Saul Williams: Dreadlocked Dervish of Words
PostedFebruary 20, 2014
A leading voice on the spoken-word scene, Saul Williams began astonishing open mic audiences with his impassioned tongue-twisting verse in the mid-1990s and eventually became a grand slam champion at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. In 1996, he led the four-person New York team to the finals of the National Poetry Slam competition, a fierce battle of verse that was chronicled in the documentary film Slamnation. Two years later, in a role that featured many of his own compositions, Williams played an imprisoned street poet in the award-winning film, Slam, for which Esquire magazine deemed him a "dreadlocked dervish of words."
A self-proclaimed disciple of Bob Kaufman and Amiri Baraka, Williams combines the rhythms and themes of Beat and Black Arts poets in his work. His three collections of poetry--The Seventh Octave, Sãhe, and , said the shotgun to the head--tackle difficult social and political issues as well as intangible questions about religion and spirituality. In performance, his work is full of a pulsing frenzy, which the New York Times described as "mind-twisting cosmic rumination with hallucinatory science-fiction scenarios that the poet delivers with an incantatory fervor."
The undeniable beat in the poet's work led to an inevitable transition to music. Initially, he collaborated with DJs and hip-hop artists, reciting his verse to their backbeat. In 2001, he recorded his own album, Amethyst Rock Star, co-produced by Rick Rubin, the legendary producer of Public Enemy, Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as well as the co-founder of the record label Def Jam with hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons. In 2004, Williams released the self-titled album Saul Williams, for which, as he explained, he approached the music as a musician, not as a spoken-word artist. "The last [album] was about poetry over beats," he said in a recent interview, "and this is about the songs."
Despite his shift toward songwriting, the words are still of utmost importance to Williams. Demonstrating a political consciousness through his poems and songs is vital. He feels the current hip-hop culture has departed from the thought-provoking work of such artists as Public Enemy and De La Soul to a more inane preoccupation with materialism and a dangerous tolerance of what he calls "bullshit lyricism." He warns against the dangerous and passive acceptance of these negative lyrics transmitted through an infectious beat: "You start building a tolerance," he explained. "Because when you nod your head to a beat, you nod your head affirmatively."
On his own records, Williams has managed to marry hip-hop beats with sober lyrics. "Amethyst Rock Star has to do with the fact that when you're tuned into your spirit you realize that we are all stars by birth," the poet has said. "That's our birthright, literally." The band accompanying him is comprised of a violinist, a cellist, a bass player, a keyboard player, a DJ, and a drummer, resulting in an album that the Times of London named "Album of the Year."
The album Saul Williams was influenced by a wide range of artists including Jimi Hendrix, Radiohead, and the Mars Volta, and resulted in a fusion that Williams calls "industrial punk hop." Brian Orloff, writing in Rolling Stone magazine, explained: "Musically, Saul Williams matches Williams's lyrics with gritty, frittered guitar and urgent rhythms. 'List of Demands (Reparations)' finds Williams singing, "I gotta list of demands written on the palm of my hands' over a staccato guitar riff that sounds like gunfire.'"
"I'm definitely a hip-hop head by nature," Williams has said. "I'm there in the mix, so I'm turned on by the same things, nod my head to the same things. Even if I'm writing a piece of prose, there is still an intrinsic rhythm that I'm looking for, even without rhyme, even without beats, even without music and microphones."