MC. Poet. Rock Star. Actor. Writer. Activist. Artist. B-Boy. Saul Williams carries many titles, only some will he admit. While he’s been in the inner-circle of Hip-Hop for the last half decade plus, he’s still unknown to many despite his many mediums.
His debut album was largely misunderstood and mistimed, but Saul has returned in full creative control to come ‘Twice the First Time’. The new self-titled album passed the tough test of AllHipHop’s ears, and we caught up with Saul on the wake of his monstrous opening performance for Nas in Central Park at the end of the summer. He shared some secrets, we shared some laughs, and you’ll never believe who shares inspiration to Saul. Peep game and give Hip-Hop’s poet laureate another long look.
AllHipHop.com: Amethyst Rock Star wasn’t the album it needed to be. A lot of people, myself included were just left unsettled. Rappers are prone to criticism. Artists and poets aren’t as much. How did you deal with the criticism, and how was it applied to the new album?
Saul: I couldn’t even f**k with it last time, just because you said you got it when it, ‘hit stores’. Well, it hit stores a year and ten months from when I recorded it. If only you could listen to it and imagine that it had been recorded two months earlier, then it would’ve perhaps [clicked]. It was so disheartening. I feel really blessed to have the opportunity, and was so happy when it finally came out – like a baby. But also, so much my ego attached to it. It was really just a strange time for me.
AllHipHop.com: And this time?
Saul: This process has been much more beautiful for me. I had so much fun recording it. I did most of it by myself, at home. And I did it as a work of leisure – whenever I felt like. And I learned a lot about songwriting and this stuff and I really wanted to focus on structure. I wasn’t even a big fan of the [Amethyst]. Initially I was. When the album was mixed, I stopped liking it. I lost a lot of stuff that I liked during the mix.
AllHipHop.com: As we gear up for the election, I frequently think back upon, ‘Not in Our Name’. I play it too often – but I’m surprised you didn’t tie in any political agenda to this record.
Saul: The stuff that I did for [that], that was pertinent for the time. When I was writing that stuff, I knew it wasn’t album material – it had to come out then on the EP. For the album, [politics] is a part of it. But it’s only a part of it. Just as, what’s happening in the U.S. is only a part of what’s happening in the world. That political fear is only a part of what’s happening to me. And the album is self-titled. I don’t second-guess myself as much with music. It’s so much of a critique and analysis that happens with poetry for me.
AllHipHop.com: Mo Bee and I recently talked about Miles Davis’ style of recording, and his improvisational sense. How much do you improvise, musically?
Saul: A great deal. A lot of the melodies in these songs…like there’s a song called, ‘Surrender’ that I did the music first, then turned on the mic and recorded myself singing the verse. I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m really into opening lines. So the idea of [saying], ‘F**k you’ – I thought that was cool. Same thing with ‘Reparations’ and ‘List of Demands’.
AllHipHop.com: What some other interesting muses in the album.
Saul: There’s a song called ‘African Student Movement’. That was inspired by R. Kelly. In the car, flipping stations, and there was [‘We Thuggin’] on there. The beat was just killing me. I hated myself for loving this song. So dope! This is the s**t. I [wanted] a beat like that. I don’t think [my] beat is anything like the song, but it made me think of it. The way I approached it was ‘Freedom. Ignorance. Jealous. Belligerence. Where my N*gga’s at?’ – which has nothing to do with R. Kelly. But it’s all improvisation.
AllHipHop.com: Rappers have these wolf packs of dudes with ‘em in the studios. When you record something at home, you lose that. You also lose the assurance that something is indeed dope. Were you at all concerned with that?
Saul: I’m not like that, at all. I think I have an active enough imagination so that I kind of imagine the response. I do contemplate what the response will be. Like with ‘African Student Movement’ – I knew that some of my fans will be bothered with [my use of ‘N*gga’]. Then I have other people who won’t mind. I was thinking about it. The whole time I knew it would be cool, ‘cause some people will hate it, some will love it, some will not think about it. They say Spike Lee polarizes his critics. That’s what I like about art.
AllHipHop.com: You want to challenge?
Saul: I want the discussion.
AllHipHop.com: The album opens unbelievably. In ‘Telegram’, the line about cordless microphones blew me out of the water! But soon after, you say, ‘Send my regards to Brooklyn.’ I loved that. It sounds like a war letter. What prompted that?
Saul: [Laughs hard]. That’s the funny s**t. ‘Telegram’ is the only song on the album where I don’t think I wrote either of the verses to the music. I think they were more like journal entry poems. I wrote those out of my frustration with Hip-Hop. I don’t know what me say [that]. It probably was some Jay-Z stuff. For me, most of this s**t is funny. To me, good Hip-Hop is like a crossword puzzle. I was explaining this to my daughter. It’s not necessarily immediate. You’re like, ‘Oh…oh, s**t. Oh!’ To me, one of my favorite images in that song is ‘Harlem shakin’ from a rope. Damn that loop is tight’. I had a lot of fun writing that. The first time I recited that, was in Brooklyn. It was hilarious.
AllHipHop.com: One of our sponsors and a major Hip-Hop relevant topic is Slam Bush. They’re organizing nationwide political slams. Chuck D, Davey D, and Wordsworth have represented it. Are you at all involved with that?
Saul: No, I don’t even know about Slam Bush. That’s awesome!
AllHipHop.com: One other line that as a reader, has always hung with me. In ‘She’ you wrote: ‘I want to be the one she calls on her cigarette breaks. Not the cause of them.’ That’s always stayed in my head as a profound statement on love in modern times. What’s the deal with that line?
Saul: [Laughs]. I remember that vividly, man! ‘She’ was a very painful time with the mother of my daughter. It was going through this breakup and transformation. She was feeling great, and I was feeling like s**t. Then [vice versa]. We’re both real sensitive people. There was so much tension in the house. And for her to go outside and have a cigarette and be on the phone, laughing. I was just like, ‘Wow. Must be nice.’ That’s the relationship I want to have – not the tense one inside. But [these days], I’m in the other stage. It’s hard to feel real gangsta when you’re always getting kissed [Laughter].
AllHipHop.com: What’s good with the acting prospects?
Saul: The last thing I did was with HBO, Lackawanna Blues. It’s a film that’ll probably come out in the fall with stars like Lou Gossett, Macy Gray, Mos Def, Delroy Lindo. It was produced by Halle Berry, directed by George Wolf. It’s really really great.
AllHipHop.com: What’s the premise?
Saul: It’s about a boarding house in upstate New York in the mid-60’s. We all live in this house. Crazy. It felt so wonderful.