Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx

2010: we live in an era of unprecedented hyper connectivity, saturated with music and information, swamped with data, signal and noise, in real time, whenever and wherever we are. There are relentless pressures to absorb new fragments, fresh styles and trends, pressures to consume music and yet more music, to move relentlessly forward. The future is piped into our today by Wi-Fi, fibre optic, super-broadband connections. Standing in the now, this wood can often seem like trees, all raw noise and no signal.

Step back a bit however and a picture resolves itself. Music, like the waves it itself is made from, moves in cycles. Stars rise and they fall, careers blossom and fade, genres burn bright then extinguish themselves and from their ashes others rise. From single to single, album to album it may all look like trees, but over longer timescales the woods emerge.

So if much of music is cyclical, that today’s ‘old’ will more than likely become tomorrow’s ‘new,’ timing becomes crucial: you best catch the wave at the right point, on the up not the down, on the in and not the out. To use the relevant term from the physics of waves, you need to be “in…” not “out of” phase.

Writing music is, in the narrowest sense, the art of combining two or more waves. And science makes it quite clear what happens when two waves combine. When one wave in phase – on the up, things going well – meets another out of phase – on a downer, fading out – then despite similarities they cancel each other out. By contrast when two waves meet in phase, both in the ascendency, then their forms combine to create an even greater peak, respective heights to which each had not yet reached.

Take two respective wave-makers, Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx, who for the first time combine on We’re New Here, a remix album of Gil’s I’m New Here. In some ways it’s hard to imagine two more polar people: one white, one black; one younger, one older; one Brit, one American; one vocalist, one instrumentalist. Yet take the top down view and their picture resolves itself with clarity. Here are two musicians who find themselves at the right time and place, their careers both on the rise: they are “in phase.”

The last 18 months have been meteoric for Jamie xx, his band’s debut album winning both critical and public acclaim before scooping 2010’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize. Looking on a slightly longer timescale there have been high and low points for Gil Scott-Heron but he returned this year with the lauded new album I’m New Here. So what happens when Jamie xx remixes Gil Scott-Heron? Two wave-makers combine in phase at the right time, in the right place? Something quite special it seems.

Born in 1949 and releasing music from the 1970s, it is perhaps inevitable that Gil Scott-Heron’s influence appears at multiple points in the cycles that lead us to We’re New Here. His proto-rap spoken word is credited as an influence on hip hop, a genre that would both inspire Jamie xx as a producer and feed into the nascent rave scene of the late 1980s. It was in rave that both Jamie xx and Gil Scott-Heron’s current record label, XL Recordings and its owner Richard Russell, would make its name, with acts like SL2 and Prodigy mashing up hip hop beats at house tempo to make cultural waves. 15 years ago, as the flames of rave began to die down, Jamie xx’s parents would play him Gil Scott-Heron records around the dining room table, feeding his love of music. Last year Jamie would establish his credentials as a remixer by magically reworking Florence and the Machine’s “You’ve got the Love,” itself a cover of rave bootleg by The Source, which in turn used soul singer Candi Staton’s vocals over seminal 1980s anthem “Your Love” by Jamie Principle and godfather of house, Frankie Knuckles. Then of course there’s his work with The xx, which Richard Russell listened to while producing “I’m New Here.” The influence seeped in so far it seemed only logical to Russell that Jamie apply his sensitive touch to an entire album rework.

So when they came to combine, on We’re New Here, perhaps Jamie xx and Gil Scott-Heron were not truly strangers, instead linked by musical heritage, with Richard Russell the bridge in between.

Gil’s admission that he is “new here,” is a brave and honest one. But the “here,” in the context of this remix album is perhaps not so unfamiliar: maybe he’s not that new? Gil’s early work inspired hip hop. Freed from the constraints of being part of a band, Jamie returned to the hip hop breaks that he first loved as a producer and built a beautiful new sound for Gil. Jamie also took the occasion to bury samples in the work; fragments of the past recontextualised in the “new here.” Perhaps Gil felt more at home than we realise.

And as for the parts that might be less familiar to Gil, like Jamie’s more dubstep inspired work, you can’t help but feel that perhaps this is the cycles giving back to Gil. The young boy who was inspired to write music by records playing at the dinner table is now returning the favour by treating Scott-Heron’s vocals so lovingly but underpinning them with the dubstep sub bass that has so dominated the recent now, that he offers Gil the gift of a new and current context.

2010 dubstep, in a tradition it borrows from 1970s dub reggae, also has a way of warping and bending vocal samples so they feel at once alien and familiar, lost and found. Perhaps then, on this album as the cycles of history have turned so successfully to combine two musicians in phase, when you finally hear a voice ask, “I’m new here, won’t you show me around?” you might just have to think for a second: is that Jamie xx or Gil Scott-Heron asking? The answer probably lies somewhere in between.