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Saul Williams Interview Part 1


17 April 2003 No Comment

“An emcee tells a crowd of hundreds to put their hands in the air….An armed robber steps into a bank and tells everyone to put their hands in the air….A Christian minister gives his benediction while the congregation hold their hands in the air….Hands up if you’re confused.” Penny For A Thought

Ask anyone on the street if they know Saul Williams and they go “who?“, tell them he was the lead actor/poet in the movie Slam and eyes widen with recognition “ooooh, thaat cat, yeah“. Ask what they thought of the film and you get responses from “that movie changed my life” to “I didn’t understand that bullshit”.
Aside from the fact that genius seems to always go unnoticed, the 1998-feature film Slam captured the Grand Prize for drama at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival and the Camera DíOr at the Cannes Film Festival. Saul received the I.F.P. Gotham Film Projects “Perry Ellis Award” for his breakout performance in Slam; he has also been featured on a variety of poetry albums and poetry documentaries.
Marc Levin decided to direct this poetic masterpiece after seeing Saul recite his poetry in the Grand Slam Championship at the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, where Saul became the Grand Slam Champion for 1996.
His album Amethyst Rock Star co-produced by Rick Rubin, is a searing earthquake of an album spewed from the lips of man who’s becoming known as the “hip hop poet”. He spouts righteous convicting tongue-lashings on today’s hip-hop and “average” emcees.
He throws dreamy old soul poetic preaching on everything from dreams to relationships, with precious little to differentiate one from the other. As a jack-of-all-trades Saul has seen fit to master them all, actor/activist, father/son, emcee/poet, writer/musician. His plate is full yet he’s gunning for more. Follow me on a trip through the mind of a man who has nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Whats up with that open letter you wrote to the editor of Fader magazine?

We were both on the same flight, and he was in first class and I was in the back of the plane. We had a conversation, and the when I was on the plane I just wrote about it, whatever came to mind in regards to him and I. It wasn’t dissing him at all it was just about the differences between our approach to this (hiphop) world. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say thank you.
I say a lot about hip hop…I cant stand when people use words like hater, playa hater, emcee hater…there’s no hate in my heart thank god, over the past couple of years I have a lot of difficulty with hip hop, just because I’m from it and a lot of it has felt like it was from me, then all of a sudden I was listening to stuff that I felt just bought into ideas in society that I had never wanted to be associated with. So that when the idea image of an emcee was him taking a picture with Donald Trump I was like damnnn, you know?
You think of like when public enemy was talking about Elvis and they were like “Motherfuck him and John Wayne” its just like these images of capitalism and what have you, I feel that in certain ways I could give a fuck about the capitalistic aspects of society and I’m more concerned with the way people are thinking and feeling and learning how to love and share with each other. And when hip hop started buying into this whole bling bling shit, although it was always there in a sense with like Run DMC in the 80’s with champagne and caviar. It was always there, but I felt like there were lessons to be learned from hip hop, hip hop became a world renowned music in the late 80’s, like PE became the biggest rap group known to humankind at that time, one of the first rap groups to become internationally known for a reason.
That reason is the reason why I write, and the reason why I feel hip-hop is so powerful and important. I feel like when we use it for nonsense it’s a waste of power.

You’ve said “In my estimation most emcees I hear are average.” Who do you feel transcends that?

Its interesting because there are a few mainstream emcees that I can’t say I’m a fan of, but I respect their talent for instance, Jay Z. H holds his ground lyrically. The same could be said for Ludacris. As for underground cats. Aesop Rock is someone that I think is extremely talented, Pos Denous also extremely talented, Orcho the Psycotic Alien a friend of mine whose amazing. Mos Def, Talib Kweli, both way above average. I think things are looking up for hip hop, not in the way that many would expect but I see the undercurrent slowly becoming themaincurrent i.e. mainstream. Black Thought is an amazing emcee.

Are there any emcees that you’ve spoken to who have given you feedback on your ’emcee hater’ status?

Every emcee that I’ve ever encountered has given me and treated me with the utmost respect.

Do you consider yourself an emcee?

Uhh…I can’t say that I do.


But yes… I am. I am an emcee. I say that I can’t say that I do because I don’t think in terms of like beats and rhymes.

I think you are an emcee. Its time for us to transcend what we think hip-hop is anyway. Hip-hop has to grow as an artform.. Grow or die.

Exactly. Ok, so I’m the new definition of an emcee

Have you ever considered rapping a whole album?

Yeah I have thought about it….[silence]

So what did you think?


I still think about it every now and then, but you know…I don’t know. My heads not really there all the time. On some days I’m all into doing something like that, then other days I’m writing rock lyrics on a napkin on some Jimi Hendricks shit. Whatever comes. I have to be thankful for what comes through me; I can’t control it all the time. I’m just aiming to express what comes through me.

So what are your solutions to the problems you complain about regarding hip hop?

Yeah, that’s why I create, that’s how come I am not just a critic. The solutions are in the art; the solutions are in the album. I’m creating the solutions, like the song 1987 on the album.

What suggestions would you have to improve the marketability of a conscious emcee?

Most pop writers are better songwriters. The underground emcees….which to me are definitely the manifestations of a truer hip-hop; they have amazing flows and amazing concepts but not necessarily amazing songs. There is as structure, a pop structure that makes it acceptable to people and that acceptability is what makes hit records.
Stevie wonder is abstract as hell, but he does his songs in a pop structure. Sly and the Family Stone could say something amazing within 2 minutes and 48 seconds and come up with a hook you couldn’t forget. The Beatles were abstract, but they had captivating hooks. A lot of the underground emcees should learn how to create this song structure. Rebelling against pop and mainstream hip-hop should not be a rebellion against amazing song structure.
For example Jay Z’s “Girls, Girls, Girls”….the song structure is there. That whole album, song structure is there in an amazing way. I can’t front, I wouldn’t mind not liking the album, but I do. It’s well done and well put together.

I really enjoyed your album Amethyst Rock Star. When I listen to something and I like it; I play it over and over again until people are ready to kill me. I loved this album, not just the music, I loved the way you put it down, the way you expressed it, the way you’re saying things to people that I have been saying for years. I take it really personal, so I guess my most important question to you would be, is this real? Is this you or is this art? Do you practice what you preach?

It’s all me! The album is a representation of me. How I feel, How I think! As Jay Z said “It’s just my thoughts ladies and gentlemen.”

I agreed with you when you said that speaking words can bring them into fruition, and also when you said that poetry can be like incantations…..I felt that, because when I listened to it, over and over I felt like, I’m allowing this into the universe. In allowing it into the universe, it can change things, it can change me, and it can change anyone within hearing range, my daughter, and my neighbors.

The thing is…..what we say…. into microphones especially, changes everything and that has been my issue with hip hop, because it’s the loudest music that has ever been created. Part of hip hop is to say: turn it up”, like you hear emcees say “turn my mike up!”

As opposed even to stuff like Heavy metal or Rock?

It’s louder than that; it’s louder because it’s straight to the point. Besides most of the rock stuff you don’t hear or understand the vocals, what are they saying? You can’t understand them, but in hip-hop it’s the beat and the voice, the two most powerful entities on this planet. The (heart)beat and voices. That’s what this planet resonates off of, that’s why hip-hop is so powerful.
That’s why its so important that emcees, and not just emcees but everybody realize the importance of what they say not only when they are talking into a mike, but when they are talking to each other, when they speak to their kids, their family, when they speak on the phone, when they speak to themselves. It’s extremely important.
I’ve had the blessing of realizing it by dabbling in the world of poetry, acting, writing…. I’ve caught a glimpse of the power of the word, and this album is a testimony to that. So yes, I do look at it as being a spell that I’m casting, or a prayer that I’m putting out there. I know that when the intention is there the power is stronger. So when my intention is to affect reality in the way of whoever plays it or blasts it, I know its going to affect that space.
For example, in Slam, I named my character Raymond Joshua. Joshua, because in the Bible, Joshua marches around the city seven times and then the walls come tumbling down. I named the character Joshua because I knew that if they played the film on 700 or 7,000, or 7 million, screens then the walls of Babylon, internally for a lot of people would perhaps come tumbling down. I want to cast a strong enough spell so that the more they play this film the more it changes society, the more it changes they way people think. Not so that they think like me, but that they think for themselves.
That is the issue I have with hip-hop, it’s that we do not applaud characters that think for themselves. Everybody has to wear the same things; everybody has to applaud the same things. When I was growing up, we were wearing lee suits and bombers, elephant goose, sheepskins, triple gooses, Adidas, pumas and all that shit. everyone always wanted to have that different shit. Like I had a purple sheepskin that I got off Delancy Street in NY. Everybody had blue, gray and tan. So that was it, you wanted to have something different. In today’s society we really don’t applaud differences in our community as much as we should.

I don’t think so either, but you know its funny, that you may look at it as being “Joshua” but a lot of people didn’t “get” that movie. People are like “what is he a rapper? A poet? What do you d o when the message gets through, but it’s not even comprehended?

You just keep trying and keep living. And pray that you are still able to understand messages from yourself. Like my man told me the other day, cats ain’t just trying to go platinum, they trying to go kingdom, god’s kingdom. I think that a lot of people don’t understand where I’m coming from and there are a lot of people who do understand where I’m coming from and that’s cool, because at the end of the day I feel a great amount of love for everyone who is working creatively, Jay Z, M.O.P., Ja Rule, Ludacris, Mobb Deep, what have you. I listen to all of them but I really love the fact that they are out there creating.

If you had the opportunity to talk to these cats what would you say to them?

I honor and respect where you come from, I truly do, and beyond that I try to in some way share with you what I have experienced as the power of word.
They have experiences too. If you think about it, Biggie’s album was called “Ready to Die”….Do you think if it were named something different would he be alive today? ? Did his vocalized profession dictate his destination? The fact that we were hearing about how he was ready to die increased the sound vibration of his recitation through playing it on a million radios and televisions at a time to the point where it effected our reality and his as well.

I was tripping when I read that. You also said “hip hop, as is, is mainly concerned about depicting a rough street life void of hope or an upscale designer life void of thought and in doing so dictates it’s own outcome.” I’ve said that myself….So when I read that I was like WORD! It’s a prime example of speaking a situation into existence.

Exactly! As hip hoppers we need to understand that shit. We’re always saying “word up“, “word is bond“. Gangstars first fucking hit “These are the Words That I Manifest” Hip hop is about the power of word and when emcees forget that, they forget themselves and they become fucking caricatures of themselves, living out some dream that is not theirs. It’s just buying into the American dream. That’s fine and that’s great, I’m glad niggas is making money, that’s great flaunt that shit, floss it. But buy a fucking book, and realize the importance of what you’re doing and speak on that too.

[laughing]No doubt.

I mean let’s make books with fucking platinum covers. So motherfuckers will read them. Cause that’s the only way mothefuckers is gonna read, is if the book has a platinum cover. I mean its cool to do all that other shit, there’s a time and place for everything. But we all need to spend more time learning how to pray, learning how to walk around with smiles on our faces and learning how to create the world in which we want to live.
Interview By Chase The Writer

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