Published Feb 10, 2020"It's a bit of a responsibility kind of thrown on my plate. To have to deal with the legacy of such an important and influential artist who is not here to directly collaborate with or to reference in the flesh."
Many emerging artists would approach a project like We're New Again with an unflinching air of excitement. But speaking with Exclaim!, Makaya McCraven seems to grasp the cautious reverence involved in reimagining the works of iconic poet/musician Gil Scott-Heron. "I was approached by Richard Russell at XL, the Gil record came up and they thought I would be perfect for it. They basically kinda told me that this record wouldn't happen without me," says McCraven. "My first thought was like, 'wow, I'm really honored to have been asked to do this.'"
Described by McCraven as a reimagining of Gil Scott-Heron's 2010 swan song, I'm New Here, the second incarnation of the celebrated album (which was also remixed by Jamie xx in 2011) finds the Chicago beatmaker crafting new musical compositions around Scott-Heron's original vocal tracks.
As the son of famed percussionist Steve McCraven, who has played with avant-gardists like Archie Shepp and Yusef Lateef, Makaya has been striving to redefine and reshape the role of the jazz drummer since breaking onto the scene early last decade. "As I've been contextualizing myself, not only as a drummer, but as a producer and somebody who was really interested in making records — whether that's dealing with historical material making records with other singers that are a bit more outside the jazz realm — this was a cool opportunity to flex those sides of my skills and see where they can take me for future projects."
Not only has this project presented a challenge by pushing him out from his musical comfort zone, but McCraven admits to taking on the task before ever hearing Scott-Heron's I'm New Here. "I wasn't familiar with the original," he acknowledges. "I was familiar with Gil's older work, but this one somehow missed me." Recounting the first time he gave the album a spin, he continues, "I was surprised by how minimally electronic-produced the record sounds. So at first I was like, 'Wait a second, this sounds like a remix record.' Because Gil, to me, I always associated with this funky, bluesy kind of organic sound — and he made a record that's really kind of outside of that room."
But what makes We're New Again a worthy addition to the I'm New Here series lies within McCraven's utter refusal to allow any single musical mode or trope to define the album. Using his unfamiliarity and fresh reading of the source material to his advantage, Makaya leans on his players for inspiration, blending modern compositional structures (thanks to harpist Brandee Younger), post-rock angularity (courtesy of Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker) and hypnotic free jazz (with the help of bassist Junius Paul), alongside samples of his own father's drumming.
Recorded soon after he was released from jail in 2007 for a plea deal violation, and put out just 15 months before his death at age 62, I'm New Here was originally celebrated for capturing the fragile and vulnerable side of the once-virile and socially charged Gil Scott-Heron, something that McCraven managed to keep intact (and at times accentuate) on We're New Again.
"I've been very lucky to have access to some legendary people, growing up within this kind of jazz market and stuff, I've seen different cats get old," says Makaya when explaining how he was able to connect with his muse's struggle with destitution and mortality. "That was something that resonated with me I think about myself and the longevity of my career, where I want to go. It gets driven home because people don't really think about the artist or the activist or the person that they're inspired by as a human and the challenges these people are going through. So, yeah, we could look at these people we admire as superheroes. But they're real people."
We're New Again is out now on XL Recordings.