This interview originally appeared in Popmatters.
Saul Williams wants to liberate you.
As an actor, screenwriter, poet, and musician, Williams has been offering you the opportunity for the last ten years by releasing books of poetry, a feature film, and three albums, including his 2007 effort The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust: a self-released concept album unveiled in a pay-what-you-like Radiohead-style purchase method via his website.
While having Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor as co-producer has put the album in recent headlines (along with all that then-fresh post-In Rainbows buzz), the album’s true source of resonance lies in its universal and provocative call to explore, claim and find the courage to express yourself—regardless of race, color, or creed; boldly exposing the fact that humanity still has much to learn when it comes to getting beyond skin color and dealing with our own insecurities. Pushing the envelope in this discussion isn’t necessarily new territory for Williams: during his career he’s openly expressed a personal struggle to find meaning and significance in both his African American heritage and his love for hip-hop, often exploring how the two can coexist in an age where hip-hop has become commercialized in the mainstream and shackled with a thug personae. The issue of race remains a controversial hot-button and topic of conflict.
Once you listen to a Saul Williams creation, you might have an idea of what will come next but you’re never really sure how he’ll flip it or turn it inside out. His work melds spoken word, rock, world beat, old school and new school hip hop, funk, punk, and soul—and all their sub-genres—to communicate and transmit his thoughts into the mind of listeners. Whether recorded or live, he constantly challenges pre-conceived ideas about race and self-expression, fully utilizing his undergraduate and graduate studies of both theatre and philosophy.
It’s understandable why record labels have struggled to find a “genre” to put Williams in. They might just have to create one called “Niggy Tardust” and just let the world enjoy him. His versatility rivals any iPod Shuffle and his live show makes your jaw drop as myriad incarnations of sonic and performance styles—Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, James Brown, Malcolm X, Johnny Rotten, Chuck D, and Mick Jagger, to name a few—burn off his steaming and sweating body as he squeezes meaning into each lyric, climbing on stage-front monitors, staring into the eye of the crowd, and ultimately gunning for widespread unity, liberation and inspiration for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. Behind him is Niggy Tardust‘s co-producer and Williams’ current touring beat maestro: CX Kidtronix. He twists knobs, manically presses samplers, and slaps a lone raised hi-hat behind a podium of electronic rhythm and pulsing rock beats, jumping around in a Spiderman costume as other band members wear masquerade-style masks and play keyboards and guitar with feather-glued arms that molt with every rumbling riff while stage hands hurl strips of paper and confetti on the stage and into the crowd.
The transformation from the Williams of our preshow chat to the moment that Williams marched on stage with his band mates (costumed in painted face, mohawked-feathered hair and star-spangled pants) was absolutely stunning. For nearly two hours, the personae of Niggy Tardust ruled the Chicago venue, but during our conversation before the show in his dressing room, an un-costumed and candid Williams went deeper into the heart of the liberating mythology, explaining how the touring live show is reinventing the album and how the story told in his book The Dead Emcee Scrolls was its lyrical foundation; each new show teaching him the true meaning of personal liberation.
Early this morning an earthquake happened just south of Chicago; do earthquakes always occur in cities on the day of your shows?
Always [Laughs]. That’s actually a pretty funny thing because the song “Black History Month” sounds are sampled earthquakes and bombs. Maybe that’s the reason.
You’ve mentioned before how the online release of Niggy Tardust is an experiment that gets recreated live as the tour rolls on. How is the transmission from the album versions to the live performance going so far?
It’s been a huge learning curve. These songs essentially went from my bedroom to the stage. They started in my in bedroom, with a few recorded in the studio, but most of my songs start in my bedroom. I just mixed them in the studio. There was an energy in my bedroom and I don’t know how many times I’ve listed to the songs so this tour has been the first time that I’ve been able to listen to the album in five months. It’s been a trip because I’ve be reacquainting myself with the music, forming favorites and learning the nuances; on one level where recreating what was recorded but on another level we’re taking that new energy and creating something new with it. For example, I gave CX Kidtronic all the tracks for the sake of performance but I’ve also given them to him to own them, saying “Whatever you need to do to make it feel right for you for the stage, do it. it’s for you now and you need to feel excited about it.” Every song has pretty much transformed in some way. Sometimes it’s a shift in [beats per minute] but if we find that it needs to change for the stage we’ve done it.
How are Niggy and Dead Emcee scrolls connected? The poetry in the book is also at the lyrical core of the album and certainly drives the emotional energy of the album?
I was working on both at the same time. Dead Emcee Scrolls came out in 2006, I started working with Trent in 2005. So as I was finishing the book and conceptualizing it—because it’s a book of poetry with a broader conceptual scheme—the plan became for the poetry to find its eventual place in music. For example, the song “Break”: I didn’t program it, Trent did. He programmed [it] and he sings the chorus, and he gave me the song with the chorus intact because he was reading The Dead Emcee Scrolls, and programmed the rhythm based off of what he was reading off of the page, then placed those lyrics there so I knew what page he was reading and made the track, so the verses are me going back to the track, going “Oh yeah, this does fit perfectly Trent.” The same thing happened with the “Ritual”: the ‘bitch, nigger’ is another example where he gave me saying ‘I was reading your book and this beat came the next morning.’ It’s all taking from the page. For “Scared Money” and “DNA” those songs happened at the same time for the book and the album.
I had read Dead Emcee Scrolls when it first came out in 2006 and [I found that] the album really illuminates the book; I found myself going back to the book reading as if the words were now pulsating on the page as I read them again.
That was part of the plan and how I designed it. For me as an artist who has the privilege to release something to the public, part of the thrill of that is imagining the reader or listeners process, so, for example, when I’m recording an album and sequencing it, I’m thinking about things like, “Okay, they going to unwrap it and push the disk in and the first thing they hear is … maybe they don’t have it turned up loud enough, so do I play something that would make them want to turn it up and go what the fuck or do I play something that would make them go ‘Whoa, I gotta turn this down or adjust this.’” All those things are part of it. With The Dead Emcee Scrolls it’s the same thing: I specially and carefully chose to use the word “confession” instead of introduction because “confession” personalizes it and makes the reader feel more connected to the experience and go “Wow, something is being revealed.” You going back to the book after listening to the album is part of what I hoped would happen. I even reference Niggy Tardust in two places in the Scrolls.
In the introduction to Scrolls you explain a very interesting creative process to transcribing the when you first found the scrolls which seems to have flowed into lyrical creation of the album, making your version of hip-hop lyrical poetry very unique.
What I was attempting to describe, truly, was how it is that an artist like myself can write something and not feel like [I] wrote it. I go through that daily. I don’t feel any different from anybody else but I’m also aware that not everybody has books in the store or albums on the shelf and some people are fighting to go on tour and some people are on tour. But at the end of the day, I look at every poem, thinking and knowing that I’m an audience member the majority of the time. I get to recite this stuff into a microphone once and the rest of the time I’m listening to it. And, if I’m lucky enough to be detached from it enough, I can look back at my stuff [Laughs.], and say, “Shit, this is funny.” And in those moments I begin to ask myself where did this stuff come from? Because I don’t feel like I think any different from anyone else. I’m not trying to say this in a New Age sense but I do feel like a vessel that I am being spoken through, instead of owning one’s creative process, it’s more like it’s shared with something that’s beyond the individual. And artists that I enjoy seem to have that quality as well, such as Thom Yorke of Radiohead. When I hear him screaming “women and children first” or something like that, I don’t think it’s this direct linear thing; it’s more like he’s channeling something. Because no one has any linear understanding of what that song’s about. But everybody can have some visceral connection to it like “This shit is meaningful … it’s abstract as fuck but it’s meaningful,” and [Yorke] is speaking for a lot of us, even though he’s signing about a lot of abstract shit [that] none of us can articulate and [that’s] not [about] him, possibly.
So the intro to The Dead Emcee Scrolls is me trying to do a few things, trying to explain the feeling of being a vessel and explain and inject into the cosmology of hip-hop a sense of spirit and imagination since hip hop is so material based right now. I should also explain that I categorized a lot of my work as meta-fiction, which means that there are more real elements than unreal but there are aspects that are surreal.
Can you give an example?
Yes: the movie Slam. Still to this day, people will come up to me and say “I saw that documentary you did Slam,” [Laughs] and they ask if I’m from [Washington] D.C. [Laughs again.] I’m an actor. Slam is a narrative film that I did but a lot of people feel like it’s a documentary because it has a documentary feel and then there’s people who do see it as a film and don’t realize that those inmates are not actors: they’re real inmates and it’s shot in a real prison. And the reason why that reaction happens it because the scene in the courtyard—where the violence gets stopped with a poem—because, yes, we had 16 prisoners that we were allowed to train as actors but there were 150 prisoners there and when we shot that scene we had only been there for an hour the other prisoners came at me because it was their first time seeing me and didn’t understand I was an actor and didn’t like seeing the other prisoner there with me and didn’t know we were shooting a movie as that scene unfolded. In the rush as all this was happening, I began reciting that poem and the reason that scene resonates is because it’s real as it is fictitious. The inmates found out I was an actor after words.
The Confession introduction to The Dead Emcee Scrolls, is me practicing the same sort of thing of telling the real story of me reciting one poem [on] March 16th, 1995 and then being asked to open nine shows for artists like Alan Ginsburg, Gil Scott and the Roots. That all happened as I tell it. Then I took that experience and contextualized to broaden the reader’s perspective of what is and what is not possible because the fact of the matter is [that] the real is just as magical as the fictitious. People ingest magic like it’s nothing everyday; it’s called taking stuff for granted like spending time with loved ones, so much magic happens in our lives and we take so much of it for granted. I told the [Scroll] story in that way to heighten the experience so that it couldn’t be taken for granted.
I’ve traveled through the album several times and it has many different levels and perspectives: sometimes [it’s in] first person and others times you play a character. You can listen to it as a story, a teaching [experience] or a chance to let loose on the dance floor.
And I created it that way. On one level I just wanted to make a really cool dance album. You don’t have to understand the words, in several places it’s where I placed the words and how they sound rhythmically, how they fit the groove and tempo and the overall feel of the song. As a listener who’s looking for a good beat, it’s about finding those pockets. And if you’re looking for the political stuff then there are those pockets as well.
Much of the press about the album has been about the issue of race because of the referential title but as you travel through the album the issue doesn’t seem to be about race as much as it seems to be about self expression and people overcoming themselves.
Exactly. To me that’s what the discussion of race is all about because I believe race is a social construct. People aren’t going to realize that en masse; it’s going to be a bunch of individuals daring enough to ask “Why am I calling myself white or black or brown—because I’ve been told that by someone?” And then challenged that thought because right now we’re allowing them to divide and conquer us by fueling the guilt of history and trying to resolve the issue of slavery instead of realizing that all that shit is behind us and that at the end of the day we are one. And if we need to talk about anything, we need to talk about species. For me, the war against racism is really a war against race, to say stop with all the classification because there’s nothing scientific to prove it. Everything they’ve tried to use to prove race has failed in science. So there’s nothing to prove it, so all we have is the beautiful history of where we came from, and yes, I came on a boat against my will but at the end of the day it’s just a story that adds texture to where we’re at now. And makes it even more beautiful and exciting that we are where we are right now. And to get to that point we have to get to what you mentioned and realize that it’s not about race and it actually isn’t. Yeah, I’m saying “Niggy Tardust,” and that seems to reference something more than Bowie, and yes, there’s a song “Black History Month” but when I’m talking about being me, I’m talking about being more than the representation of black, male, or American. I getting at the idea of just being alive and connected to every other living being and realizing that that’s more important than another categorical statement of boundary that would do more to make me schizophrenic saying “Oh, I’m not suppose to like this because of what we think of our own race.” We all go through shit like that every day.
Even in titling the album, I had a lot of fun imagining people asking “Am I allowed to say this?” I’ve been on radio shows where they’ve questions whether or not they’re allow to say the title on the air. [Laughs.] You know, when you say [Niggy],you like it because it’s a cute name.
It has a sense of humor to it that isn’t usually associated with what people are used to when they hear the other word they’re used to hearing.
Yes, there is a sense of humor to it that transcends the horrible history associated with the other word. It’s like the film Life is Beautiful, which helped us to look at the Holocaust in a way that we never imagined before. In many ways that film inspired me because we have to look at our history in a way that empowers us. Which me that we have to take something horrible and turn all the hatred and ignorance and transform it into something that inspires, feeds and transforms a community.
That’s the goal of Niggy Tardust. Look at what I did to the word “nigger” [Chuckles.] It’s like making an origami out of a fucking Klan poster and saying, “Look, it’s a swan!” [Laughs.]
Is that what gives you the most pleasure and satisfaction as an artist: recreating or re-conceptualizing words and ideas?
It’s more than enjoyment. It’s the only way I’m experiencing freedom in this lifetime. Or else I’m just another black guy who’s confused when people ask me what I think about having so many white people at my live shows. The audacity of a question like that is amazing but I can’t blame anybody for that because it’s all we know. And it’s such a low level of knowing because intellect in the lowest form of understanding; let’s talk about intuition and learning to trust your gut. Because, unfortunately, intellect only lets us ask a questions like “the amount white people in my audience.” And I’m learning and challenging myself with all this as I go along.
You’ve mentioned before that “technology has freed me from the constraints of race.”
What I was really trying to say was that technology has freed us from the constraints of history. What I was saying was that technology—and releasing the album the way we did—allowed me to bypass the process of going to a record label and having to navigate though their urban department (and when they say “urban” they mean “black” or “hip-hop”). And when I put out [the 2001 album] Amethyst Rock Star, I had executives at Columbia telling me my album wasn’t “hip-hop” because it didn’t fit their understanding of what was hip-hop or what was their visionary concept of what would work on the streets. And my thing was that I was sure they didn’t know the streets better than me because where I grew up there were tons of kids like me who would like to be into something like what I was doing or be introduced to it, only if they could get a muthafucka like you [pointing at me] to let them know that I exist in this platform.
So by releasing Niggy Tardust in the way we did, I was able to sidestep things like deciding what section my album belongs in the store. Does it belong in the hip-hop section? Some people would say “Yes, of course,” but Limp Bizkit actually rhymes more than I do on an album how come their not in the hip-hop section? Oh, what radio station should I be played on? Eminem gets a lot of play on the California radio station K-ROCK. Is it because he creates rock music? That’s funny, because I don’t hear him singing a lot or any guitars … it’s possibly because he’s white? All of this stuff is foolish, when you think about it.
So by releasing it the way I did, I was able to reach the audience I wanted too, making it available to anyone who wanted to hear it. And even though we do think about race in the way we do largely because we’ve been trained to but a lot of the time it’s the gate keepers who actually do most of the controlling of how we think and process. And usually the gate keepers like label executives or middle men who don’t realize how much power they have when it comes to guarding what comes through the gates and in what way. The internet release allowed me to bypass gatekeepers like label executives and the other middle men who might not have the same artistic vision or understanding that I do.
But there’s the flipside with boutique labels like Fader. They’ve released my albums before and will release Niggy Tardust physically on CD and vinyl on June 24th. And Fader has been one of the labels to understand that it’s about progressive music whether it’s Lil’ Wayne or Grizzly Bear. They also understand where the new generations of music fans are coming from and what we want but I don’t think most of the gatekeepers are from that generation and they still play by the old rules and don’t realize that they perpetuate those rules into the future by their mere fucking lack of courage to be more than themselves in the moment. And I met with label executives who said they loved my music and vision but they became elitist saying they got it but didn’t think most people would get it—which means that those kind of label executives think most people are stupid. And I said to them “No, I actually think people are smarter than you think they are and are smarter than you and they will get it more than you do. And they’ll actually be excited about the fact they you were smart enough to give the album a fucking push.” And, again, with the internet release all that was avoided. The people pushed it themselves, and still are [pushing it].
Making this album and releasing it in the way we did showed me that I can be as free, clear, definitive, and unique as I want to and that there’s a market for it. And that I don’t have to go a certain way or play by someone else’s rules in order to reach people. And now, I can actually go through the more corporate channels and they can see that there is a market for it, like I told them there was because I have survived as a poet for the last decade and none of them would have ever imagined that as being possible. I know it’s possible because I’ve seen it. They’d have to travel with me for a month to even believe it. And that’s been going on since 1996. I’ve been seeing it for a long time. I don’t think record labels are going to disappear and there will always be music and people will always find something cool to dance to. And where we are overall as a nation right now is exciting and I think the music will begin to reflect that.