Gil Scott-Heron is deeply human. He is in many senses the godfather of rap, a poetic innovator who famously stated that “the revolution will not be televised”: a prolific wordsmith whose lyrics cover every facet of the human condition. However, while it is easy to idealize Gil the poet, Gil the man is deeply flawed, and after a 16 year musical drought characterized by spells in prison for cocaine possession, he was given a chance at redemption from the unlikeliest of sources, Richard Russell: label boss of XL records. The result, “I’m New Here”, his 13th studio release, is the tortured reminiscence of a broken man, whose gritty vocals drawl over sparse drumbeats and painful silences.
If “I’m New Here” is Scott-Heron’s lyrical redemption; his emergence into the present day reborn, then “We’re New Here” is his catapulting into the future. Jamie XX seems on paper to be the polar opposite of Scott-Heron. Firstly, there is a substantial age/experience gap. Gil is 60+ and 13 albums in, whereas Jamie XX can realistically claim 1/3 of an album as part of the XX and some choice remixes along the way. Secondly, and importantly, Scott-Heron is a famous lyricist; Jamie XX on the other hand regularly states his indifference for all things lyrical, alleging that he can’t recite the lyrics of one XX song all the way through. One would be forgiven for thinking therefore that “We’re New Here” is doomed to fail, an interesting experiment and nothing more.
Such a view couldn’t be more wrong. What is created here is spine tingling, not so much a complete rewriting of Scott’s work, but more a re-contextualising. From the gravelly, introspective “I’m New Here” is born something quite different and intangible. This is not a club-ready banger, though songs like “New York is Killing Me”, and “Running” would not sound out of place in Stealth or Bodega, and neither is it a mere cross between the XX with Gil’s vocals (though the song, “I’ll Take Care of You” is unmistakably in the same vein, using a discarded guitar riff from the XX’s own guitarist). It is hard to pigeon-hole “We’re New Here”, much as it is difficult to adequately define its two protagonists. What we do have, however, is a match made in heaven, a musical sound clash that does not lose any of the humanism of Scott-Heron’s lyrics, and equally does not pander to them with placid beats that let the words do the talking. Instead, Jamie XX has created a unique sonic accompaniment to Scott-Heron’s introspective journey in to the modern world. Whereas “I’m New Here” is sparse, “We’re New Here” infuses everything from big beat, jungle, dubstep, garage, and even more exotic synths and samples to mention, but in such measured quantities that they are never too much. This is the beauty of this remix, instead of overpowering Gil’s lyrics with aggressive dubs and huge bass lines, Jamie XX has retained the inherent quality of the original, and updated it for the underground scene.
Gil was right, “the Revolution will not be televised”: it will be synthesized.