Saul Williams: Gifted Unlimited
Saul Williams is yet another force that refuses to follow conservative or rather, unimaginative conceptions of what Hip Hop is and what it should be. His music encompasses poetry, Hip Hop, Rock and melodies that depend on Sauls creativity at the time. He has published four books of poetry, his most recent, The Dead Emcee Scrolls and is the face behind movies such as Slam, and the most recent, New York, I Love You. His extensive background in theater and acting, combined with his passion for music and poetry, makes Saul Williams one of the most multifaceted artists today. As Williams readies for his new album, HipHopDX touches upon his life in theater, balancing the zodiac, and the egotistical difference between an emcee and a poet.
HipHopDX: Youre far from conventional, as is your music. This is evident in the Amethyst Rock Star and is especially seen in The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust. What is your analysis of the artistic approach to Hip Hop today?
Saul Williams: I think that theres nothing left to do but explore. For the longest time, for the past decade, people have been operating on a very limited definition of what it is means to be Hip Hop, or what it means to be heard, or what it means to be credible as an artist. The biggest thing is that weve had a bunch of rappers who have essentially used this artistic endeavor to launder dirty money and flaunt the fact that theyre not artists; that theyre just thugs so that they can clean up their drug money. Its funny because a lot of the producers have remained artists, people like Pharrell [click to read] or Timbaland; the producers have become even more of artists where a lot of emcees have prided themselves on becoming really conservative in their flow, in their delivery and their content. And they dont really stray from the norm; we have a few exceptions like Busta Rhymes [click to read] or Ludacris [click to read] or Mos [Def]. Theres always people OutKast is always extremely artistic. Yeah, theres definitely been those that have not prided themselves on the idea that what theyre doing is really being labeled as art. Of course now, all that has changed. Now, even those rappers who werent into being called an artist before are realizing what kind of a privilege it is to be recognized as an artist. I did an album with Rick Rubin in 1998 and wanted to explore what it was like to use string and more rock, and the label was like, I dont know, this isnt Hip Hop. And now Jay-Z [click to read] is doing stuff with Coldplay. [Laughs] It all comes to pass with time.
DX: Are Hip Hop artists lacking creativity or are the fans and labels not susceptible to creativity?
Saul Willams: I think just the labels. I think the fans are open its true that some fans are not. Like on another Hip Hop website, there was a big response to Kanye [Wests] Love Lockdown, with all these dudes like Thats not Hip Hop, whats wrong with 'Ye, who has he been hanging around with? So obviously there are some fans who have very conservative ideas of what Hip Hop is and is not and what it should and should not be; but, I think labels as well do a great deal. A lot of executives are not necessarily visionaries and are looking at what has earned them money in the past. Theyre always looking at the template of the past to determine what they want to put out in the future. And that will continually set us back because if the future is about the past then its not futuristic. [Laughs]
DX: Precisely. Please tell us about your upcoming album.
Saul Williams: Im waiting until Im done mixing the album to decide how it is that Im going to release it. Not until Im done mixing will I know what Im actually dealing with. Im looking at early spring, maybe late winter. Musically, its a departure from the last in that it isI think that a lot of artists think of similar things at the same time because I noticed that for instance Common [click to read] wants to work on his new album is said to be released for the club, and for dancing, going back to some old club sort of feel and I know that thats really what Kanye is going for on his album too with songs like Love Lockdown where hes trying to get to that almost like Chicago House era; and interestingly, the music Ive been working on also has a much more danceableI definitely find myself reminiscing on my days as a club head back when I was that dude in the middle of a circle spinning. Theres definitely a tribal feel to the drums and the sense of this continual movement. Thats the focus musically. Lyrically, I seem to be less wordy than Ive ever been but more precise in what Im saying. Im almost writing maxims, which is a very precise way of stating something that is a definitive of existence or expression or philosophy or what have you. Theres not a lot of beating around the bush.
DX: Have you thought about your approach in relation to marketing and sales as with the last album you seemed to have fans pay what they wanted to online. How did that work out?
Saul Williams: It worked out amazingly well. We crossed a 300,000 mark, which is great for me.
DX: Great numbers. Were you ever uncertain going in that you may not receive as great of a return as an artist would feel that he or she deserves?
Saul Williams: Actually, its the exact opposite. I knew I would get more than I ever had, and I did. There was no fear; you know, when youre in a moment like that, it just feels right. Its kind of like riding a wave if youre a surfer. You know the moment when youre supposed to stand on the board and theres no sense of I think this is right, or Im afraid Im gonna fall. Youre just in the moment, and you stand up on the board and you go with it. I just knew it was the perfect time to stand on the board and ride that wave, and it worked out perfectly.
DX: You mentioned feel. Astrological readings state that Pisces feel emotions deeply than any other sign in the zodiac. Many of them turn out to be artists or humanitarians. Do you feel that that in part has anything to do with you, being born a Pisces?
Saul Williams: Certainly. I definitely see a lot of truth that resonates through the zodiac and Ive read a great deal about Piscean temperament and characteristics. The thing that has interested me most about what has been written about Pisces is that they often say that you cannot be born a Pisces until youve born in every other sign.
DX: That they encompass all of the other signs.
Saul Williams: Right, the twelfth zodiac. And its interesting because Ive led a life empathizing greatly with so many diverse people, and still feeling like Thats me as well. And so reading something like that about Pisces definitely helps me make sense of that; however, I think its also important for people to realize and acknowledge that theres the developed person within the zodiac and the undeveloped person so that a lot of times when people encounter negative traits in the zodiac, they go Well, I guess Im just that. Its important for people to realize that it doesnt simply mean thata lot of times youre reading the worst case scenario if you dont do the work that you need to do on yourself.
If you talk about the zodiac, I think its important to point that out because sometimes, a lot of people feel crippled by it in that theyre told Well youre a disloyal person, and theyre like Fuck, why should I try to be loyal? I think its crucial for people to understand that theres always a balancing factor at hand and really all of the negative traits can truly disappear if you do the work on yourself that you are on this planet to do and thats the most essential thing for people to realize about the zodiac. I believe that we are here essentially first and foremost to do work on ourselves, to self-actualize, to become whoever the fuck it is that we can be in our lifetime: to fulfill that role and destiny. And in order to do that, youre gonna have to challenge yourself beyond whatever it is that you were born into, beyond some of your comfort zone, beyond some of the things that come easy, and face the challenge of broadening your perspective and heightening your reality and taking on greater responsibility and challenging yourself to the next level continually. And if you take on that task, you will see the negative traits of the zodiac disappear.
DX: Excellent point. You have a role in New York, I Love You, a film that is due for a February release and produced by the same producers of Paris, Je Taime. Will you give us some background to the movie, and a description of your role?
Saul Williams: New York, I Love You is basically a series of vignettes by several different directors, featuring a score of actors. Its all different peoples take on New York; its really like a love letter to New York. What do you love about New York? Whether its the subway or the type of people you meet, or how people talk to you when in traffic, its all these different things. The one Im in is the one thats directed by Scarlett Johansson, and in it I play the kind of typical dude I would always see on the subway thats louder than most and full of zest that seems to be fueled by Hip Hop and rhyme and the moment. And the character I play opposite is Kevin Bacon who is a little frightened.
DX: Frightened of what?
Saul Williams: [Laughs] Of justhe seems to be frightened of all experience. I dont want to give away his story.
DX; Fair enough. How did you land the part?
Saul Williams: Im friends with Scarlett. I was hanging out with her; she was recording her album down in Louisiana. I was kind of helping out and being an ear and extra voice and extra opinion while she was recording. We met a bit before then but thats when we really hung out.
DX: When it comes to acting and performing spoken word, there is a lot of memorization involved. Does that come from actual practice or is it that some have better capacity to memorize than others?
Saul Williams: I believe memory in many ways is like a muscle. If you work out every day, you develop it. Being that I started memorizing these long scripts and monologues from the time that I was young, I think that my memory over time just became something that I can rely upon. So its never been a struggle for me to memorize anything. When it comes to the stuff that Ive written, that seems to make it more easy in that my process for memorization used to be to write something over with my own hand, and when I got to longer monologues or what have you, I would re-write whatever was written in a script in a notebook, on a piece of paper, and the process of writing with my own hand would be the thing that would help me memorize it. And so when it comes to poetry, being that its stuff that Ive written, usually the process of writing it itself is what helps me memorize it.
DX: In his book, The Measure of a Man, Sidney Poitier speaks of acting in terms of tapping into the emotions of each character and conveying those emotions to the viewers. Is it important for an actor to feel the sentiment of every character he or she plays, or can the best of the best merely fake it or act it - and still be able to portray the role perfectly?
Saul Williams: Theres several approaches to acting, and the style of acting that Sidney Poitier was talking about in his book is what is commonly referred to as method acting, which is a much more naturalistic style of yes, immersing yourself in the emotions of the character and trying to embody and empathize what it actually feels like to go through that emotion that the character is going through. For instance, if youre playing Hamlet then youre going to have to phantom what it is to be somewhat sexually attracted to your mother and be angry at your uncle for murdering your father; youre gonna have to find a way to actually embody those emotions. Which of course, theres a level of impossibility in that but you can dive deep in attempt to empathize with what that would feel like.
I think that for me, and like I said, theres several styles of acting, and yeah, theres some that can go just with the motions, but for me, if Im witnessing someone that seems to be just going through the motions and just saying the lines, they may not engage me as well as someone that Im convinced is actually feeling what they say theyre feeling. And I think its also important to realize that acting can be seen as somewhat as an esoteric spiritual practice as well, in that the most ancient tenant practiced in many religions is know thyself, and understanding self you come to a greater understanding of a spirit of God or what have you. And acting gives you an opportunity to investigate all of these different emotions that may actually go beyond your personal experience, that you begin to relate and experience by investigating these other characters and trying to figure out What would that feel like? What would that be like? So you come to a broader understanding of yourself by investigating all these characters; so that the essence of acting really seems to be being. So thats the compliment that we give for example, Jamie Foxx. We say, "Jamie Foxx is Ray Charles;" were not gonna say, "Jamie Foxx is acting like Ray Charles.
DX: Who are some of the actors in your opinion who capture such essence?
Saul Williams: I like Sean Penn a lot; I like Penelope Cruz a lot. I like Gael Garcia Bernal, I really like him as an actor. But theres people like Robert Downey or Johnny Depp or Will Ferrell, its a different style of acting. And its easy to point out the differences in approaches to acting between say Will Ferrell and Sean Penn; they both do a great job.
DX: How do you transition between the different forms of art you practice, from poetry to film, form music to theater?
Saul Williams: I never really focus too much on how different they are from each other; its more so how similar they are to each other that I see. And I just see it as like you go to the gym and youre working on your abs and you do all the work for your abs and then you want to start working on your legs or your calvesyour legs are too skinny and you start doing squats or what have you. Its just like focusing on - or exercising - different parts of your body; its all part of the same body.
DX: Great analogy. You must have many ideas in regards to projects, and probably as many pitched to you from the outside. How do you go about choosing what tasks to undertake? How big of a role does money play in your decision-making versus for example, your feelings toward a project?
Saul Williams: The thing that plays the biggest role in me deciding what Im going to do next is what is the most far along the way in its development. I have some ideas that I need to progress a bit further before I can devote my full attention to it, and some ideas are further down the road. And so now it can easily make sense for me to say, Okay, this is what Im focused on right now. For instance, I am working on a book and working on an album as we speak. The album is much further along the way and much closer to completion. So its easy for me to say over the past month or so Okay, its time to mix this album. And while Im mixing this album, I can still - if I find the mental state to - still work on the book. That means Ill work on the book while Im touring for this album but the album is what Im closest to completion so thats what I need to focus on. during that time theres also the fact that I want to do more films. So whether that takes interviewing with directors or auditioning for casting directors or what have you, finding time to do that as well. All that is easily fit in, but its just a matter of whats closest to completion and what makes the most sense for the moment based on that.
DX: There seems to be this view that formal education isnt necessary for those pursuing art, particularly music and visual. You possess skill in various art form, and have yourself gone through the education system and came out with an undergraduate and a graduate degree. How has school impacted your art, or has it all?
Saul Williams: First of all, I think the biggest thing about school regardless of what you learn in the classroom it provides you a grace period to explore and discover yourself. While youre out there in the work force, youre not gonna have the time in the same way to think about Well how am I? What is my calling? I see school and the time in school a grace period to just seek out who you are. Even if its not fully a grace period in that youre gonna go into debt by doing it, by acquiring student loans, I actually think its worth it. And the most important aspect of that grace period, as far as Im concerned, is to not take it and simply focus it on Well what is it thats gonna make me money? Especially if that question is divorcing itself from what youre passionate about. Rewards come to those who investigate their passions as opposed to people who fall in line with their fears or fears of their parents. And like I said, its not always from whats coming in the classroom, but learning how to learn is essential.
DX: Excellent point. You have published four books of poetry, the last one being The Dead Emcee Scrolls. Hip Hop fans are not accustomed to reading poetry even if it resembles rhymes similar in structure to those written by rappers. Why is poetry considered as an inferior art form in this genre as opposed to rapping over a beat? For example, Phonte of Little Brother said in Yo-Yo Y'all know them niggas that I'm talkin bout, The ones that ya'll be seeing at the coffee house  It's time to bring the emcees on, I'm sick of niggas lookin bitch trying to read poems And try to battle me with sandals and capries on, Come on dog."
Saul Williams: I have no idea what hes getting at with that. Basically, poetry is really the essence of creative expression in that it serves to inform every aspect of creation that follows, whether its music, dance, visual art or what have you. Really old poems that age like wine are called scriptures. [Laughs] Its pretty much what people tend to base much of their existence on. In relation to Hip Hop, I think the main difference is that Hip Hop is competitive, poetry is not. Even with the evolution of the poetry, slam, which is competitive poetry, any true poet would tell you that if you focus on the idea of winning in writing a poem, then at that point is probably where your poem ceases to be a poem and begins to become something else because it loses its integrity. And as soon as a poem loses its integrity, its no longer a poem, its now a rant; its now something else. But because Hip Hop is competitive, it has within it this sense of act like you know, always handle stuff as if you are in control and nothing can flux and surprise you, whereas the poet realizes their power is in admitting that they dont know; they are still learning, they are still growing. And within that competitive stance of Hip Hop, theres the thing that I think has become the bottom line of what Hip Hop has become to represent: confidence. And as most poets in expressing their quest for understanding and yearning to connect with spirit or grater truth or what have you, that questioning is not seen as a confident stance so there is some kind of a disconnect.
As far as people being able to ingest what they hear over beats better than what they read off a page, thats fine, thats normal. It comes to those who seek it, its not necessarily there in front of them. Beats and rhymes, its music thats why we make music in the way we do because its so easily digestible. Poetry is not necessarily intended to be that. Reading poetry is like eating your vegetables; like I know I need it, I know its good for me but uhha beat, thatll help. [Laughs] As far as a stance that someone might take as poetry being a lesser art form than rhyming, thats absurd, completely absurd. Mind you, I started out as an emcee and essentially became bored with it. And then when I started hearing this sort of emceeing that was taking over the airwaves, I started writing poetry to fill the void between what I was hearing and what I wished I was hearingand there is no way that I would ever say that by going from emcee to poet that Ive stepped down; I would say that Ive stepped up. Hip Hop is so invested in an ego, you cant have a non-egocentric emcee. But anyone trapped in the ego is easily checkmated by someone who has released that ego; easily. And the poet is on the quest to release that ego