Perhaps Scott-Heron's more lasting legacy, though, lies in his lifelong insistence that music has to say something and mean something.
His breakthrough record, "Pieces of a Man" in 1971, included his best-known work, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," which attacked the superficiality of mass media and suggested the real stories were happening below its radar.
That kind of provocative socio-political assertion was picked up years ago by influential radio personalities like Imhotep Gary Byrd of WWRL, WLIB, WBLS and WBAI, as well as dozens of artists from Common and Public Enemy to Kanye West.
West has sampled Scott-Heron's "Home Is Where the Hatred is" and "We Almost Lost Detroit," about a near-catastrophic nuclear accident.
After Scott-Heron's death was announced, Chuck D of Public Enemy tweeted, "We do what we do and how we do because of you." He said he and Scott-Heron had been collaborating on a new project.
Scott-Heron was at times ambivalent about the rap music he helped spawn, saying artists too often forgot the message part.
"They use a lot of slang and colloquialisms, and you don't really see inside the person," he said in a 2008 interview. "Instead, you just get a lot of posturing."
That Scott-Heron helped pave the way for the country's most popular music is ironic, because he was always widely viewed as a cult artist - though a highly respected one.
"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" was released as a single in 1971 and never made it out of underground radio or cracked any charts. Four years later "Angel Dust" peaked at No. 15 on the R&B charts, and while eight of his albums reached the top 200, only one, "First Minute of a New Day" in 1975, reached the top 30.
Scott-Heron took a long break starting in the '90s and in 2001 was sentenced to prison for cocaine possession. He was paroled, then jailed again in 2006 for violating his parole - because, he said, the clinic he was required to visit could not provide him with HIV medication.
After he was paroled again in 2007, he began performing more regularly. He had just returned from a European tour when he died.
Born in Chicago, Scott-Heron was raised in Jackson, Tenn., before moving to the Bronx as a teenager. He attended DeWitt Clinton before going to Fieldston on a scholarship.
He began writing books, including the novel "The Vulture," around the time he began working in bands.
He developed an intense, often spare, percussion style that he sometimes called "bluesology." He used it to accompany lyrics on subjects like the black middle class, white indifference, American apartheid and homophobia.
His first album, "Small Talk at 125th and Lenox," was released in 1970. For "small" talk, Scott-Heron's work has had a remarkable carry.
By David Hinkley, for New York Daily Times.