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Gil Scott Heron & Jamie xx
We’re New Here Melissa Bradshaw , March 4th, 2011 12:41

Back in the summer of 2006 I remember a conversation with one of the producers who established the standards of space and depth in dubstep, where we concurred that what dubstep had, and a lot of dance music at the time lacked, was soul. It was a sweaty, stifling summer, just before the East London vogue for home delivery organic vegetable boxes began, and I'd just moved into a friend's converted warehouse flat in E8. I'd never lived in a wooden floored place in London before and I began washing the floors obsessively, partially to distract myself from some overwhelming difficulties I was having with my work, but ostensibly because there was a ubiquitous grime that made your feet go black and you could never get rid of. London was stress, heat, and dirt. But it was also on fire. Features on dubstep were the vogue of the mainstream press and though fresh dubplates were depleting because of the new pressure of non-stop touring on producers, you could still go to a dance and experience feelings like your body was being atomised and reformed somewhere beyond the boundary of your skin. Those moments, not exactly of euphoria but of an escape that you absolutely craved, physically and psychically, were what we meant by the term soul.

This is just a personal, theoretical definition of soul. Soul, to me, happens in many genres of music when there is a certain kind of tension between pressure and transcendence. The need has to be felt, as well as the escape. If it's a PR's wet dream and a canny move by XL Recordings, Jamie xx's remix of Gil Scott Heron's 2010 album I'm New Here also results in moments of awesome, arresting soul. Scott Heron is a master of the kind of music I'm talking about, and with his remixer's grasp of the heart of a track already proven (by remixes of Florence And The Machine's 'You've Got The Love' and Adele's 'Rolling In The Deep' respectively), Jamie meets Scott Heron's propensity for pained tension to reanimate the urban soul of dubstep.

Several genres are actually involved here. By a subtle predominance of dubstep tropes, though, and his dexterous movement between genres, Jamie reminds us that he belongs to a generation synchronic to dubstep whose ability to move across decades and styles is so technologically enhanced that there is no staying put anymore. As well as affirming Jamie's finger-on-the-pulse understanding of dance music (which is already familiar via his DJ sets), the production shares the minimalism of his Mercury-winning band The xx. The result of this combination is that tracks like 'Your Soul and Mine', where echoing sounds pan in and out over a beat that sounds like Kode 9, while in the background disembodied, pitched-up vocals seem to signify juke as much as dubstep, and Scott Heron's deep spoken-voice is looped like a Chicago house chant, are as simplistically elegant as they are stylistically fluent. On 'Home' and 'My Cloud' Jamie gives Scott Heron's heartache a delicate Flying Lotus/Mount Kimbie type of treatment. On 'Home', his vocals are only discernible enough to convey vaguely something about domestic pain. But between the distracted skipping of the beat and the struggle for Scott Heron's already strained words to find their way into the mix, there is exactly that tension between stress and escape that I mean.

During a trend where vocals are dominated by the controlled vibrato of former students of the Brit school, Scott Heron's freer play with tone and phrase serves a reminder that though control is sometimes a powerful channel for emotion, the voice is equally expressive in its vulnerability, the weight of experience it can carry in every falter. While Scott Heron's voice delivers the pang, Jamie's traverse into other styles, notably hip-hop and jungle on 'Running' and 'The Crutch', embodies how the difference between a generic track and one that hooks you in is in the dynamic interplay between its elements. In other words, both artists have a great feel and capacity for tension. And this, as the album reaches it conclusion, combined with Scott Heron's raw vocals, makes for two absolutely arresting instances of soul.

'New York Is Killing Me' is an awesome, beautiful complaint of urban entrapment worthy of Scott Heron's entire back catalogue, and it will remain a career high for Jamie. The whole tradition of soul as urban suffering is brought forward 30 years without losing an iota of its potency. Instead the feeling is magnified and projected by a pulsing, textured bass and doleful, disembodied harmonies. The track never seems to stop expanding, as if it was a soul in itself – in pain, ever soaring. The original, sparse, laid down over handclaps, is more narrative, as Scott Heron warbles 'I feel like I need to go home and slow down in Jackson, Tennessee'. By dissociating the chorus from this syntax and resituating it via London bass, Jamie globalises Scott Heron's strife. He might be saying that New York is killing him, but the track becomes a transatlantic dancefloor-triumph of urban soul.

At the end of the album, is 'I'll Take Care Of You', glorious gospel/piano house which Jamie xx confidently signs with the single note echoed guitar line that trademarks his band. The original track is raw drama, at once luxe and gruff with strings, piano and a kick drum. Spliced and looped on this version, Scott Heron's notably gravelly, matured voice embodies the knowledge of loss while Jamie's production stirs it up into a generous, spacious disco blend that promises to transcend the ongoing ache of the past. "I know you've been hurt by someone else," growls Scott Heron, "I can tell by the way you carry yourself". And the music does take care of you, lifting you above that very need that gave it form, and delivering the soul of the city.