Gil Scott-Heron’s Legacy Is a Work in Progress

Gil Scott-Heron’s Legacy Is a Work in Progress


When the drummer and producer Makaya McCraven got a call inviting him to rework Gil Scott-Heron’s final record, he recognized the magnitude of the task. He knew a lot about the poet, novelist, musician and Black Arts Movement hero often called the “godfather of rap.”

But he had heard much less about the album, “I’m New Here,” which came out in 2010, a year before Scott-Heron’s death at 62.

When Mr. McCraven dug into the album, he was struck by a quandary. “This sounds like it’s already been remixed,” he said he remembered thinking, listening to the spare, heavily electronic LP.

“Just his voice is so powerful,” Mr. McCraven added, referring to the way Scott-Heron’s baritone can seem to quietly beckon, even when he’s delivering messages of political outrage or narrating struggles with addiction.

The string of brilliant recordings that Gil Scott-Heron made from the 1970s to the early ’80s represent one of the most important runs of resistance music created by any artist in modern history — the call-to-consciousness proto-rap anthem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”; the allegorical ballad “Winter in America.” Perhaps only Bob Marley rivals him, and Marley’s music was resistance of a different sort: less politically literate, dreamier.

“I’m New Here” was recorded in the late-aughts, in a series of trans-Atlantic sessions between Scott-Heron and Richard Russell, an executive at the record label XL, who is based in Britain. It was Scott-Heron’s first album in 40 years not to feature a full band; instead it centered on the spare, gunmetal beats that Mr. Russell draped around Scott-Heron’s voice, fostering a sense of both claustrophobia and remove.

Mr. McCraven let those electronic tracks go. “I wanted to support his voice, and then try to do something of my own along with it,” he said. So he went straight for Scott-Heron’s vocal stems, then brought in other young jazz musicians to record some live tracks with him. Using his trademark production approach, Mr. McCraven spliced up the music they’d laid down — mixing in some old recordings by his father, the drummer Stephen McCraven, and ending up with a bristling crosstown junction of hip-hop, Afrobeat, European folk music and jazz.

The resulting album, “We’re New Again,” which XL will release on Friday, doesn’t recreate the loose Caribbean funk sound of Scott-Heron’s classic bands. Mr. McCraven’s instrumentals are a cosmopolitan tangle — founded in samples and syncretism — that belongs firmly to the fast-advancing 21st century.

But Mr. McCraven has done some restoration work. On the original “I’m New Here,” the flickering gloom of Mr. Russell’s production often made Scott-Heron sound cloistered and defeated, even as his poetry pulsed with its typical humor, self-effacement and vision. On “We’re New Again,” Mr. McCraven’s arrangements exhume a feeling of potential, a promise of communion — the things that were always at Scott-Heron’s creative core.

Scott-Heron is heard on both albums reading his poem “On Coming From a Broken Home,” which celebrates the women who raised him: “I came from what they called ‘a broken home,’ but if they’d ever really called at our house, they would have known how wrong they were.” On “We’re New Again,” Mr. McCraven has combined an old recording of his mother, Ágnes Zsigmondi, playing the flute while his father plays the kalimba with new tracks, including the young harpist Brandee Younger. As Scott-Heron speaks of communion with his own ancestry, the instrumentals bubble together and generations interlace.

When “I’m New Here” came out in 2010, Scott-Heron had not released a studio album in more than 15 years, and he was in the throes of a drug addiction that he would never fully outrun. In an interview with The New Yorker shortly after its release, Scott-Heron called the album “Richard’s CD,” saying that Mr. Russell’s enthusiasm had led to the collaboration: “All the dreams you show up in are not your own.”

Speaking from London this week, Mr. Russell said that Scott-Heron had first insisted that both of them should claim authorship of the album, but Mr. Russell had dismissed that idea.

So maybe it makes sense to think about “I’m New Here” and the smattering of follow-up materials that have trickled out over the past decade (mixtapes, outtakes collections, short documentaries) as Scott-Heron himself seems to have understood the album: not as his own last solo statement, but as a collaboration, initiated and largely carried through by Russell.

As the 10th anniversary of Scott-Heron’s death approaches, he deserves to be remembered for the impact he made upon his own time, and its resonance across eras. Everything he put out between 1974 and 1982 is effectively out of print, and unavailable on streaming services. His children, from different romantic relationships, have been at loggerheads since his death, creating a legal knot.

Still, his work is out there on YouTube, in used-record stores, and on the lips of everyone who uses the phrases he coined, whether they know it or not: “the revolution will not be televised,” “home is where the hatred is.”

As well as rap’s godfather, it would be wise to recall that Scott-Heron — whose work was anchored in Southern blues and the black literary canon — was the bard of the Black Power Movement. And as that movement’s push for equal access to political power remains unfinished, the insights of his poetry still bear heavily on today.

“The work is there,” said the scholar and critic Greg Tate, who had known Scott-Heron. “Anybody whose work has that depth — in terms of a contemporary reckoning, it’s just a matter of time. It’s inevitable.”



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