Makaya McCraven is not a man of many words—at least when it comes to making music. The Chicago percussionist and producer typically creates his sprawling instrumentals by getting his closest collaborators together for improvised live sessions, then splices the recordings into vibrant collages of jazz passages and hip-hop beats. So when McCraven was asked by XL Recordings head Richard Russell to rework I’m New Here, the final album by spoken-word icon Gil Scott-Heron, part of the challenge was more or less spelled out. “Instrumental music gives a really nice platform to communicate beyond the literal word,” he tells me. “But it does lack in the literal side of the word.”
When we meet in early January, McCraven is in New York for Winter Jazzfest, where he’ll perform selections from the project, called We’re New Again (out February 7). “I’m having a little bit of trouble about like, who’s going to be Gil’s voice [live],” McCraven says. “It’s kind of a weird thing—at first I didn’t want to use too much audio because I didn’t want to make this a hologram show.”
Whether onstage or in the studio, adapting I’m New Here has been a daunting task for McCraven. Released roughly a year and a half before Gil Scott-Heron’s death in 2011, it has become one of the proto-rap legend’s most beloved albums—so much so that it has been reinterpreted once already, by a dancefloor-minded Jamie xx. “Emotionally, this was one of the more challenging records I’ve done,” McCraven says. “It was hard to work on something with somebody who’s not here. It’s not like I could call up Gil and say, ‘Hey man, what do you think about this?’”
McCraven also felt the pressure for more personal reasons: Scott-Heron’s music had loomed large in his own upbringing. Though his jazz-drummer father Stephen never collaborated with Scott-Heron, the two ran in somewhat similar circles. The elder McCraven worked with Jalal Mansur Nuriddin and other members of the radical spoken-word group the Last Poets, who were close contemporaries to Scott-Heron. His most famous recording, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” was a direct response to the Last Poets’ 1970 track “When the Revolution Comes.”
“My dad wears all black leather still, lives in Paris, worked with [jazz legends like] Archie Shepp and all these evocative black voices—really took part in the same movement in time,” says McCraven. “I definitely remember, from a young age, even before I could associate Gil with his voice, hearing his voice, and ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.’ [Making this record] felt like bringing me home to my childhood, and that small apartment, with those records playing.”
To help him achieve that level of intimacy, McCraven enlisted trusted collaborators like guitarist Jeff Parker, trumpeter Ben LaMar Gay, harpist Brandee Younger, and bassist Junius Paul, all of whom have played on McCraven’s last few records. “Those are my people,” he says. “I like to work within my close, comfortable place—I like the vulnerability of it, the familyhood of the people I work with. I wanted all of that to be part of the record.”
Family, whether found or inherited, became the focus of We’re New Again. It’s a theme Scott-Heron explored and McCraven expanded upon, in part, by sampling recordings of his father drumming and his mother playing the recorder. “Gil, on this record, is really introspecting on his life,” McCraven says. “I connected it to my family.” Scott-Heron’s original LP is bookended by a two-part composition about his childhood called “On Coming From a Broken Home.” McCraven splits those into four pieces strung across We’re New Again, carrying the theme through like an artery shuttling blood cells.
Elsewhere, McCraven rearranged tracks to fit the thematic elements of Scott-Heron’s lyrics, letting content inform composition. On “New York Is Killing Me,” McCraven focused on the line, “I need to go home and take it slow in Jackson, Tennessee.” To translate the sentiment, he asked Gay to bring his diddley bow—a guitar-like, single-string American folk instrument—to the studio for a “down-home kind of vibe.” McCraven wanted to reinforce Scott-Heron’s word, but he also wanted to differentiate from the ultra-contemporary, electronic finish of the original. “I like to sample organic music,” he says, adding that I’m New Here sounds, in a way, like it’s already been remixed.
McCraven abstained from listening to the original, as well as Jamie xx’s We’re New Here, while developing We’re New Again. Instead, he focused on Scott-Heron’s isolated vocal tracks. “I wanted to come to this through the word, and not through what happened before,” he says. “I wanted to listen to Gil’s voice, have some context of those other records, but really focus on him.” While We’re New Here can feel like a Jamie xx record featuring Gil Scott-Heron, McCraven’s spacious arrangements are in close conversation with the original work.
When I mention to McCraven that he’s achieved this without making the project about himself, he seems slightly taken aback. “It definitely wasn’t my intention to make it about me,” he says. “It is about Gil.” He then pauses for a moment. “It’s interesting having to do interviews around this record, because a lot of it is his ideas and concepts. I just tried to support it with music and do something that connected with me. So I guess I did want to make it about me, you know? But not in an ostentatious type of way. I wanted to make it about me in the sense that this is my interpretation… whether it’s digging back to old childhood recordings I listened to with my dad, or just putting a lot of time into it.”
At Winter Jazzfest the next day, McCraven settles into his drum kit and the stage fills with musicians, including We’re New Again collaborators like Paul and Younger. Early on, a handful of players form a tight circle at center stage. They smile and nod to each other with a sense of warmth and familiarity, and it almost feels like we’re spying on some intimate living room jam. Slivers of Scott-Heron’s lyrics are broadcast over the ensemble. At times, a word or phrase hangs in the air before dissolving away, leaving McCraven and co. to communicate beyond the literal word.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork