Streetwise Shakespeare

"We demand a truth naturally at one with the land/
Not a plant that photosynthesizes bombs on demand/
Or a search for any weapons we let fall from our hands/
I got beats and a plan/
I'm gonna do what I can."
– Saul Williams, "Act III, Scene 2"

Although Saul Williams' new self-titled full-length boasts shotgun lyrics like "White boys listen to white boys/Black boys listen to black boys/No listens to no one" and "Hip-hop is lying on the side of the road/Half dead to itself," the multitalented wordsmith nevertheless claims that he merely set out on his latest sonic journey to have a good time." The album is not so much a wake-up call as I see it," Williams explains. "The plan was actually to have fun on this record."

But one man's fun is often another man's philosophy, and when you're working with something as volatile as language – especially in the clever, rewarding ways that Saul Williams has become famous for – it can be hard to tell the difference. Although Williams' deft penmanship has continually carried more weight than Dennis Hastert on a bad day, he contends that much of what is written on his latest effort came to him spontaneously during some late nights alone with his hardware. In other words, it might not mean what you think it means.

"Listeners will probably find some meaning in these songs," Williams says, "even though, on some of them, I had no idea what I was writing about at the time."

Yet this openness and spontaneity is exactly what has set Williams apart ever since his Sundance and Cannes-decorated film Slam first hit the silver screen in 1998. It's also what fuels his desire for communication and performance, whether on television, film or stage. In fact, Saul is exploding with performative desire this year and in 2005. Already a regular on TV shows like 'Girlfriends,' HBO's 'Def Poetry Jam,' 'The Chris Rock Show' and more, Williams will shortly be taking over media with everything from a tour in support of his new album and a role in the Halle Berry-produced film Lackwanna Blues to an off-Broadway show directed by vet Peter Askin ('Hedwig and the Angry Inch,' 'Spic-O-Rama') and a collaboration with Switzerland's Basel Symphony on his 2003 book said the shotgun to the head.

But although Williams is having a good time creating and performing on whatever stage he's provided, the multifaceted artist still understands that we're a culture and country on the brink. After sifting through the abuses of language, location and power over the last several years, the man behind 'Slam' is ready to get the hip-hop nation mobilized.

Scott Thill: Much of your new album sounds like you made it at three in morning with a drum machine, sequencer and digital recorder and went wherever the muse took you.

Saul Williams: That's exactly what it was. The first time I recorded "Surrender," I sang it completely in gibberish, because I wrote the music first and knew how it wanted the verses to sound. I just had to fill in the words, even though I didn't know what the fuck I was talking about. And that's the funny thing about that song: Even though it has that first line – "There are two ways I can say this/And one of them would be fuck you!" – I didn't know what the hell it meant, and I wasn't angry. I was just feigning anger.

But that's what's so weird about it. The first time I heard it that line, I thought, "Damn, Saul is serious." But after another listen, I was laughing my head off.

Yeah, both "Surrender" and "Reparations" had their titles added after the songs were already completed. The song talks about a "list of demands," so I just decided to call it "Reparations," even though I wasn't necessarily singing about reparations at all.

How about that great lyric about hip-hop – "We are discontinuing our current line of braggadocio/In light of the current trend in realness" – in "Telegram?" That one hit hard.

That lyric is connected to an old song of mine called "Code Language"; the general point is that people determine their reality, the kind of world they want to live in. Nothing needs to be kept "real," as I see it. If we keep finding ways, whether by song or action, to perpetuate our fucked-up reality, then it becomes even more real. We're adding to it. We should understand that rather than keeping an oppressive reality alive, we should be trying to make it unreal. We did that with slavery – we agreed that, as reality, it was too devastating. So we made it unreal, we changed it, and nowadays we can barely imagine what it was like. I certainly myself can't imagine what it truly was like to be a slave. So if we can do it with slavery, we can do it with anything.

Do you think that complicating the term "real" – as pop culture has done over the last decade or so with MTV's 'The Real World,' Reality TV, broadcasted beheadings and whatnot – has in turn complicated that term's, for lack of a better word, reality?

Absolutely. That's the faux pas. That's the danger in calling something unreal "real," to the point that it indeed becomes real. For instance, 'The Real World' and MTV. When those kids have a boyfriend or girlfriend over, do you think for a second that they're not aware of the cameras or not thinking, "I'm gonna be on TV!" If they decide to go to bed with each other, there's that sense of "People are watching." It has to be running through their minds. Granted, we all suffer from that psychosis; well, maybe it's just me. But I know I've had those moments as a kid, being in my room and imagining there were cameras everywhere watching me. You begin perpetuating the idea of acting for the camera, even when the camera isn’t there. You lose greater and greater touch with yourself in the process.

And I think some of it comes from exploding the language, from throwing the term "real" around to the point that it's completely losing its meaning. How do you think that process complicates something like televised war, for example?

The crazy thing about television is how much it informs reality. The role of propaganda is immense. The way it anaesthetizes us and propels us into ways of thinking along its lines is surreal, and there's nothing we can do about it. Granted, there are great films about it like 'The Manchurian Candidate,' but then again, Sinatra tried to pull the original off the shelves because he thought it helped inspire the assassination of JFK. So, on one hand, you're making a film that brilliantly analyzes propaganda, but at the same time you might be making one that may cause someone to blow everything up. There are just so many levels of responsibility involved, and I have no way of making any sense of it, because it's so complex.

As an artist working in a variety of media, does that ever stop you cold and make you think, "Maybe I should just get back onstage and start talking to people?"

Yeah, sort of. That's what I've been doing for the past couple of years – touring and talking – and for a while there, that seemed to be the most relevant or important thing I could do. I'd book shows or poetry readings but somehow end up reading only three poems or so and spend the rest of the time talking about current events, because I felt that it was the most important thing I could do. But now my thing is performance, because, for me, performance is ritual.

Well, it sounds like, as far as performance goes, you have a full plate right now. Has it been problematic jumping from the slam stage into television, film, off-Broadway, music and elsewhere?

It's never been too complex for me. It might not seem like it to some, but I have so much free time on my hands to the point where I'm like, "I need to work!" (Laughs). When something comes along, I'm so eager to do it, because I've been sitting at home for three weeks going, "What the fuck?" The transitions are easy and fun; I love acting, whether it's on stage or in front of the camera. And when people ask me which one I prefer, I tell them that I just love performance. That's my thing. And that's what I love about this album; it's given me a great opportunity to perform the work onstage, and I'm really looking forward to it. I can't wait.

What do you think of the Republicans' choice of location for their convention? Mark Crispin Miller was telling me that Bush hates New York more than he hates the Democrats.

Yeah, I don't know what's going on, but I think Bush could probably get any commercial MC to perform there; they're all Republicans. I mean, you listen to the agenda in their music and it's all about the money. "If you don't got money, then fuck you. Poor you."

What do you think about hip-hop nation getting out and voting this year? I think they are the great swing vote of 2004?

Yeah, I think the hip-hop vote is real. Oh, we're back to "real"….

See what I mean? Trouble, man.

Yeah, keeping the vote "real!" No seriously, I do think we are reaching that point where we understand that hip-hop nation is a community that can be mobilized. We've already seen it mobilized. I mean, how many cats do we have going to Jacob the Jeweler as we speak? (Laughs).

Oh man, that's a good one. I can't beat that. But seriously, we now have generations raised on hip-hop who are helping it take over the world. If they all decide to vote this year, look out.

Yeah, it could get crazy. Hip-hop has already changed the face of society, and in my opinion it hasn't really even got started yet. It's about to hit its heyday; we just had to wait for some of these mutherfuckers to retire. (Laughs).

How did you get involved in drafting the "Pledge of Resistance" for Not In Our Name? It was one of the earliest, most visible protests against this ridiculous war.

I was approached by them soon after 9/11, and I soon realized how important and powerful resistance to the war could become. When I was helping them draft that pledge, it felt as important to me as drafting the pledge of allegiance. I felt like Martha Washington.

Which is ironic because today's rap on protest is that it's un-American.

That's the most ridiculous shit I've ever heard. I don't pay any attention to that. It's ignorant. Like the "Freedom Fries?" That was the most embarrassing, asinine, adolescent shit I've ever heard of. That was painful.

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