Saul Williams has more slashes than Jack the Ripper. He is: poet slash actor slash screenwriter slash musician slash Rock star. And through each medium Williams spits invocations, channeling the gods and goddesses of Hip Hop's golden era for answers to his stream of consciousness questions.
It's like Roots Manuva said: "Run come save me."
But despite the tension in Williams' music (Amethyst Rock Star, American Recordings 2001), his acting (Slam, 1998) and his poetry (most notably she, MTV/Pocketbooks, 1999) he is peaceful.
Things are clear to him.
It's the deciphering that brings the clouds. And it's in the language that he wrestles.
"I will not rhyme over tracks/Niggas on the chain gang used to do that way back/Don't drop the beat on me."
Even as a 24-year-old, recording "Twice The First Time" on Eargasms (Crucialpoetics v. 1), Williams was trying to wriggle free like Houdini (the magician, not the rapper) in a straightjacket. Now 30 years old and the father of two young children, Williams is a Hip Hop historian, advocate and, lately, distance keeper — though there was a time when he was a snob.
"I know what it means to be a conservative Hip Hop head," he says by phone from a Seattle hotel room.
"I didn't listen to Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Jodeci until I was 20 years old. I was, like, 'Hell, fuck no!' Thankfully something happened to change my mind. Terrence Trent d'Arby and Lenny Kravitz opened it up for me. R&B was just soft. I was at home watching Showtime at the Apollo and (d'Arby) sang 'Wishing Well,' and he was up there dancing like James Brown."
D'Arby as the Godfather of Soul may have blown Williams' ears open. But just think of the implied narrowness had he not recognized the paucity in his musical diet. Back in 1987 and 1988 Williams was a skinny New York teenager exacting lyrical battles at his lunchroom tables. Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One and Chuck D were his heroes.
In his mind Public Enemy turned Rap from head noddin', testosterone-driven boasts of lyrical skills to an ongoing treatise of self-empowerment, thereby introducing New York's secret to the world. As a 16-year-old exchange student to Brazil, Williams learned Portuguese by translating the lyrics of PE. Upon his return in July 1989 to New York, his cousin played him PE's seminal anthem, "Fight the Power."
It made him cry.
After graduating from Morehouse College in 1994, his parents gave him a month's trip in West Africa with his mother, a teacher. Nas' Illmatic was his soundtrack while travelling through Senegambia. That was the portrait of an artist as a young man.
By the fall of 1996 when Williams recorded "Ohm" for the first Lyricist Lounge compilation. He'd already attended his first poetry reading and read "Amethyst Rocks," his first poem, at the Brooklyn Moon Cafe. After the reading, Williams booked gigs as a poet. He landed a coveted opening spot for the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Amiri Baraka, the Fugees and KRS-One at "Rock Against Racism."
Fully initiated and baptized into the inner sanctum of New York's poetry/Hip Hop era that also spawned jessica care Moore and Shariff Simmons, Williams emerged a star. Williams co-wrote and starred in Slam, the independent movie about a low-level weed dealer/poet caught in D.C.'s judicial system who defies prison violence trough poetry. It was a critical favorite. He followed that with she, a narrow volume of musings he says he had to get off for his own sanity.
Williams has toured the world and now Amethyst Rock Star, his long-anticipated CD of him singing/rapping/ranting to cellos, violas, guitars, samples and turntables is nearly three years old.
"Niggas used to buy their families out of slavery/Now we buy chains and links, smokes and drinks/They're paying me to record this/even more if you hear it/Somebody, tell me what you think I should do with the money."
"Penny for a Thought" from the CD is the raw and the cooked wherein Williams is typically ambiguous, yet condemning. As in, "What have you bought into/how much will it cost to buy you out?" He says to get to the Jungle, Drum 'N Bass and disintegrating sounds of the CD, he set his feet upon a path.
"I know at some point I was reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand," he says of the recording of the CD. "Since 1994 and 1995 I've been on a journey. The first step on the tour was to get acquainted with all the stuff that was going on in the U.K.: Tricky, Goldie, Björk."
The album's "Robeson," with its opening monotone chant set against drums like toppling garbage cans is a sleep-deprived Tricky.
"The way he produced his stuff was amazing," Williams says of Tricky.
"I lived in Brooklyn (at the time), and you couldn't walk the street without hearing Jay-Z," he stops himself short, choking on the nazame. "All that Drum 'N Bass changed my life. All that other shit, I couldn't stomach it."
Survey the landscape of his output, and it's apparent he's digested reams of words and volumes of recordings. His fearlessness as a black man to connect the dots between Rock and Hip Hop has left his contemporaries swigging Cristal. He relishes more the similarities between himself and Jim Morrison than he does the more obvious connections between himself and Gil Scott-Heron.
"I'm not afraid to connect Rock and Hip Hop," Williams says. "I know it connects something deeper than our psychological intellect."
As he strings the two together in the recording studio and on tour with his band, he dodges the low-end theory. That is, Williams doesn't get twisted up in paying more reverence to recorded words over published ones.
"The more I get into recording and music, I can't let the singular significance of words carry so much weight, like James Earl Jones," he says. "I can't pay that much attention to enunciation. I pay close attention to what I say in every instance." Spoken like the son of a preacher and a teacher who is equal parts of each one.
Despite packaging to the contrary, Williams eschews the titles, categories and labels heaped upon him since he rocked mics at the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe to take the Grand Slam championship. Yeah, poetry is his life. But it's a tilted paradigm that's made poetry as a vocation appear an anomaly.
"I'm a normal person, but I do think we need to change what it means to be normal," he says, his attention diverted by thoughts of a vegan sandwich and a new pair of Clark's. "Prayer is a part of my life. Meditation is a part of my life. That may be abnormal to some people. It's great that what I do stands out.
"But soon a million people will do what I do."
Let's hope not.
SAUL WILLIAMS opens the Sno Core Icicle Ball on Monday at Bogart's at 7 p.m. sharp. You can also catch him at 4 p.m. on Monday at Shake It Records in Northside.