Saul Williams Interview


Saul Williams

The following is a transcript of an interview with Saul Williams: poet, MC, author, musician, thinker. Amongst other things he has released two albums (Amethyst Rock Star and an eponymous sophomore release) and four volumes of poetry (including Said the Shotgun to the Head and the forthcoming Dead Emcee Scrolls). We started off chatting about the day to day business of touring and quickly moved to hiphop, the universe and everything. A proper version will appear in Cyclic Defrost Issue 13.

You’ve been touring with My Morning Jacket, how’s that been going?

Oh the shows have been cool, we’ve felt really good about our performances and the shows. Definitely a stretch as far as our respective audiences are concerned though.

I know, that’s what I was gonna say – as they’re quite different to what you do

Yeah, it is, and it’s crazy because we also toured with Nine Inch Nails and it hasn’t been as much of a stretch as that – so that’s interesting

What would you put that down to?

I don’t know, maybe it’s cos there’s so many fucking people with Nine Inch Nails and when you’re on that tour it’s like ‘Trent Reznor presents’ and so all of his fans are very much like ‘I wonder what he’s gonna bring’ and it’s just a different vibe. But it’s worked well with My Morning Jacket.

Do you feel it dilutes what you’re trying to say with playing with such divergent acts?

No not at all – I don’t feel like there’s anything being diluted – certainly not

I actually caught your 100 Club show in London

Oh yeah, that was fun…

What’s the difference between playing in front of an audience that know every word compared to the night before playing to a sellout crowd with Nine Inch Nails?

You know what, an audience that is mine may be a bit more responsive in that they’re familiar with the music but it’s just as fun gaining new converts. It’s totally cool blowing people’s minds and seeing them try to figure out exactly what you’re doing and you’re amazed that they’re into it. And they’re amazed that they’re into it and after a while you’re not really amazed it’s more like you’re having fun watching them go through the process of becoming amazed at the fact that they’re into this stuff that they didn’t think they’d be into.

What I noticed with the 100 Club audience was that the cultural make-up of the audience was fairly, shall we say, white and english and middle class. It’s so personal what you come at lyrically do you sometimes feel that you’re sharing your stories with people that by definition can’t understand your perspective?

Not really. I come from a pretty middle class background – granted not white and english – but it doesn’t surprise me that they are in the audience. It takes even a certain amount of privilege to be able to critique the system and society in the way that I do. And it’s not disheartening or anything to have white people in the audience becuase it balances out over time, and the fact of the matter is the stuff that I’m writing is intended for everyone. Yes I do have a goal and intention in mind often in teaching young black boys who were like me when I was growing up, but that also has to do with what I’m writing and how I’m writing it. I’m very clear with what I’m doing with this album. I didn’t really create the ghetto jam album – I created an album that would infiltrate the rock world.

So was that a purposeful decision on your part

Yeah, definitely. I thought that would be much easier than infiltrating urban radio right now in the states.

Yeah, I was in the states earlier in the year and it was amzing to me as a hiphop head how…

…little hiphop they play – y’know they play 12 songs by eight different artists

And also how saturated it was – thos eight different artists were pumping from everyone’s SUVs


Do you feel, in a way, betrayed by that as a hiphop head

No not really

But what about in the way that the record industry reaction to hiphop has been to swallow it up and spit it out

I’m not surprised, nor am I offended. It’s just part of the process, y’know. Things go in cycles and right now we’re actually witnessing the decline of the whole gangster shit. We went to see the 50 Cent film last night and we saw it a Mann Chinese Theatre – the famous huge theatre in Hollywood – there were 12 people there! There’s a shift so that, it doesn’t really upset me when it’s to this other extreme cos everything balances out. It must. And so it doesn’t surprise me that a lot of cats didn’t hear of my album till I did a remix of Black Stacy with Nas. That was the intent. That’s all we really need is to open the door with that and then come through with the next thing. So it’s all been very strategic on my part, but because of that there’s been no disillusionment or feelings of being betrayed, and I didn’t really aim for too much urban radio – it’s a long shot. It’s easier to aim for college radio and to let that infiltrate the urban market

That seems a little cynical…

If we’re talking business we’re talking business and the fact of the matter is that you asked me if I was upset at how things happened and no – even as an artist and contributing to the artistic factor of this generation and realising the reality of hiphop and that stuff I realise that I can’t just whine when my song isn’t played on the radio. It has to be done strategically. Same thing as looking at your average underground rapper such as an Aesop or a Sage versus your overground commercially succesful rapper. A lot of people think that ‘commercial rap is wack cos they’ll never appreciate a Sage’ and it’s actually bullshit. The underground rappers almost as a rule have horrendous hooks. Horrendous! They practice their flow, they practice their rhymes and vowels and what have you but they don’t practice songwriting. The guys who are about the money they are all about the hook – and they write songs that you can’t forget. So I’m not mad at the people who are getting the commercial airplay because I understand what has actually gotten them there and it’s not always payola. It’s also a matter of them saying ‘We have been studying and when we have hooks like this no-one can forget it’. So don’t get mad…

That’s interesting, cos from my perspective with Australian hiphop, which is actually quite strong at the moment, with artists telling Australian stories in Australian accents and using hiphop as a tool to impart that knowledge…

…well that’s what hiphop is for. Everyone of every distinct culture to embrace it and basically apply their cultural perspective and their cultural analysis – it provides the form for you to basically contribute to tell your stories.

Yeah I agree, but from my perspective I’d draw a line between mainstream hiphop which i’d actually refer to as pop music more than hiphop per se

Well, I disagree. People become blinded by something because it’s gone platinum. If that first 50 Cent album ain’t a dope ass hiphop album I don’t know what is. Granted I cannot imagine 50 Cent repping for breakdancers, graffiti writers, you know he doesn’t represent the hiphop culture like some would like him to do. But is he dope ass MC? Yeah… Has he become comfortable as a dope MC and is he now starting to get weak as result of getting comfortable? Yeah. But anybody getting comfortable gets wack. Y’know, don’t get comfortable.

So how do you stop yourself becoming comfortable?

I don’t have to stop myself – I’m not comfortable (laughs). I’m comfortable in my perspective on life and in my personal life – there’s a lot of anger and disillusionment that I filter through the music that in life people are always suprised by how silly and normal I am. Because the anger just goes through the music – so I’m actually laughing at more than I’m frowning at. But nonetheless I guess I’ve just worked out a ventilation system so I’ve channelled my discomfort into certain arenas. I’m also uncomfortable because I’m far from my goals.

And what’s are they – do you have actual goals in mind?

My goals are pretty much infiltrating the culture in a particular way. Seeing an effect with a certain type of cultural infiltration that I am aiming to do. I’m being really vague, but nonetheless I’m far from there.

Do you sometimes feel as though you’ve given too much of yourself?

Not at all. Only until this new album and this new book that I have coming out called the Dead Emcee Scrolls do I feel that I’ve given up practically any of myself.

As a fellow musician and a also fan I feel as though I have an entry point into your psyche (or maybe I don’t) – hearing that first track on the Lyricist Lounge compilation (‘Ohm’) really blew me away – and nearly everything I’ve heard since then has seemed so personal…

It’s funny that that’s how it comes off – it is extremely personal – not that I don’t know how to create on any other level (though maybe I don’t) but I don’t try to create on anything but a personal level cos like I said what I have going is a ventilation system, and basically I think that what we all aim for is a personal ventilation system. You wanna be able to take some shit in and you wanna be able to release it and you want it to be able to circulate through your blood as long as it needs to and you want to get the vitamins out of it but then you want to be able to release it. I don’t make much of a distinction in my personal life and my dissection and analysis of hiphop culture and American society and what have you. For example – I’ve always believed that my household is somewhat of a microcosm of the world in which i’m living in. So if there is some male/female conflict going on I’m going to relate it to the larger conlict between the patriarchal and the matriarchal and see some connection between that. My book S/he for example was about the fact that there was this huge shift of power in my house with the mother of my daughter and I was feeling this huge shift where all my ideas of manhood were not what manhood actually is. And my ideas of womanhood were being stretched and challenged at every space and front. I realised that that wasn’t only happening in my household it was happening in many households because it was happening in society, and it was happening in society because we had reached this time where that had to happen otherwise we’d be facing war consistently – as we are right now. The war that we’re facing right now in American society is a direct reflection of the Patriarchal bullshit that we’ve bought in to. The idea that might is right. So I’m always connecting the personal with the public, with the social. Do I feel like I give too much of myself, no I don’t. What else could I give? That’s part of my critique.

I’m past the point now of critiquing hiphop in general – i’ll critique particular artists and what’s dope about 50 Cent the last album was actually hopw personal it was. That’s what I loved about it.

Do you feel you’re serving your purposes well playing shows at such a time of political turmoil?

Oh yeah, that’s the other reason for being out here is to spread these ideas. It’s not even to spread an idea or a message – my whole message is to encourage people to say “fuck the fuckin messages that you’re being sent and think for yourself”. You don’t have to think how I think just think for yourself – question everything that’s handed to you. There’s a huge payoff for me to be able to do that every night – but I also understand what we’re doing is like a time released pill and the plastic around the pill hasn’t even dissolved yet. You can see it on many levels – like look at the popularity of poetry – do you think it’s peaking or will it peak within the next three years. It’s probably still going to peak. Being privy to all the plans for shows and ideas that are happening here in the states I understand that this shit hasn’t even really hit the system like it’s really going to. There’s a shift happening – Kanye’s on top of the charts and people are enjoying that primarliy not only because it’s really good but also because it feels good to listen to something that feeds you. And people are kinda remembering that right now. It’s a graaadual thing. And Southern hiphop is going off like never before and what people don’t realise is that alot of that shit has live instrumentation. So when that shit really blows up and people understand what’s going down there it’s not nearly as far along – we’re really just at the beginning of all of this stuff. And careers are the the verge of ending before this shit has even begun – this is all just like a drum roll.

Saul Williams will be playing at the Beck’s Festival Bar at the Hyde Park Barracks on Wednesday January 11, and then doing spoken word shows at the Sydney Opera House on Thursday January 12 through to Sunday January 15. He will also be appearing at the Mint in Circular Quay discussing hiphop and poetry (and no doubt 50 Cent…) from 1-2pm on Thursday January 12.

MP3 download – List Of Demands (Reparations) (from SXSW2005 site)

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