Makaya McCraven is a student of Chicago’s jazz scene, but his rise as one of the genre’s most innovative drummers has brought him into collaboration with players from around the world. He’s involved with Kamasi Washington and the West Coast Get Down in California, the underground New York City scene and even the psychedelic jazz revolution occurring in London and the UK. McCraven’s vision of jazz is slightly inverted: He takes marathon sessions and chops them up, not unlike a hip-hop producer does. When XL Recordings tapped him to reimagine Gil Scott-Heron’s seminal 2010 album I’m New Here, he used his unique aesthetics to reframe the album as We’re New Again, a staggering world built from the soil of Scott-Heron’s unique vision. “Gil is an exemplary vision of the poignant black artist,” McCraven explains to Apple Music. “I recognised that impact from a young age, later connecting things that I didn't know belonged to him, like ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’.” Instead of hiding behind the gargantuan shadow of Scott-Heron, though, McCraven embraces the challenge. It’s a stellar tribute, but decidedly crafted from Makaya’s perspective, and less of a cover album than a conversation between two powerful black artists. “I just feel very happy to be given the responsibility of work with this material,” he says. “I'm honoured.” Here McCraven talks through a few of his favourite tracks from the project.
Special Tribute (Broken Home, Pt. 1) “The ‘Broken Home’ pieces across the entire record are something that particularly stuck out for me. I used samples from when Gil is talking about the women who raised him, and you get a sense of his whole life in a way, too. He goes through some different things about his mother, his grandmother and just his story. So I felt like that had framed a lot of the record well. The record opens up with a special tribute, which is basically the music or some element of I'm New Here, but backwards.”
I’m New Here “This is a special track. Even the original, which Gil is covering, is quite sparse—there’s this empty feeling in a way. I really wanted to do something different with it. Even as I dug into it, Gil's version is very similar to the original version. So I took a slightly different approach, and I felt like it really brought another light or two to the lyrics, because there are a lot of different emotions there.”
Running “‘Running’ was an interesting one to record, at least in terms of sound. The bells are recorded with Ben LaMar Gay, and they’re a kind of church bells—you wear white gloves to play them—and we were doing a session to create some different timbres around the material. From there I chopped up the instruments around the lyrics and the poem. I’ve always really, really loved the poem. I was working a lot with just the stems of Gil's voice, so that was really interesting, too, because I had a wide-open palette to start to try to interpret some of the pieces. Gil called himself a 'bluesologist' in some interviews—there's so much blues in what he does in his legacy of music. And when I was recording with Ben LaMar Gay, we really tried to hone in on those blues elements.”
Lily Scott (Broken Home, Pt. 3) “This is actually sampled from one of my father's records—he's playing a kalimba and there's some percussion. My mom is playing a Hungarian recorder or flute. This is the piece that Gil is speaking about his grandmother, Lily Scott, who helped raise him, in a kind of an homage to the women in his life. This was a nice way for me to personally touch this project. It was an honour for me to inject some of my family’s identity into Gil’s song about his family identity. I like having my own imprint on it.”
I’ll Take Care of You “There were several versions I was working on to try to get this one to come together. The very last touch of this album was just finishing that song. I like to imagine the album playing as a full record. In stints it plays like a narrative more than as a bunch of singles or tracks. But ‘I'll Take Care of You’ is one of the songs I'd describe as more of a stand-alone track. The piano in 'I'll Take Care of You' comes from some outtakes of Gil in the studio playing piano and singing some different songs. I wanted to take his touch on the piano and isolate a bunch of the pieces and spread them out on various pads, kind of like a MPC, and create some progressions with Gil's touch on the piano. That's where the piano and the progressions came from on that track. I also did some more corrective vocal chopping around that one, utilising pads and the MPC.”
Me and the Devil “This begins with a sample from a track called ‘Allah’, so that was apropos. This one comes from a Robert Johnson song and also features a blues form. I shifted the form a bit to make the chords reflect themselves in the verses. This one features Jeff Parker on guitar; when this project came up, I immediately thought of Jeff and Ben LaMar Gay. ‘I'll Take Care of You’ has Brandee Younger on harp. ‘Me and the Devil’ came together pretty early on in the process. It was just a really fun one to work on, because I was playing with the band, whipping it up on guitar and using a bassline and a saxophone to carry the song. A lot of the stuff I work on is approached from a variety of angles. It starts from a place of pure creativity, and then I carve away at it after the fact until I can get it to a place that I’m proud of.”