Gil Scott-Heron’s phenomenal new album “I’m New Here,” is one of 2010’s great surprises. It’s intense, soulful and introspective with spoken word confessionals, unexpected contemporary music references (Smog and Burial – wtf!?) and straight-up foot-stomping blues. This by a legendary artist whose storied career most recently seemed to flounder between stints in jail and rehab and health concerns. But with XL Records President Richard Russell at the helm, Scott-Heron’s rich baritone and keen wit return to form with sonically adventurous avenues of expression. The Swarm spoke with Gil about the new joint, growing up with Langston Hughes, playing hoops with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the humor in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
The Daily Swarm: How was working with XL’s Richard Russell, who A&R’d and produced “I’m New Here,” did he know his way around the studio?
Gil Scott-Heron: Yeah he seemed to. He did a lot of the mixing and a lot of the background music. Him and the engineer would talk about a lot of shit I had no idea about, but I’ve been in the studio quite a lot so I wasn’t entirely lost.
A lot of it was done over in England. He added a lot on the back end after we finished. There was stuff he wanted to try. If you meet somebody like that who’s got a dream of doing something and you see it taking shape and you see them really happy about it, you just let ‘em go because that’s something you’ve felt yourself and can understand.
You met him in Rikers [where he was serving time for violating a plea bargain deal for a lame 2001 cocaine possession charge] in June of 2006, three years ago, what did you think when he walked in?
Not much. No, he had some good references—Jamie Bing’s son is my godson, so his endorsement helped a great deal. We weren’t really talking about a record then, he just said he liked my music and wanted to meet. He said he had a record company and asked if there was any reason I wasn’t putting out records. But I was putting out reissues I owned and adding bonus material from my Arista days. I was working on a book. If you’re not on radio every day or the TV every night, people think you’re not working, but it was far from that.
And Richard turned you on to people like Bill Callahan from Smog who wrote the title track, had you heard of him?
I had heard of him, but had not heard him. Didn’t really hear him until I got out. I heard his whole CD. Richard recommended that song. I don’t know if that was to mess with people because I’m not new here or if he was trying to introduce me to some people who knew of me but didn’t know me.
That’s such an intimate song with Pat Sullivan from Oakley Hall’s gorgeous acoustic guitar, I’ve never heard you sing like that.
Well it’s nothing I couldn’t have done before, obviously, you don’t just start singing a new way after all this time.
That’s what’s so striking about this record is how varied it is– intimate songs like “I’m New Here” or “Me And the Devil” where your belting it out or spoken word or electronic beats.
It does comes from different places, don’t it? But it’s all the same guy, I’ll put my hand on the book for that. But I’m saying it’s like over the years, we’ve done different things, we’ve done everything from “Your Daddy Loves You” and “Save the Children” to the “Revolution Will Not Be Televised”—I am open to new things.
Isn’t “On Coming From A Broken Home” from a poem you wrote a while ago?
Yeah, it’s a poem from “Now And Then” which I wrote for my daughter. My youngest daughter is 11 years old and wanted to know something about her grandmother. By the time she got old enough to write me letters and draw beautiful pictures, her grandmother had died. So I decided to write about her grandmother and great- grandmother.
You used a Kanye West Sample on that didn’t you?
Yeah, that was like pay back (laughs).
For him using “Home Is Where the Hatred Is.” Did Richard turn you onto U.K. dubstep artists like Burial and Shackleton for songs like “The Crutch” and “Where did the Night Go” with that minimal creepy vibe with ambient electronics.
Yeah I enjoy that shit. Malcolm Cecil used to do that. “Where Did the Night Go” is about what happens during the night when you’re sleeping, but now you can hear it.
You have a new song ‘New York Is Killing Me” and on It’s Your World you have a song “New York City,” where you keep saying “I don’t know why I love you.”
I’ve been here on and off for a long time — for this latest time for like 15 years. But I moved around. I lived in Washington D.C. when I taught [at U.D.C.]. I lived in Baltimore when I got my masters . I was in San Francisco and Long Beach for a couple of years. I wanted to know different parts of the country so I traveled around a lot.
But New York has changed a lot since then, what do you make of it over the last 10–15 years with the wild-fire development and crazy money?
New Yorkers are impressed with all that, I’m not, but I don’t mind that as much. I’m one of the only people I know here who has a backyard. You can set up a grill in the back of my place. I got flowers that I grow back there and vegetables and different things – it’s almost like not New York in the summertime.
How did the song structure to “New York Is Killing Me” the a cappella singing with handclaps and the choir come about?
It’s a blues song. I was looking through a blues archive, that’s where I found Robert Johnson, and there was a song by John Lee Hooker called “Jackson Tennessee” but it was too fucking dark. We needed it to have an up and down so I just wrote it.
How about the spoken-word vignettes?
We were laughing so much between takes at the conversation that Richard decided to put on a microphone and leave it on all day. He probably got two or three albums worth of vignettes – after a while you forget the tape is running.
It’s much less political then past records.
We never did politics for real, it’s just the fact that we paid taxes and we liked to comment on where our money went, those were money albums.
But we’re still paying taxes to fund bad things.
Yeah, but I’m saying if you enjoy that or if that stuff interests you then go back and get the other albums.
This album is much more personal and intimate with your family history and being raised by strong women.
Yeah it is, all the things I was exposed to and just trying to get through it. Women have to take on a lot on both psychologically and psychically in order to try and raise somebody.
Your father GIles Heron: was Jamaican and the first black soccer player in Scotland. Did you see him play? Are you a soccer fan?
No, I never saw him play. But I like all sports. I played basketball and football in high School. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the best man at my wedding. We were friends we used to play when we were kids.
How did you do against Kareem?
Oh I didn’t play against him, most of the time I was with him. I’m about 6’ 4” he’s 7’ 2”, but he wasn’t 7’ 2” when we were kids. We lived in the same neighborhood. He lived in the Dyckman Houses in Manhattan and I lived across the bridge in the south Bronx. And the games used to be in the park there up from the GWB.
Did you play in college?
I played for a year in college and decided I’d be better off playing piano.
Did you ever meet your father’s Jamaican family or get into Reggae?
I would see them from time to time. Some of them are here. Everybody says they’re from Kingston, but he lived closer to Ocho Rios. I played Sun Splash. We did a couple of reggae tunes, one on “Reflections” one on “Moving Target,” but I grew up with the blues.
So at two you moved from Chicago to your grandmother’s in Lincoln, Tennessee, what were your earliest music memories?
The blues and playing in church. We weren’t that far from Memphis and that’s the music they were playing there.
When did you start playing piano?
About 8 years old. There was this funeral home next door and they were closing up and throwing all this stuff away. So my grandmother got them to move this upright to our house. It was the one they played at the wakes.
Who taught you?
Nobody. I still need to learn. I studied little bit later on because I wanted to be able to talk music. I know what a flatted fourth is and sevenths and ninths and harmonies and this kind of thing. I learned it because I needed to. When we had a harp player I needed to tell him what the hell to play.
I read about your grandmother reading Langston Hughes’s column in the Chicago Defender: to you when you were a kid.
There was a man who used to roll them down the street on Thursday afternoons in a red wagon. She used to buy one every week. We both would read it. By the time I became conscious of who he was I could read it myself.
Was your grandmother political?
In as much as anyone else was. She joined in the NAACP, and she was for education and we couldn’t really get one in those days.
You were one of only three African American kids in your elementary school?
It wasn’t integrated until we got there in the 8th grade
So you got sick of it and moved to NYC?
I didn’t get sick of it, my mother did. She wanted to bring me to New York and thought I’d have more opportunity there. She had just gotten her masters in English.
And you first landed in the Bronx.
Right, that was ninth grade. At 207th Street there’s a bridge that connects the Bronx and Manhattan we lived right across the street in that part of the Bronx around 1963.
And then moved to Chelsea.
Lower Chelsea, which they used to call Little San Juan, below 23rd Street. It was 85% Puerto Rican, 15% white folks, and me.
What music were you listening to then?
Guys like Joe Bataan, Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri.
So Chelsea back then was a great neighborhood for musicians and artists?
Richie Havens was down on Hudson Street, Wilson Brothers had a loft down there before they started Mandrill, Edwin Birdsong was from 18th Street. The writer Julius Lester lived on 23rd street, the actor Antonio Fargas. Jose Feliciano used to play at this pizza place on the corner of 18th and 9th Avenue because he didn’t want to go to school.
You went on a scholarship to Fieldston, one of the best schools in city, what music were you listening to there?
They were listening to the Beatles, Rolling Stones and soul music. I was trying to learn all that because I’d like to play on the weekends and try to help my mom out by earning some money playing in different bands.
You could make $35 playing on the weekend and that was big money in them days. And we needed the help. We were playing $73 a month and it was crushing us.
The one constant in your life seems to be that your moved around a lot and were exposed to different music?
Everywhere you move in New York It’s a different music world.
What did you do after High School?
I went to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania where Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall went.
And that’s where you met your collaborator Brian Jackson.
Yeah, Brian came in as a 17-year old freshman and I was in my third year. I was playing piano for somebody and Brian could do it better. We worked on and off for years.
And you wrote your first novel, “The Vulture, at 19?
I dropped out of Lincoln to write “The Vulture.” I was concentrating on the book when I should have been studying and studying when I should have been writing the book. I had to quit in order to find out if I could actually finish something.
How did you meet up with Bob Thiele in the late-1960s?
Brian and I had a couple of songs we had written. Bob Thiele had started his own record label. After the book was accepted, I went by and introduced myself as a songwriter and told him I had a couple of songs for his artists and that it might be a good idea if he checked them out.
Where did you get the tenacity to go up to someone like Bob Thiele who had produced the likes of Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane?
Actually, that’s why I felt a kinship with him. I had a book of poetry that had just gotten published and I left that and he said he would get in touch. I though it was the same old brush off, but he actually did get in touch. A few days later he called and said, “look, I don’t have the money to do any music right now, but I would like to record some spoken word poetry.”
Theile called based on your poetry or on a demo?
He called based on the book, “Small Talk On 125th and Lennox.” Bob Thiele was like a historian, man. Like if you checked out what he did on Flying Dutchman, he recorded stuff by Pete Hamill, Stanley Crouch, Robert Scheer, Angela Davis, Carl Stokes, H. Rap Brown . He was trying to chronicle what was going on during those times because he felt it would be important later.
So Thiele politics were fairly radical.
Well he had some radical stuff on there, but he’d also show up every night at some jazz club, man.
When you listen to “125th & Lenox” you hear just a handful of people clapping.
There were maybe like 20 people, friends of mine, Eddy and Charlie. Those were the guys who were teaching me what those African rhythms meant.
I don’t think many people realize how funny “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is—lines about Rocky & Bulwinkle and Glen Campbel and the Beverley Hillbilies.
That’s how we wrote it. There’s a lot of wit in there. What we were talking about man is that like you never get anything done, you never see anything that helps you. You need to be out doing stuff. The Revolution takes place in your mind. Once you decide to look at the other side of it seriously and see if there’s any value to it. We were the ones with the bibles and the flags and shit but they were calling us militants and you all son of a bitches were the ones with the guns.
But you were also well-versed in pop culture —“Put a Tiger in Your Tank or It Goes Better With a Coke’ —a lot of the song is lampooning pop culture.
That’s what we were trying to do. We were trying to show people how silly the shit was they were wasting their time on when they needed to be trying to help.
But something about “Revolution” just resonated, it hadn’t been said before like that. Either you were a revolutionary or maybe you were a comedian
It was up to people to decide which (laughs).
What do you make of people crediting you with starting hip-hop?
I don’t know if I can take the blame for it.
But “Revolution” with its phrasing and attitude seems a precursor, it captured the zeitgeist in a way few other pieces of music had – it’s an important moment in music history and culture.
That’s when the spirits helped. They help you do it when you need to do it. I played piano and I did poetry and I wanted to do both if I was going to record, that’s what time it was. It wasn’t time yet for spoken word or rap, like they call it now, but I just happened to be in the studio with best players on the planet. I taught them the 12 bar blues and we hit it one time, just one take with Ron Carter and Hubie Law.
What was it like working with Ron Carter?
Oh that was great after he got over the shock of seeing who he had been brought in th studio to be with. He was shocked Bob Theile had brought him to play with us. When Bob asked us who we wanted to play with I said let’sget Ron Carter on bass and Hubert Laws. Brian kept saying Elvin Jones but I couldn’t see Elvin Jones playing “Lady Day and John Coltrane”
But Elvin Jones could play the shit out of the drums.
Yeah, but Bernard Purdie was working at Atlantic downstairs. He was working with King Curtis on backing up Aretha so Bob said let’s try Purdie and Purdie was perfect. Absolutely perfect on the drums for what we were doing and a great guy. They had no idea who we were or what we were doing. When they came in and saw us they wondered what the hell was going on with Bob because it was two high school guys, well two high-school looking guys.
But your songs must have knocked them out.
After Ron showed up he said, “Look, well fuckers, you know, look, let’s see what we got here. They got a song here about two of my favorite people, let’s see how this song works out to.” And he pulled out the chart for “Lady Day and John Coltrane.” And after they played that they settled in and said, “alright, this is going to be alright.”
Because that’s an incredible song.
They enjoyed it, the delivery and how it was charted for them. Then they tried another one called “Or Down You Fall,” after they hit the opening a couple of times they turned around and said “this ain’t right is it? “And Ron says, “if he does it again that way it’s right.”
You were the first person Clive Person signed.
We all make mistakes. No Clive was a great guy man. When I got to Arista there was nobody there but him and Rose.
“Johannesburg” went to #29 on the charts and “Angel Dust” went to #15.
Yeah, it would have gone farther if he had put it out when I sent it to him. He sent it back and said it wasn’t gonna hit.
I saw this incredible YouTube clip of you playing with Richard Pryor on Saturday Night Live
That was like the funniest shit I ever participated in. Him and Belushi and Dan Aykroyd not only were they funny but they were writers and their timing and their collaboration and the spirit of the place then was real good.
How’d that happen?
I got invited by Roberta Flack to do the Johnny Carson Show when she was hosting but it turned out she wasn’t and Johnny was coming back. So I told them to take me off the show and I’d come back another time.
Ten days later somebody calle and said, “Are you the man who didn’t go on the Johnny Carson Show because Johnny was gonna be there?” And I said I hadn’t really looked at it like that. Then I heard somebody drop the phone and scream with laughter. Then they picked up the phone and said, “Look, this is Richard Pryor, when I heard you weren’t going to go on because Johnny was going to be there I thought it was the funniest thing I ever heard. “ He said he was doing Saturday Night Live and asked if I wanted to go on with him. And I said, “well if you’re gonna be there I’ll do it.”
How was working with Richard Pryor?
You didn’t really work with them. You’re doing the music and they’re doing the skits , but you get to see how the show comes together. That was the first year and Lorne Michaels was the guy in charge. Evidently he knew all the people from SCTV and they all had something that caught America sleeping and made Saturday night worth watching—it was really good.
What was so special about the tour with Stevie Wonder to make a Martin Luther King holiday that you wrote a book about it?
The fact that it changed history and the fact that a lot of people didn’t think it would happen. Stevie should get more credit then he’s gotten for doing it and people seem to forget that. The tour started on Halloween in 1980 and was supposed to be Stevie and Bob Marley but after a few days Stevie called me down and said, “Look, Bob has checked into Sloan Kettering, he’s got cancer and he’s not coming.” I was supposed to do the first couple of weeks. And he said like “I’ve got a problem here, can you do the rest of it if I need you.” And I said yes.
Did you keep diaries and notes?
I kept diaries and notes of all the times I went out on the road because I had to keep up with all the expenses and the different things that were going on and there was just interesting shit happening man.
Video Directed By Adam Shore & Steve Rivo