Gil Scott-Heron's voice has been reverberating for 40 years. He burst onto the scene in 1970 with the spoken-word album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, which contained the rallying cry "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." The vox-and-bongos song took aim at such hallowed bastions of pop and politics as The Beverly Hillbillies and President Richard Nixon, a practice of name-checking that has become vital to legions of MCs.
When "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" was rerecorded for the 1971 Pieces of a Man record, Scott-Heron's proto-rap was set atop a simple but incredibly funky rhythm section comprising drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie and bassist Ron Carter. The recording unwittingly etched out a blueprint for hip-hop, an action so influential that Scott-Heron has been dubbed the "Godfather of Hip-Hop" — a title he's unsure about.
"If it's meant as a compliment, I guess I'll take it," he says, speaking by phone from his office in East Harlem. "But I never really thought of myself in those terms." Regardless of whether he meant to launch a million mikes, he accepted the elder statesman role when, in 1994, he led off the album Spirits with "Message to the Messengers," in which he warned rappers: "If you're gonna be speakin' for a whole generation [...] Make sure you know the real deal about past situations."
In the lull since Spirits, Scott-Heron's music career has twice been interrupted by stints on Rikers Island, both stemming from a cocaine bust in fall 2000. During his second stay, XL Recordings CEO Richard Russell got in touch with him about producing a record. The resulting album is the oddly titled I'm New Here.
"If you're familiar with my music, there's always a lot of sarcasm," Scott-Heron says, letting out a deep, guttural laugh. "So I thought, you know, 'I'm New Here.'" The sparse title track is a twangy Bill Callahan cover, with Scott-Heron singing, "You may come full circle/And be new here again." The album falls in line as a sort of reintroduction, as the iconic artist lowers his guns on the world at large and focuses instead on inner reflection.
I'm New Here is bookended by "On Coming from a Broken Home" parts one and two, a pair of somber childhood recollections set to the brooding atmospherics of Kanye West's "Flashing Lights." At its core, this is an electronica record, with the funky sound of Scott-Heron's earlier work eclipsed by Russell's chilly, skeletal production, which frames the record like a log cabin of frozen rib bones. Even blues number "Me and the Devil" is treated to a succession of swirls and tweets strapped onto a slow, crunchy breakbeat. This approach leaves plenty of room to reveal the increasing crackle of Scott-Heron's once-sultry-smooth voice.
Scott-Heron was "open to a really modern production sound," Russell explains. Scott-Heron noted that the synth has long been a part of his arsenal — among his past collaborators is Malcolm Cecil, who was responsible for the funky synth on mid-'70s Stevie Wonder tracks — but I'm New Here brought him together with a new generation of collaborators. The record showcases contributions by Damon Albarn of Gorillaz and noted video director Chris Cunningham, who added synths and bass to "New York Is Killing Me."
Next week, Scott-Heron plays Yoshi's at a performance booked by Jill Newman Productions, the company that paired him with Mos Def for a memorable show at Carnegie Hall in summer 2008. He is looking forward to the smaller stage. "I like clubs. I like that type of venue, where you can reach out and touch people," he says. He has lived in San Francisco before, sure, but he's new here. Show him around.