The poet laureate of hip hop speaks
With his new album Martyr Loser King having set unbearably high standards for the rest of the year’s musical offerings, SAUL WILLIAMS is about to make his live Liverpool headlining debut. The poet, rapper, musician and actor is scheduled to play a show at 24 Kitchen Street this coming Saturday and anticipation has been higher than Saturn ever since the announcement was made.
The level of excitement is understandable. Saul Williams is one of the most diverse and multi-faceted performers and artists currently working in the popular music spectrum. He honed his vocal craft during the 90s as he proliferated his name through various poetry circuits. As he gradually invaded popular consciousness he then cut his first album, Amethyst Rock Star, with Rick Rubin at the helm of production. Since that album was released, in 2001, he has written a variety of critically acclaimed books, appeared in a number of films and released another four albums.
Which leads us neatly to the here-and-now. His most recent album is a fierce, articulate and unwavering look at modern society and our existence in the digital age. Williams discusses inspiration, hip hop, trip-hop, poetry and transcending boundaries with Christopher Carr over a shaky line from his hotel room.
Bido Lito!: It seems like an obvious question but, since it’s your first headlining show in the city, I have to ask. How do you feel about playing in Liverpool? Are you excited?
Saul Williams: I’m super excited. You know, it’s always been a bit of a mind-fuck why I haven’t played England more. And so, you know, it’s about fuckin’ time. Honestly. Yeah it’s about time.
BL!: So, my favourite book of yours has always been The Dead Emcee Scrolls. That book focusses on the politics of hip hop culture and what hip hop means to you. In it you have written that, to you, Björk is hip hop. What did you specifically mean by that and what do you think hip hop is in 2016?
SW: Well, for me, when I started making music in the 90s I kinda always had this feeling that people were imposing definitions upon an art form that was really too young to have definitions imposed upon it. And, you know, what I meant by that was that, if you liken it to a child, you have a 19 or 20-year-old kid whose going to university or something. Maybe they have an idea of what they’re going to become, or maybe they’re going to figure it out later on, you know. And I started hearing people saying that “hip hop is that”, or, “hip hop is this”, and most of the time a lot of it is misinformed. You could say that it’s sampling James Brown or it’s sampling jazz, but it’s always been mixed media.
BL!: I think that one of the greatest things about hip hop is its refusal to be categorised. All of the most remarkable acts are undefinable and just rely on expression and honesty.
SW: Exactly, exactly. I mean, I think about the time when Björk was hangin’ out with Tricky and Goldie, you know, the Homogenic years and all that. Those beats were better than any hip hop producer I knew of in New York at the time. My Björk comment back then was basically relating to my discovery of trip-hop in the 90s. I was living in New York at the time hearing everybody blasting what was popular and I was on a straight trip-hop thing, going, “Are you serious? Have you heard this though?”
The Björk conversation was specific though. I remember that starting from a conversation I had with Yasiin Bey. Mos Def, yeah. I’m playing him Homogenic. And I’m playing him Portishead’s Dummy and Tricky’s Pre Millenium Tension and I’m going, “THIS is hip hop.”
BL!: I read in an interview that you recently stated that “we need more Edward Snowdens”. Also, in your new single Horn Of The Clock Bike there is the lyric, “Hackers is artists.” Following on from this idea, do you think that art is a product of necessity? Since art can be used to subvert and defy, is hacking a new art form?
SW: It’s not so much that I think of hacking as a new art form, but, it’s more so because Martyr Loser King was inspired partly by the street artist Banksy. You know, I was thinking of what virtual street art would like like. Hacking as performance art and how that would take shape. And that’s what it’s about. You know, everything that you described about art, if you relate it to Banksy, and how people coincidentally encounter the pieces and can suddenly see the creativity and the politics held within it. And that’s what’s crucial. I was thinking of this world that we’re in. I mean, here right now we just click on the shit we think is cool. The only art we’ve been hacked by is when Apple hacked us with that deal they did with U2. But what if we could have some amazing hackers that could put some incredible stuff into our lives through this medium?
BL!: What is your stance on the more superficial aspects of digital culture? We quite often don’t really know what it is we’re following. Do you think we should be more conscious of our internet use?
SW: Yeah, the internet is very revealing. Sometimes it’s sad to see, not only the mean-spirited stuff but, the loneliness and all this stuff. If you have seen a lot of the internet, parts of humanity could be diagnosed with depression. We’re pretty self-obsessed too, you can also see the narcissism. So of course we’re going to learn to be more mindful and to also be more absent from it as well. But, you know, it will take time and we’re really the first generation learning to live with it.
BL!: Hip hop has always had an undercurrent of subversion and defiance that shows itself in every facet, from early graff writers asserting their identities to rappers exposing racial attacks by the police in support of the likes of Rodney King and Eric Garner. Do you think that hip hop artists should have a unified message or role to play and, if so, what should that role be?
SW: Well, I really don’t think in terms of hip hop or hip hop artists anymore. I just think in terms of artists, and to be more specific, artists making music. Right? Like, I really don’t think in terms of what rappers should or shouldn’t do. I also think it’s hard to speak to a whole school of rappers because there’s so many different artists and it’s so diverse. You know, should Iggy Azalea be beholden to what Earl Sweatshirt does? Or even Macklemore. Should he be beholden to what Action Bronson does? There’s so much variation.
I do definitely think that the first initial hip hop movement had to do with confidence. There was an underbelly of confidence that could only come after seven generations of emancipation. You know, this boldness and this attitude. “I don’t give a fuck”, you know. But the attitude is lost when it becomes so heavily embroiled in conformity. The only thing I think rappers should do is just be fresh. And it’s not that simple.
BL!: As far as your approach to poetry, do you think that the term ‘Slam poetry’ is of any benefit to poets or does it strip away the diversity and identity of people’s work?
SW: Well, you know, I’ve spent the last 15 years correcting people. People will call every poet who has never been in a competition but who is under the age of thirty a Slammer just because he’s young and a poet. Or a spoken word artist. But I try to explain to people that a Slam is a competition. It’s not the name of the type of poem you deliver. You deliver a poem at a Slam. But all terms take something away though. I hate “Spoken Word” too. If I had it my way I’d just reference everything as poetry. It’s nothing new. Recited poetry was in the first Olympics, dude. So why do we call it Slam? Recital is nothing new, man. People didn’t read Homer, you know, ninety percent of Greece was illiterate. People gathered to hear him speak.
BL!: Finally, there’s been many attempts to categorise you and what you do under many different headings. Is it your natural inclination to transcend boundaries?
SW: That’s just other people. I just call myself an artist. It’s other people and the market. You know, the market means putting you in a nice safe box. I remember coming out with my first album, and like, wondering what section they’d put it in. What they’d put it in. And you know I always felt I belonged in the alternative section more than the hip hop section. But some stores don’t even have a hip hop section so they just have a “soul”, or, “Black Music” section. You know, it’s just the stupidity. People thinking that just because I’m a spoken word artist that I’m automatically linked with Gil Scott-Heron. I am a massive fan of him, but you know, no one ever guesses that I’m also a massive fan of The Doors. I don’t know what to do with any of that. It is what it is.