Saul Williams: Hip-Hop King of the Weirdoes

“These are unique times to be living though,” declared a winded Saul Williams (aka Niggy Tardust) to a packed house at New York’s Blender Theater. Decked out in his signature silver face paint, with long blue feathers staked throughout his hair, Williams thrashed around the stage rhyming and wailing into his microphone as a mosh pit gathered below. The crowd was eclectic and the mood electric. Artists swirled paintbrushes across a mural on the floor as Williams sang songs from his Trent Reznor-produced album The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, eliciting punk rock riffs passionate enough to rival the artists’ own famed slam poetry. Between songs, the crowd was treated to these poems; they roared back in unison when Williams proclaimed that “music is our alchemy.”

Flavorpill spoke with Williams as he relaxed with his daughter Saturn between stops on his national Afro-Punk tour.

Flavorpill: How was your experience playing CMJ ’09?

Saul Williams: It had been about a month since my band and I performed together, so the first show of the tour is always a little hard. Hopefully it felt better to the audience than it did to me.

FP: CMJ is very DIY-oriented. Your last album was in that vein in that it was a download at your own price kind of deal. What are your thoughts on this artistic movement?

SW: I just think that the music industry is transforming. I think that part of what we did with Niggy Tardust — when we did it, right after Radiohead did, was how we founded the introduction of the new style too, and it just made sense. I think the coolest part about all this transformation is that artists and musicians are starting to get more control and better compensation for their work. And that’s awesome.

FP: Your beginnings were as an actor — you studied your craft at Morehouse. How did you end up in music?

SW: I wrote rhymes a lot as a teenager, but I would write them in song format. I would write a first, second third verse and a chorus. I wouldn’t write to music, just words for songs, but I imagined myself singing one day. But I quit doing that when I was like sixteen. Then I was fully focused on acting, which I’d been doing since I was younger.

When I went to graduate school for acting we were required to journal and I found that when I was writing, and it wasn’t a class assignment, that the way that I wrote wasn’t in straight sentences. And if I shared it with anybody, they would refer to it as a poem.

From that I entered the poetry scene in New York. And in that poetry scene, there’s a lot happening in music and there’s a lot not happening in music — meaning that what was becoming commercial about hip-hop was very different from what used to be commercial. You know, going from fun and clever type of stuff to gangster and grimy. It didn’t feel as fulfilling. So I was feeling a lack of something in what I was hearing.

I was brought back to music primarily because I was hungry to hear something in a particular vein and it was becoming more and more evident that the only way I was going to hear it was if I did it myself. I was just getting more and more frustrated with what I was listening to and I couldn’t understand why nobody would do it like this or like that.

A shot snapped during "Sunday Bloody Sunday"
A shot snapped during "Sunday Bloody Sunday"

FP: Tell us a little bit about Afro-Punk and your current sound.

SW: I’ve known the organizers of the Afro-Punk event for many years, and I thought it was essential to participate because what they were doing is a safe haven for kids, especially those of a different color or who grew up in different areas, who listen to different kinds of music and have different influences and maybe skateboard — whatever it is that they do that makes them feel like they’re different or that they don’t fit in.

They’re told that they don’t fit in or they’re weird because they listen to Bad Brains or what have you. A lot of these kids usually end up feeling very alone and ostracized. So to create a little safe haven for these kids and say “Hey, actually you’re not alone — there are a lot of us all over the place and just because we are expected to listen to this or that kind of music doesn’t mean we have to.”

I’m glad to be a part of it, especially with this album because Niggy Tardust is all about the idea: I can’t let me or anybody else prevent me from becoming my fullest self in this lifetime. Which means that I can’t let my idea of race, my idea of gender— I can’t let any of those things get in the way. So I have to challenge myself beyond my comfort zone and allow the essence of myself to blossom and see where it leads me — where it takes me. This album is meant to inspire that. It’s about confident self expression in the face of uniformity.

FP: Those artists painting the murals on the dance floor were pretty cool. Tell us a little bit about that.

SW: Afro-Punk has started to reach out to a lot of visual artists. So they’ve been meeting us in every city we’ve been in and adding to those murals. They’re new artists, local artists. Every town that we’ve been to so far on this tour we’ve hooked up with local people — artists, DJs, skateboarders, local weirdos, and basically initiated them into the sense of knowing that we’re about the same stuff. You’re not alone, dude. You’re not weird.

Local artists painted this mural live on the dance floor.
Local artists painted this mural live on the dance floor.

Remaining tour dates:
November 4: Atlanta, GA @ The Loft
November 5: Orlando, FL @ The Social
November 6: New Orleans @ House of Blues
November 8: Boulder, CO @ Fox Theatre
November 10: San Francisco, CA @ The Independent
November 11: Santa Barbara, CA @ Velvet Jones
November 12: San Diego, CA @ Delta Room/House of Blues
November 13: Los Angeles, CA @ The Roxy
November 15: Portland, OR @ The Aladdin Theater
November 16: Seattle, WA @ Neumos
November 17: Vancouver, BC (details coming soon)