Back in 1971 Kool & the Gang asked "Who's Gonna Take the Weight?" Twenty years later Gang Starr posed the same question on their seminal release Step in the Arena. Now it's 2004 and the question seems as critical today as ever. With American soldiers killing and dying every day overseas, our place in the world community at an all time low, our schools crumbling, social programs disintegrating, and prisons filling up faster than universities, I ask you, "Who's gonna take the weight?"
Saul Williams will not only take the weight, but if you listen closely he will help us learn to shoulder it equally. In Saul's own words, "We all have a responsibility. We have a responsibility as human beings. Everybody has a responsibility just to be aware of their impact." Like any true leader Saul doesn't want to rule, he wants to lift us up so we can not only help ourselves, but help those who truly need it--the people with no voice, those without food, homes, education, or enough self worth to see straight.
Born in Newburgh, N.Y. in 1972 to the son of a preacher father and schoolteacher mother, Saul quickly learned to value the weight of words. After graduating Moorhouse College with a Philosophy degree, Saul went on to pursue a Master's in Acting at New York University. It was at this time, in 1995, that Saul began to emerge as a much needed voice in America with his spoken word and poetry, keeping New York City coffee house audiences captivated, hanging on every emotionally-charged, politically-sharp word.
His ability to move a crowd and manipulate words led to a starring and writing role in the 1998 Cannes and Sundance-decorated film Slam. This proved to be the breaking point for Saul as he was able to parlay his success with Slam into a book deal for his poetry, a recurring role on the sitcom "Girlfriends," HBO's "Def Poetry Jam," "The Chris Rock Show," and heaps more. Saul has lectured at colleges and universities the world over, has been published in the New York Times, Details, Esquire, and too many publications to list. Saul very well may also be the youngest poet to have his work added to high school and college curriculum. And we haven't even touched his music yet.
In 2001 Saul released his debut album; Amethyst Rock Star produced by Rick Rubin and voted "Album of the Year" by the London Times. Remarkably, Saul felt the album was not fully realized, and now we have his self-titled, self-produced sophomore monster that hit streets in late September 2004 on the FADER Label. While working on an off-Broadway play Saul hit the road earlier this year with the band he has so accurately proclaimed "Best album and live show of 2003 hands down," The Mars Volta.
In trying to describe his new album Saul tells us, "The tracks range from politics to relationships to the politics of relationships. What I ended up with was something that captured the authoritative cool of hip-hop, the playful angst of rock and roll, the raw emotional torment of emo and the fuckoffness of punk." Saul calls his sound "Grippo;" I call it essential, critical, amazing music, one of the best albums to emerge in 2004 (hands down). Two days after the release I caught up with Saul. In speaking openly with him, I found Saul every bit as intelligent as I had hoped, perhaps even more articulate than I expected, and just so damn inspirational.
Kayceman: There is a statement that says, "Everything is political." Do you agree with that?
Saul Williams: Yes.
Kayceman: As do I, but there are people who disagree.
Saul Williams: Any decision that you make, any statement that you make is a political statement. You could be saying something like Michael Jordan, "I'm not a political person." (Laughing) That is a political statement. You can't escape it.
Kayceman: Moving forward with you specifically a little bit. Considering all of your artistic outlets--movies, TV, poetry, music, and even off-Broadway--what has your progression been like? How have you come to where you are?
Saul Williams: (Big breath) Well on one hand it's been a matter of keeping the faith and just feeling that even if... I don't know what it is. I'm really thankful for the fact that I have felt that the stuff that I am doing has some level of importance even though I haven't sold a million of anything. I struggle for money as we speak. I have felt that it's more important than that. So my process has been one of staying focused on the fact that this is important. I do believe it will pay off.
On every level. Financially yes.
Which is important too.
Which is important too. On every level. But it's important to have the message that you can make a living doing stuff that you feel is important.
Amen. Do you have a favorite artistic expression, or one you feel you are most well suited at?
Well my favorite artistic expression has been performing. So that acting, reciting poetry, and performing with a band all fall under the realm of performance. Like this album for me really sets the stage up to perform, and that's what I love about it. I can't wait to perform it.
Was there a particular goal when you set off making this album?
Not at all?
To have fun, I know I wanted to have fun. The first song that I recorded on the album was called "Grippo." And so then after that I spent the rest of the time trying to make songs that kinda complimented the nature of that song. And that song is kind of like a fun little commentary, sarcastic-ironic, commentary on hip-hop and race and shit like that. So no, I just wanted to have fun.
And I'm inclined to believe that with a self-titled album that the artist is trying to represent themselves, or at least feels it does represent them. Do you feel this is a full representation of yourself today?
Definitely. I think this is the most accurate representation of myself that I've ever put out into the commercial market. Like the Slam thing showed the... I don't even know how you say it... the messianic (laughing), this sense of just like... wounded martyr. And that's cool, that created a vibe around me where some people were like "Wow," and some people were like, "Holier than thou" or whatever. And that's a side, that's one side. I think Amethyst Rock Star was very purposeful, responsible. Like, "There are certain things we have to talk about and we have to talk about them right now!" But this is the first time I've come close to sharing any of the side of me that is like sense of humor. She [an interconnected book of poems published in 1999] was like very personal and emotional, sensitive. Said The Shotgun [Said The Shotgun to the Head is another book of poetry published by MTV Books in 2003] was really political. But I think this [his new album] incorporates all of that, all of those little moments.
I know where diamonds come from I ain't about to bling... I ain't got no bullets, and I ain't bullet proof, and you can take your aim, but you can't kill the truth.
--"PG" from Saul Williams
How was the experience of producing it yourself versus working with Rick Rubin?
It was a lot less stressful in that I always felt that I had to explain myself so much to Rick. Primarily because he had very strong ideas of what he wanted from me. And also because he wasn't exposed to a lot of the stuff... This is gonna sound weird, but Rick had never heard a De La Soul album, he had never heard a Tribe Called Quest album, he had never heard a Gang Starr album, he never heard an Ultramagnetic MCs album, he had never heard a Del the Funky Homosapian album, or a Hieroglyphics album, there was just tons of shit. He had never heard that shit. So when I started coming from left field, he had never heard Organized Konfusion, Pharoahe Monch, which was HUGE for me. So when I started coming from left field with what I wanted to do... He had never heard Bjork or Tricky.
Really?! That is really surprising to me.
Yeah. And so I played him all that shit for the first time. His first time hearing Bjork, Tricky, Portishead all that shit. And all that shit was really important stuff for me. And so he was listening to my shit and he [Rubin] was like, "What the fuck are you doing?" And I'd be like, "Well here's a list of influences; check this out, check this out, check this out," and he just really didn't get it a lot of the time. So we had a conflict of interest. He would present me with these beats and tell me I should do something over these beats and I guess both of us had pretty big egos at the time. And I guess the biggest upset was that I had the opportunity to hire him as a producer, but he convinced me that it would be even better if I just signed with him. So it's one thing to say no to your producer that you've hired, but when you are saying no to your label head, it's a different thing.
So you felt a lot more free to just express yourself on this, and again coming back to the self-titled...
Completely. I didn't even know if people would have the opportunity to hear it, I was hoping they would, but this was just stuff I was doing in my leisure.
I can gather how you ended up working with Isaiah Ikey from the Mars Volta with your tour and whatnot, but how did you end up working with Serj [Tankian of System Of A Down] and Zack de la Rocha [Rage Against The Machine]?
I met Zack like... Gosh, maybe five years ago. He'd come out to shows, we both worked with Roni Size and that whole collective. So we met and became friends over time. And Serj I met through Rick. And actually that all happened around the same time; Rick started working with Rage right before they broke up and that was while he was mixing my album and of course he was working with Serj then.
Did Rick lead you to the Mars Volta as well?
No, no, no no no no. I actually led them to Rick.
Is that right? I had no idea.
I was on tour in France; because the album came out a year earlier in Europe then it did here.
Your first album right?
Yeah my first album Amethyst Rock Star came out in like 2000 over there. So I was in France and met them when they were At the Drive In [band preceding Mars Volta], we did a festival together. And I was just blown away by them. And so around that time they started thinking about who they wanted to do their next album with. At the time it was as At the Drive In, and I had exchanged phone numbers with Omar [Rodriguez] and he started calling me asking me about Rick. Because they were tossed up between Brian Eno and Rick.
The Mars Volta
So they kept drilling me about Rick, about what it would be like to work with him.
How did touring with them [Mars Volta] affect you both as a musician and personally?
Well, I just feel like I was able to tour with one of the most amazing bands of our time.
Like I'm a huge Radiohead fan, and to me this was as amazing as it would have been to have toured with Radiohead between OK Computer and Kid A.
Very apt comparison.
Yeah so it was just like WHAT THE? It was just amazing. I did like I don't know how many shows, 40 shows with them, and watched every one. Usually when you're on tour with someone you don't watch the show.
Cedric Bixler Zavala of The Mars Volta
Did that affect how you view what you're going to do with your band at all?
I try not to let it affect it because there's no way I could ever... They've been doing what they do for a long time and it's completely different from what I do. I think we have a lot of respect for each other because we do what we do well, but I am not that, and I have to remind myself of that.
Telegram to hip-hop this shit has gone too far... Perhaps we should not have encouraged them to use cordless microphones for they have walked too far from the source and are emitting a lesser frequency... We will be confiscating weed supplies and replacing them with magic mushrooms in hopes of helping niggas see beyond their realities.
-"Telegram" : Saul Williams Photo by Wild Lupin
Do you improvise a lot on stage, especially musically?
The music on this album is rather ambitious and I'm curious how you plan to translate that on the road. First off, you'll have a live band right?
Yeah for sure.
Do you know who your band will be?
Yeah I've already put the band together. On bass and electronic triggering and PC and stuff is Thavius Beck, you know he had an album that came out on Mush Decomposition that actually had Cedric [Cedric Bixler Zavala of Mars Volta] on a track. And he produced a track on my album called "Act III Scene II" with Zack so he'll be there to trigger sounds and play bass. On drums is this guy Chris Alvares, and I met him and his partner in Arizona while I was on tour. And his partner is a girl named Heidi Gad and she plays electric violin and guitar. So she will be on electric guitar and electric violin, and then me. And I'll be on guitar and probably that's it, I may be on some electronic shit, I don't know.
And will the material be all from this album or will you be spanning other stuff as well?
I don't know. We just did our first show a couple days ago.
Oh you did? I didn't know your tour had started yet.
Well it hasn't but on the release date we did an in-store at Amoeba records here in L.A., and that was our first time playing out together.
And how did it feel?
It felt good.
Speaking of Amoeba, what are you listening to now?
Yesterday I bought the Animal Collective, I forget the name of that album, I bought the new album by The Faint, I bought the new album by Jean Grae, and K-Os.
Are you reading anything right now?
I'm reading a book called The Indigo Children.
What's that about?
It's about the new kids of this age. They call them Indigo Children, the kids that are being born now.
Thinking about books I had a question. Now I'm not very familiar with MTV Books so this could be completely off base, if so, feel free to correct me. But while it is clearly a means to reach a larger audience, I--as many people are--am far from impressed with what MTV is doing to pop culture. Was there ever any conflict of interest there?
There hasn't been, no. They’ve been actually really supportive. They've been the most understanding and supportive of my poetry. They've gotten it more than other people have, other publishing houses. Or other publishing houses get it but their ability to push it is not the same.
Well that's nice to hear. Surprising but nice.
Yeah it is very surprising, right? But yeah, it's been cool.
Now when that came about, did they approach you or did you approach them?
They approached me before Slam came out. Right when Slam won a lot of awards at Cannes and Sundance there was a lot of me in the press and so it was at that time that I signed my deal with Rick Rubin and that I hooked up with MTV Books.
There was one other question I wanted to ask you in closing. It's sort of a general question about hip-hop, and again I'm making a couple of assumptions on your view, so if I'm mistaken please let me know. But it seems that in studying your lyrics and reading up on you, it seems that you are not really necessarily angry at hip-hop, or calling for a full-bore change as some more conscious artist are calling for, but it seems that you are looking for a balance...
Oh, you got it exactly. That's it. That's exactly it. Some artists are doing the job of balancing themselves out. Like recently I listened to the new song by Mase, and I was like, "Wow, I'm a Mase fan now. I want to hear his whole album now." I think that a lot of artists are realizing the responsibility in being alive in this age, and yeah, that's all I'm really into, is just the balance. It's not that the people who are out there shouldn't be there, it's just that they should be balanced out with some other stuff.
Do you have any idea of how we can achieve this balance in hip-hop?
I think its happening. Things go in cycles. It's not something we have to really achieve; people just have to feel confident in being themselves. It's gonna go in cycles. The next two years are gonna be the years in hip-hop of like Mos (Def) and Common, that are just gonna run shit.
Do you find that there is some form of responsibility for artists alive, today in 2004?
Definitely, we all have a responsibility. We have a responsibility as human beings. Everybody has a responsibility just to be aware of their impact. As Americans we have a responsibility to realize the responsibility that comes with power. To realize the responsibility that comes with privilege, and to not just rest in our comfort zone when it comes at the cost of other people's discomfort. But to find ways that we can be comfortable without imposing our wills and domination on other societies. And as artists it's the same thing. It's like art magnifies the individual spirit so that a million people can sing along with the song and say, "Oh, I relate to that." And so we have to make sure that all people have the essence of themselves to relate to and not the lower part of themselves to relate to.
Check out Saul's ROCKTOBER 2004 :: VOTING ON THE MIND political response.
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