Remembering Gil Scott-Heron

Written by May 31st, 2011 at 2:19 pm

A lot has been written about Gil Scott-Heron over the weekend. The singer-songwriter and poet died on Friday, though most found out about his death on Saturday morning. It poured down rain that day here in Chicago, giving Scott-Heron’s birth city a somber feeling.

Perhaps the best remembrance of Scott-Heron came from XL label boss, Richard Russell. “He had a fierce intelligence, and a way with words which was untouchable; an incredible sense of humour and a gentleness and humanity that was unique to him,” Russell wrote on his Tumblr blog. Caius Pawson, head of Young Turks (first a London club night, now a sub-label of XL) and manager of the xx, wrote on Twitter: “Devastated… Got to make sure we appreciate the ones we still got even more.”

Russell produced Scott-Heron’s first album in 16 years, I’m New Here, while it was Pawson’s charge, Jamie Smith, who remixed the album as We’re New Here, presenting Scott-Heron in his most enduring, fractured beauty. Smith used only Scott-Heron’s vocal tracks and completely re-imagined the production for the remix album. While I’m New Here was a timeless portrait of a great artist, We’re New Here seems to say even more.

This is the album that has soundtracked the last few days for me. On the title track, Smith uses Scott-Heron’s line, “I met a woman in a bar,” as a reference for dropping a pitched-up sample of Gloria Gaynor’s “Casanova Brown” (“I met him at a party”) in the chorus. In Smith’s hands, pounding beats and shimmery, breathy synths replace the once-sparse acoustic guitar and vocal arrangement of the song. But it’s still just two sides of the same coin – each unraveling the story in an utterly honest and human way.

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