"And You May Come Full Circle, And Be New Here Again"
It is 1969, and a 19 year old Gil Scott-Heron is recording his first album, Small Talk at 125 and Lennox, the year that followed would see its release and the publishing of a book of the same name to accompany it. This was a project born from the 1960s, a decade charged with US inner city riots from both social and economic racial inequality, opposition to the Vietnam war and the suppression of student anger by the military. The young artist had chosen to leave his formal education at Lincoln University and endeavour to blend the mediums of music and poetry, providing songs and artwork meditating on a range of injustices.
It is a daunting and near impossible task to sum up the sheer significance of what would follow, and the unique sound and career he would carve out for himself. He called his work “Bluesology”, a fusion of poetry, Blues, Jazz and Soul, and over four decades he provided a series of critical commentaries on some of the most pressing social issues facing different societies around the world. He sang with a mixture of harsh, condemning words and soft pronunciation on topics such as exploitation, oppression, racism, The Cold War and nuclear power. ‘Whitey on the Moon’ is a key example for its condemnation of the space race being prioritised over the wellbeing of impoverished citizens, and the live rendition of ‘We Almost Lost Detroit’ in 1990, a song lamenting the dangers of nuclear power, is a must watch.
Gil Scott-Heron strove for a kind of group consciousness or politicisation by setting issues in a creative context, an endeavour stemming from the deeply personal nature of his politics, reflecting the rallying cry of feminists in the 60s and 70s that the “personal is political.” The notion of the personal permeated his career, as he demonstrated a deep understanding about the relationship between his own upbringing and issues of wider resonance, often writing about his own life and relationship with his grandmother Lillie, his mother Bobbie and his daughter Gia. Through his work, he demonstrated a deep understanding about the relationship between his own upbringing and issues of wider resonance.
Songs such as ‘Home Is Where the Hatred Is’, ‘Pieces of a Man’ and ‘The Bottle’ reveal this understanding of the home as the centre of the personal. It is a theme no less political than his other writings, and would form the central crux of his final project I’m New Here, released in 2010 before his untimely death the following year. From it’s opening line “standing in the ruins of another black man’s life”, he sketches a picture of his own personal journey over a short and at times painful 15 tracks. His distinctive voice hums low over sparse folk and industrial electronic instrumentals shifting through a diverse range of genre. The vocals are found over unexpected instrumentals such as a sample of Kanye West’s ‘Flashing Lights’ in a way that sounds bare but grand, and at times delivers a strange sense of dread, such as on the eerie ‘Where Did the Night Go.'
The legendary artist had almost disappeared from the public eye before the release of this project, but it was XL founder Richard Russell who persuaded him to return and record the vocals for the project in fragments, so that Russell could assemble the project. The result is a seminal album of loose parts far removed from the jazz and funk fusions of his past bluesology, using a more sombre canvas to paint images laden with emotion.
Robert Johnson’s ‘Me and the Devil’ and Bobby Bland’s ‘I’ll Take Care of You’ are two of four covers on the album, but are reworked to feel as though they are very much Gil’s own, as he stretches the lyrics to fit his own life, turning the songs into autobiographical recollections of his darker moments. The title track too seems to deal with his controversies due to drug possession, prompting The Guardian to write an article on his downfall in 2001, called The rehabilitation will not be televised. Here, he reflects on these components of his past and the importance of this project to him, musing in melancholia: “no matter how far wrong you’ve gone, you can always turn around.”
With ‘On Coming from a Broken Home’, and ‘I’ll Take Care of You’, Gil seeks to distinguish between what society names as “broken” and what he sees as an effort to make unconventional households function. He sees these families as working processes, stating: “Womenfolk raised me, and I was full-grown before knew I came from a broken home”. Absences do not determine whether a family is less supportive or that they suffer from a loss of love, and here he argues that they are not in any way less worthwhile than a more standardised family structure. Gil Scott-Heron’s final work was a Lazarus-esque resurrection, with themes of mortality in a project similar to David Bowie’s Blackstar and - if not for his passing - would’ve undoubtedly resurrected his career. I’m New Here does not deal directly with class, gender, inequality and race, instead it reminds the listener that these categories are not simplistic, abstract concerns, but rather represent experiences to be challenged and resisted daily. It is the perfect outline for contemporary listeners to work their way back through his catalogue, a starting point so brilliantly constructed that it almost feels like an invitation.
It may be this notion of invitation that provoked artists to reimagine his work, to paint the deeply personal words over their own canvas. The XX's Jamie Smith did precisely that in 2011, attempting to re-contextualise Gil Scott-Heron’s work, with the two even having brief exchanges about the reworked project. Smith reconsidered the entire project,
removing much of the sadness from I’m New Here in the collaborative project We’re New Here, with refreshing enthusiasm. The soul narratives from the original project were born again, over pulsating production and crunching electronic beats that also sampled the older work of Gil, and included a disarmingly stunning version of ‘I’ll Take Care of You’, a version of the song that would prompt a smash hit cover by Rihanna and Drake. It was an album that had faults but it did something ambitious and important, pulling the vocals into a new dimension of dance music.
After Jamie XX’s hypnotic reimagining came the second and most recent version in February 2020. Chicago drummer and producer Makaya McCraven’s We’re New Again is a project closer to Scott-Heron’s earlier work, with blues, jazz and free drumming arrangements spanning it’s 37 minute runtime. McCraven spliced the vocals into a collage, taking the themes of family, mortality and love into a new form, as the drummer samples music played by both his parents to connect the reimagined project to his own familial history.
To drive this aspect to the forefront of the minds of listeners, ‘On Coming from a Broken Home’ is split into four parts, spanning the entire length of the new project. Each interlude carries a slightly different musical quality, with different textures and motifs, but they are strung together to pay tribute to the words that summarise the four stages of the original poem: ‘Special Tribute’, ‘The Patch’, ‘Lily Scott’ and ‘Guided’. McCraven’s revamped version at times parallels the growing dread of the original too, as his hip-hop and jazz fusions build up to the climax of songs like ‘Where Did the Night Go’, which sounds far more bombastic than the original. It’s an intriguing idea that grows more brilliant with each listen. Where Jamie XX rebuilt the tracks with a variety of heavy beats beneath them, McCraven dreamt up the project with a rich jazz focus,
I’m New Here provides a perfect starting point for a contemporary listener to revisit the work of Gil Scott, and potentially discover one of the most influential poets from the past half a century, whose words “the revolution will not be televised” echoed through culture from the very first project, and these later versions carry the themes of his work through to the contemporary.
Some critics seem to argue that the reimagined versions do not stay true to the lyrics and themes of the original project, but it could be argued that they are missing the point. The original project was a glitchy patchwork creation itself, with only the vocals provided by Gil Scott, who himself admitted “This is Richard [Russell]’s CD”. Those who dream up new versions of the original so far have done so in a way personal to them, and help to breathe more life into the artist’s already vast legacy. The lyrics on the title track “I’m new here, can you show me around” beckoned to a new world of music, and these artists seem to be heeding his request, showing him to a new generation.
This is not to say that the new projects are exempt from criticism by any means, simply that any effort to reimagine I’m New Here is extremely important. They, along with samples and mentions of Gil-Scott Heron by the likes of Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, provide a lens through which a new generation can trace back through the remarkable life of one of the most important artists of the past half a century. The new projects help reintroduce his legacy to a world that, given the tragedies of 2020, needs his enigmatic works of both personal and societal protest now more than ever.
Fin Cousins is an English literature student studying at Kings College London, he is an avid consumer of sports, fashion and music. He is still waiting for his rap career to take off.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in South Wales.