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The Evolution Of Saul Williams

All he wanted to be was an actor, but now he's juggling careers as an actor, poet and rock star.

Interview Anthony Carew

"I want the freedom to be able to do whatever the fuck I want to do in the music world." — Saul Williams
Carew: So can you listen to or read things that you've written a while ago and see them as records, in any kind of accuracy, of who you were at the time?

Williams: Definitely. For instance, I have a poem called "Amethyst Rocks," which is the first poem that I wrote. It's the poem that I recite in the courtyard of "Slam."

I listen to that, and in that, there's a lot of anger pointed towards white people. And I wrote that out of a great deal of frustration, when I was coming out of a Historically Black University called Morehouse College, and then I went to New York University, which is completely Eurocentric. And I was having difficulties just interacting on this interracial plane. I felt like there was a lot of bullshit going on, and so I wrote this poem out of a great deal of anger and frustration.

I no longer operate off of those levels of anger and frustration. So, I can look at that and say "Wow!" — even though I know why I felt that way and why it came out that way. Even now, if I felt a great deal of anger and frustration, I don't think I would express it in the same exact way.

Carew: Many of the words that make up the songs on your record Amethyst Rock Star were published as poetry, as "The Early Writings of Saul Williams." So, how old are some of those words? And then, how difficult was it working with words that you wrote at a time when you were younger and/or angrier?

Williams: Mind you, anger shifts. When I was writing some of those poems I was, say, angry at, say, white people. When I was writing the album I was angry at hip-hop! Anger just shifts.

But, first of all, the title "The Early Writings of Saul Williams" was such a joke. It was basically a dare. Someone said, "I dare you to do that!" and I was like, "Well, you know what? I'm gonna do it, I'll do it because it's actually true. It's my first book, and 50 years down the line it will be true. It is my earliest writings, so I'm gonna name it that now, because it'll be funny."

But, anyway, of all the poems in that book, nothing was written before 1994, but the majority of them were written in 1995, '96, and '97. Only one poem in that book was written in '94, that was "The Wind's Song," which is something I also recite in "Slam," that whole "If it is up to me I'll never die, blah blah blah," and that was written in, like, December of '94.

But, it wasn't a planned thing, necessarily, to say "I'm gonna use these poems as songs." It's just that even as I was writing some of the poems, there's a lot of musicality in the writing. And, so, sometimes, when I heard music, I would just recite the poems the way someone might recite a lyric that they wrote to see how it fits. So, particularly in the song "The Tao of Now," I took two poems out of that book. But I didn't go through that book looking for poems, I just recited things that fit.

Actually, the getting-to-music aspect, it was more of an evolutionary prospect. It was like after I wrote The Seventh Octave, and then the film "Slam," and then my second book She, it was pretty much after that that I felt I needed to write music. I remember when I went to the Sundance Film Festival with "Slam," I bought a guitar the week before and I brought it with me, and I didn't know how to play, but I was learning because I felt the need to express myself in greater ways than I was used to.

I had learned already with poetry that I didn't know shit about myself, because I had planned all my life to be an actor. And then from the first time that I recited a poem aloud in 1995, I was like "Oh my God, there's other stuff cut out for me! I have to pay attention to myself as a writer." And I realized that I had to challenge myself to see what I had untapped that I didn't know of. So I decided to invest in music to see what I had there. And that's how the music thing happened, I felt like I just had to. I felt I needed to invest in music to see what aspects of myself I could discover.

Carew: Had you always wanted to make a record?

Williams: Kind of. I wanted to when I was younger — say, up until the age of 18 — and then I abandoned those dreams. And, then, when I was around 23, I wanted to again. And, then, the first person that made it feel like it was possible for me to make an album was Tricky.

In around 1994, '95, when I first started to listen to Tricky, not only was his music really inspiring to me, but it also felt very accessible, it felt like something I could do. Because I had grown so much that the regular hip-hop thing seemed mundane to me, but when I listened to what was coming from Tricky and Björk and Portishead, and the way they were dealing with breakbeats, their music seemed so much more personal to me. Especially Tricky's, it seemed so much more personal. I was like "Wow, if I were to make an album it would sound like this." And the way he did his samples, that was the first time I really wanted to sample stuff. I started going to friends' houses that had drum machines and started sampling things to see how they sounded.

Carew: You mentioned when you were making Amethyst Rock Star you were angry at hip-hop; do you think that it is a hip-hop record at essence?

Williams: At essence, yes. At essence, for sure. At essence.


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