Poet, actor, musician, writer: There are few limits to the artistic
agenda of Saul Williams. His past role as a pioneer in NYC’s
spoken-word poetry scene makes him a definitive witness in the city’s
history of underground art and symbolic expression. Currently touring
in support of his latest album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of
Niggy Tardust, and appearing in the upcoming film New York, I Love
You, Williams spoke with Paste about his history and thoughts on The
Look for more interviews with some of NYC’s most acclaimed
artists in the coming weeks.
: So you were actually born in New York in Newburgh, New York?
Saul Williams: I was actually born in Albany, but I was raised in Newburgh.
Paste: When were you first exposed to New York City?
Williams: When I was a kid? Nonstop-- both of my parents are from Brooklyn. My dad was a commuter, so I was usually in New York City once a week. Coming from Newburgh, when I was twelve, I started taking acting lessons in Greenwich Village and then I would take the bus or train up alone and spend my weekend in New York City. So, before I was a teenager, all the time.
Paste: What was your initial impression of the city?
Williams: You know, there are so many aspects of it. When my grandmother lived in Brownsville, it was fun, and at times a little scary. But my uncle lived on St. Mark’s Place and it was always fun to just sit around and watch people. Yeah, there were a lot of addicts, but it was always interesting and cultivated. I remember I used to take the bus a lot, landing in Port Authority, and that was intense being a young teenager. It was just a crosswalk of all different sorts of people at a time when it was an interesting place to walk. All of it was porn movie houses and karate movie houses as well.
Paste: This was before Giuliani’s restoration, so I’m sure it was a very different place.
Williams: Yes, it was a totally different place. I remember New York when the subways were covered in graffiti.
Paste: Looking back on it, did you appreciate that raw aesthetic? Do you think there’s something about it that made New York a more interesting place?
Williams: I like it now, still. I like the changes. There was a point where there were so many people in New York, so many artists. I remember it being really dark, because people would graffiti even over the light, you know? Over the light fixtures, and then the lights would flash on and off. It was cool but there were aspects of it that weren’t that cool, that were just dark and dreary. It was rare to see one nice grafitti work that lasted for more than a day or so-- it was covered up so quickly. I enjoy where it is right now, granted I don’t live there now, so I don’t know the everyday realities that happened with Giuliani or Bloomberg. But I enjoy New York-- it’s a great crosswalk of culture and it’s still an amazing city.
Paste: Was college at NYU when you started to get into spoken word and slam poetry?
Williams: Yes, when I was there I started journaling for the first time in my life. [My writing] looked more like poetry than prose when I was writing, and it wasn’t a class assignment. At that time I was invited to a poetry reading. It was just a germ at that time, but I would notice the similarities between what was being read on stage and what I was writing in my journal. I started fantasizing about going to one of those readings and reading something from my journal, which I did after four or five months. I eventually ended up reading a poem and from there on my life pretty much shifted. I stayed in school, of course, but I could have never imagined that I had an actual career in writing poetry. I was in acting school and I would go to a poetry reading every night.
Paste: What were some of the poetry houses that you would go to in New York City?
Williams: My favorite was the Brooklyn Moon Café, which was on Fulton Street. That was my favorite spot and I went there every Friday. Sometimes I would go to the Nuyorican Café on the Lower East Side. Sometimes I would go to a place called the Brooklyn Tea Party.
Paste: Did this time in your life actively lead you into hip-hop?
Williams: I was involved in it way before slam-- hip-hop’s what led me to poetry. I started writing poems about my dissatisfaction with hip-hop. It was at the beginning of feeling betrayed by hip-hop, where it felt strange to me. I was maturing in one direction and hip-hop seemed to be maturing in another. So the way I voiced that frustration and dissatisfaction was through poetry.
Paste: It’s interesting that you wrote a song [“Telegram”] that’s very critical of hip-hop, and at the same time you wrote a letter to Oprah defending it. What were you exposed to that made you have such a reaction to it?
Williams: I was listening to all of the radio stations in the city that were revealing the first layer of that culture. We were still under the radar of the station, so we grew up listening to Kiss and Red Alert and the fights that happened between those stations and the rap groups who would identify with those stations. You would take sides. There was this glory that came about hearing hip-hop on the radio that had to do with feeling like we’re being represented. Even though we hadn’t done it, we felt connected enough to an expression and found that this is the sound of my generation, and suddenly it’s blowing up, getting popular and other people are able to hear it. We had to fight against people who would say “It’s not music,” or “They’re just talking.” Whatever it was, those little arguments made us even more passionate about the music.
Paste: When did you feel that you might be misrepresented by this genre of music?
Williams: There was a time when the music here just felt homicidal, where it stopped sounding like battle rap and started sounding more like straight-up battle. It went from the depiction of a gangster’s life, being subjective of one artist’s imagination, to people actually trying to explain it as an actual reality. It became imaginative-- that was my thing about gangster rap. I was into it for a minute and I would appreciate it if it were real. But there were times when it wasn’t imaginative and it wasn’t real. It walked a fine line between a lack of imagination and the desire to write a movie-- it was like a bad movie. The beats were amazing, which was the problem. The realism was just suffering, it was misleading a lot of people: Posing certain ideals and values that in the long run would work against us, and work against anyone trying to grow, anyone trying to understand life and how the world worked. Since there were no famous philosophers and thinkers, kids only wanted to emulate rappers. And I was thinking, “Oh my God, don’t repeat that. It’s toxic.” So it was at a point where I was hearing it more and more on the radio and writing poems to express that frustration.
Paste: Did you see the effects of this on the streets of New York?
Williams: I saw it everywhere-- I see it everywhere. There’s essentially a lost generation that has put money before community, people who think that money is the ultimate power. There are a lot of confused ideals right now in the public eye and confusion among young people about what’s real and what’s not, buying into everything that’s on the radio.
Paste: You have a role in the upcoming New York, I Love You movie
Williams: I have a small role in the piece that Scarlett Johansson directed. I walk into a subway hiding something-- I think my words are the only words in it. It’s a great idea. I loved [Paris, je t'aime]. I think a lot of people love so many aspects of New York. What I like about New York are the different worlds that are available to different points and ranks in life. After becoming someone who’s like an underground celebrity in the poetry dens, certain rooms and backrooms and places where I didn’t know there were backrooms started getting opened. There’s this other New York. There are so many layers and gears. It’s not only VIP. My grandfather, for the longest time, lived in Williamsburg. He took me with him to this store and we went to the back and they had a row of paper towels and toilet paper and he pulled back some paper towels and turned a door knob-- the whole back wall opened and people were gambling, betting on horses. I like the back rooms. I like that there’s this hidden New York within New York. There are these types of people who have built communities under the subway systems-- the original squatters.
Paste: Living in L.A., how do you view the differences between the two coasts?
Williams: I enjoy living in L.A. I have kids and I definitely realized early on not to raise my kids in New York City. I wanted them to have grass immediately. I didn’t want to have to take them to a park with fences around it for them to experience that. That’s what made L.A. make sense to me.
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