Gil Scott-Heron is sacred territory for music geeks and revolutionaries alike, and messing with his deliberately sparse and gripping tracks is a bold move, even for British post-dubstep wunderkind, Jamie Smith of the xx. Did Scott-Heron’s stately, pained baritone really need drum loops and electronic swoops and swirls to get his grim message across? Probably not. But this unlikely collaboration on We’re New Here, the Jamie xx remix of Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here, makes for an enjoyable and interesting musical menagerie, uniting two generations worth of underground celebrity and progressive minds.
For those unfamiliar with my man Gil Scott, this is the hip-hop artist we should have been pleading, on our shirts and notebook margins and blogs, to have freed last year. He rapped his peculiar brand of soulful, cutting poetry years before even the old school masters dropped any semblance of a beat. His ideas were bigger than Biggie’s and more thought-provoking than BlackThought’s; he didn’t need auto-tune or really hardly any tune at all to sound better and smoother and real-er than so many other musicians.
After a few decades of groundbreaking releases, Gil Scott-Heron retired from the public eye and was in out of prison for the past ten years. Last year, so long after he announced that the revolution would not be televised, he preached to a much less reactive group of reactionaries, our generation of aloof slackers, and still got a response. His first new release since ‘85-ish, I’m New Here was fragmented, scattered across a whole slew of genres, but Gil still proved he’s no longer pieces of a man.
This musical master, now with renewed accolades and a younger crowd’s deep respect for his poetic styling, is hallowed ground. Jamie Smith’s (or Jamie xx, whatever) remixing and nitpicky reworkings are bold, in a good way. Even with his shimmery and dark post-modern crescendos echoing behind Scott-Heron’s recognizable vocals, Smith’s mixing highlights, rather than undermines, Scott-Heron’s spoken word power. In fact, adding all the new sounds actually seems to isolate, rather than overwhelm, Scott-Heron’s desolate ideology, reiterating its desperate sparseness by creating a post-apocalyptic cityscape as a backdrop.
This album is one of incredible tension. The incongruity between the septuagenarian’s old-school rhyming prowess and the young’un’s new-fangled electronica create a wonderful discordance; the very content of Scott-Heron’s devastating songs – escape, abuse and redemption – create grounds for anxiety, especially when coupled with Smith’s terse additions. The two are an unlikely pair, but they definitely work. This album is anxiously and wonderfully new here.