Saul Williams and The Agenda-less Sonic Agenda

When it comes to innovation, this man sets a standard that’s hard to reach even in this day and age. All the while, poet/musician/filmmaker/actor/ author Saul Williams remains grounded in who he is as an artist of the people. Hours before his Atlanta show, he talked with Soul Train about cultural changes, steering his musical purpose to a personal freedom, and his upcoming projects.

Soul Train: What was your initial reaction to hearing about Don Cornelius’s passing?

Saul Williams: It’s the way that he passed that was shocking. For one, it’s not something that is known to be prevalent in our community. And I can only imagine what it’s like to grow older and lose strength, and become frustrated with the times where things aren’t the way they were – that type of ageism that happens often in our country. I think it becomes really hard for old people who are frustrated with how things start to not work for them. It also brings you back to healthcare issues and how we need to get it straight to where everyone is treated fairly, and the people are taken care of, especially psychologically.

I grew up watching Soul Train. I got the most excited in my day when hip-hop was starting to be invited to Soul Train. It’s always a big deal because hip-hop wasn’t initially invited everywhere and there were arguments within our own community with our elders about it. It is in fact music. Yes, they talk over beats, but it is still music.

ST: My father was like that. He was very pro-live musicianship and soulful music.

SW: Once hip-hop got accepted on Soul Train, it was a big deal for us. Along with the dancers and the fashion, it was always cool for us.

ST: You talk about the influence Soul Train had on you, but what else did it do for you and for music as a whole?

SW: [Soul Train] pioneered the balance in American Bandstand. For some, there was that but for us it was Soul Train. For a good minute, it was all about Soul Train.

ST: We’re talking about how hip-hop came through as an alternative to Black music, as if what you’re doing musically isn’t, especially when thinking of the urban alternative movement. How do you think that sort of movement has developed?

SW: Most people would associate my work with poetry and R&B – and that snap, cool, Jill Scott-ish R&B, which I love; however, for me what I was doing was more closely affiliated with the idea of punk rock. I wanted it hardcore, step up on the stage without music and just go for it. For years, since the time I lived in Atlanta, we’ve been craving alternative music within the urban landscape. There was a time when people would keep it a secret if they listened to someone like Lenny Kravitz or Seal, like “nah, we only listen to hip-hop!” I was one of those people during the 80s where time shifted to the Seals, the Lennys, the Soul II Souls, and all that stuff. I was really just excited to find a way we could infiltrate the music that’s popular in the ghetto with a different sound and a different ideology. I think having a different ideology means having a different sound, like Public Enemy. People go on and on about what they meant politically, but sonically they meant something to us as well.

ST: Yeah, just the sound, the samples they used and the amount, plus their urgent sound is what I really love about their music!

SW: Exactly.

ST: So what about music now, especially in terms of urban alternative music?

SW: I think we’re at a time now where I look at anyone from Odd Future to Lil’ Wayne to Kanye and Jay-Z, and for the most part people have become more open to new music. But America at-large has established an idea of celebrity. We need to find a way to give the rightful attention to real talent, to people who are exploring. Right now we’re running the risk of having a very formulaic approach to music, to sound, to popularity, and it’s watering down the creative process to the point where this artist believes that this artist is amazing not realizing that this artist is directly influenced – and sampling and stealing – from this artist. It’s just that originality is lost. That’s what I get excited about is originality, and that’s what I hope to get excited about in contemporary music. And I can no longer speak of it in terms of Black music or white music–all of that stuff has crossed borders. Maybe R&B could still be Black music, but hip-hop is certainly universal. Hell, a lot of R&B music just feels lazy half the time. It’s just people who want to have music playing in the background. I don’t hear a lot of exploration sonically in R&B tracks. Nothing like I would hear in a Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, Betty Davis. My favorite artist right now is M.I.A, and really some of the best artists are not from here. They are taking stuff from here and freaking it. I would love to see us take something and freak it on the levels that I see it happening internationally with the Bjorks, the Radioheads and all that.

ST: I was just listening to M.I.A’s new song “Bad Girls,” and it sounds just like a hip-hop track that just dropped, but it’s not that at all.

SW: That’s the thing. To me that started in the mid-90s with Portishead and Tricky, the trip-hop music and drum and bass music were taking hip-hop and tipping it on its ear. We’ve seen that happen with dubstep, where they flip electronic music, and it’s nice. There’s always a great international dialogue that comes with music, and with a lot of issues with musicians here is that we don’t listen to a lot of international music. I live in Paris and we listen to music from around the world on a regular basis.

ST: Let’s talk about your music and the development of your sound. How would you really describe your new album Volcanic Sunlight in terms of your musical development?

SW: In the simplest terms I would describe Volcanic Sunlight as a dance album, an organic dance album rather, with the difference being that in comparison if Lady Gaga came out with a dance album we would expect electronic, synthesized, and a repetition sort of thing happening. For mine, when I say a dance album I mean the thing that you can dance around your house or jump on your bed or dance by yourself. All the while, I’m still exploring musically. I just wanted it to reflect my taste in world music and sounds of the world. It reflects more so who I am as an individual without anything to prove, whereas Niggy Tardust and the projects preceding that were with an agenda. Volcanic Sunlight has less of that, and more of me documenting me.

ST: Like less platform, more freeness?

SW: Yes.  Some people can make the mistake and say “oh, you’ve mellowed out,” but it’s reflecting who I am and what I’ve always loved in music.

ST: Tell me about the play button. How did that idea come about?

SW: It was an idea that came from a friend of mine from San Francisco who sent me to a company’s website that is based in Brooklyn. Each time you come out with something new, you want to find innovative ways of sharing it.

ST: How does it work?

SW: You just stick your headphones in and it plays the album.

ST: So you can’t add music on it like it’s an iPod or some other mp3 player?

SW: No, just the album.

ST: That’s really creative. What’s next for you, musically and beyond?

SW: I just finished shooting a film in Senegal last summer that’s coming out this year called Aujourd’hui. It’s a foreign film, French noir, and it just premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival. I also have a literary mixtape I’m releasing September 4th with MTV Books. I put a call out through social media for poems and ended up with 8,000 poems to create this booklet that had to be 100 poems. I wanted to find a creative way to present 100 unique voices, and the way that I found was to present them as one voice called Chorus.

Visit Saul Williams online at saulwilliams.com, twitter.com/SaulWilliams, and facebook.com/saulwilliams.

–Starletta Watson

Starletta Watson is a freelance multimedia journalist fishing her way through the entertainment world. She contributes as a writer, blogger, photographer and videographer regularly to Frank 151, Examiner, SlapStik Magazine and a host of others.

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