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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.


(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.


(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.”


(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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