early '80s concert tour with Stevie Wonder promoting the idea of Martin Luther King's birthday as a national holiday. It should be published next year, he said. He's also preoccupied with making sure his 12-year-old daughter "becomes a good person like my other two children," who are in their early 30s.
Scott-Heron was distracted from those duties when he disappeared for a couple of jail stints in '06 and '07 -- a parole violation followed his drug sentence.
What did he learn in jail?
"That I had the right to remain silent and that I should have a couple of times, because that's what got me the time [in jail]," he said with a long and hearty chuckle.
Does he have any advice on doing time for rapper Lil Wayne, who just got sent to Rikers for weapons possession?
"Mind your business," he said. "It'll go as easy as you make it on yourself."
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719