Words By Drew Ricketts
Saul Williams refuses labels but not in the typical, I-can’t-be-categorized fluffy way. Really, he understands that he fits a different category each day he develops as an artist and a person. Once an icon of the avant-garde, Williams now releases hip-hop albums, appears in movies and on television shows and generally relates to a broader group of people. Saul Williams the poet from Slam! may actually represent another entity from Saul Williams post-punk hip-hopper. Not to say that the two cannot co-exist but our tendency to want one iconoclast definition may limit him in terms of scope of ambition, which may have no upper bounds.
As a New York kid, Saul’s celebrated the differences as a matter of principle. His asymmetrical features also indicate the kind of perpetual imbalance inherent in Mr. Williams. Even in prolonging the transcription of this interview, I forced myself to consider what questions I had asked him and why. For instance, I thought he would necessarily associate himself with wordsmithing and the pedantry of oral traditions. Not because he is pompous, more because imagery makes the man nowadays. I had fallen victim to what I thought he might want to be asked, since most of the “rapper” interviews I’d done had to do with parsing out pieces of humanity from a crust of image. On the eve of a new album, Saul Williams reflects on the weight of image, black girls, white girls and girls in between.
TSS: How do you see your album in the context of modern hip-hop, in light of ringtone rap and a lot of new forms coming to the fore?
Saul: I’ll say the Kanye West answer. I feel like it’s “right on time.” Who gets to say what is hip-hop? I listen to whatever comes out and whatever I feel like hearing, I listen to more. It’s a youth music but we all grew up with it so it appeals to us. We have a right to say what it is just as much as anyone then. Hip-hop began as a lot of different things and hopefully it will remain diverse, open.
TSS: Are there opposing definitions, though? Do people see this type of hip-hop and that type of hip-hop?
Saul: I remember when I was trying to release my first record on Columbia and they told me I didn’t have enough street cred to call it a hip-hop album. I ran into barriers like that but it’s not all black and white. I had a lot of other people who liked what I did and put me on tours with other hip-hop artists from all different walks. Truthfully, I didn’t expect I would be doing an album and — up until I was 24 or so – I didn’t think I was going to be a poet. What works about hip-hop is that it allows for people who came up in it to go in several directions with their art. So, although when you come into it someone might say “I know what you’re going to be…” or “You should do this”, you don’t have to follow that to the letter.
TSS: Right. Do you feel there’s a lot of symbolism in what you do?
Saul: There are many symbols, of course. I think in any art there will be symbols and things left to be discovered. Everyone puts their stamp on [art] and much of that is beneath the surface. If you think of it like this, we’re only about fourty years away from Bitches Brew, so we’re coming from something that had its own set of symbols and meanings. When Miles Davis set out to make it, he probably didn’t decide what all the symbols were or could be. But they are still there. Some people have come up with new symbols as they repeat it.
TSS: What is NiggyTardust a symbol of?
Saul: It’s up to the listener to articulate that. I don’t know what it will mean for anyone who hears it. There are expressions we’re getting across but they change. Not a lot of it is intentional even though the effect is there.
TSS: Have you articulated more for an album than you would normally?
Saul: Yeah, I stumble upon realizations sometimes that make me understand that I’ve put more into the meaning than I thought. With my first project I had a moment where I said: “Oh shit! I know God personally” and that’s what I’m saying here. I didn’t think of it when I made the song I’m mentioning but it occurred to me after the fact some of the heaviness of the statement. I’m not interested in saying anything that’s been said though, or that’s common. Even as a teenager when I was rocking my sheepskin coat, I had a purple one. Everyone else wanted a sheepskin but I wanted a purple sheepskin. It had to be purple because I didn’t want what everyone else did. It was a matter of style. The clothes I wore were always a mix of different influences to make my own [thing]. I had the bomber jacket and the rope chain but it was with my touch.
TSS: Do you think your work fits neatly into the black oral tradition?
Saul: Everything fits into that tradition. The emcees of today are no different than the ministers of my father’s church. They’re captivating people in that way. Jay-Z and 50 Cent happen to have the mega-churches with the biggest congregations. It’s ancient and people weren’t always reading the words. So the oral tradition has been alive for some time and there’s no way for me (or anyone) to be outside of that.
TSS: What do you think about mass media’s role in passing that tradition along nowadays? Does it change anything?
Saul: [Media] does it the way it does. There are going to be many ways of passing it along. We’re dabbling with the oral tradition so we pass it along another way. The same goes for the written word. Media does it by way of television and radio.
TSS: Does the way its passed along in mass media align with your way?
Saul: Yea, it aligns with my own in the sense that I decide what to put out there. As soon as I decided to make an album, I knew I would do it in my way, with my sensibilities. In my trying to do something unorthodox, I knew there would be difficulties but that’s how things happen. It’s the most triumphant thing I’ve done because I use what is already there and go in a complete other direction. [It] represents rebellion from the innermost ranks. When everyone tells you what you should sound like, there is victory in still choosing what you would have people hear and it being presented that mode.
TSS: What do you think of Soulja Boy and the similarities between you and him as hip-hop artists? Are we programmed to only see differences between you?
Saul: Maybe within the industry there is a perceived difference. So be it. The important thing is that I have complete faith in our similarities. If Soulja Boy were a skinny white kid from Iowa screaming into a mic and people were getting crazed over it, they’d be calling him Iggy Pop. Understanding the range of music is part of what makes it good. I know we are both appealing to a part of people that others cannot.
TSS: What was the idea behind doing this album with Trent Reznor? How did it come about?
Saul: He asked me to do it. He knew my work and I knew his. I just said “Yea” because my stuff has been accepted across genres. It made sense to explore what could happen with a great musician. Columbia Records wouldn’t release it because it wasn’t “hip-hop enough” which shows some of the flexibility inherent in doing that. Rick Rubin let me do what I wanted to do, though. The Fader was also very supportive in getting it out, trusting my creative vision. And I won’t take the easy road…what I mean by that is, I want to question how everything is done. I’m questioning what people call hip-hop and how to make things a clear category. I’m a hybrid: I like this and I like that. I think she’s cute and she’s cute. I’m going to wear various style and play different records because of that.
TSS: Has Fox News or any of those outlets ever reached out to you to discuss hip-hop? What do you think about their consistent animosity toward it?
Saul: Obviously generations have a history of doing that. We don’t like your music because it’s the other music. There are generation gaps. It’s not Fox News’ job to speak to a younger generation. That has to do with ratings. I’m not sure if they have contacted me but if they did, I doubt I’d accept the invite. I get called to speak at other forums but not Fox News. For some reason I don’t think that would be the most interesting discussion.
Saul’s latest album, The Inevitable Rise And Liberation Of NiggyTardust, is available for free download at his site, www.niggytardust.com.