Makaya McCraven Brings Gil Scott-Heron Back Home

We spoke with Makaya McCraven, a prestigious Chicago-born drummer, producer, and sonic collagist, about ‘We’re New Again,’ a legacy album in time with the legacy of the artist.
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Makaya McCreaven Brings Gil Scott-Heron Back Home

“Moments of great emotion never die.” —Dr. C.O Simpkin

A great number of emotions are embedded in the voice of Gil Scott-Heron, a Chicago-born and New York-buried writer of many mediums, none more venerable than when Heron spoke and sung the words he wrote. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the late activist, author, and performer came of relative fame by singing of calamities swelling in America’s underbelly as a critic and poet, a rapper and bluesman—an observant survivor of the times.

Gil Scott-Heron’s last album, I’m New Here, was released by British label XL Records in 2010, six months before Heron’s untimely passing. Recorded in 2008, I’m New Here was produced entirely by XL label head Richard Russell, who, in 2005, sent a letter to the living legend asking if he wanted to make an album. Heron, at the time, was imprisoned in Rikers Island for violating his parole from a previous drug possession arrest. 

Before Heron’s incarceration, The New York Times published a story with the headline, “A Ravaged Musical Prodigy At a Crossroads With Drugs,” which covered his felony possession of cocaine case. The story details the complicated history and lasting effects of Heron’s drug addiction on his family, friends, and his career.

Richard Russell didn’t believe Heron was ravaged. Russell sought him out; they made a record. It would be Gil Scott-Heron’s final record before his 2011 passing. To commemorate the 10th anniversary of I’m New Here, Russell enlisted the assistance of Makaya McCraven, 35, a prestigious Chicago-born drummer, producer, and sonic collagist, to remix the world he and Heron built together.

“The first thing I heard from Makaya is this song called ‘Above and Beyond,’ which is on his record Highly Rare,” Russell told me earlier this month. “It’s one of Makaya’s chopped up instrumentals, and I just loved how hip-hop it was.” 

When asked about how long the process took to put together the newly released, We’re New Again: A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven, Russell replied, “How long did Makaya spend on doing it? That’s a good question. Have you spoken to him yet? He was living it.”

I spoke with McCraven a few days later, over the phone. “I heard from a little birdy I might get an email,” he says. He received an email from that very same birdy that detailed a pitch about a posthumous remix project. “It was kind of, whoa, this is Gil Scott-Heron,” he said, aware the name carried the gravity of importance. A legacy name.

McCraven spoke with Richard Russell over the phone, and then he was given the Gil Scott-Heron a capellas from the I’m New Here recording sessions and the freedom to do as he pleased.

“Even when I was looking for feedback at the beginning stages, they were like, ‘Yeah, man, it’s you,’” McCraven remembers. Every artist craves such freedom, but having to create a project with Gil Scott-Heron, a lead vocalist who is no longer with us, is like collaborating with a spirit who is your only guide, but offers no guidance.

“I usually take improvisations of acoustic musicians playing instrumentally and then chop that up and flip the audio into tracks. That was the difficult nature of this project: Finding ways to put music together and do something [that] supported his voice. I knew Gil’s early stuff, but I didn’t know Im New Here. When I first put it on, I was like, ‘Wow, this record already sounds like it’s been remixed.’ It’s all electronic sounds. What am I supposed to chop up? That led me to use organic sounds. That’s where the idea of calling it a ‘Reimagining’ came about.”—Makaya McCraven

McCraven would speak with Russell for a second time, a conversational that proved to b critical. “My father played with a lot of musicians in Gil’s era; some of The Last Poets,” Makaya said. “That was kind of a place that stuck with me. So I looked toward some of my father’s early LPs to sample as source material for some of the music.”

McCraven and Russell also discussed the making of I’m New Here, what it was like being in the studio with Gil Scott-Heron while they made the record. “That helped me get some ideas out,” McCraven tells me. “After that, it was no outside input.”

We’re New Again was a blank slate—McCraven just needed to decide how he would color it. “Me And The Devil,” “New York Is Killing Me,” and “Pieces of Light,” originally titled “Your Soul and Mine,” were created in the beginning sessions. These were songs McCraven had a starting place and a vision for, but by no means were they finished or fully structuralized. A lot of We’re New Again came together in the last stages of sequencing when McCraven saw a narrative.

As the album was sequenced, McCraven made six more tracks—the last being Heron’s famous cover of Brook Benton’s “I’ll Take Care of You.”

“I did like four versions of that,” McCraven says with a laugh. “After a couple of sleepless nights, the song kind of just came together. I’m happy with that one.”

“I feel that way about all of the projects I’ve been doing. Different projects give the opportunity to challenge yourself in different ways. This was a challenge, it was a big one for me, so I’ll walk away from this having learned a lot through the process that will influence how I grow as an artist. I tried new things with this record that I know worked and, I can do it again. But I’m always trying to grow as an artist; trying to grow in my crafts. All in the ever-fleeting pursuit of mastery. The day I got nothing more to learn and grow, it’s the day the artist shit is over.”—Makaya McCraven

Ten years ago, the Gil Scott-Heron of I’m New Here was a man in his 60s who no longer prophesized untelevised revolutions. The inflamed gut that spoke a rebellious, anti-establishment language that magnified and unraveled the hardships of society was all out of the fire that burns down empires. Heron spoke against no wars and stood for no causes. In his review for Chicago Sun-Times, Jim DeRogatis took note of the shift from a critical worldview for honest introspection:

“The clarion call of that once potent voice is now a lazy slur, and rather than turning his formerly piercing gaze on recent events that seem like new chapters in his life-long novel—from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina to the election of President Obama—Scott-Heron turns inward for bland philosophizing and surprisingly hollow personal reflections.”

William Layman of Pop Matters echoed a similar criticism:

“The songs are philosophical and personal rather than social or political, yet they don’t feel powerfully real. Scott-Heron’s voice fleetingly recaptures its pliant soul, but it mainly grumbles and crackles with time.”

Neither critic is wrong for pressing play on a Gil Scott-Heron album and expecting the man who declared, in 1971, “Home is where the hatred is.” They expected a burning world to rejuvenate him. But that’s not who Gil Scott-Heron was anymore; those weren’t the words he wished to speak.

I’m New Here is about Scott-Heron’s truth, not the world’s problems. The album is bare with that truth, the skeletal honesty of looking at a body underneath an X-ray. When Gil Scott sings, “Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go,” on the Richard Russell-produced “Me and the Devil,” it sounds literal. Every word on the album feels pure as if every vowel and consonant is pouring from a fever dream.

We’re New Again brings the pure voice of Gil Scott-Heron back home to a realm of sounds that’s electric, percussive, and rhythmic. Unlike Russell, who stripped the sound from around Gil’s voice to allow his pensive words to marinate upon the bone marrow of the listener, McCraven surrounds the spoken-word philosopher with lively chord progressions, head-nodding breakbeats, and bursting colors of improvisation. It’s an album that moves to a beat that reminds me of the jazz-driven sporadicity of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, but more weighty, a sense of foreboding terror that’s closer to the Kendrick on DAMN.

Just listen to McCraven’s rendition of “Blessed Parents,” where Heron’s voice is surrounded by erupting horns as he speaks of ancestral spirits like a wisdom-passing elder. And “This Can’t Be Real,” a gentle singing number that melts his baritone voice in the rhythm of a breakbeat fit for hip-hop’s grandfather.

Makaya McCraven made a legacy album in time with the legacy of the artist. McCraven never forgot who Gil Scott-Heron was, didn’t reimagine him as someone he wasn’t.

“The longer I worked on it, the more I was like damn, what did I get myself wrapped into? He has such a legacy as an artist, as a political activist, as a trailblazer and innovator in all sorts of music; hip-hop and jazz, funk, soul. As a poet, he did and said some iconic things.”—Makaya McCraven

We’re New Again considers both past and present, the living and the dead. Gil Scott-Heron wasn’t a ravaged man. He was a prodigy, one who deserves a be current in every era. Remixed, reimagined, resurrected. Not because he spoke only of the universal revolutions, but the inner-revolution, the one we all will fight until our dying days. By capturing those emotions, he’ll always have words—heavy words—that resonate. Makaya McCraven carried those heavy words, and the heavy legacy of a heavy artist, a task he recognized. 

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