Saul Williams: The Generator

Interview with Saul Williams

In Chuck Klosterman's bestselling 2005 book Killing Yourself To Live, he travels to historic locations where both famous and infamous musicians died prematurely, ultimately coming to the harrowing conclusion that the best move an artist can make in their career is to die a sudden death. A decade later, as poet/rapper/actor/writer Saul Williams embarks on his own travels from Illinois to Ohio to Georgia to Tennessee to Hungary to Switzerland to France to Germany to Ireland to Austria to Turkey to Holland to Finland in literally a month, I cannot help but think that the only way Williams would ever receive his proper credit as one of the most gifted artists of all time (I say that without a mustard seed of hyperbole) is if he were to use all the frequent flier miles he has racked up to leave this Earth. But nobody wants that, because despite him being one of the most known unknown iconic figures of the last 20 years, the world needs people like Williams to spark the masses.

First off, this article is going to be fucking long, and even if only one person reads it from top to bottom instead of navigating through more interesting pieces like BuzzFeed's 29 Times "The Sims" Was Accidentally Hilarious or EliteDaily's Why The Girl Who Unfroze You In Freeze Tag Is The One Who Got Away, it will be well worth it to me. In the 26 seconds it took me to search for and post the above video, I estimate that Politico has posted approximately 30 articles about all the latest in the Donald Trump circus and precisely one thousand people have posted a sadistic Kardashian-related comment about a two-time NBA champion and 6th Man of the Year fighting for his life. Three months after the Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage legal nationwide, there is an increasing number of people terrified that 4 rainbow-colored horses will appear any minute now and bring about the apocalypse. A 21-year old murdered 9 people in a Charleston church in hopes of starting a race war, 2 deadly campus shootings have already occurred in October, but a lot of Americans are much more concerned with deflated footballs.

Williams' recent US (a.) is his first full-length book of poetry since 2006's The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip-Hop, which earned him the unofficial title of "the poet laureate of Hip-Hop." In his review of Scrolls, Mark Eleveld perfectly summed up Williams' genius: "Williams is the guy. He has chosen a sublime path in the hip-hop world: yes, a "road less traveled." He is the prototype synthesizer between poetry and hip-hop, stage and page, rap and prose, funk and mythology, slam and verse." Williams is also preparing the 2016 release of MartyrLoserKing, his first album since 2011's critically acclaimed Volcanic Sunlight. Like his previous work, Williams is planning to explore a multitude of ideas revolving around his expatriate views on contemporary America via two distinct creative platforms.

I wanted to find a platform to be able to talk about all the shit that I had been experiencing and reading about on the world stage. There's the one percent that we know of in terms of Wall Street and bankers. And that's not a new fight. Then I think of those people that gave their lives and voices to uplift and connect the dots in terms of uplifting humanity. People like Aaron Schwartz. Those bureaucracies are composed of people like you and me who basically just have to check themselves. I think it's Allen Ginsberg that has a poem where he says policemen are just regular people in disguise."

There is a shocking amount of people who don't know much about Williams' work at all. Strictly as it pertains to music, without Williams there would be no Yeezus, To Pimp A Butterfly, Death Grips, Chance The Rapper, or even Childish Gambino. In fact, I myself would not be in the position I am right now (permitted free reign by AHH CEO Mr. "Grouchy" Greg Watkins himself to pen an extremely long article on the most heavily trafficked Hip-Hop website in the word). During spring-break of 2009 most of my friends were drinking Coronas in tropical climates far away from cramped University lecture halls, but I was in Phoenix, Arizona to watch Williams perform. I had seen his image many times before on screen, but as I sat in the auditorium, subconsciously I was expecting a towering figure to stroll onstage-- a figure that physically matched the stupefying work of his incredulous resume. But a slender man walked onstage, talking about his career and fielding questions from the audience in an extremely personable, down-to-Earth fashion. Before he finished his performance with "Coded Language," an audience member asked him about the Nike commercial.

In 2008 Williams received a firestorm of criticism after his song "List of Demands" appeared in a Nike marketing campaign called "My better is better." Since the release of the commercial, Williams has repeatedly been asked that question by journalists and fans alike, always giving the same sort of, and I paraphrase, "who gives a shit?" answer.

Regardless of your views on capitalism, the "infamous" commercial introduced a lot of lifelong disciples to Williams' work for the first time, a New York native who would write his first song "Black Stacey" while in high school. During his MFA graduate studies at NYU, Williams' thesis project about an extremely talented yet troubled slam poet/rapper turned into the 1998 film Slam, which went on to win awards at the Sundance Film Festival and Cannes.

But I control the wind, that's why they call it the hawk
I am Horus, son of Isis, son of Osiris
Worshiped as Jesus resurrected
Like Lazarus, but you can call me Lazzy, "lazy"
Yea I'm "lazy" cause I'd rather sit and build
Than work and plow a field
Worshiping a daily yield of cash green crops

Even before Slam, Williams had quickly made a name for himself on the open mic circuit in New York City, winning the Nuyorican Poets Cafe's Grand Slam Champion award in 1996 and appearing in Emmy award winner Paul Devlin's critically acclaimed documentary SlamNation. Williams even gained Allen Ginsberg's attention-- one of the main architects of the historic "Beat Movement" and whose legendary 1956 poem Howl and its subsequent 1957 obscenity trial is one of the primary reasons rappers or any other artists are allowed to say things like "fuck" in their art. In the introduction to Williams' Said the Shotgun to the Head, his 2003 book of poetry, he stated that Ginsberg taught him the power of chanting "Ohm" three weeks before he died.

Ginsberg was sitting there and I was on stage reciting poetry. The poems I did that night were very related to Hip Hop. I did "Untimely Meditations," I did "Ohm" and I may have done this poem that I’ve never published called "Beyond." When I got off stage I went directly to him. He kissed me and said, “I didn’t understand all of your references. However, do you chant Ohm?” And I said, “Yeah, I do.” And he said, “Good, because chanting 'Ohm' is going to connect your heart and your crown chakras and that’s what you need.” -The Believer, 2012

But being a trailblazer as an actor and poet wasn't enough for Williams, and soon he began drifting back to his music roots. In 2001 he teamed up with Rick Rubin for Amethyst Rock Star. Combining Rubin's punk-hop aesthetic to classic material like "Coded Language" as well brand new material, Williams first major foray into music was met with almost universal praise. Rating it a 9/10, Drowned In Sound, Sean Adams wrote:

The main element you take away on every play is a clump of inspiration. On one listen the discontent for nihilistic nothingness in a time with more questions than answers, yet more chance to begin to understand the question. Another listen pushes a single mother’s pram past quick fix dreams and broken homes. It’s the cynicism and beauty in these words that force repeated listens rather than preaching angry hand signals and cloned individualism for the sake of marketing.

Following the release of 2003's Not in My Name EP, and 2004's Saul Williams LP, Williams started collaborating with Trent Reznor, the leader of The Nine Inch Nails for those who grew up in the 1990's and the man who composed the soundtrack for The Social Network for those who came of age in the 2000's. Their jam sessions resulted in 2007's The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Ziggy Tardust, a play on the 1972 album that really brought David Bowie into the limelight. Following Radiohead's example with their "name your price" release of In Rainbows, Williams offered the album for free download with the option to pay $5 to support the artist. In regards to the quality of the album, Black Ice wrote the following for XXL:

Not completely sure about how I feel about it as a whole because as anyone who listens to Saul or has peeped some of his stuff would know, for every time he makes you say “Oh Shit!” he makes you go “What The Fuck?” moments later. But, one thing that I can say is that Saul has easily delivered the dopest music listening experience I’ve had in a long time.

But despite his travels, I was blessed the opportunity to speak with the legend himself and probe him about a few pressing issues. I spent the days leading up to the interview expecting be completely disseminated by a man I personally think is one of the most intelligent men alive. Back in 2009, I would have been 100% terrified to interview Saul Williams. But six years later, I was only about 95%.

KM: It’s been 4 years since the release of your last album, Volcanic Sunlight. I remember back when it was released, a lot of people summed up your previous projects as “angry,” but labeled Volcanic Sunlight as revolving around love

SW: The anger never dissipated, so I see it as...renewable energy, like solar energy. Responding to anger with anger, responding to anger with love, or letting it fuel creativity, or however you can imagine ways of defeating it. That’s what new projects are about. Whatever frustrations you have in life to charge the project, all the algorithms add up to a whole.

KM: What is your impetus as not just an artist, but an artist who works in so many different mediums?

SW: I’m an art nerd, love nerd, energy nerd, interested in life. Tthe more interest I gain, the more easy it is to see the things that are worth exploiting, things like power through money that circulate like vulture paths. It’s not enough to cheer on the sidelines. I’d rather be in the mix of it all.

KM: What is the process like for you when you decide to create within a certain medium?

SW: It's all organic compulsion. There maybe a moment where a sound inspires me, whatever I find, like an explorer. Then I may put sounds there depending on the mood of the day, “I’m thinking about words on page. It’s not as complicated as one might imagine. When I’m thinking of words. Everything kinda of coalesces into each other. It’s just a matter of observation, what i’m reading, what I’m thinking, blend into eachother.

KM: In terms of politics, the more polarized our nation becomes, I can’t help but thinking that politics has turned into sports more so than anything. People blindly follow and support a political party the same they would their favorite sports’ team. What are your thoughts?

SW: We associate by teams, associate by nationality, by all these delineations. Also, simultaneously, we have things that show our individuality, we go by our names. Through politics, art has the capacity of touching and reaching people, and in many cases beyond the actual politicians, and even sound itself. Art touches something in people and has the power to help to feel themselves their hear themselves. And as long as the people are charged, we can hope for change.

KM: Noam Chomsky recently gave an interview where he stated that he doesn’t believe Bernie Sanders would have much success as the President because of his socialist views, but believes that the overwhelming hype surrounding his campaign will undoubtedly have positive, lasting effects if nothing else.

SW: With these sort of matters, it’s always a battle, you may not win every round of the battle. So sometimes you feel like “ah damn,” we’ve seen a lot of ups and downs, we’ve seen victories, defeats, we’ve felt the pushback. Sometimes we have to recharge our paths. There are people like Bernie Sanders, look at the last 12 years, and you can see that Bernie Sanders is politically punk. You look at gay rights, and how long it look for that to materialize. These fights, and their results, don’t happen quickly at all, and that’s been obvious for a long time. These fights are age old. But it’s like Harry Potter, there are spells you can cast, like magic, like in the past with people like Hendrix, James Brown, Nina Simone. People were charged... by art, literature, and were charged with something more.

KM: Speaking of Nina Simone, I think back to the 1960’s during the Civil Rights movement, and there will clear leaders, but it isn’t until recently that movements like the Black Lives Movement has had some sort of organization. Still, I feel like there aren’t too many artists that are acting as leaders for these various movements, like Bob Dylan or Simone. And to be honest, the whole hashtag (#blacklivesmatters) seems to me predominantly like social media phenomenon than an actual plea for change. Especially when a lot of those same people don’t bat an eyelash when they hear stories of black on black crime.

SW: #Blacklivesmatter, the way I see it... The beauty of the hashtag is that it is brings about unity., I’ve never belonged to an organization, but I focus my work on trying to give charge to those that organize. Because I see it as something necessary. Even though I can’t bring myself to join one. My mom taught kindergarten for 34 years, she’s retired, but I have the ultimate respect for teachers. They should be paid a lot, so crucial to all lives, to black lives at the beginning of the matter.

SW: And I look at people who organize in the same light, it’s crucial, can’t deny that there’s something beautiful in belonging. Like religion, it should belong to us. I see what’s going on, either way I applaud the inevitable, which is for our goals to be accomplished to see our relationship to the queer community, to women, to humanity, to all that is not so contradictory. I’m all for it, things blow up that to that proportion. Media gets involved, things fall apart. It’s all a cycle. It’s wonderful to see people charged and focused with the power to push against such a systemic equation. It’s up to the poet to point out that direction that brings out all the layers of meaning. So be it.

SW: Still, you have to understand we’re fucked and screwed against things we’re up against , but we have to keep going. I’m speaking of America, of where we play the binary, revisiting brings about actions and reactions.

KM: (I temporarily shift the interview to a more personal question. As my idol, I ask Saul about my pessimism and angst, and what does he advise in terms of battling in spite of knowing that we are “fucked and screwed against things we’re up against” ).

SW: Like Nina for instance, we can listen to her and feel it, know that when we play the game we are aware that’s it’s a lottery. We’re all in a casino. Knowing it’s a risk. Being tasked, and playing the lottery. A lot of expense of ideas and connections,the inevitability of forward motion to it, building connections and making progress. We are making strides, No I don’t get caught up in (that idea) because we have to keep moving. Like that John Lennon song, I can't think of the name of it right now.

KM: “God?”

SW: Yeah that's it. We gotta keep it moving. These things are all keys, eventually the door will open.

SW: Forgive me, I’m on some video game shit right now, been playing this game called “Ready Player One,” it has me thinking about the hacks of life. We gotta be “hacks” so to speak, find the “cheat codes” and move further along toward the road of progress.

KM: I want to ask you about your leading role in Kenny Leon's 2014's smash Broadway musical about the music of 2pac. 'Pac famously said that he "doesn't know how to change (the world), but he (would) spark the brain that will change the world. Both of you have similar feelings in that regard it seems.

His whole being is there. Look at the women singing “Keep Ya Head Up.” It’s coming out of women’s mouths and it feels like it’s written by women. Tell me which Jay Z song you could do that with. Tell me which Biggie song you could do that with, which 2 Chainz song. These are all artists that I like, I’m just saying Pac was the best, because Pac did not rap for money, Pac rapped for the pure passion of his community, for being alive, he put his all into it the same way that Kurt Cobain put his all into it. He’s rapping from the motherfucking anus of the universe, he’s pulling through all of that shit in the most crazy way. And yeah, the misstep is that Pac saw red, when he got angry he saw red and just went all the fuck out. Who would not see red after getting shot five times by someone you recognize as a friend of someone else? Of course he felt like he was justified in saying he slept with Biggie’s baby mama in “Hit ‘Em Up,” and then being thrown in prison for other shit, especially when you’re someone that was practically prison. His aunt, Assata Shakur, is still in political asylum in Cuba right now -Saul Williams, NOISEY

SW: Yes, when people call me things like "the voice of a generation," it's like any sort of compliment, it distorts what I'm really set out here to do. It's unpleasant to the ears. I'm more drawn to the concept of the generator. But nobody is a generator alone.

KM: That is a really amazing concept...'The Generator.'

SW: (Laughs) Yeah I've been thinking about it a lot lately, toying around with it. At some point I'm going to use it, but haven't figured out how yet.

KM: What are you listening to these days, and how do you feel about the slew of musicians you have inspired over the years?

SW: I love good shit. I think you hear authentic music and you know it right away. It doesn’t sound like me for me to enjoy it. I don’t think about the "imitators" as you put it too much. Most of the stuff I like doesn’t sound like me. There have been moments where it was like Radiohead, or Outkast that I was heavily into. But I cannot say there’s only one thing. With music I’m all over the place.

KM: Is there anything different to expect from MartyrLoserKing than your past albums?

SW: I played all the instruments. I’m thinking in terms of bio-rhythm, what I mean is that everyone has a way they hear a sound or beat, it’s a difference between making a statement via sound and looping and playing it live throughout, if you play it live throughout. But there’s levels to this shit. In this, there’s a stamp on it. THere’s a golden ticket, I’ve been trying to figure something out musically. This time around people are more “on to it” I feel more welcome.

KM: Any other projects on the horizon?

SW: My wife just shot an amazing film, MLK is a film as a well a graphic novel, I’m finishing the graphic novel, I don’t know if I’m in it. I don’t think the coolest role I could play would be the main actor or main writer. We'll see.

KM: I think the world would love to see a film written and directed by Saul Williams. It's really the only thing left at this point, you can even call it The Generator.

SW: Maybe I’d like to make a film one day. I can write one, but now I like making music, I like writing and conceptualizing stuff. Who knows?