In rotation: Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx's 'We’re New Here'
A series in Sunday Calendar about what Times writers & contributors are listening to right now...
When Gil Scott-Heron died last month, America lost a unique poetic presence who lived the struggles he sought to capture in his work. Though his voice in later years showed its age, in early 2010 he released a comeback album on the progressive British label XL Recordings called “I’m New Here” that recaptured his essence. The cover of the record was a close-up of the New York proto-rapper’s craggy, unshaven face taking a drag off a cigarette, and the music within felt equally weathered. But it didn’t sound aged; instead, as he did his entire life, Scott-Heron pushed sonic boundaries.
A year later, XL commissioned young producer-composer Jamie xx of the minimal electronic group the xx to reinvent the entire record and transformed “I’m New Here” into “We’re New Here.” The titles and the voice are the same, but the tones and sonic palette are a world away: strange, unearthly, quiet. Jamie transformed the title track, written by indie songwriter Bill Callahan, into a deep, bass-heavy excursion that draws on British dubstep and Los Angeles beat music. “Running” couples Scott-Heron’s authoritative baritone with weird synthetic bursts that sound stolen from an early ’90s techno album. The silence throughout is shocking. Jamie xx understands that the poet’s voice and words should be the center, of course, but completely recontexturalizes everything else. The result is absolutely of its time, a cutting-edge document that celebrates a poet who lived his life at the fringes.
Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx
“We’re New Here”
— Randall Roberts