It is quite possible that Gil Scott-Heron’s voice sounds so rich because he has the world’s biggest Adam’s Apple. It is giant, the size of an actual apple, shellacked with thin skin and dappled with yellow-white wayward hairs. His voice has been like this since he began his musical career in the early ’70s, with songs like “Whitey on the Moon” and “Home is Where the Hatred Is,” embodying the pains and frustrations—and pride—of being a minority in America. After moving from Chicago to Harlem, Scott-Heron made music that fluctuated between Detroit and Philadelphia soul and biting spoken word, the latter a staccato portrait of urban life that helped inspire subsequent generations to invent rap. It was indeed through this hip-hop genealogy that a British teenager named Richard Russell discovered Gil Scott-Heron in the ’80s. Years later, after initially working as a producer himself, Russell founded XL Recordings, the wildly successful avant-garde electronic and rock label home to The White Stripes and MIA, but he never forgot about Scott-Heron.
In 2006, while Scott-Heron served an extended sentence for cocaine possession and contempt of court at New York’s Riker’s Island, Russell visited him to propose a collaboration. Scott-Heron was convinced by Russell’s devotion, and the two slowly developed a true partnership, Russell the steadfast supporter at Scott-Heron’s side. “The reason for [my] tenacity is that if you’re working with someone who’s a genius, they don’t need to be that tenacious about what they’re doing. They just need to deliver it,” says Russell. “Like all the very best artists in any field, he’s a middleman. The best artists catch inspiration and they channel it in a way that people can enjoy. I don’t think Gil has ever worked that hard at it.” To ease that flow, Russell flooded Scott-Heron with production options, cover song possibilities, string loops and infinite vibes, letting him pick and choose what felt best. The resulting album, I’m New Here, is a showcase for Scott-Heron crossing genres—folk, dubstep, spoken word—with his bluesman’s croak the binding tie. It’s also a document of the relationship between the two men, who speak of each other in nebulous tones somewhere between familial and romantic. “I think in that first meeting, we looked at each other in the eye, and it felt like we were going to be able to do this somehow. I came out of there thinking, We’ll do this,” says Russell. His faith in and praise of Scott-Heron is that of a real friend, but also a true believer. “That’s the thing of being a messenger,” Russell says of Scott-Heron’s gift for channeling spirituality. “They’re delivering it, and it means something to people because it’s so real.”
Scott-Heron is more skeptical of himself, though he doesn’t discard others’ interest in him. In fact, he may need it. His office is in disarray, with bail forms and royalty statements strewn randomly across tables and a couch with cigarette burns. There’s a huge flatscreen streaked with cleaning marks, an ironic touch for the man who wrote “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Scott-Heron chain smokes Marlboros through our interview. He’s wearing sweatpants, a silk robe and a T-shirt with an image of his face on it from his 1971 album, Pieces of a Man. Comfortable and loose, he talks warmly about creating I’m New Here with Russell. That deep, rich voice is now more muted than it once was, as though weathered by 40 years of protest, but Gil Scott-Heron sounds far from finished.
XL streamed the title track of your new album on its website, and my first thought when I heard it was what the hell is Gil Scott-Heron doing covering Smog?
He’s very fond of you.
We had a really good time.
It was fun?
Yeah. I wouldn’t have done it if not.
Fuck it. What are they going to do? Put me in jail?