Q&A: Saul Williams "Raging Against the Machine"

There isn’t much that Saul Williams hasn’t accomplished.  Besides being a famed poet who is highly-regarded on the spoken word circuit, Williams is also an accomplished actor, writer, and musician. Mainly gaining notoriety from the 1998 independent movie Slam, the New York City native has also released several critically-acclaimed books and music albums. Williams was also a regular on the tour circuit, where he lectured at universities and colleges around the world, in addition to being published in publications such as the New York Times, African Voices, Esquire, amongst others.

The internationally-renowned poet and former Girlfriends guest star, spoke about his struggle against major label music executives who wanted him to dumb down his abstract expressionisms.

How do your projects differ from each of its predecessors?

Saul Williams: Well, the main difference is with Amethyst Rock Star I really didn’t know anything about writing songs. I did that album with Rick Rubin and what happened was we were on a walk through Central Park and he handed me The Beatles’ White Album. He was like, “Saul, you’re a great writer, but this is songwriting, learn the difference.” And I can’t say that I really did or you can see evidence of that in my first album because really I think that album is poetry with a lot of dope beats behind it. And then the songs that I wrote for the album, my two favorite songs didn’t actually make it because we could not clear the samples. My second album was me sitting at home trying to write the songs. And those songs, I recorded them soon after I wrote them and put them out as soon as they were recorded so that, not until I was touring for my second album did I really came to understand those songs. The reason why that second album so large was because it was recorded while I was in the middle of learning about those songs from the last album. I would get off stage and the energy that some kats use to connect with groupies or whatever it is that they do, I would get off stage and start working on the music that you now hear on The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust…

What made you want to go the route of distributing your music through the net versus through a major label and what impact do you think methods like this will have on music?

Saul Williams: I don’t think there is no more of a major label than the internet. I’m on the biggest unlabeled label there is, in all actuality. So, I think sometimes it’s important to be clear about where the power is and where the power isn’t. The fact of the matter is that I had a horrible experience with my first album Amethyst Rock Star because I put all this energy into this project and it was exciting because I was working as a young rapper who never made an album before doing his first album with Rick Rubin. I was amped and I stepped into a meeting with Columbia and Sony [Records] at the time and they were literally like, “This is not hip-hop, this is not music, these are not songs,” and they didn’t put it out for two years. So my second album, I put it out through Fader because those are friends of mine and that was a beautiful experience for me because I got to put out the album exactly how I wanted it to be, without having to conform in any way. And this album, from the moment that I started working on it and then when Trent (Reznor) got involved, the songs just started sounding like my dreams. I couldn’t imagine the process of conforming because really what conformity means is that I would have to be in the box that they put me in and it means when I play this at a major label they would say, “Oh you’re Black, we have to get you to our urban department.” And then the urban radio person would be like, “Yeah, but I can’t imagine this being played on this radio station. You need to get a remix by this person…” and before you know it, you have a song that you don’t even recognize as being your own and I don’t buy into that dumbing down my lyrics to double my sales.

How was it working with Trent Reznor and how did that come about?

Saul Williams: It came about through him asking me to tour with him around when my last album came out. I have never listened to a Nine Inch Nails album before, but honestly, I didn’t get it, but I knew a lot of people that I respected in the hip-hop game who were like, “Nah, Trent Reznor is dope.” The first person who told me to do it with him was Joi, Big Gipp’s ex. She was one of the first artists to work with Dallas Austin. She was one of the first artists to be labeled “neo-soul”. They created that term to describe her first album, The Pendulum Vibe. I respected her word for who she is and she was like, “No, Trent Reznor, you need to do that.” So I had to get schooled by my peers first. And when I went on the road, the poetry circles, and all that stuff, you could really get caught up in preaching to the converted, like you step on stage and you not going to be applauded because everyone agrees with what you’re saying. When I stood in front of those white Goth kids, I didn’t know what was going to happen and that was another exhilarating feeling, winning them over every night, to step into a crowd of 15,000 people and perform my poems, you know, step on stage to no music and just be like, “I am that nigga, I am that nigga” and watch the crowd go “Whoa, what’s happening?” It just felt brand new to me and that’s the feeling I wanted, where I wanted to experience the brand new. What else was Martin Luther King for or Malcolm X for if they didn’t lead us into some unknown promised land?

Being that you are a creative individual with a unique concept of distributing your music, what could one expect from a live performance?

Saul Williams: I am inspired by George Clinton- and I think the role him, Bootsy, and James Brown played in American music, particularly hip-hop, is just huge. And when I think of the fact that he had so many just hooded out cats in the ’70s on some hi-fi shit, on some mothership tour and all that, like in a perfect world, if everyone who had downloaded the album paid, then I would probably have a mothership land. But you know, performance is more of my thing than recording and this album is different from my other albums by that it was made to be performed live. So was I. And so that’s what this whole album is about, the live show. I’ve been working with Angelbert Metoyer, the artist who did all the artwork that you see in the .PDFs. So, it’s a collaboration with him, he’s been doing some set designs and theme work, so there’s that aspect and I have been working with a designer named Melanie Ashani who has been designing the rings, necklaces, and bracelets, all that stuff that you see, like costume designs, etc. So, I’m collaborating with David Bowie as well because that is what he did on Ziggy Stardust in that he realized that it wasn’t about him doing something alone. It was about him incorporating visions of so many people into his vision. So that I am not Niggy Tardust alone, we all are, it’s our collective vision of the types of things we like to see.

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