Gil Scott-Heron is one of those artists who is extremely difficult to classify. Is he blues or jazz or soul or just what exactly? To further confuse the issue, there are all the spoken word pieces that populate his albums. Clearly, he has a poet’s soul, a man with profound things to say about politics and society, but musically he’s all over the map. Which is isn’t such a bad thing. Most people associate Gil Scott-Heron with the classic song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” but that’s only the very tip of the Gil Scott-Heron iceberg of potent pieces. Songs like “We Almost Lost Detroit” and “Shut ‘Em Down” warned of the dangers of nuclear power; “The Bottle” dealt with alcoholism; “Johannesburg” was about apartheid in South Africa; “H2OGate Blues” was of course about the Watergate scandal; “B Movie” was his dig at Ronald Reagan; and “Home is Where the Hatred Is” touched on alienation and drug abuse. In addition to his considerable musical output, Gil Scott-Heron has written two novels, The Vulture and The Nigger Factory.
Despite recording so many outstanding pieces of music that are beloved by legions of devoted fans, and have inspired (and been sampled by) countless other recording artists, Gil Scott-Heron’s career has been sidetracked for much of the past two decades due to various personal problems, not least of which were separate stints in prison for drug possession. Obviously, the guy is mortal like the rest of us, and has made his share of mistakes (listen to Gil’s brief but succinct acknowledgement of these failings during one of the interludes on his new album), but this dark period of inactivity was difficult for his fans to endure as well. It’s hard to keep a good man down, they say — or at least a stubborn one — and last year Gil Scott-Heron proved it by resurrecting his career with his first album in 16 years, I’m New Here. It was a very short album, with only 28 minutes of music, but the strong and potent material more than made up for the brevity. As always, there was “that voice,” penetrating your skull and whispering sage words of wisdom … and caution. The tone of I’m New Here was much darker and more atmospheric than previous Gil Scott-Heron albums, mixing hip-hop beats and sound loops along with Gil’s ageing but still powerful voice. Gil has been to the dark side and back, and he’s not reticent about telling you all about it. One of the songs, “Me and the Devil,” perfectly illustrates that point.
Another memorable Gil Scott-Heron moment came last year with the much anticipated release of his acclaimed Secrets album on CD. Originally released in 1978, Secrets had never appeared before as a digital CD version. Songs such as “Angel Dust,” “Madison Avenue,” “3 Miles Down,” and “A Prayer for Everybody to be Free” were classic GSH pieces, spiced by his perceptive lyrics. Hearing them again brought back great memories of hearing this album for the first time at the record store I worked at back in Florida. Thanks to my manager at the time, Jimmy Bryant, for turning me on to this classic album.
Just last month, another version of I’m New Here, titled We’re New Here, was released. This album contains radical remixes — virtual reconstructions in some cases — of songs from Gil’s original album by Jamie xx of the UK band xx. I was amazed to find an import copy at the Gram shop in Bangkok’s Siam Paragon shopping center last week. Needless to say, I bought it on the spot and took it home to play later that night. First impression: this is some really weird shit. But a half-dozen plays later, the mixes are becoming less harsh to my ears and I’m starting to like this “reconstructed” version of Gil Scott-Heron’s album. The last track, “I’ll Take Care of U” is particularly effective, with its mesmerizing synthesizers and samples. Older fans may be turned off it what could be considered as “tampering” with the original music, but I think this a bold and effective undertaking. And I can almost assure you that it will earn Gil Scott-Heron a whole new generation of fans. And that ain’t a bad thing either.