Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx – We’re New Here
XL/Young Turks: 2011
Jamie Smith was still in a jolly jumper back in London, England when he first laid ears on a Gil Scott-Heron record. Some may say that’s some pretty heady stuff to be playing for a wee kiddie all smiles, gums, and innocent, but for a young Jamie, the waxy sounds his parents spun over bangers n’ mash were altering and beyond memorable– they even inspired Jamie to pursue a career in music. Gil’s political and social influence often overshadows his musical one in the present historical record, but Jamie xx recalls of these first listens being affected less by the revolutionary messages and lessons Gil was communicating (entirely normal for a young kid) and more by the unique sounds of those records–Gil’s unmistakable rasp uttered in anxious and spacious delivery and the often unlikely musical arrangements beneath them. Cultural and historical understanding arrived in retrospect for Jamie xx, later enriching his respect and understanding of Gil’s disposition and the nation of people he speaks of. Yet Jamie’s aural priori for sounds over lyrics remains: “I never really listen to lyrics,” he once admitted. “I couldn’t even recite a full XX song.”
Given his longstanding personal admiration for Gil, not to mention his creative debt, it’s certainly a honour that Jamie was asked to be a part of the unique project that culminates in We’re New Here. Following on the heels of his enormous successes with The xx and also on his own as a remix producer known for his long and expansive DJ edits, Jamie was approached by XL-recordings owner and producer Richard Russell to see about a remix album of the Scott-Heron’s pending 2010 release I’m New Here, his first (highly anticipated) studio record since Spirits in 1994. The sixteen years that silently lapsed between then and now is attributed to Scott-Heron’s several drug charges and prison frequents in addition to the recording hiatus that saw Gil turn away from the studio to focus on live performance and writing. By 2010, the timing was ripe for Scott-Heron to offer another poignant reflection on the social and political climate over the past two decades since his last. Yet instead, to many’s surprise, his analytical gaze turned wholly inward and what ensued is his most personal and confessional work to date which offers a self-critical and emotive reflection on his own state of being and the familial experiences that have shaped it. It’s a dark and haunting exploration of the self and the perhaps seemingly inconsequential memories that comprise it.
We’re New Here still frames Gil’s personal revelations as the album’s focus, but here the stories are written in second person as an outsider looking in, which to a degree changes the stories altogether. The most obvious and immediate correlate between I’m New Here and We’re New Here is Scott-Heron’s raspy, broken, baritone voice, and the incredibly intimate sense that you are listening to Gil unravel the secrets of his subconscious in real-time. Yet We’re New Here is not simply a showcase of Gil’s 2010 vocal tracks laid above fresh production. Astute listeners familiar with Scott-Heron’s discography will detect that Jamie has juxtaposed vocal samples with origins from across Gil’s career — not just from I’m New Here— to create a historical melange that presents a comparative perspective on the man Gil Scott-Heron was then and the man he is now. In this sense, We’re New Here is as much about weaving new stories as it is re-phrasing already existing ones.
In some respects, it is perhaps best to consider We’re New Here as an entirely different album altogether, one that is considerably less intimate and insular, and more inviting, than it’s primary source. The track listing is almost unrecognizable, the production vocabulary is meant to make the pieces more physically “active” than passive, and even where there are content similarities, Jamie has painstakingly chopped and re-organized vocal track sequences not only over the album but within songs.
There are, however, more straight forward remixes like the album’s hard-hitter “NY is Killing Me” which abandons the bulk of Gil’s rotting tale of the original “New York Is Killing Me” along with its distinctive hand claps and percussive sprinkles. In its place, Jamie spliced re-oriented and looped vocal samples that form new melodies and hooks over heavy and insistent chromatic dub-influenced production. This track feels like inevitable sinking, a sensation reproduced on the acoustic piano rendition of the same melody and progression on “Piano Player.” Even on less accessible and more experimental tracks like “Running”, Jamie uses musical devices as ways of bringing movement to Gil’s stories: When Gil abandons mental games–“it’s easier to run/easier than staying and finding out you’re the only one who didn’t run”–in favor of the knee-to-gut instinct to drop it all and just “run,” Jamie obliges and releases a series of blast bursts and riffs that propel the track toward its own end. Jamie xx makes Gil Scott-Heron’s stories physical living, and participatory– they require your participation to be complete.
A friend of mine recently said “people don’t want to think anymore, they just want to feel.” I was immediately stricken by that statement because I agreed with it while instinctively felt the need to fight it, to counter its truth, to protect us from a degenerate fate. Yet the more I think about it, who says feeling is isolated from thinking? Isn’t to feel to think? And, most importantly, does thinking not corrupt the honesty of our physical instincts? Jamie was onto something as a young tot, innocently magnetized toward those Gil records. Would the experience had been the same had he the capacity to allow the thought of their weight to intervene? Probably not. That truth, carried by the innocence of beats and head knocks, is perhaps the most important social lesson surrounding musics that delve into social issues of race, gender, and inequality, at least when it comes to realizing their intent. We’re New Here makes a strong case that maybe our physical, gutteral instincts are what we should give into more often after all.