Jazz music was dance music; it came out of the brothels and the cathouses of New Orleans. So when the question of “Is that jazz?” came up, I started to describe it in terms of what I knew it to be: dance music. Dance music from its earliest beginnings to where it is now. Prince maybe was one of the greatest jazz musicians in the world. Like, those are the people who play jazz music. They play jazz. They play music for you to dance by; for you to jump up and down on. – Gil Scott-Heron
Welcome to a new type of jazz; it is not one you have ever heard before. It comes in the form of a collaboration between Jamie Smith of the xx and Gil Scott-Heron, entitled We’re New Here. Typically I am not a big fan of remix albums. I like songs that have been remixed because they give me pause and make me say things like: “that’s interesting,” but it is very difficult to sustain over nine or more tracks. Normally I view them as a poorly thought out cash grab by studio executives. Yes, I enjoyed Adele’s 21, but I don’t need to hear a club DJ from New York add in a driving bass line and the sound of a stick hitting a plastic bucket just to push another wave of record sales.
Coincidentally, Jamie Smith’s revision of Adele’s “Rolling In the Deep” was one of the reasons I was hesitant to pick up We’re New Here. I didn’t feel that Smith brought much new to the table in remixing the Adele single, and that her vocals and his music did not mesh well. I absolutely loved Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here, the end to his 16 year recording drought released last year, and didn’t want that experienced cheapened by a run-of-the-mill remix album.
I’m New Here producer, Richard Russell saw things differently and approached the in-house producer from the xx about reworking Scott-Heron’s comeback album. I imagine Jamie Smith high fived himself on the inside at the opportunity to work with a music icon and one of his influences before collecting himself and telling Russell “that sounds like an intriguing proposition.” Smith sent hand written letters to Scott-Heron, showing his commitment to the project. A child of the digital age means business when he puts pen to paper and buys stamps.
The result: a complete reworking of the original. Smith stripped out all of the music and used Gil Scott-Heron’s poetry and spoken word interludes as the foundation for something brand new. Half-step drum beats, percussion loops and synthesizers varying from feathery to crystalline frame the R&B singer’s vocals for 13 tracks. Unlike the Adele mix, Smith’s music compliments Scott-Heron’s drug and time-ravaged voice.
What gets lost is the poetic narrative of the songs in I’m New Here. We’re New Here focuses on the music where the original was driven by lyrics of crushing gravity coming from a man haunted by his own personal demons, illustrated by “Your Soul and Mine.” In the remix, “Ur Soul and Mine,” the lyrics are pared down to “in a wilderness of heartbreak/in a desert of despair/your soul and mine” then put behind an electronic beat, otherwise dismissing a contemporary and powerful poem. This is my only complaint with Smith’s version: fans of his may pick up this record, not the original, and never know the amazing source material which We’re New Here came from.
That is not on Jamie Smith. He did a masterful job with this album. “I’m New Here,” “Running,” and “The Crutch” captures enough of the original imagery painted by the lyrics. “My Cloud,” a track not on the original release, has Gil Scott-Heron turning back the clock and singing a beautiful, soulful song which Smith guides through an ever-changing sonic storm. “I’ll Take Care of You” is a perfect blend of R&B and xx-style dance track. “NY Is Killing Me” is an abridged version of a story off of I’m New Here, but the dirty rhythm of Smith’s version distracts the listener from the story and sets them adrift in rubbery bass beats, generating the strangest comment I have ever seen on YouTube.1
We’re New Here is a great new form of jazz and worthy of any praise it receives. Jamie Smith did not create a commercial remix to squeeze out a few more record sales. Instead, he used the opportunity to generate something that fans of either musician would be proud to have in their collection. If this is what the future of what electronic music will sound like, then I think we are in good hands.
In the comments section of the “New York Is Killing Me” video on YouTube, one user wrote: “when i hear this song i just wanna start my crazy dance and punch midgets in the face !” Not only did this break my spell-check, it was not the reaction I had when listening to the song. I wanted to interrogate the commenter about their response. Punching midgets in the face seems like a very specific reaction, and I’m pretty sure this person is already predisposed to punching little people and the song is not an enabler. Neither Gil Scott-Heron nor Jamie Smith should claim any responsibility for anyone under five feet tall who was wrongly assaulted by someone’s fist.