interview by RJ Cubarrubia
New York slam poet icon Saul Williams can only be described as an artist in the truest sense. Between the worlds of spoken word, hip-hop, and film, his poetry, music, and acting blur definitions, creating uncompromising products of passion, vision, intelligence, and love for the craft. The amethyst rock star has been keeping busy, performing spoken word dates and preparing for his upcoming tour with Les Claypool and the re-release of his 2006 poetry collection, The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip-Hop as an experimental audio recording. I dialed into Saul’s hotel room before his performance at Columbia College in Chicago to talk about the new release, some new film projects (screenwriting? Scarlett Johanssen?), a possible album with funkmaster George Clinton, and his philosophical view on poetry (and how it tells the future).
Hey Saul, how are you?
Doing well, man, doing very well. Yourself?
I’m great. Are you on tour with Les Claypool right now?
No, no, I’m doing some spoken word dates right now. The tour with Les starts March 7th.
That’s a pretty strange pairing, you and Les. How’d you guys come together?
Um, once again, it’s another case of someone reaching out to me and I’m like, “Really?!…”
Were you surprised by his offer?
Definitely, I’m always pleasantly surprised by anyone who listens to what I do.
That’s a pretty humble opinion of yourself, but that’s a good attitude.
Well, it’s true, man. I know what it feels like to create it but I don’t know what it’s like to sit in your own personal space and listen to it. It’s cool that he’s into it and it’s cool that he wants to play around in a performance setting. I love performing and I love interacting with the audiences that aren’t necessarily my own. I don’t know his audience, you know, the Primus audience or the new Les Claypool audience.
Well, the crowd will be likely diverse and open-minded. His music has always been experimental and I think of you both as avant-garde artists, so in that context it makes sense.
So recently, last month, you released a different version of your poetry collection The Dead Emcee Scrolls, correct?
Oh yeah, I released it in symphonic form. I worked with this composer named Tomas Kessler; he’s about 72 years old. He first composed a symphony for my book , said the shotgun to the head and that one was written for a full orchestra and we just performed it three weeks ago with the Cologne Philharmonic Orchestra in Germany. He also wrote a symphony for a string quartet for one of my poems from The Dead Emcee Scrolls and we recorded it and decided to let people have a listen and the opportunity to remix it and have fun with it.
Yeah, it sounds great. It walks a line between performance and music. I don’t even know how to describe it. I understand Tom Kessler is an electronic musician?
Once again, the phrase “avant-garde” comes into play. He actually used to do some synth work and stuff Tangerine Dream back in the day and he comes from avant-garde classical music. He has several, you know, probably a hundred symphonies he’s written over the years but he does incorporate electronics. For instance, I know that this new symphony that he’s done recently, I forget where he’s doing it, somewhere in Europe… But this new symphony he’s created is for a full orchestra but every player in the orchestra is playing through an amp, their own personal amp that’s beside them onstage. Then, he’s doing something to effect the collective electronically amplified sound of each acoustic instrument. Like, yeah, he’s out of his mind. He’s an old man with a lot of pep in his step; his mind stays working.
You mentioned a little bit of electronics there. Are you ever going to go that route? A little more electronically based, spacey, lush sounds?
Well, for a spoken word album I think that’s kind of cool, actually. I’ve actually been talking to George Clinton about producing a spoken word album with me but I have specific instructions that point to exactly what you’re talking about. You know, I’m not really looking for grooves and I don’t want to recite poetry over music. I’m looking for something more ambient, I’m looking for textures and sound and what have you, in much of the same way that I used to hear poetry happen in Funkadelic. So that’s something that’s on the table as well.
I think it makes sense. It’s funny you mention you don’t want to have your spoken word over music and you’ve already done some albums that were kind of hip-hop, a little bit on that side, so I feel like you’re already done that. You’ve always been an artist constantly pushing the envelope so it’s interesting to see what’s next for you.
I think it will be interesting for people to hear what I consider a spoken word album because I know that people have considered some of my work heavy on the lyricism side. I’ve had reporters ask me, “Do you call your songs poems or your poems songs?” and for the most part I consider them songs. Only my first album would I say I’m reciting a lot of poetry over music, the one I did with Rick Rubin; Amethyst Rock Star is really just poetry over beats. But my second and third albums, my focus was really songwriting but still heavy-handed on the word side. I see my music now, the stuff that I’m working on now, which no one has heard, as much more lyrically sparse. So I think in the future there will be greater distinctions to be made between what I write and consider music and what I write and consider poetry.
It’s interesting to hear from you to say that you’re moving away from pure spoken word, which is something you were known for since early on, and you’re moving in this new artistic direction.
Yeah, the music, just the music, you know, that’s always been clear for me… When I signed with Rick Rubin, he gave me the Beatles’ White Album and said, “Saul, you’re a great writer, this is songwriting. Learn the difference.” And I’ve been learning the difference ever since.
The distribution, you’re doing a similar thing you did originally with Niggy Tardust with The Dead Emcee Scrolls, right? You’re offering part of it free for download and the rest is for a very small fee?
I noticed you picked the middle chapters for the free download. Any reason?
Um, no, no, none in particular. It’s just what made sense.
I know music has been your focus lately, but earlier in your career you were known for films. Any film projects on the way?
Definitely. That’s a lot of the focus for me right now. There are a few film projects that are slowly making their way to the front burner, two as far as acting is concerned, one in the context that I’m writing. There’s one that’s coming out soon that I have a small part in, called New York, I Love You.
Yeah, there are some hip-hop artists in that one, I hear.
There’s a bunch of people in that. New York, I Love You is a response to the film that was called Paris, Je T’aime, which was done by several directors, with several vignettes to Paris. It’s like a love letter to Paris and now it’s being done in New York. The section I was in was directed by Scarlett Johansson and co-stars Kevin Bacon.
It’s cool to see you active again on the film front. You’ve been pretty dormant for a little while?
Yeah, and it’s definitely time to break into that medium and I’m feeling the tides turning. You know, there was a very definitive reason why I was dormant on the film front. The opportunities coming my way were harsh; they were seldom things that I could really sink my teeth into without feeling that I was perpetuating something that I didn’t believe in. Slam really spoiled me. In Hollywood, there’s only a few let through the doors at a time it seems. There were good projects that I saw, people like Terrence Howard and Mos Def, Don Cheadle, like, cool stuff, you know? But I’m talking about three actors, so it’s crazy, the small scale competition and how that works but with my focus having become music and what have you, I hadn’t really been around to audition or take meetings in regards to film for a minute but I’m slowly revving up that engine.
Yeah, you mentioned Mos Def in there?
Yeah, while I was at NYU, Mos was in New York and was part of the clique I was a part of, reciting poems; I recollect it was him, me, Talib Kweli… a bunch of others that have gone on to, you know…
When you were all in New York, it seemed like kind of a Harlem Renaissance where you guys came out and made spoken word and intelligent hip-hop to the forefront. More people thought about it and more people paid attention to it.
It was definitely a major time in all of our lives. I was just reminiscing with Talib recently about… I used to have these full-moon poetry readings in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge where you’d have to walk to. There would just be like ten of us: me, Talib, Mos, muMs da Schemer… like a bunch of people who have come up as poets over the years. We’d get there and have just this cipher under the moon. We did it on the summer solstice and a few other times. We were just reminiscing about how crazy we were to be out there just reciting poems in the middle of the bridge. That was in 1996.
Now that we have Obama in office, it’s obviously an inspiration for the African American community. Do you think we’ll see a new age in slam and hip-hop?
Well, I think it’s bigger than all of that, you know. What I was saying for years in relation to “why is poetry popular?”… People were saying, “How do you think it is that poetry has become popular right now?” in 1999 and 2001 and 2003. “How is poetry popular? How have you done this?” I’ve always said that poetry is always popular when we’re on the cusp of a huge shift. Like, you wouldn’t have had a Civil Rights movement without the Beat Poetry era that preceded that, you know? You wouldn’t have had a Black Power movement of the 70’s without the poets, like Maya Angelou and Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka that preceded it. So poetry is always that thing that’s articulating the change that is about to occur. John Keats said, “Poets are the midwives of reality.” Which is to say when a new idea is born, the first to catch, intuit, and articulate it is often the poets. When I look at what Barack is doing and the attention that people pay to what he’s saying and how he’s saying it and what he’s articulating, I feel like all of the poets that have been a part of the spoken word movement and slam scene, you know, from ages 14 on up, have all been a part of laying the foundation for what he’s been able to achieve.
You said that poetry can often kind of predict big changes and it comes around when we’re on the cusp of when big changes are about to occur. What’s next for poetry in your mind?
What’s next? For poetry? I don’t know what’s next for poetry; it’s never been my concern. Although poetry is like… it’s like if you ask Bruce Lee “What’s next for nunchucks?” He just uses nunchucks and it’s just a tool he knows how to use really well. But it’s “What’s next for Bruce Lee?” For me, poetry is a tool that I’ve learned how to swing around really fast and pull behind my back and do quick little tricks with, but it’s just a reflection of the work I’m doing on myself. So, I can’t really tell you what’s next for poetry; it’s all dependent on all of us.
I really like that point of view. Thank you very much, Saul, and we look forward to seeing you here.
No worries, bro. Thank you. It will be fun, very cool.
Saul Williams concludes his spoken word dates on March 5th at UNC-Chapel Hill. His new version of The Dead Emcee Scrolls is available for download online on ITunes and Saul’s website. Les Claypool’s Oddity Faire, featuring Les and Saul, begins March 7th in Los Angeles and will appear at the Showbox SoDo on March 11th. Visit Saul’s MySpace page and website for more information.