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Saul Williams is a poet, actor and musician whose third album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, was produced and released with assistance from Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor. He performed for Lollapalooza crowds on the festival’s closing Sunday and was kind enough to spend some time beforehand talking with mxdwn.com. We promised to ask him just two open-ended questions, which would make this either the easiest or the hardest interview of his life. Here’s what he had to say.
Being the literate, involved, politically aware artist that you are, and having the background that you do in hip-hop and rap, what do you think about the state of that music today?
I spent the last 10 years essentially depressed about a lot of what was happening in hip-hop. Although there were always groups like OutKast and rappers like Mos [Def] and Talib [Kweli] that seemed to be doing interesting stuff, for the most part I couldn’t believe what had become of the mainstream—not because of the sound of it but because I thought that it was philosophically impotent. The idea of money being God and all that stuff was just—I thought it was negligent and dangerous. Hip-hop has reached a point where all of those guys and all of the new cats coming up have realized that they have exhausted that idea, so everybody is now beginning to harbor ideas about creativity again.
You have 10 years of rappers who were definitely artists refusing to admit it, saying, “I’m not an artist, I’m a businessman.” I do think it was great that so many people in our community—you know, when you have a community that’s run down with drugs and all this stuff, people have to make decisions of how to earn when society seems to be turned against them. On the other hand, if that is the fact, then I thought that artists like Jay-Z, for instance, made songs essentially tutoring drug dealers on how to make dirty money clean, and it seems like everybody from Cash Money [Records] to all these [other] cats were like, “Ah, that is how you do it! Alright, cool, I can take all of this money that I’ve made illegally and make it legal through the music industry.” And the music industry, the hip-hop industry, became more of a laundering industry than a place for artists. For myself, as an artist who didn’t really have any dirty money to launder, I kind of felt left out.
That’s the past. At present, I’m enthused. I like a lot of the stuff that’s happening, from Lil’ Wayne to The Cool Kids to Kanye [West]. Tons of people are shifting their perspective and starting to make creative music again. I like that I’m starting to hear people like M.I.A. and Santogold on urban stations, finally. I mean, those are artists I’ve been listening to for ages. When [Santi White] had her punk-rock band and was writing songs for Res I was into her, you know? I’m glad to see the emergence of the black alternative, the Afro-punk movement and essentially, and most importantly, the collective shift towards a unified musical perspective.
What I like about things like MySpace is that they’ve kind of leveled the playing field. When MTV first started, for years before Yo! MTV Raps, there wasn’t an urban presence on MTV, and then when [there] was it was quarantined between 3 and 4 every day. MySpace doesn’t have that sort of thing. It’s like, I like David Banner and The Ting Tings, so I want to check them both out. And now, more urban kids are starting to be like, “Yo, I like that and that,” and more suburban kids are like, “I like that and that.” Open minds are starting to take [precedence], people are starting to have a more global perspective slowly but surely. Lil’ Wayne is far from Wyclef [Jean], but Lil’ Wayne is picking up a guitar and learning how to play in the same way that [Red Hot Chili Peppers’] Anthony Kiedis learned how to rap. By leveling the playing field like that, it also steadies the foundation for artists like myself who for the past decade have somehow been struggling to not fall between the cracks of being told “not urban enough,” “not alternative enough,” “not rock enough.” So it’s a good time.
With The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust—how it was recorded, how it was marketed, Trent Reznor’s involvement in the process—what are the most important things you learned from putting this album together?
That’s a big question. I would say the first thing I learned was that old adage, “No man is an island.” I like my second album [Saul Williams], that’s the album that “List of Demands” is on, and “Black Stacey,” and it’s pretty fun. But I recorded the majority of that album alone in my bedroom, not really knowing if anyone would listen to it or enjoy it—not “alone,” I had people like my daughter Saturn there, but I didn’t do much collaboration. Niggy Tardust for me first and foremost was me remembering the beauty and importance of collaboration—not just with Trent, you know.
What’s highly publicized is my collaboration with Trent, but there’s the visual artist Angelbert Metoyer who stayed in my house while I was recording the album. He is more responsible for the creation of the character of Niggy Tardust with me than Trent would be. Trent was responsible for helping me find the sound, Angelbert was responsible for helping me find the character. Then the designer that I worked with, Melody Ehsani, created jewelry, clothing, all that stuff. All those things were essential in trying to forge, like a director—if you’re doing a film like, say, Pan’s Labyrinth, you have to sit down with your animator, you have to sit down with lighting and set design in order to really, fully conceptualize what it is that you’re trying to do. So all of these people played a huge role, including Trent, and I had so much fun. By collaborating, I didn’t invest less of myself. I actually invested more of myself and more aspects of myself than I ever had, and it was important for me to realize that as an artist.
Then came the confidence and the empowerment that came from—there was a point where we had about 14 songs and there’s nothing that tops the feeling of knowing that your songs are the shit, when you kind of feel like [Apple CEO] Steve Jobs and you’re just like, “Whatever. I know that when people see this or hear this, a million albums could come out between [now and] the time I release my album and I know that nothing sounds like this.” I spent six months just inviting friends to the house and playing it for them and they’d be like, “Oh shit!”—I’m like, “Yeah, man, I can’t wait!” Then people like [Interscope chairman] Jimmy Iovine would come into the studio, and their eyes, they’d go, “Whoa!” Because of the confidence that you build while creating that sound and music, realizing your power, when those bigwigs with their big money came around and we sat and spoke with them we slowly realized that as much power as they had, they didn’t necessarily have the vision.
I realized that the scariest and the most powerful thing I could do was to say “no” and to go direct. The times were conspiring for us to just, one, give the album away for free; two, give people an option to pay if they chose to; and three—even with The Fader, the company responsible for the physical release of the album, the sort of self-empowerment that it took for me to realize that I didn’t need to do a record deal with them, instead I could do a partnership—that was huge for me. Now, of course, a lot of hip-hop guys that I was talking about earlier realized that early on: the business aspect. I had to focus more on the art in order to realize the power of the business and make an art of the business. That was the other realization, that I could make an art of the business.
I guess third and finally has been the importance of building an in-depth relationship with your gut, with your intuition, and following that. While creating this hybrid character, Niggy Tardust, that is supposed to transcend ideas of race and ideas of genre, I could never have imagined that a Barack Obama—another hybrid character—could take the stage and represent in the same way where on my Saul Williams album I’m saying, “God’s just a baby / And Her diaper is wet,” meaning that we need to change our idea of divinity, our idea of power, our idea of our self.
Saying, “There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” and realizing that that time had come, and seeing the significance of that in the music industry, in my personal life and in the government all at the same time—it made me thankful for the relationship I had built with myself, with my intuition and not conforming at [any] of the different opportunities that came. It’s been a really fun and enlightening journey so far. I’m still learning a lot.