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TALK: Saul Williams

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Late last year in a move that surprised many, Saul Williams released his brand new Trent Reznor-produced album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, as a free download on his website. Why was this such a surprise? Well, with the proper hype, the album could have been spun into a marketing blockbuster, considering it was pieced together by Saul Williams, one of underground hip-hop’s most gifted lyricists, and Trent Reznor, producer extraordinaire for Nine Inch Nails. Besides Reznor’s increase in productivity over the last few years, what’s also amazing is that Williams (who many critics believe can stand toe-to-toe with any “mainstream” MC) reemerged on the hip-hop scene looking through the apocalyptic lens of NIN (with a little sprinkle of stardust from David Bowie):

Jim Shearer: Last time we met, we were talking about how difficult it was to track down your albums in a record store. Is that why you cut out the middle-man this time around and made The Inevitable Rise and Liberaton of Niggy Tardust available as a free download?

Saul Williams: (laughs) That wasn’t really the reason why we cut out the middle man. The main reason for releasing the album the way we did was to sidestep the obstacles of genre, race, and lack of vision that I have daily encountered when I deal with labels. I step into a room and because the state of the industry or the color of my skin, people expect a particular sound, and if it’s not that sound, they begin to project their idea that other people will not be able to digest it. What I have found though is that other people are ready, open, and willing to digest it, but the go-betweens have their preconception of how intelligent, or how open, your average person is.

Whether they’re aware of it or not, a lot of industry executives in music or in film participate in a process of–like Jay Z says in his song, “I dumbed down my lyrics and doubled my sales.” They believe that the “dumbing down” is necessary. Whether it is or isn’t, I don’t think it’s ethical. I’ve been through that when I was doing my film Slam. The director and co-writers were like, “Saul, we’re not certain about some of the poetry in the film, how is it that this guy would be able to say this stuff?” I had to justify, cause actors always write back-stories for their character. I was like, “Well he reads comic books–comic books are enough to educate anyone.”

Anyway, the release of my album was done–one–to sidestep short mindedness in the industry, and–two–because we can. The pathway is open and available.

Jim: Trent Reznor produced Niggy Tardust. I know you were touring with him, but who said, “Hey, we should work together someday”?

Saul: He did. The second show I did with Nine Inch Nails, he was like, “Hey, I would love to work or collaborate [with you].” He didn’t even say “produce,” cause he was very tentative with me. He didn’t want to offend me, because he didn’t know if I would be open to a producer, so he was just like, “I’d love to collaborate with you in any way you saw fit.”

Jim: When was the first time you sat down with each other and began chipping away at the album?

Saul: When we were off tour, Trent called me up and was like, “Look, I’m about to do another U.S. tour and I want to make an offer for you to tour with me, but I want you to know that, really, the reason I’m making this offer is because I realize that we’re probably both busy and this is the only way we’d find time to do this together.” He was like, “You could write on the tour bus with me. I’ll bring all of my equipment and we’ll work while we’re on the road.”

Jim: I heard a story that one of your initial conversations was about Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad production team?

Saul: That was the first day we met.

Jim: Who brought up the Bomb Squad?

Saul: I think [Trent] told me that he was a huge Public Enemy fan. It was the same conversation where he asked me if I would be down to collaborate with him on something. So, of course, Public Enemy was crucial for my ear as well. It opened the door for us–we had something to talk about.

Jim: I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.

Saul: It was cool. It was at Brixton Academy in London.

Jim: Were you guys talking about your favorite P.E. songs?

Saul: No, we talked about albums and sounds.

Jim: Speaking of albums–I always like to play this game with my friends–can you rank the first four Public Enemy albums?

Saul: Rank them?

Jim: Starting with your favorite.

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(left: Fear of a Black Planet–Saul Williams ranks his favorite Public Enemy albums.)

Saul: I have two favorites, It Takes A Nation of Millions and Fear of a Black Planet. Now I do know that my favorite Public Enemy song is “Welcome to the Terrordome”, which is why I sampled it on my song “Tr(n)igger.” To me, that’s the song where Public Enemy found what the fuck they were looking for, you know what I’m saying? They did it–that part where he’s like, “The shootin’ of Huey Newton, from the hand of a nigger who pulled the trigger.” The guitar that follows was always my favorite part, but also what [Chuck D’s] talking about, the fact that this amazing black leader was killed by one of his people and the confusion in that. It was a really powerful song. So I would have to put Fear of a Black Planet first, then It Takes a Nation of Millions, then I’d put the first album [Yo! Bum Rush the Show].

Jim: Then Apocalypse ’91?

Saul: By the time of Apocalypse ’91 I was mostly tuned out. That was a hard one for me.

Jim: Your cover of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” feels just as relevant now as it did back in the 80’s. Whose ideas was it to cover that song?

Saul: Mine.

Jim: It’s a great drumbeat to sample.

Saul: I always wanted to sample it, but I never thought I’d be able to afford it. The reason why I chose to do it this time was because I had Trent on my team (laughs). I was like, “Trent you know these guys, get ’em to give it to us for free.”

I heard the song for the first time when I was 16–I was an exchange student in Brazil. While I was there I went on an expedition by foot and by boat in the Amazon. At the time, I was visiting Manaus, which is a city in the middle of the Amazon. Me and my friends who were exchange students from across the world went to this night club, and this was the first year that I listened to music other than hip-hop–cause hip-hop hadn’t really reached Brazil yet. All the exchange students were playing me stuff like U2, Morrisey, Sinead O’Connor, Terence Trent D’Arby, Bob Marley, The Cure, New Order–just tons of stuff. I was really getting into it.

So in a club, I remember they were playing New Order’s “Blue Monday“, which is a song that had grown on me–every club that we went to would play it. I started getting into it, and then they followed it with a song I had never heard–“Sunday Bloody Sunday.” That appealed to the hip-hop head in me, cause those drums came in, and I was like, “What that fuck!” That was it, I fell in love, and lyrically–you know–there’s a famous Martin Luther King quote where he’s like, “How long?” So when I heard the “how long?” in those lyrics, and knowing about U2 and Rattle and Hum and all of that stuff, I didn’t know about what was happening in Ireland. I didn’t know about the massacre that had happened in ’72. I immediately connected it to my experience.

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(right: David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character)

Jim: Many people may not realize that your Niggy Tardust character has a much deeper meaning than just a name recognition to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character.

Saul: What David Bowie was doing with Ziggy Stardust, I think, was finding a way to do a few things–to manipulate the media and shift his career, to go from this folk musician to this “what’s-he-going-to-do-next?” artist, but then to get media to raise questions surrounding gender and sexuality, and to use that as a stepping board. With Niggy Tardust I’m raising questions about identity and race, and using that as a stepping board at a time where everything is going down.

Jim: You’re also embodying the Niggy Tardust character in your live show as well?

Saul: The reason why I created this character was so I could embody it. Anything you put after the words “I am” is limiting. I never called myself a “poet,” but a lot of people have. A lot of people see me as this thing that I found at one point in my life, and say, “Well, that’s how I know you, so that’s what you do.” That’s like me–one day–I decide I’m going to buy spray paint and I go to a wall to write, and as soon as I do I get busted. They’re like, “We caught this graffiti artist, and he did the whole town, and that’s what he is,” and for the rest of my life I’m known as a graffiti artist. I’m like, “Wow, I only had a spray can for a day.”

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(left: Williams’ embodiment of his Niggy Tardust persona.)

It’s kind of like my life with poetry. I didn’t grow up thinking I would become a poet. I didn’t plan on any of this. Poetry hijacked my life in the most beautiful way and it opened doors and worlds for me, yet I still have to find a way to blossom and grow. I’ve been blossoming and growing through music for a long time. I’ve never released a spoken word album, but there are tons of people who say, “Ah, you do spoken word albums,” or people who listen to my music and go, “I love your spoken world albums.” Why? Not because it sounds like that, but that’s the box that they see me in, and that’s the filter that they hear me through. Niggy Tardust was my way of cleaning the filter.

Jim: What if people just start seeing you as Saul Williams the “indie music artist”?

Saul: That’s fine, because I think all you have to do is break that barrier, like twice, and then people are like, “That dude’s an artist–you can’t pigeonhole him.”

Jim: You say you have to “break through the barrier twice”?

Saul: I made that up, but I’ll stick with it.

Jim: (laughs) What comes after music? Would you ever run for office?

Saul: For a long time that was really interesting to me. It was definitely something I thought about.

Jim: The reason I ask is because I value your “message,” and think it should be heard by the masses, way beyond the walls of a night club or however many people buy your album.

Saul: That’s the biggest misconception. It’s not that I have a “message.”

Jim: Well, whether you call it a “message” or not, I like whatever you’re saying.

Saul: This is the thing, I like performing.

Jim: Okay.

Saul: What I don’t like is performing bullshit, so I instill the stuff that I believe into my music so that I can perform something that excites me. The audiences hears it and goes, “Ah–message.” I’d rather hear a song that’s like, “Would Jesus Christ come back American? What if he’s Iraqi and here again?” To me–that’s just a dope-ass lyric that’s fun to say.

Jim: So you’re a seed planter?

Saul: Sure. I’m just creating material that I can stand behind and feel comfortable performing. Yes, I have a vision for the world and for change and for all of these things, and yes I contemplated the possibility of stepping up to the plate and working with Not In Our Name and other political groups. I enjoy working that side of my brain, and as I get older I could see myself reaching a point of wanting to sit in an office more and spend more time in the day talking, but I can’t say that I’m fully there yet–but I’m getting there. It’s a matter of maturity.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.