The late Gil Scott Heron,self proclaimed “bluesologist” evoked a three prong musical transition in the 1970’s. He began by primarily performing raps over percussion and flutes to a melodic small group jazz/funk sound. During the late 70’s,he and his keyboard playing musical partner Brian Jackson began utilizing synthesizer abstractions in their music,based on the sounds created by Stevie Wonder at the same synthesizer facility Brian was using-TONTO. In 1980,Gil and Brian elected to put their collaboration on pause to pursue separate interests with their album 1980 at the very start of the new decade with it’s lead off song “Shut ‘Um Down”.
Beginning with a low rumbling piano that ascends into an explosive up-scaling after which Gil declares “hey what’s that rumble/did you hear that sound/know it wasn’t no earthquake,but it shook the ground”. The musical accompaniment has instantly swelled by this time into a slow,stomping and incredibly funky dance beat with very grits and gravy style juke joint piano accompanied by a medium pitched,rocking amplified guitar. On the choruses Gil is accompanied vocally by gospel drenched female backup singers along with a horn section blowing and wailing the changes. On the refrain,Brian Jackson takes over on a deep synth bass accompanying himself on a higher pitched ARP-sounding melodic synth line.
Musically speaking this song evokes the clean,concise production of a song such as Herb Alpert’s “Rise” with a get down and funky attitude-full of psychedelic soul flourishes,female choral vocals that take it back to Church as the saying going and most importantly? It all emphasizes Gil’s consistent emphasis in his vocal/song structured music on the usefulness of the very basic blues form in just about every aspect of black American music of the 60’s,70’s and even the beginning of the new decade. The song has a disco era four on the floor beat. But it really brings out George Clinton’s musical idea that anytime the rhythms and beats are slowed down? The music get’s incredibly funky.
Lyrically this song took on a theme one might not expect from Gil Scott-Heron. Long a champion of black power with his combination of razor sharp wit and homespun wisdom,this song deals with the massive environmental “no nukes” movement that arose enormously after the near meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979. Gil calls for the immediate shutdown of all such power plants in America. Having been “thinking about power” on a literal and figurative level? He’s concluded that we’ve “gotta work for Earth,for all it’s worth ’cause it’s the only one we’ve got”. As one of the very few black musical spokespeople for environmentalism during the early 1980’s? This song is a strong thematic continuation of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” from a decade earlier. And as such being strong “people music” represents one of Gil and Brian’s very funkiest jams ever!