I’ve been enjoying the latest Saul Williams album “MartyrLoserKing”, so thought I’d #throwback to ’02 when I got the chance to interview him. To say he’s THE beat poet of my generation is not an understatement:
SAUL Williams interview
Already maximizing the possibilities that artists on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam might one day achieve; Saul Williams is a poet, screenwriter & Actor who rocks all three with ease. Raised by politically aware parents & inspired by the music of Public Enemy, KRS-One & other socially aware Hip-Hop; Saul Williams launched into a career as a spoken word poet & then MC. He first gained notoriety as a screen writer & actor on the indie film “Slam”. Through the attention came collaborations with KRS & DJ Krush and a record deal with Rick Rubin’s label. One Brilliant EP; “Elohim (1972)”, a full length album “Amethyst Rock Star” & currently on tour with Ozomatli & Blackalicious; it’s only the beginning of Saul William’s career.
JC: You’re on that Blackalicious track [“Release”]; so let’s start with that; how’d you hook up with the Quannum crew?
SAUL: That came about primarily thru management. They contacted my manager, we met and it was just perfect. We met in the studio one day while they were recording at Mario Caldato’s house, which is a famous place to record made famous by the Beastie Boys. I went there, and me and Zack De La Rocha were there on the same day. I’ve known Zack for a little while, so we all just had a nice day just chillin’, talking and they played me the music of the song that they were thinking of. They gave me a copy of it, let me take it home for a night and I brought it back the next day with words put on it. And now I’m touring with them and it’s really cool.
JC: It’s a great song, it’s got 3 different “movements” almost.
JC: That song for me personally, it somehow brings images of 9-11
SAUL: It’s crazy, I wrote it way before 9-11 but yeah; I do say; “I can think of nothing heavier than an airplane…no stronger conglomerate of steel and metal” something like that…
JC: Freaky right?
SAUL: :laughter: Yeah it’s a strange thing. That happens, it happens to a lot us when we’re writing, the connections are there to be made and when we make them it makes things a bit more understandable in a sense. But yeah I do see the connection.
JC: Now you mentioned Zack De La Rocha. I always thought you would have made an interesting addition to Rage Against the Machine after he left. You sample a bit of Rage too on “Om Nia Merican”. What are your thoughts on RATM and would you have ever considered joining the band when they had an open slot?
SAUL: :laughter: well uhm…well uhm, first of all, I was friends with Zack before that whole thing happened and so I didn’t really think it was cool. So no, I wouldn’t’ have done it. You know, I didn’t think it was cool the way that it happened really. Yeah so that’s basically it. You know that song “Om Nia Merican” was supposed to be a song to do with Zack. Zack was busy doing some other stuff the day that I wanted to record the song and I didn’t want to postpone it anymore. And I had this epiphany of just sampling this sound from Rage’s from that song “Born of a Broken Man” and did it that way; and it worked out beautifully.
JC: Let’s go with that line of thought as far as Rock. I’m sure everybody always asks you about Hip-Hop; but what are your thoughts on modern Rock n Roll or Rock music:
SAUL: Well I think that there’s a few interesting things happening. I think the most interesting stuff is with Radiohead because they’re so connected emotionally and intuitively to the sounds that they’re creating.
I think that we’re about to redefine it. I think Hip-hop is about to redefine Rock N Roll by connecting it to its past which is the blues; which is connecting it to the African American experience. I find it interesting that like, it seems as if slowly but surely…I’ve been spending sometime in the Midwest now. I’m in St Luis, before this I was in Madison, before that I was in Milwaukee and I had some days off in those towns. I was checking out the vibe and going to concerts. And I was like wow, it’s real…it’s crazy. White people are in a sense taking over hip-hop; and you know what; and I’m not, I don’t say that in an angry way at all. And I was like wow, I think they’re substituting the poverty and oppression; with guilt and depression. And I look at a lot of the African American cutting edge artists that are doing stuff right now. From like Mos [Def] to Outkast; and all of those artists are picking up instruments.
JC: yeah, you’re right I never thought of it that way.
SAUL: Yeah, we’re all picking up instruments and all of our sounds are getting closer to rock. Seems like more of them are dropping their instruments :laughter: getting closer to Hip-Hop. It’s a weird musical chairs :laughter: “musical chairs” literally, that’s going on. And it’s crazy because I said that about the substitution that was taking place and I was like; you know what? I think that’s a valid substitution. I think that it might actually work, because from listening to these groups I was like yo; these cats are dope. I was listening to these rap groups there and I was like, yo there’s some that I saw that there was some originality…of purpose, of what they were doing, the beats were wicked, know what I’m saying, they were coming with something.
JC: I’m interested to see how Mos Def’s band handles it, but they have, I mean , Bad Brains and..
JC: Living Colour and Funkadelic…
SAUL: Yeah he’s got his help lined up…and I know the sounds that I’M working on for my next album are preeeeeeeettttttttttttty out therrrrrre, pretty out there.
JC: That’s great, that’s one of the great things about your album, it just goes thru all kinds of terrain; Drum N Bass and Rock, you know fearlessly, and most other hip-hop acts will do it a little bit but they’re not as bold about it.
SAUL: Thank you.
JC: Ok; how about Public Enemy, or more to the point; if there was something you could say to Chuck D what would you say to him?
SAUL: I would say…(you recording this?)
SAUL: :takes a deep breath:
I would say…thank you, thank you, thank you…for…granting me; along with the beautiful upbringing of my parents; for granting me thru a voice and a means and a medium that I found most recognizable and associated with more easily than the voice of my parents…I would thank him for parenting me, in a sense that thru listening to his lyrics AND the music – you know because it wasn’t just his lyrics, it was the music and the whole, EVERYTHING that went into Public Enemy – that helped me come to an understanding of who I was, what I represent. And had me walking thru life with a greater sense of courage and belief and realizing that…I, man, like when I listen to PE, I realized, I mean that was the hip-hop that I was definitely at a point where I was like, I would bring it to my parents. You know, just like KRS-One, because before then your parents were like “turn it down”. Then I’d be like; “[but] listen to this”; and they’d be like; “Wow; turn it up!” That was the first hip-hop my parents said ‘turn it up’ to ::laughter:: you know as opposed to ‘turn it down’.
And it’s amazing; I was an exchange student to Brazil my junior year of high school from 1988 to 89 and “It Takes a Nation of Millions…” had just come out. And I brought that album with me to Brazil, and school was in strike when I went to Brazil, so I learned Portuguese by translating that album into Portuguese. That’s why I learned Portuguese.
Furthermore, PE wrote the first song that ever made me cry. First rap song that I felt so closely connected to it – it wasn’t feeling some grief it was just that overwhelming power – cause every time I listen to hip-hop like that I would be like; “oh my god, I can’t believe this is happening in my lifetime; Oh my god look what WE’RE creating, look what we’re doing? “ you know what I’m saying? That’s how it affected me. Like; “this is what we’re doing, oh my god”.
I remember listening to “Fight the Power” in 1989, in fact when I got off the plane from Brazil after being gone for a year. I arrived at John F. Kennedy airport and my cousin – who lived with us, was the same age as me, who had been sending me videotapes of Yo! MTV Raps and The Cosby Show – he was like; “Yo, you’re not gonna believe it…there’s this film called ‘Do The Right Thing’”. And literally I was getting my baggage. He was just like; “Yo, you’re not gonna believe it; Public Enemy…” I was like; “what?”, he’s like; “wait..” But I’m talking to my parents I haven’t seen them for a year. I put the luggage in the car, we get into the parking lot of JFK airport and eventually after the talking stops; they turn on the radio. As soon as they turn on the radio I hear; ::sings:: ”fight the pow..fight the pow..fight the pow..NINETY EIGHTY NINE! THE NUMBER, ANOTHER SUMMER…” THAT was my fucken introduction to welcome back home to America. This is what the fuck is going on, and it gets to; “Elvis, was a hero to most but he never…” YO! I don’t know if I will ever feel the exhilaration that I felt in that moment; of like; what the fuck did I miss?!! And the next day going to see “Do The Right Thing”, and just feeling like; THAT affected me like how 9-11 affected people. When I heard that song and watched that movie and knew that there were riots going on in certain theaters. I thought that this was the beginning of World War Three. I was like this is it, they did it, they started it; with the song, and the movie…it was crazy…crrazy.
So yeah, actually I think it was “Bring The Noise” that had brought me to tears initially.
So anyway, there’s a thousand ways in which I would say thank you. And it’s crazy ‘cause as much reverence as I have towards them; I don’t idolize them in any way; at all. Like I’m not trying to carry on the torch of Public Enemy; it’s not that. But I am eternally thankful for; one; the fact that I was in a position where I could be so inspired as a child – which had to do with the fact that my parents opened me up, cleared the passage ways so that things could hit me directly. And then secondly; that it was them that reached me, you know. And so I would say thank you, thank you, thank you to him. To Chuck D, to Professor Griff, to the whole S1W posse, and to my man with the Ostrich farm, ::laughter:: to Hank Shocklee; who I did get to meet. Just all the thought that went into it is amazing to me.
I think my favorite Public Enemy moment in a song is in “Welcome To The Terrordome” at that point where they address the Professor Griff thing. And it’s like; “Crucifixion ain’t no fiction, so called chosen frozen, apology made to whoever pleases, still they got me like Jesus…” And then when they get to the part of the shooting of Huey Newton; ”from the hand of a nigga pulled the trigger…” and they throw in that fucken sample there; that just sonically exemplifies what was just said: that is the greatest expression of genius in hip-hop music that I’ve ever experienced. It’s that guitar [sample]…it’s like; what the fuck? like it was, like that brought tears to my eyes every time. Not the tears that…it’s the tears that come out of your eyes when you’re fighting, and you’re winning, and you’re loving the fucken fight. It was that, it was just amazing. They’ve just brought so much exhilaration to my experience of hip-hop…
JC: And he remains down to earth. He actually had an open house a couple months back for people on his site, he ‘literally’ invited us over to his house.
SAUL: ha ha ha
JC: We were hanging out in his living room talking to him…People showed up and just hanged out, it was crazy…
JC: What about these days. Are there any MCs these days that you like?
SAUL: There are things that I like. I like Dre from Outkast, I like Gift of Gab from Blackalicious, I like Mos, I like Talib. I like, you know, the list is somewhat predictable; The Roots and the Commons, it’s somewhat predictable who I like now you can probably guess at it. Then there are others that I respect as having great talent, but not being focused enough to point it towards shit that I can appreciate. And those would be like the Jay-Zs, sometimes Eminem, although I appreciate more what Eminem says than Jay-Z half the time because I feel like he addresses what people say about him in his songs. And so I find that interesting. Although I think both of them are extremely talented writers and I definitely respect their talent and sometimes find their music undeniable, like wow, that’s undeniable. Which is the power of hip-hop, that beat gives you an instant affirmative as you nod your head saying yes.
JC: What about yourself; your artform; what drew you to the performance aspect of poetic art as opposed to just writing?
JC: At what point did you realize that you wanted your work to be heard by the masses?…or has that always been…
SAUL: always, always…from the beginning. From the thing that made me start writing; which was T. La Rock “It’s Yours”. When I was young, I started writing rhymes at the same time I decided I wanted to be an actor. My father told me he’d support me as an actor if I got a law degree, my mother told me to do my first biography report in school on Paul Robeson; he was an activist/lawyer/actor. And my parents were activists so to me the biggest thing you could be on this planet was an activist. I was raised in a household where those were the people we revered; people who spoke up. My parents were friends with Pete Seeger ‘cause I lived in upstate NY not far from him. Pete Seeger was the folk-singing activist; so all types of different activist would come thru. Farrakhan came thru my father’s church and house during the Tawana Brawley trial. That was where I grew up, that happened in the city where I grew up. The same Tawana Brawley that PE had in the “Fight The Power” video. That happened in my hometown and all those rallies were started at my father’s church.
So I just grew up in a household where activists were seen as the greatest thing you could be. Even in my braggadocio state of rhyming – which definitely did exist :laughter: I would always try to balance that with writing my political rap. But luckily my views have grown a bit, but I still was always about reaching people with what was being said. I never saw it – even as I was approaching it as poetry – as a periphery art form because I knew the effect that Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez had on my parent’s generation.
JC: You’ve been touring all over the place. What’s been your most memorable time and has any of it directly influenced your work?
SAUL: Still the most memorable stuff is still “Slam”. Just from being in that prison and interacting with real prisoners. and having that courtyard scene with hundreds of people who did not know we were shooting a movie. And reciting that poem as people that thought it was my first day in prison and that I had jeopardized their freedom by allowing cameras to follow me in, started to circle around me, and I go into that poem; and they stopped for real. Those are still the greatest moments I’ve experienced with poetry.
Other than that it’s been in places like the Czeck Republic, where I’ve recited to like 1,600 Czeck students at the same time who didn’t speak English but would sit on the edges of their seats crying just because they’d felt the power. Like realizing that there’s no language barrier when you’re speaking from your gut.
JC: Totally out of left field; you don’t have to answer; somebody wanted to ask why you cut your dreads.
SAUL: I literally think that when you grow your hair; certain ideas and principles that you’re formulating at the time, you lock into those. I feel that when you lock your hair you lock yourself into the ideas and ideals that you have at the time. So I usually cut my hair when I’m ready to open my mind to approach things in a different way.
JC: What’s next for you? Apart from music, you mentioned an album; are you going to be doing films as well, books?
SAUL: All of the above.
There are books that I’m working on right now, there’s one book that I’m working on that’s collaboration with a graffiti artist by the name of Mear One. There’s other books of poetry that I’m working on, and this new play I’m working on.
My focus primarily right now is music but all those things are happening. and I can’t really say my focus is music. It’s just you have to give a certain kind of attention when you’re in the industry and it takes away a great deal of energy…but yeah it’s the writing.
(Interview originally featured on smother.net)