Richard Russell Remembers Gil Scott-Heron in the Best Way Possible: Interview

“Gil is just timeless.”
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Gil Scott-Heron, 2020

Richard Russell, head of XL Records, was a newborn the year Gil Scott-Heron released Pieces of a Man, his critically acclaimed, highly-influential 1971 sophomore album. Russell believes the album to be one of the greatest of all time. “Gil is just timeless,” he tells me over the phone, a week before We’re New Again, which reimagines Gil Scott-Heron and Richard Russell’s 2010 collaboration Im New Here, the final album released by Heron before his passing in 2011. Scott-Heron was 62 years old. We’re New Again is produced by critically acclaimed jazz drummer and beatmaker Makaya McCraven.

Russell is right, Gil Scott-Heron was a man, a poet, activist, and artist who spoke the kind of critical words that cut through time. Heron was sharp, a razor-blade thinker who dissected the world around him with a voice that somehow contained both emotional grit and charismatic charm. To hear him is to be gripped: by the lyrics, by the sounds, by the energy. Gil wasn’t a pop star of his time, but the messaging had a cultural impact not rewarded to the shiniest of pop songs. 

“If you were into it, he meant a lot,” Russell said of discovering Heron’s music as a teenager living in the suburbs of 1970s England.

That meaningfulness is what invokes a sense of duty into the XL Records label head to keep Gil’s name and music in the present. “Historically, there’s a lot of great artists who get overlooked,” he tells me, fully aware that being a great artist does not mean eternal life, but impactful artists have a way of transcending. 

Gil Scott-Heron was undoubtedly impactful and transcended eras and genres—unforgettable in every way. In his honor, Richard Russell hopes to continue attracting fresh ears and eyes to a forefather of rap who never stopped being current. 

Our conversation, edited for content and clarity, follows below.

DJBooth: I read that Gil was a hero of yours. Tell me, how did you first discover his music?

Richard Russell: I grew up on the outskirts of London in the suburbs. In the mid-80s, there were no enforced licensing or age restrictions in clubs. So I started going out when I was young. Hip-hop was getting played in the clubs in the mid-to-late 80s, but we also had a scene in London called Rare Groove, and all that meant was DJs who were playing hip-hop records would also play the soul records that were sampled in the rap songs. 

That was how I was first exposed to Gil; several of his records were seen as part of that. He was extremely popular. He used to come to London and play. Not only did I hear the records, but I saw him perform a bunch of times in that period. The UK always loved American soul music. It was particularly vibrant at that time of a lot of great soul music, and Gil was my favorite of those artists. I just loved his voice, and his message and not just me, a lot of people felt this way. I’ve met so many people who speak of Gil Scott-Heron as an artist they knew growing up. He wasn’t a crossover pop artist, but if you were into it, he meant a lot. 

How does it feel to reintroduce Gil again, ten years later?

Well, Gil is just timeless. I was born when he was recording his [second] record. ‘71. His first record was in 1970. I was a small child when he was putting out the 70s records. He was relevant to me, but I was hearing music from another time. When I approached him about recording again, he was already being sampled by lots of people. Famously, by Kanye [West] on the song “Long Way Home” with Common. 

I think, for whatever reason, I feel a bit of duty to introduce him to people because he was never that commercial, crossover figure. What Makaya [McCraven] did and what I asked Jamie [xx] to do earlier is all a part of that reintroducing. Historically, there’s a lot of great artists who get overlooked. It makes me happy that Gil is not one of them and that people are still discovering him. 

For someone that isn’t familiar with Gil’s work, what makes him timeless?

[Gil] never stopped sounding current. He was current when I was a teenager, and he sounds current now. If you’re into rap, you’ve heard it because it’s been sampled at every stage of hip-hop. Artists have always sampled and referenced Gil. He was a part of the creation of the blueprint of what the music is. Many people think he made the first great rap album—Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. It’s Gil rhyming over drums. That’s pretty much what that record consists of. Being heavily influenced by The Last Poets, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox is a good album. 

Gil was a complete original, though. He was a visionary because he did the things he wanted to do. That meant two things: He was not seen as commercial in his lifetime because he was way too far ahead, but his work has the incredible lasting power to influence people now. 

Gil Scott-Heron has 15 studio albums, and they’re not all on streaming services. Is there one particular album you would recommend somebody to start with?

Pieces of a Man. I think it’s one of the greatest records of all time in any genre. It gets better and better. It’s accessible, listenable, and immediately familiar, rather you know it or not. The first album is very, very minimal, but he’s working it all out. The second album, he has it all worked out. He’s got a lot to say, unbelievably lyrical. He had this amazing ability to understand human emotion, but also have this political anger. Gil doesn’t make any bad albums. He didn’t record for an extended period, but when he did record, he made good records.

When you initially approached Gil about recording I’m New Here, his first album in 16 years, did you have a vision for the record?

Yes. The vision was influenced by Gil’s first record, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. The word I used early on that Gil picked up on was “spartan.” To mean simple, to mean stripped-down, and to mean only the essential elements and components. We referred to that word often while recording. Most of that electronic music I would make, and then I would play him sketches of what I was doing, and he was enthusiastic about it, but he would always encourage me to keep it simple and keep it stripped-down, which was useful. 

Because our vision was a record that’s minimalistic and stripped down, I’m New Here is rather short. We had more material, but we wanted to have a record people might listen to in one sitting that would have an intense impact. It’s only 29-minutes long, which is a good length for an album. 

Before you guys were in the studio together, you wrote him letters in jail. How did that feel? You haven’t met, yet you’re conversing with Gil Scott-Heron. 

The entire experience with him was incredibly meaningful to me, and I’d even say life-changing. There was something deep and fundamental that needed to happen there. A lot of people who experienced him, at that time, had what they would refer to as quasi-mystical experiences with him. He was deeply spiritual. We used to talk about the spirits a lot and how everything was happening for a reason.

To my relief, but not to my surprise, we had a good connection. In the letters we were writing to each other, we would talk in the same language. When I met him, we would speak in that same language about doing something truthful and doing something good. He could tell I was passionate about making something. He’d been approached to do other things, [but] he hadn’t wanted to do them. This thing, he was instinctively like, come on, let’s see what happens.

Tell me about We’re New Again. How did you and Makaya put together this album? 

The first thing I heard from Makaya is this song called “Above and Beyond,” which is on his record Highly Rare. It’s one of Makaya’s chopped up instrumentals, and I just loved how hip-hop it was. It just sounded like hip-hop to me, but it was something else going on. So I researched it and saw that he was a drummer who is playing, recording, chopping, and looping it. I liked it. The fact he was a kind of high art musician, drummer, and producer who had his own thing going on, I just loved that. 

Ben [Beardsworth], who runs the label, said to me, “It’s going to be the 10th anniversary of Gil’s record. Do you wanna do something?” Makaya came to mind. I just thought, hmm; maybe there’s something there. The fact that Makaya is from Chicago, where Gil is from initially, and also the fact there’s so little live playing on the original. It just felt like it would be interesting for Makaya to apply the live musicianship to the project. It struck me as an interesting way of reapproaching and recontextualizing the record but still [being] true to the spirit of what Gil and I made in the first place. We got in touch with him to see what he thought. 

Do you remember your initial reaction when you heard the album? 

Yes, I was very moved. I’ll tell you what moved me, the chords Gil found in the song “I’m New Here.” He brought something out in that, that was special in ways I couldn’t imagine. It was wonderful what he did to that. And I thought the whole thing had a great quality to it. I was happy when I heard it. 

Is there any particular message that you got from Gil’s music during the making of I’m New Here that you carry with you to this day?

I’ve learned so much from him! There were so many lessons because he was so profound, and so much of what he said was profound. Gil sang, “The spirits of your parents and their parents and their parents live on through you, and if you just take a minute, you’ll hear them.” To hear someone say things like that is something. And Gil had that. But he also had a lot of humor. I hope people reading this go and check him out and listen to the music. I think they’ll get something out of hearing him. 

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