[ there's no place like home ]
by Craig Young

"I'm not a crusader for hip-hop, or for language, even though I deal with words, says Saul Williams. "I deal with words to point at the spirit. I'm more concerned about the evolution of humanity."

Whether writing poetry, giving spoken words, or creating music, Saul Williams' quest as an artist has always been to chart a course towards raising both our individual and collective conscience, regardless of the form it takes. First rising to public attention with the 1996 film Slam, which he co-wrote and starred in, Williams has published two books of poetry (The Seventh Octave and She), regularly gives spoken word performances, and last year released his first album on Rick Rubin's American Recordings label. Titled Amethyst Rock Star, the album is a deft mix of hip-hop, drum 'n' bass, spoken word, and Parliament-style jams.

I recently caught up with Saul between spoken word engagements. Kind thanks to Ann Bowles and Cornerstone Digital for arranging the interview.

You recently finished up some dates with your band on the SnoCore tour. In between that, you have also been doing some spoken word engagements. Is there much switching of mental gears when you move between the two different art forms, or do you just tap into the instrument in question and go?

Saul Williams: There is a switching of gears, definitely, but it's not a difficult switching. I don't think of reciting poetry as performance, which is why it is so easy when I'm out there reciting poetry to answer questions. Whereas, onstage with a band it's purely performance -- it's almost as if we're going from the point of reciting ritualistic chants to actually going ahead and performing a ritual. So it is a shifting of gears, but it's not difficult. I guess it's not true for everyone, but for myself I find that I'm able to do what I do, I guess, perhaps better at times; and I'm able to articulate what it is I'm doing and why.

Do you have a preference to doing spoken word over playing with a band, or vice-versa?

Saul: Uh, no. I guess more so now I prefer playing with the band just because I've done so much. It's not really a preference. I've been doing so much poetry for the past several years that [playing with the band] is just a different kind of release.

Is that what led to the album? Being able to express your writing on a different level?

Saul: It was more than just feeling that way, it was like an evolution. I got to a point where the stuff I was writing was for music, and I've never been one to exert too much control over what it is I'm writing. In a sense, it's kinda like "speak when spoken to, or speak when spoken through." I take what comes.

[ saul williams ]

I noticed that in both your books (She and The Seventh Octave) as well as on your album (The Amethyst Rock Star) you re-use, or re-purpose, some of your writing. Do you do this because you see those words taking on new meaning and therefore needing a new context, or do you find new meaning from them afterwards?

Saul: I think that the purpose for that is that I love artists that recycle their work. My favorite artists have always been ones that connect their work, in a sense. You look at Kurt Vonnegut's early writings, and in everything up through Breakfast of Champions there's these recurring characters. You look at Alice Walker's work after The Color Purple, with The Temple of My Familiar and Possessing the Secret of Joy; they're not sequels of one another, but there are recurring characters and ideas in them showing that we're still thinking and talking about the same things, and having some of the same ideas that are reposited in new ways. I think that's important.

I even think that musically, with people like Seal. There was a time when after his second album came out he did that Batman soundtrack and he did the Steve Miller cover of "Fly Like an Eagle." At the end of the song he starts singing lyrics from his single "Crazy," and to me it was beautiful because it was like a moment where he was tying these two ideas together as a way of saying, "This is what I was trying to say, but I'm able to say it a bit more clearly now." I find it interesting when an artist leaves a trail of connected work from a book or an album -- or parts of them.

Are there any pieces of your writing that are not open to reinterpretation at some point down the road?

Saul: Possibly... I don't know. I don't keep a tally [laughs]. I don't actually know whether there are things where I'll tell myself, "Oh, I'll never write about that again!" I'm sure there are things I have written about again without realizing it.

Your album crosses numerous genres. Hip-hop, drum 'n' bass, parliament-style jams, agit-rock, spoken word. Do you have a particular style of music in mind for specific pieces of your writing, or do you find yourself experimenting with putting your writing into different styles of music and seeing what works and what does not?

Saul: I guess I would have a particular piece of music in mind, but not a particular genre. That's the thing, there's definitely a difference between writing a rhyme and writing a song lyric. But for the most part on the album it wasn't like, "This one's gonna be drum 'n' bass, this one's gonna be hip-hop, this one's gonna be..." The only song that actually had that type of planning behind it was "Penny for a Thought," where I didn't make the beat and I asked the producer/DJ to create a beat that went from a hip-hop to a drum 'n' bass sound. That was a song that I wrote lyrics to because I had the music, and in it I quote some things from The Seventh Octave as well. But for the most part I don't think of it in terms of going from a particular type of "feel" to another; it just seemed like the thing that should follow it in my mind.

Are you now finding yourself writing music and coming up with the lyrics afterwards?

Saul: Yeah, that's what happens the majority of the time. That's how much of the album was put together, and that's definitely how much of the new album is being put together.

So you're working on a new album, then?

Saul: [Laughs] In my head I am.

Any idea when it will be completed?

Saul: [Laughs again] No idea. It's finally started to be "okay" for the band to talk about it. I would like to be in the studio by the end of summer.

How did you hook up with Rick Rubin, and how was it working with him?

Saul: Rick heard something that I'd recorded on Ninja Tune, and asked me if I wanted to sign with [American Recordings]. I was asked by a couple of other labels at the same time, and after a bit of deliberation I decided that I wanted to sign with Rick because of the fact that he had been so influential on my taste in music. He pretty much created the kind of music that I liked. Well, not created it. The artists did that. But he was definitely there to mentor the artists as they created it, and he was definitely someone who was connected to all the shifts in music that I went through.

Is he easy to work with?

Saul: He's very easy. Rick is more like a mentor than anything else. He's not very intrusive. He was there, but very much behind the scenes, during the album mix, but he wasn't there when we recorded it.

[ amethyst rock star ]
[ give a listen! ] "Penny for a
Thought" MP3

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