Hip-Hop Preview: Saul Williams
Saul Williams is an actor, a writer and L.A. Weekly's "best hip-hop artist" of 2005. But contrary to popular belief, the 33-year-old native of Newburgh, New York -- who will perform in Albany, Vermont, at this weekend's Northeast Kingdom Music Fest -- claims he's not a slam poet.
It's an easy mistake to make. Williams first garnered national attention as the 1996 Nuyorican Poet's Cafe Grand Slam Champion. He stole the show as a member of the 1996 Nuyorican Poet's Cafe team in the documentary Slam Nation. He also starred in the indie film Slam, which won the 1998 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, and the Cannes' Camera d'Or. In fact, Williams insists he's only competed in five slams in his life -- people just happened to make movies of them.
But if he doesn't belong to the slam scene, Williams doesn't fully belong to Hollywood or to hip-hop, either. His body of work includes three books of poetry, two music CDs and roles in K-PAX and the forthcoming TV movie Lackawanna Blues. He has lectured and read at universities around the world, and his poetry appears on high school and college syllabi. He proudly resists categorization.
After receiving a Bachelor's degree in philosophy from Morehouse College, Williams took a Master's in acting from New York University. He began reading his writing at open mikes in 1995, and after his slam stint, began putting his words to music. His 2001 musical debut, Amethyst Rock Star, was named "album of the year" by The Times of London. He released a self-titled CD in 2004, and toured this past summer in Europe as the opening act for, oddly enough, the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails.
Williams' rhymes are simultaneously street-savvy, political and cerebral. His "Act III Scene 2 (Shakespeare)" from Saul Williams includes a shout-out to U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq: "And this one goes out to my man, taking cover in the trenches with a gun in his hand, then gets home and no one flinches when he can't feed his fam. But Brutus is an honorable man."
His flow is also more full of hope than the average Glock-cocked spew. In "PG," Williams professes, "Ain't from the streets of Compton. Ain't from no prison yard. Ain't got no guns or weapons. Hell, nigga, I ain't hard. I'd rather help than fight you. I'd rather hug than swing. I know where diamonds come from and ain't about to bling."
Michael Driver of DrownedInSound. com cites that lyric in his review of one Williams' recent London shows. Says Driver, "Saul Williams is hip-hop's shining hope in an epic blackness of blase boasters and bling-ed booty callers." Seven Days spoke to Williams over the phone from his home in Los Angeles.
SEVEN DAYS: So you don't bling. What do you do?
SAUL WILLIAMS: The only reason I'm not that heavily into it is because I have no real desire to relive my adolescence. When I was 13, I got jumped in Buffalo, New York. I'm quite aware of why I got jumped. I was wearing two Swatches, a fake Gucci little pouch around my neck, I had on a Name ring, a Name plate, a Name bracelet, another ring with a clock on it, a Guess watch on my arm, and a little gold rope. There was a point in my life when that was what was essentially important to me. And it just isn't now.
SD: What changed you?
SW: Maturity. I mean, what makes someone mature? Experience, growing tired of something, learning more, understanding more, being exposed to more. I'm sure you may be who you are now, but there may have been a time in your life when you were watching "Full House" or something . . .
SD: And worse.
SW: Well what was it that made you change? Time. Understand- ing. Evolution.
SD: You've said you're the son of a preacher and a schoolteacher, and you have an eclectic academic background. Did you have mentors or experiences along the way that led you towards your political or academic interests?
SW: There's a million and one things that I can point to. My oldest sister -- who's about nine years older than me -- when I was in the tail end of elementary school, she was entering college. She was an activist while she was in school, primarily against the apartheid regime, which was still happening then. She would come home and demand that the family boycott certain products. And she definitely heightened my political awareness.
When I was in high school, I was an exchange student to Brazil. That exposed me to a lot. When I was in junior high school, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. And later on I read The Temple of My Familiar, the sequel to The Color Purple by Alice Walker. All of these things, so many things, too many to list. I guess what distinguishes me is the fact that I've expected and desired that growth. I've looked for it. I've sought after it.
SD: You're an actor, a poet and a musician. Are all of these aspects of work related to each other?
SW: I believe they're all connected. For the most part, the through line is performance. I think of myself as a performer. Even when I'm writing, I'm writing something that I'm really looking forward to performing.
SD: Your work has enabled you to interact backstage with a wide variety of artists and performers, from the artsy slam poets, to actors Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey, to Trent Reznor. These artists seem so different. Are they alike at all?
SW: Mostly I think I've interacted with people who take their work much more seriously than they take themselves. I know for me, I can be like a child, talking about a new book or a new song I've worked on. I get really excited. And I find that other people are the same way.
SD: After seeing Slam Nation years ago, I would never have guessed that you'd be on tour with Nine Inch Nails. It seems like a big jump to me, a completely different genre.
SW: My work bleeds into many different worlds. I find people [who appreciate my work] in the more "hippie" world of activism and jam bands -- people who like Ani Di Franco, and String Cheese Incident. And then when I do hip-hop, it's "Saul Williams and Blackalicious." Which is cool. But although my work filters into that world, I am not exclusive to that world . . . being an African-American male, I just don't do real well with confinement.
SD: Clearly. You've definitely managed to avoid being pigeonholed into the poetry scene.
SW: For six years now my books have been published by MTV. I can't act like I'm not a part of the mainstream in that sense -- I am. And that's a goal of mine. I don't do this to be a part of a periphery existence. My aim is to reach as many people as possible with these ideas and feelings and thoughts . . . because I believe that it's important that all voices be heard. And for that reason, I don't really have anything bad to say about the commercial empire, as it exists, other than if you want it to be different, then it's you that has to make it different.
SD: There's traditionally been a divide between the performance poets and the academic poets. Have you built any bridges over that one?
SW: I think the main connection I have with them is the number of students who go to those people and tell them that they need to be reading or teaching me. And so then, as a result, I end up connecting with them. But that's pretty much the extent of it.
SD: Have you ever thought about publishing your work in more traditional poetry venues?
SW: I was approached by more academic presses. And I've chosen to go the other route. It's a choice on my part. I've been approached by Norton.
SD: You would prefer to be published by MTV than by Norton?
SW: Yes. Primarily because I'm after a demographic. I'm interested in reaching people. Either way, it's not going to change the caliber of the work. MTV has never questioned anything I've desired to publish. All they've done is put commercials on the station for it. I prefer to reach people. I prefer to be aligned with the living than with the dead.
SD: What's your next project?
SW: My next book is coming out though MTV in February. It's called The Dead Emcee Scroll. And I'm working on an EP right now, which is something like a musical companion to the book.
SD: What's your live show like?
SW: Um, fun? I wouldn't describe it. I perform.
SD: But I've never seen it, and I want to give people an idea what to expect.
SW: It walks a fine line between punk and hip-hop, just like the music. I mean, I'm a performer. Even though I'm known for writing poetry, I think that my work resonates the most with people who have seen me recite it, and the same thing goes with the music. It's really about the performance.