We’re New Again – A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven
Ten years ago Gil Scott-Heron released his final album with in a year it had been remixed by Jamie xx, essentially reworked, Scott-Heron’s poems and stories and hoarse song-whispers and croaks dancing now in and around the glorious sound waves that The xx producer and sonic-twirler had spun anew. Not everyone that loved the original record, I’m New Here, loved the reworking that was We’re New Here – but I certainly did. At any rate that final Gil Scott-Heron album has lasted. It felt special at the time. And then Gil was gone and in his final poems and songs he’d admitted to falling victim to some of the lifestyle traps and traits he had warned us of in his earliest works. It was almost a pre-emptive last strike at life, his gravelly reflections were a huge clue that we didn’t have long to go with him still in this world.
I have a conversation every couple of months or so, I reckon, with someone new each time about how great I’m New Here was and is. And not everyone cares for – or has even heard – Jamie xx’s treatments but some days I fee like I love that at least as much.
Well now there’s a third record to emerge – a second reworking, this one commissioned by XL Recordings’ boss Richard Russell, the man responsible for getting Gil back into the studio after nearly two decades in the wilderness. This time Russell went to drummer and producer Makaya McCraven – a man making waves with various combos, as superstar session guy and bandleader, as producer and DJ and remixer; a man that graciously took a backseat in the naming rights of this album – releasing it as a Gil Scott-Heron record rather than under his own name. He’s modestly there in the subtitle, credited with “re-imagining” the original work. He certainly does that. And apparently he avoided listening to either the original or the Jamie xx remixes. He merely took the a capellas and placed them in his newly concocted context.
The results are sublime. That “unfinished” last record remains a living document and here’s the latest proof – also McCraven arguably builds something that speaks to the wider black context of Gil’s words and worlds; it houses the songs back in hip-hop adjacent settings, dusty old blues and furious funk with the freedom of jazz circling always. One obvious criticism of Jamie xx’s treatment is that it ignored the politics inherent in Scott-Heron’s work and situated the words in European nightclubs, a far cry from the Harlem rooming-houses and delta blues that was always on Gil’s mind if not under his very footsteps.
But McCraven builds something here – as both producer and performer – that not just updates the original record but circles back to place the words from that final recording alongside the best of Scott-Heron’s fearless and funky 70s masterpieces.
Helping to press through this new sound is Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker, Junius Paul on bass, Brandee Younger on harp and Ben Lamar Gay on various instruments and percussion – all are regulars on the stage or in recording spaces with Makaya. He also incorporates samples of both of his musician parents, his mother Agnes Zsigmondi was a gospel-soul singer, his father Stephen McCraven was a drummer who worked with Archie Shepp and Gil Scott-Heron’s rap-prototype rivals The Last Poets among others.
So there’s some deep history and intertextuality and interdependence going on here. And a wry acknowledgment of that.
Somehow in all this honouring of Gil’s voice we do hear McCraven’s – an idiosyncratic producer and dynamic player, his musical voice is the thread for this of course. But it’s no mean feat to make all of this, to remake a contemporary-classic and bury yourself deep rather than standing proud to claim full ownership. We’re New Again is both Gil Scott-Heron record and Makaya McCraven record. And whoever you hear most – or whether you hear this ahead of going back to the two previous versions of these poems and songs – you are in the presence of greatness. You are hearing something truly magical. I was sure this was going to be one of the records of 2020 right when it was released at the start of the year. I rushed out and bought the LP and played it a bunch. I’m still playing it. And here’s the review I promised months ago. I know I haven’t done the record justice. But I’m new to this – again – every time I hear it. It’s a living document of a record. It’s the greatest tribute to one of the most inspiring and influential poets and musicians of the last 45 years. And it’s a crucial stepping stone in Makaya McCraven’s own already fascinating and brilliant career. And for those of us missing Gil Scott-Heron, Makaya keeps his final album alive, it feels like we still have him with us in this world.
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