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Gone Too Soon: Gil Scott-Heron

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The iceberg metaphor applies well to making a radio documentary: the listener only sees the tip; but a huge chunk of it is underwater. With a team of people to help research, produce, mix-down and exec, the task at hand is to turn over several hundred hours of interviews and archive footage, sixteen albums and a 40-year career into one hour of non-stop entertainment. This is what goes on behind the finished product.

When the musician, lyricist, activist and poet Gil Scott-Heron was interviewed on Jamie Cullum's BBC Radio 2 jazz show in 2010, only a small part of the conversation was heard, and it turned out to be one of his last interviews. Not long after, Gil passed away in a New York Hospital, aged 62 years old.

When I heard the news, along with my colleagues at radio production company Folded Wing, we were adamant that the rest of Gil's interview be broadcast. We pitched for a documentary for BBC 1Xtra, and it was decided that I would take the reins as producer.

At this stage, I'll admit, I was pretty nervous - I had very little knowledge about Gil. I had loved his 'comeback' album in 2010 on XL Records, and thought the accompanying remix album with Jamie XX was great, but that was my first real experience of Gil's work. The album was ironically titled 'I'm New Here', but to me he really was new.

This situation was actually ideal, because the documentary was for 1Xtra, the BBC's urban, youthful station. Many listeners would never have heard of Gil, and my task would be to convince these listeners that their life would be better off with Gil's music in it.

At the same time, it was crucial that I didn't alienate his hardcore fans that would be listening to hear more about their hero. We were lucky enough to have one of his biggest fans in our company, so we enlisted his help to work alongside me in the research.

First came a loose structure, based around why the British youth of today should still find him relevant. The fact that Gil was sampled by 1Xtra artists like Kanye West, Common and Mos Def massively helped, and a few of them would appear in the documentary to convince the listeners of Gil's influence on them.

Meanwhile, we also wanted to tell Gil's story. This would be through talking to his family, friends and colleagues. We got digging for contacts.

Each new person introduced me to another key person in Gil's life. One of the best moments was when someone said to me, 'Oh yes, I've got the email address of Gil's son Rumal, have you got a pen?' or when I spotted someone in a random picture with Gil, found their business website with a phone number on, rang them up and it turned out they had lived with Gil for years.

When asking people in the interviews to reminisce for 40 minutes about a close friend they lost just last year, you are led to the most honest expressions of friendship and love. At the end of each interview I often asked people if there was anything they would like to add, and they nearly always spoke out a final heartfelt message to their friend. Words like, "I just wanted to say that Gil Scott-Heron meant the world to me", as if speaking directly to Gil's spirit. Even if in the final programme I only use 10 seconds of their interview, those seconds are always vital.

I interviewed three people who had been mentored by Gil throughout their adult lives, and found out that the advice he gave these people had seriously impacted on the life decisions they later made. One man, Malik Al Nasir, went to see Gil in concert when he had been an illiterate homeless teenager and managed to speak to Gil backstage. Gil ended up giving him a job on tour and helped him learn to read, effectively taking him off the streets and saving his life.

You are invited to hear some truly exceptional stories, but with only one hour to talk about Gil, it was hard fitting all this information in. In the end, we'd recorded over 30 interviews. Going through many drafts of the programme, unfortunately a lot of content had to be left on the cutting room floor.

From immersing myself so much in the life of Gil, I can genuinely say that he was one of the most creative, provocative, intelligent and thoughtful musicians, and I was overwhelmed by the consistent quality of his music and lyrical talent - from Whitey On The Moon to The Revolution Will Not Be Televised to Message To The Messengers and Me And The Devil. I hope that when the documentary airs this weekend, everyone else will get a deeper understanding of the man too.

Gone Too Soon: The Story of Gil Scott-Heron. Sunday Night at 9pm, A Folded Wing Production for BBC 1Xtra.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01nfbvw
www.foldedwing.co.uk