In 1998, Marc Levin’s independent film Slam hit the Sundance Film Festival. The film itself was astounding – set in the Washington D.C projects, a young African-American man named Raymond Joshua tries to escape the city’s trappings of drugs and gang violence, but D.C won’t let him leave so easily. Joshua’s a graffiti artist and an aspiring rapper with a gift for gab beyond belief, yet through various circumstances, he ends up facing the very real possibility of jail time. The film won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize that year, along with the Cannes Film Festival’s Camera D’Or. Playing the lead role of Raymond Joshua was Saul Williams.
It’s been 15 years since Slam introduced the world to a young poet named Saul, and since then his talents have given him the opportunity to spread his words across the world. Williams has released seven albums, written five books, had essays published in the New York Times and Eqsuire, and worked with artists spanning from Erykah Badu to Nas to Trent Reznor. Williams is about to embark on a quick trip across the country with at least seven scheduled readings. Before then, RESPECT. got a chance to catch up with provocative performer. It’s a brief conversation, but nevertheless, Williams still left us with much to muse over.
RESPECT.: You’ve been in the poetry game now for nearly 20 years. What’s left to say?
Saul Williams: Well, in terms of writing poetry and what it represents for me and my life it’s always been pretty personal and therapeutic for me, which means there’s always a lot to say because we’re always changing, always growing. And then, in terms of what’s happening in the world, what’s happening with the rights of nations surrounding technology and all that stuff, when you talk about sexual, and racial and social identity issues, and what have you, there’s always going to be a lot to say in and through poetry. It’s always going to be the place where 15 year-olds, for example, find a way to express their angst, or anxieties, or fears, or dreams. It’s always going to exist. And so poetry is not something that’s fixed, liked the amount of gasoline on this planet or something like that; it’s an endless source. There are endless sources of inspiration, there are countless things to say and be said. Because it doesn’t belong to some sort of religious ideology, it’s not about “well we have the anthology and the canon here, so nothing else can be said.” There’s always going to be a million things to say and a million ways to say them.
You’ve performed and worked with countless artists and some of the biggest names across all different types of platforms. Did you ever think that 20 years from now, you’d be able to say that poetry took you this far in your career and in your life?
Poetry entered my life in a kind of mystical way. It was 1998 when my film Slam came out, and that was just two years after I had started writing poetry, and from the moment I started writing poetry, I’d get these invitations to interact with people like Allen Ginsberg, or Amiri Baraka, and all types of crazy things started happening, like to do a film or to release a book, work with Rick Rubin… all these things came from when I started writing poetry. I always thought there was something mystical in poetry and my relationship to it. As a result of that, I imagined everything from that moment on. As opposed to saying, “no I never imagined it.”
When things started happening, and synchronizing, and aligning the way that they did, I’ve always been like, “Well yeah, that happened.” Because it’s never been about me, it’s this mystical thing surrounding poetry. So it doesn’t surprise me, but for my personal perspective there’s the other side of me that’s like, “Wow. That’s fucking crazy.” But on the other hand, I look at it and I go, “Yeah, that’s poetry.”
You’ve released more musical projects, but more or less, you are a poet and that’s what you do. Why did you stick to poetry compared to something that may have been more lucrative, like dropping a “club banger?” Why’d you stay in the poetry lane?
I started rapping when I was 10 years-old, and I grew up in New York, in the 80’s, so my original and initial inspirations to rap, were the original inspirations of rap. I started writing poetry when I was about 20 years old and I was starting to get bored with hip-hop, and where it was going and questioning where it could go. So there are a number of artists from the mid-90’s, like Tricky or Portishead or the drum and bass stuff was starting to jump off, where, to me, that was more interesting.
Is that why you went a different route?
I was never about not doing the straight ahead hip-hop, it was just about wanting to create the stuff that fell into the lane of what I wanted to hear. It’s a fight to see how hip-hop is going to evolve. You could never imagine that it was going to be co-opted by a bunch of ex-drug dealers.
Did you have a problem with that?
I wrote a lot of raps for drug dealers when I was growing up, and the drug dealers were never as good for rappers as the dancers. Then the drug dealers got their money right from Master P to Jay-Z, or whoever, and took over the rap-game. From my opinion, many of them took over the rap game with very mediocre raps.
So what’s your opinion on the state of hip-hop right now?
Oh, I like a lot of the new cats. I like the energy. I’ve been into it for a long time. I like Soulja Boy; I like Lil B.
You like The Based God?
I love Lil B. I think it’s brilliant what he’s done. To me, unlike a lot of my New York associates, I’m always lined with someone who…people think I care about what people say in songs, and it’s true, but in terms of hip-hop, I’m a stylist. I could not care what you say, I could be more impressed with how you say it. You may say something really cliche, but you may say it in a way I’ve never heard it said and I’m like, “Yo you got lots of style.” How he rides the beat. How his voice falls in between the beat. James Brown didn’t have a lot to say all the time, but how he placed his voice on a track said enough. People think these cats are doing something new, but that’s just because they never listened to Rawkus or Def Jux and shit in the 90’s, and then there’s other cats who are like “That. Is. Amazing.”
So what separates you, and artists like Erykah Badu who is kind of in your lane, from an artist like Jay Z or Nas?
Nas and Jay Z are awesome, but they’re more conservative.
Nas i love because his head is in the right place, his heart is in the right place. I listened to Nas as a fan in 1993. At that time, Nas put more words per bar, than any other rapper.
He did the same thing to hip-hop that KRS-1 did to hip-hop when he came out. He made the rappers that came before him sound old. Nas did something brilliant…Jay Z on the other hand, is not as brilliant as Nas to me. To me, Jay Z is a better business man. But, Jay Z is a conservative business man to me. Even in terms of his music. One person you didn’t mention is Andre 3000. Andre 3000 is someone who has taken chances. Jay Z, the chance that he’s taken is like, “Oh this is what’s popular in Texas? Then I’m gonna do a rap song with these dudes from Texas.” And maybe do a verse like kind of in there style.
Like ‘Big Pimpin’? [The song Jay Z did featuring Texas’ UGK, who at the time was riding the momentum of their underground classic ‘Ridin Dirty’, released the previous year.]
Yeah, yeah, exactly. Like to me, Jay Z is a very conservative business man. It’s good for the morale for the people to see, ‘Ah this ghetto guy made it the right way.’ That’s good for morale. But, on the other hand, musically, he does exactly what he said on the Black Album, “I dumb down my lyrics and double my sales.” He just kind of called his audience stupid.
He’s kind of right.
But it’s bad for music. People are going to love the music they grew up with, always, but critically I would say that it’s too clean, it doesn’t take the chances that I hear other artists taking. Only now is Jay Z finding the space to say more, but that’s like playing it safe because what does he have to lose? That’s still more conservatism.
Would you say you have a problem with creativity boundaries?
I have a problem with all boundaries. There’s a lot of boundaries that we practice in America, like we talk about race as if it’s a reality. You’ll see it on CNN, at election time it’ll be ‘The Black Vote’, ‘The White Vote’, ‘The Latina Vote’, ‘The Asian Vote’, and you’ll see it written in big letters and I think that’s problematic think for us to continually identify and associate with these labels when it’s hardly true.
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