Gil Scott-Heron reimagined

21:41, Mar 08 2011

I can't stop playing recent release We're New Here; it is a collaboration between Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX. When I first heard it last week, I hated it. But something niggled - it wasn't a hate that made me ditch the album, in fact it made me want to investigate further, dig deeper, keep playing.

In fact, it wasn't even a hate; it was a frustration - frustration because one of my favourite albums of last year was I'm New Here by Scott-Heron and, well, I felt that this remix album was just a little too cheeky, burying the words of Scott-Heron. There are some great jazz and soul sounds on Scott-Heron albums but you listen to his music and poetry for the words - for the sound of the words as well as the meaning.

I'm New Here was the first album by Scott-Heron in over a decade. His sound had been updated to include icy electro and dark, moody postmodern blues textures. It suited his voice: slurred by drugs and age, impossibly rich and almost, well, filthy on the ear.

I wrote about Scott-Heron's career - how I felt about his music up to and including I'm New Here earlier last year when that album was released. Click here to read that.

So my first listen to We're New Here was marred by the loss of Scott-Heron's voice and the cutting up of the vocals - which of course leads to a cutting up (a dispersal and disposal) of certain lyrics.

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I'd read the advance-hype, heard an early track. I did know, in a sense, what to expect. I knew that Jamie XX, born Jamie Smith, producer DJ and percussionist for The XX as well as remix artist in his own right, was creating a new version of Scott-Heron's album, using the original as a starting point. I knew that Scott-Heron was in on it too. The two artists corresponded - I believe it was brief and via mail.

So in that sense I had an understanding of the album. The first listen left me cold. But intrigued.

I've been returning to it daily - and I'm ready to call it a joint masterpiece (though we could probably call a lot of things a masterpiece after a joint).

I've realised that Scott-Heron's voice is not really buried - just presented differently. And as icy and detached as some of these arrangements could seem, there's more warmth to them, and therefore to the words, than was the case with I'm New Here.

It is a collaboration, hence the double-billing, but it is unwise to think of this as a remix album - or, rather, the idea of a remix has been steadily devalued at the hands of lazy hip-hop producers and label heads - consider it a reimagination of the original album.

We're New Here is bold, audacious, cheeky, risky and expansive - it opens with that familiar voice but floating around it are disco samples, ambient textures, deep swathes of moody synth drenches, of post-techno drums and bass.

Jamie XX has, brilliantly, reimagined and reconceptualised/recontextualised the words and work of Gil Scott-Heron. It would be easy to take a pot-shot and suggest that this is ego-stroking, that this is a safe way to gain kudos; an easy chance to work with a legend and instantly receive acclaim as a result. But there is nothing easy about this collaboration - not conceptually.

Jamie XX has created a new sound for Scott-Heron, choosing to couch the words in his post-dubstep sound-world, painting liberally, spraying colours of sound around the rich timbre of Gil's voice.

Just as Scott-Heron created his own language - musically, vocally and lyrically - it now sits in a new space thanks to Jamie XX.

You can hear the influences of DJ Shadow and RjD2, of the DJ Rels pseudonym used by Madlib, of Daft Punk and Burial. You can hear - and feel - a series of diggings from the past to create something that will move on through to the future.

And if Jamie XX needs to convince that he is a fan of Gil's, was a fan before this project, it's clear in his sampling of some of Scott-Heron's earlier work to help present this future-sound. That's one trick amid the diggings from the past.

What I realised after a half-dozen listens to this new album, this new sound, was that not only can this album exist on its own - and it deserves to (you don't need to hear the original I'm New Here album to enjoy this) - it can also work (brilliantly) alongside it.

I've been alternating them as a double-set - starting with I'm New Here one day and spinning on through to We're New Here. Other times I'll play the new-New album first and then go back to Scott-Heron's original I'm New Here after.

I'm New Here was less than half an hour long. It said all it needed to say. It still does.

We're New Here is a touch longer, about 34 minutes.

My advice is to get hold of both and make a playlist or a CD-R that houses both albums. As long as Jamie XX is allowed to reimagine the sound of Scott-Heron, we should be allowed to as well. And in doing so it's creating a third work - or third and fourth work, depending on the order/s and whether you shuffle between them.

I'm sure what I've just suggested is nothing, er, new here - I'm sure I'm not the only one listening to these albums back to back.

But I like that Jamie XX has made something that doesn't just sound like The XX meets Gil Scott-Heron. And yet, in some small way/s, you might notice parts that could seem like that. There are places where you will hear sounds from The XX's deck, sure.

I think this is going to be one of my favourite albums of the year. Big call, maybe, but I'm happy with it.

Beyond that, it has me recalling albums that seemed to announce a whole new sonic - built from various etchings of sound. I think of Daft Punk's Homework, DJ Shadow's Endtroducing, Aphex Twin's Drukqs and Burial's Burial and Untrue albums. The first albums that come to mind.

What do you think? Any of you out there digging We're New Here? Were you fans of I'm New Here or do you plan to go back to that next? Perhaps you liked I'm New Here but couldn't quite enjoy the new remix? Or did you just prefer Gil Scott-Heron's 1970s and early 1980s works?

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