Catching Up With... Saul Williams

Music Features Saul Williams
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Beat poet and musician Saul Williams released the provocatively titled The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust in November, allowing fans to pay what they want, even if that meant taking it for free. In the meantime, he spoke with Paste and toured on the record, a trek that just recently finished up.

During our conversation, Williams displayed the intelligence and humor that one might expect from a man who has managed to make his living writing poetry after graduating with his masters from New York University. Never at a loss for words, he discussed topics that ranged from race and the controversy that continues to surrounds “the n-word,” to the way he released his new album for free on the web, an idea that his collaborator and producer, Trent Reznor, had nearly two years prior to Radiohead’s groundbreaking In Rainbows announcement.

Paste: The title of your newest album is a play on David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. How would you say your title character differs from Bowie's conception?
Williams: Well, Ziggy Stardust, his enemy is his ego. Niggy Tardust discovers that his enemy is himself and he defeats it easily. So that's one difference. I'd say that Niggy is much cuter. He's way cuter. Where Ziggy is androgynous, Niggy is hybrid. Which is to say that he resonates with all that is American, from black to white to Native American to Asian, Latino. He is the essence of humanity as characterized through song and dance.

Paste: The album is really interesting. It breaks genre bounds with its intersection of industrial, NIN-type rock and slam poetry. Do you see yourself breaking down the walls that have been artificially erected between different genres of music?
Williams: Exactly. Niggy is the enemy of artifice. We're talking about artificial boundaries. We can impose boundary and definition, but at some point it's going to work against us. The entrance goal is to do exactly what you're saying, essentially to have fun and not worry about the supposed rules. The only rules that we paid attention to were the rules of song structure, like there should be a verse here, there should be a chorus here, there should be a bridge. For me, the whole experience to me was a dialogue on freedom.

Paste: And that's how you guys decided to release the album for free?
Williams: It wasn't how we decided, but for me it was the final straw. The whole time Trent was saying we should give it away for free, I was like, I don't know. I was like, "Dude, if I'm working with you, I'm going to cash in. I'm going to get the biggest advance that I could imagine. You do your own album and give that away for free." But, the more we got toward the final product, the more I was like, "Wow, I want people to hear this." The music industry as it stands is not really visionary enough to really address the times that we're living in. There's too much red tape dealing with major corporations and their formats, so it made sense to do it the way we did. The final straw for me was when we were conferring with lawyers to see if we could legally release an album that way. When the lawyers said to me, "We can't really tell you how to proceed because there’s no history for this stuff," as an artist, I was like, "Hell yeah." Because that's what Niggy Tardust is supposed to be. He's the first hybrid: meta-racial, meta-music, beyond all the boundaries.

Paste: You and Radiohead are obviously lucky in terms of having the opportunity to release albums for free since you've both have made names for yourselves in the past. Do you see a way for a lesser-known musician, someone just starting out, to have the ability to bypass the more traditional route of signing to a label and having that backing and still have a way to eat?
Williams: I do. Mind you, I'm in a very different position than Radiohead. I think the standout thing about our release is that rather than sounding like everything that you’re hearing, it instead sounds like nothing that you’ve heard. Otherwise, it would be like, "Yeah, it's cool that you guys released it how you did, but it's not that interesting." If new artists come up with new sounds and something original, then there's a chance that something like this could work. If they're subscribing to something that already exists, in their sound and their craftsmanship, then they might have to go through channels that other things that are similar are released. I think that's really the secret weapon of our release. People can say what they want, "Oh, Trent's name is attached," or whatever, but I think that releasing something that hasn't been done before, and that sounds like something that hasn't been done before, that together gives it strength.

Paste: Trent Reznor has said in a couple interviews that he's been disappointed with the initial sales of the album. It sounded like most people were choosing to get it for free.
Williams: Yeah, like 1/5 or 1/6 were choosing to pay for it. To me, that's not surprising at all. In this day and age, when you can get almost anything for free music-wise, it makes sense to me that a larger number would at least attempt to listen to it for free before purchasing it. I, for one, am not really shocked nor disappointed where things are in terms of sales. Even by releasing our numbers, and Trent releasing his so-called disappointment, the numbers went up even more. Nothing has really worked against us at this point. It's really been in our favor. We still plan on doing a physical release with some new stuff. I think Trent and I recorded 22 songs for the project, and there are only 15 on the digital download, so we have quite a few new songs that will be a part of the physical release.

Paste: I noticed that it's not being offered for free anymore online. Was that always planned?
Williams: It was. We planned that we would take it down. We didn't know when, and then finally [we did] when the numbers crossed the 200,000 mark. But those weren't all free. It was about 150 [thousand] in free downloads and 50,000 in paid. It just made sense because of bandwidth expenses, the things that are free for a lot of other people, we still have to pay for. Now it's out there, people have it, and if someone wants to get it for free they can, from friends, burns, etc. That's the real free culture.

Paste: You seemed to be attempting to render "the n-word" powerless with the album, because you use it so many times and in the title. First, was that your aim, and second, do you think it's more important for people to confront words that have such negative connotations, or do what the NAACP attempted last year and bury the word?
Williams: I don't think that you can sweep a powerful word like that under the rug. I think that we still have to address the meaning of that term and the many ways that it can be used. John Lennon wrote that women are the niggers of the world. He took that term and applied it to more than a group of people, applied it to the idea of being disenfranchised, of being oppressed by a power structure, applied it in those terms. That's the meaning of the term I hear now. I think that there would be more power in all Americans identifying with the lowest denominator and saying, "I'm that too," than saying, "Oh, that never was, and that's a bad word." I think that's retrogressive to go that way. I'd rather see people embrace every aspect of their history and their culture. You can't really curse the part without damming the whole, so "nigger" isn't really a term for blacks: it's an American word. When I hear young people—I'm talking about young black kids in their lyrics and every day speech—embracing the word and saying, "That's my nigger,” I don't think that all those kids are wrong; I think that maybe there's a subconscious process of healing that hasn't yet been articulated.

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