Saul Williams [Interview]
Vancouver, B.C. – On the afternoon of August 11th, Vancouver recording artist Arowbe took a seat with the legendary Saul Williams, a presence he holds a lot of respect for. Arowbe and Saul Williams discuss his latest release and some thoughts on the current state of society amongst other things.
HipHopCanada: Tell us about the new album. Is there any main message or theme on it?
Saul Williams: I only sampled country music and its all karaoke. [Laughing] No. It’s different from the last album in that it’s more song driven. I think Amethyst Rock Star was more like poetry over hard beats. On this one I paid closer attention to song structure. In fact, I didn’t approach it as a spoken word artist at all but as a musician.
HipHopCanada: Who did you work with on the new album?
Saul Williams: I produced 90% of this album. The introduction to the album is a piano piece that was composed by Serj Tankian, the lead singer of the rock group System of a Down and then the only other real collaboration is a song called Act 3 Scene 2 with Zach de la Rocha from Rage Against the Machine.
HipHopCanada: What’s the first single?
Saul Williams: A song called “List of Demands”.
HipHopCanada: In SHE, you wrote, “We are left to make magic of our own names given to us through the love of our parents” You found the sun in your name. Why was it relevant for your new album to be self-titled?
Saul Williams: It was right before I went into the studio to finish the album, my manager and I had a discussion and it boiled down to like, “Yeah, it would be cool to have a self-titled album.” And it kind of frightened me because all of a sudden I was like, “wow I think that would be cool but now that makes me listen to the music and have to make sure it represents me fully. All the sides of me. So I think that this album successfully shows more sides of me then someone might be used to. I think people usually associate me with some type of intellectual anger. This album shows other sides of me like my sense of humour. It’s a fun sounding album. Although the subject matter can get interesting at times, I had fun doing it.
HipHopCanada: On Kanye West’s album the College Dropout, There is a song called “Never Let Me Down” that features Jay-z and a poet called J. Ivy whose sound is somewhat similar to yours. On some mixtapes before the album dropped, you were credited with the verse. Are you familiar with the song and do you know how this mistake came to be?
Saul Williams: Yeah, yeah. Not only on some mixtapes but all over the Internet. I think whoever loaded it in first just thought it was me.
HipHopCanada: For those who don’t know, could you tell us about the Not In Our Name initiative? Who was involved in it and what does it stand for?
Saul Williams: The Not In Our Name initiative basically was sent out to the world to say that there are people primarily in America that do not agree with American foreign policy. We wanted to send out the message to the world to just say, “Look, I know that CNN and what have you is telling you this, but I need you to understand that we realize our connection to humanity and we realize that we are human first regardless of what our current administration says.” And so there was a lot of celebrities involved in the movement. (Susan Sarandon, Noam Chomsky, Ossie Davis, Gloria Steinhem, Sean Penn and Kurt Vonnegut) It was really about raising awareness here in the states, but it was also about sending that message out to the rest of the world so that people who were protesting against what was happening in America knew that there were people in America protesting against what our own government has been doing.
HipHopCanada: Bush said, “You’re either with us or against us,” referring to terrorism. Can u comment on this with respect to your initiative?
Saul Williams: Well I did a book called, “Said the shotgun to the head and that book is one long poem that’s the voice of a man that’s telling of the coming of a female messiah. What’s interesting about this book is that it deconstructs western ideals and values and the difference between western and eastern ideals and values. It does so under the context of religion. I played with religion a lot primarily because religion has often been the cornerstone of a lot of wars that have been fought including this war in the Middle East. So what’s interesting is that if you look at an eastern religion like Hinduism, it teaches that the universe is composed of a unified duality, which they call Shiva and Shakti energy, which correlates to male and female energy. They say that those 2 sides compliment each other and form a unified whole. Buddhism, another eastern religion, asserts that the universe is composed of a unified duality, which they call Yin and Yang energy, which correlates again with male and female energy. Then you get to the west, which teaches that there’s god and devil, right and wrong, and the woman’s on the side of the devil because she bit the apple. It’s pretty interesting because when you look at these eastern perspectives that embrace the left and the right, the male and the female, the yin and the yang, the Shiva and the Shakti and you look at this western philosophy that says its one or the other. It’s right or wrong. It’s god or the devil. It’s black or white. You’re either with us or against us. And you see right there why it is that we have been the perpetuators of so much warfare not only outside of America but the history of slavery and racism and all these things. Its like wow! That’s it right there! It’s the cornerstone of it right there. That mentality that says that it’s one or the other. Because it’s not one or the other. It’s one and the other. And then at some point you come to the realization that there is no other or as Hafiz the Sufi poet says, “the other is a lie.”
HipHopCanada: You have a recurring role on the UPN’s hit sit-com Girlfriends; this is probably the last place most people would expect to see Saul Williams. How did this opportunity come about?
Saul Williams: I knew the producers and they approached me the day before they started auditions like, “Yo we wrote this roll kind of based on you. You would never do it right?” I’m like, “What the fuck? I wanna see. I’ll do it!” I just thought it would be fun. And it was, I had a lot of fun.
HipHopCanada: How do the art of poetry and the art of acting relate? Do they go hand in hand?
Saul Williams: I think the best person to ask that would be Shakespeare. Many of our great writers and playwrights have often been poets from Shakespeare to Amiri Baraka. So a poem, in many cases is as dramatic as a good piece of drama, be it a play a monologue or what have you. So those two can come from the same source.
HipHopCanada: Many people including myself were introduced to Saul Williams through the film Slam. How important was it that SLAM be set in Washington DC?
Saul Williams: Initially, it wasn’t very important. However, at the time we were about to start shooting, the governor at that time decided that no cameras would be allowed in New York prisons. And so, the documentarian I was working with at the time, who directed Slam, Mark Levin was working on a documentary in a DC jail so we thought, “well that makes perfect sense if you think about it. Look at all the symbols.” I loved it. As a writer of poetry, I was like, “This is awesome. All these symbols.”
HipHopCanada: Yah, the reason I asked that is because the architecture in DC seemed to fit very well with the Isis and Osirus Myth that you allude to in some of the pieces you spit in slam.
Saul Williams: Exactly. And all that stuff was in there before we decided to shoot in DC. So it was perfect.
HipHopCanada: You often allude to the myth of Isis and Osirus. What is it about this myth that relates to your work so much?
Saul Williams: I’ve just spent a great deal of time interested in alchemy and Egyptology and and I think it’s very connected to the founding principals of even this nation. (USA) If you look at a dollar bill, you have these Egyptian symbols including the pyramid and the eye of Osirus and all this stuff on the dollar bill. It of course has everything to do with masonry and all this stuff. I think that there’s a great many esoteric and mystical truths and strengths and powers held within those teachings. So, I study them and connect them to our present.
HipHopCanada: You’ve collaborated and performed with some legendary MCs, poets and producers. Is there any experience in writing, in the studio, or performing with a particular artist that is especially memorable?
Saul Williams: I remember being in the studio with KRS-ONE and just being completely intimidated and I was like, “There’s no way I’m gonna rhyme.” I did a track with him for the soundtrack to Slam. I literally stood in the vocal booth and read from my journal. I could’ve written a rhyme for the song but I was like, “I’m not gonna rhyme on a song that KRS is rhyming on.” I was just completely intimidated. (Laughs) When I did my last album (Amethyst Rock Star), I worked with Rick Rubin. The first song we produced was Penny for a Thought and I fucked up like 30 times in the booth. I was tripping on LL Cool J and all these people that he’s worked with. And Rick was like, “What’s the problem?” And I asked him like, “Well yo, how many takes does LL need?” and he answered me, “One.” I’m like, “Oh.”
HipHopCanada: Would you consider yourself an extension of the beat poetry Generation?
Saul Williams: Sure.
HipHopCanada: What is the state of hip-hop right now?
Saul Williams: Georgia. [Laughing] No, I don’t think we need to get rid of any artists or anything. I just think hip-hop needs balance. My two favorite albums of the past year were Mars Volta and Outkast. I love the success of that Outkast album. Outkast sold more than 50 Cent, which just goes to show that the truth is prevailing. I like 50 Cent too.
HipHopCanada: Your song “Purple Pigeons” makes some interesting comment on creation, calling artists ‘little gods’. It’s also a very unorthodox song. What and who was involved in its creation?
Saul Williams: First of all we had Divine Styler engineering the track. He put out an album in ’91 called Spiral Walls Containing Autumns of Life. He was down with Ice-T and all these people and that was the only hip-hop album that was done on acid before Del. It was so far left. He even interviews the Devil on that album. So that was crazy. My man Orko produced it. I’m having a conversation on that song with Wood Harris, an actor. He was in Paid in Full and played Hendrix in the Hendrix movie. He’s the one who makes the comment about, “Little Gods.” And that whole story in that conversation was true at the beginning of the song. I was in Belize, just me and this guy. I was lying in a hammock. And he just read this page from the bible. Both sides. And ripped it out and rolled a spliff.
HipHopCanada: How did you hook up with Orko?
Saul Williams: I met him in Brooklyn.
HipHopCanada: Do you have tour plans yet for this album?
Saul Williams: I think we’re going to tour in November.
HipHopCanada: Any Canadian dates coming up?
Saul Williams: Yeah. September 1st at York University.
HipHopCanada: You’ve done some touring in Canada, Did you get a chance to check out any Canadian hip-hop?
Saul Williams: Yeah. I like k-os I’m fan of him as well as a friend. Our albums drop on the same day in the States. Also, Esthero and Buck 65. And Alanis Morisette [Laughing].
Written by Arowbe for HipHopCanada