Reimagining Gil Scott Heron

Earlier this year was the 10 year anniversary of the death of Gil Scott Heron. His impact on contemporary music is massive. Some call him the godfather of rap, a title he vehemently declined. As part of the celebration of his life, XL Recordings chief Richard Russell approached Jazz musician Makaya McKraven to reimagine his final release.

Editor, Keegan Fepulea’i, sat down to talk about this sensitive undertaking.

K: Where are you now?

I’m in chicago

I grew up in Massachussets, but I’ve been living in Chicago for 14 years now. I moved to Chicago with my wife. She got a job out here. I was a musician i was travelling around playing with different bands.

K: Chicago is a really great city to be a working musician. It can be quite forgiving

It’s a great city with a history in jazz, blues, house and hip hop. Really great place to end up. I’m really grateful for the community of musicians i’ve managed to integrate myself with.

K: Do you find yourself drawing from these traditions?

The city has definitely influenced me in terms of my sound and approach to music. I wouldn’t say it has one personality though. I’d say Chicago is a hard working place. Being flashy isn’t gunna get you recognition. People wanna see somebody that’s real. You just gotta be real and do the work

K: And do you think honesty is required to communicate in jazz?

I don’t know if it’s really required. I think all great art or anything of great value has a heavy dose of honesty in it

K: And your parents are musicians?

My father communicates in the tradition of jazz. He worked with a lot of avant garde greats such as Yusef Lateef, Archie Shepp & Sam Rivers. My mother is from Hungary, she’s from Budapest and sings easter european folk music and was introduced to jazz later in her life. She was improvising throughout her take on Eastern European Folk music. I’m trying to to make creative and compelling music and art using the tools and sounds around me that are both contemporary and historical. That’s what my mum and father do. They deal with segments of music that cross a lot of different boundaries

K: I think on a tonal level eastern european music and afro spiritual are very similar level..

What i’m dealing with is folk music. When i say folk music i’m talking about music of oral traditions. So when i think of jazz and blues or field songs, hungarian folk music or rapping on a corner, all of this is similar. It’s a basic human interaction with sound and music as a way to express the human condition.

K: I think that’s perfect that you then pick up and reimagine Gil’s music

He called himself a bluesologist before he would hold on to the title of the godfather of hip hop. He was an urban poet. A bluesman.

K: Did you have to do a lot of research of Gil?

I wanted to do some. I was pretty aware of Gil and aspects of his work. I wanted to do due diligence when it came to bringing this project to life

K: Did you feel it was daunting

Absolutely. Some of those feelings grew as I was working on it. I wanted to support his voice. He was a very important person to a lot of people. I didn’t wanna leave any stone uncovered at least when it came to my process.

K: How do you put your stamp on it?

I didn’t want to put Makaya McKraven on top of Gil Scott Heron but rather take this as an opportunity to get his vocal and reimagine the music. That’s what this was. He’s still there. In an interview about producing this record Gil talks about Richard Russell coming to him to make the music and Richard Russell came to me to make this record. One quote from that period from Gil i remember is, “sometimes the dreams you appear in are not your own”… In a lot of ways that project came to me in that way. I didn’t want to overshadow him. Everything i want to do is support his message.

When i first got the record i hadn’t heard it. I was more familiar with his earlier work. My first thought when i heard it was this sounds more like a remix record than what i expected from a Gil Scott Record. There was a lot of production, electronics & samples. When thinking about the style of producing when i recontextualise music it was outside of how i usually approach it.

K: What were your significant take aways from the record?

I think of it really reflectively. It made me look at my life. My family and parents and think about myself after everything said and done.

My feeling towards the record are positive. I’m happy with the way it came out. I wrestled with it for a long time. Talking with people who knew Gil from people who knew him and getting a positive response has been good.

K: Lastly, what’s next?

I’m working on a record, “In These Times”, that features around different types of time signatures and advanced rhythms in a way that is less academic that still creates a compelling grooves. It features audio clips and interviews from Studs Terkel, radio show which was big in

Chicago. It was really important. I’m also getting ready for some touring in summer but i’m taking this early part of the year to focus on the recordings.