Sometime in late 2006, Gil Scott-Heron, then a prisoner on Rikers Island, New York, began work on his first album in almost two decades. Around the same time, Jamie Smith of Putney, then 16, was starting his band’s debut album, ‘xx’. With Jamie’s interior, sparse, yet deeply humane take on the garage continuum, the xx made a pretty perfect account of what being young, coming from the UK, and living in the early 21st century is like. Released on the same label, XL Recordings, a few months later, Gil’s unforgivingly dense backing and poignant, bittersweet reflections combined to make one of the most raw, autobiographical records of recent years.
Separated by almost half a century, but united by a fiercely solitary musical attitude, Gil and Jamie came together on ‘We’re New Here’, the xx producer’s full-album remix of ‘I’m New Here’. Central to both ‘I’m New Here’ and Jamie’s production is history – musical, personal, political – and it’s this that makes ‘We’re New Here’ such a fascinating, if sometimes flawed, listen.
The striking thing is how reverential Jamie’s version of ‘I’m New Here’ is, but the surprising thing is that this reverence is held for the music of his immediate past, rather than that of Gil Scott-Heron. It sounds less like a futuristic producer re-working an old master, more like an afternoon spent flicking through an enthusiastic kid’s record collection. There’s broken beat in the skittering textures of Home, DJ Shadow-y turntablism on The Crutch, and My Cloud uses soft, gaseous strings and a delicate patter of drums to sound like some gem unearthed from a 1999 Giles Peterson radio show. Even the starkest tune on the album, NY Is Killing Me, is an affectionately straight take on dubstep, and, after an interlude, it gives way to the album’s finest moment, the piano house shakedown I’ll Take Care Of U. At several points on the album, Jamie takes your breath away with his command of the producer’s craft – how Running’s drums drop in and out, or how deftly The Crutch can switch emotions and tempos are just two examples of what this very, very clever musician can do.
For this love-letter to dance music’s recent history to work, two things had to fall by the wayside. First off, he had to loosen that tight, laser-sharp Jamie xx sound. On ‘We’re New Here’, many of his signature sounds are missing, and there are no bold flourishes, no moments as ballsy as, say, the xx’s cover of Do You Mind or his mix of Rolling In Deep. Only once does the trademark xx sound come in, and though it’s no coincidence I’ll Take Care Of U, with those tightly-strung guitars, is the best song on the album, the fact that this isn’t a straight-up retread of ‘xx’ is not that much of a burden – for a guy who grew up so devoted to pirate-radio culture, this back-to-mine bricolage is actually a more fitting insight into his process and headspace.
Second off, Jamie treats Gil as an equal, and bold as this is, historical and biographical depth is lost. ‘I’m New Here’ is hyper-particular – ‘We’re New Here’ is universal. The interludes on ‘I’m New Here’ detail Gil’s troubled life – on ‘We’re New Here’s final skit, Jazz, he speaks of the commonality of all dance music. As New York Is Killing Me turns into NY Is Killing Me, it turns from a deeply personal story of African-American internal diaspora into a general urban stress story. Running for Gil is a story of paranoia and desperation, which Jamie hears, but he chooses to shear the original of its contextual depth. Throughout much of the record, Gil’s voice is low in the mix, used as emotional shorthand without narrative – the general effect is of a set of songs sampling Gil Scott-Heron.
At times it’s like listening in on a conversation between two very similar people with a heap of 20th century history standing between them, looking for shared ground. At others, it’s just Jamie Smith from Putney, doing what he’s always done, pottering away in his room, making tracks that are perfect for him and his world, merrily unburdened by Gil’s genius, or his own.