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I’m New Here reinvented Gil Scott-Heron for the 21st century

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In 2010, we’d almost lost Gil Scott-Heron.

While his music, novels and poetry had made him an icon of American counterculture in the 70s, at the turn of the last decade he’d not released an album for 16 years and had hardly been seen or heard from since. Once a figure so iconic he stood alongside Stevie Wonder in the campaign for the establishment of Martin Luther King Day, he was, in 2009, described by Jeremy Paxman as a musician who had been “largely absent from public view for years, so much so that many believed he was dead.”

But, despite the odds, I’m New Here – which would be Scott-Heron’s final album before his death only a year later – proved to be a record so innovative that it granted the poet and musician a brief but Lazarus-esque revival. A collaboration that fused Heron’s blues-tinged proto-rap with the stark electronic production of XL Recordings boss Richard Russell, it presented a fiercely modern version of Scott-Heron and reaffirmed him as one of the most important musicians in American history.

This week marks 10 years since the album’s release, an occasion that will be celebrated with a new version of the record. Helmed by Chigaco-based jazz musician Makaya McCraven, We’re New Again is a reimagining of Scott-Heron’s final record, intended not only to honour it but to reframe his work once again, as artists as far-ranging as West, Jamie xx and Tupac have done before.

When Russell originally contacted him in 2006, Gil Scott-Heron was serving a prison sentence at New York’s Rikers Island facility. The preceding decade had not been kind to the Godfather of rap, his health was suffering and in 2008 he would confirm that he had contracted HIV. The album would take several years to make, with Scott-Heron initially reluctant; “This is Richard’s CD,” he told The New Yorker at the time. “[I thought] why not? All the dreams you show up in are not your own.”

Inspiration for the album was drawn from trip-hop, electronica and even dubstep. Stark production and extensive sampling – including Kanye West’s Flashing Lightsdefined the record’s unique sound. Scott-Heron recorded piano and vocals, but he was a different artist from his 70s heyday. His voice had changed, having become burnished with age, and his ragged delivery recalled little of the bombastic energy of his earlier works. Stylistically, his approach to the album focused on the blues, his lyrics moving away from the searing commentaries on racism and economic injustice with which he made his name, instead reflecting his personal strife.

With his health in decline much of I’m New Here serves as Scott-Heron’s meditation on death and mortality. This is perhaps best summed up with On Coming From a Broken Home, a poem that describes the day “a limousine from Heaven” was sent for Heron’s grandmother Lily Scott while he lived with her as a child in Jackson, Tennessee. The track bookends the album, serving as both opener and closer with Heron eternally returning to his childhood, and his grandmother eternally “leaving suddenly one night”.

Gil Scott-Heron and Richard Russell in the studio.

In the decade and a half he spent away from public life, Scott-Heron’s legacy lived on through the work of others, with countless artists sampling his voice or reusing his words. On I’m New Here, he reversed that trend, drawing on the canon of the blues, borrowing phrases, lines and in the case of Me and the Devil – the story of a singer waking up one morning to find the devil knocking on his door –  an entire song.

Originally written by Delta blues progenitor Robert Johnson in his final recording session before his mysterious death in 1938, that Scott-Heron chose to cover Me and the Devil may seem unsettling given his own death shortly after. His version though, drenched in oozing sub-bass and punctuated by a menacing percussive refrain, sees Scott-Heron defiant, walking “side by side” with the devil, his voice alternating between pained yelps and growled moments of spoken word. It’s the sound of a man facing his demons as an equal and perhaps, embracing what’s to come.

While Scott-Heron spends much of I’m New Here reflecting on his life and drawing on the legacies of long-gone icons, the album avoids nostalgia at all costs. John Lee Hooker’s T.B Is Killing Me becomes the rumbling, genre-defying New York Is Killing Me, while Bobby “Blue” Bland’s I’ll Take Care of You is reinterpreted with such flair that Drake and Rhianna would take the song to the top 10 of the Billboard charts in 2012, sampling Scott-Heron’s gruff baritone on their own version of the track, Take Care.

The success of Scott-Heron and Russell’s efforts to re-contextualise the blues for a modern audience would be realised again the year after I’m New Here’s release, when Jamie xx released the remix album We’re New Here. His transformation of Scott-Heron’s vocals introduced the “industrial blues” of I’m New Here to clubs and festivals around the world, and like those who had sampled Scott-Heron before him, bought the Chicago pioneer’s work to young audiences unfamiliar with his legacy.

Scott-Heron’s revival in the months around I’m New Here was unmitigated, and performances at Bestival and Brixton Academy in early 2011 cemented his triumphant resurrection. Since his death in May that year, Scott-Heron has continued to show up in popular music, with artists like Travis Scott, Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar all referencing his music.

Now, Scott-Heron’s music will live again though McCraven’s rework. By revisiting some of the elements of Scott-Heron’s 70s output – most notably flowery woodwind and polyrhythmic percussion – McCraven’s adaptation almost sounds like a sequel to Scott-Heron’s own Pieces of a Man, or Winter In America, re-aligning the album with the roots of his career.

Throughout his life, Gil Scott-Heron held a reputation as a pioneer, a radical who dismissed fame and flattery and almost turned his back on music entirely. Arriving after a career defined by samples, selected quotes and allusions to his greatness, I’m New Here afforded Scott-Heron a chance to shape his legacy on his own terms. A decade on, his reintroduction to the world stands shoulder to shoulder with the records that made his name.

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