The man is a package of slashes: actorauthorscreenwriterslam poetblack rockerindie hip-hop hero slash slash slash. You want credentials? He‘s an MC with an MFA — the original black Renaissance man as post-hip-hop motherfucker of reinvention.
Saul Stacey Williams’ hero is Paul Robeson, another son of a preacher man, another rebel teacher who made a lifetime of defying expectations, the traditional left and right, and sometimes gravity itself. ”If you look in a book of names and you look at ‘Paul,’“ Williams is fond of disclosing, ”it says, ‘See Saul.’ Which means ‘asked for’ in Hebrew.“
Like KRS-One, Williams worships the power of word sound, with which he endlessly plays — ”retire lateretaliate,“ ”Saul Staceysolstice,“ ”so realsurreal.“ ”Since we nod our heads to beats,“ he says, ”that‘s instant affirmation, ’cause you‘re nodding your head in agreement to the beat. And you’re nodding your head to what I say, regardless of what I say.“
Lots of folks, including Williams‘ patron Rick Rubin, scratch their heads over SaulPaul’s road to Damascus. After pulling his lanky profile from NYU‘s Tisch School of Arts acting program to the Nuyorican and Brooklyn Moon poetry slams, to Marc Levin’s award-winning feature film Slam, to a series of cult-creating singles on the Big Dada and Rawkus labels, to the critically acclaimed poetry book She, Williams broke for Los Angeles with a band.
A band? Yes, and no ”roots“ thing either. On ”Tao of Now,“ Williams has his six-piece (viola, cello, electric guitar, bass, drums and DJ) spinning stars into a junglistically horny, black sonic-fiction orbit while he bestows astrological metaphors to dissect his patriarchal attitudes. ”Om Nia Merican“ is the album‘s festival-rock centerpiece, a lyrical rewrite of the national anthem as radical as Hendrix’s. ”Fearless“ is weirdest of all — Michael Jackson‘s ”She’s Out of My Life“ flipped into sampled prophecies from Kahlil Gibran, the band speeding in metal overdrive around Malibu curves. Okay, it‘s definitely live. But is it hip-hop?
The New York slam scenes came up as hip-hop’s mid-‘90s pomo-Afro-boho head-wrapped and freshly oiled yin to the expanding-market-share ultra-bling yang. It was the alternative to alternative hip-hop. Williams always stood out, a tall dreadlock possessed by his poetry, large channeling hands waving like a freestyle-stricken autist. But when the scene became too reliant on performance over substance, he retreated to write the terrifyingly intimate She, documenting the unraveling of his relationship with artist Marcia Jones. Finally, he followed Jones back to Los Angeles, to be closer to their daughter, Saturn, and record Amethyst Rock Star for Rubin.
”In Brooklyn and New York, there’s a strong sense of community,“ he says. ”Whereas out here, it‘s much more about isolation, which is what I wanted to experience at this point. I wanted to be isolated from all the comfort zones that I had and create out of something new.“
The tension in Robeson’s semicharmed life lay in a contradiction, partly born of privilege, between the pull of community and the luxury of expression — the way, say, the race-man weight of ”Ol‘ Man River“ often tugged against his pure-hearted idealism. After all the slashes crumble, Williams is just another kid who grew up as drunk on EPMD and Slick Rick as anyone else, but whose claim to street smarts lies in the fact that he often sold his homework to drug dealers. As he says on ”Our Father,“ ”I learned to beatbox in my tree house.“
This is a rich tension, and one product is an offstage didacticism as complex as KRS-One’s. Williams is dismissive of what he calls ”conscious bohemian hip-hop“: ”Public Enemy was hardcore. It‘s what drug dealers listened to.“ Jim Morrison and Allen Ginsberg get the big-up: ”There’s the whole racial thing of ‘young black man, microphone.’ People look at me and say, ‘Oh yeah, I can see you’re influenced by the Last Poets and Gil Scott . . .‘“
Williams casts the feedback-drenched, thoroughly undanceable Amethyst Rock Star as a counterstatement to hip-hop’s accumulating paper chase. Positioning himself after writer Albert Murray as an ”Omni-American,“ Williams argues hip-hop‘s tastes have narrowed. ”In ’94, when I was living in Brooklyn and everyone was blasting Biggie and Mobb Deep, I was escaping to my home in Crown Heights and blasting Portishead and Tricky — yo, these are beats to me. And now I listen to hip-hop like ‘That’s not me.‘
“I really feel that people need to be jolted out of their comfort zones,” he continues. “If you change the beat up, you might change the way people dance to the music. If you change the way they move, maybe they’ll approach it differently. If you nod your head the same old way, then you might ignore the lyrics the same old way. I want to connect music to its highest power, which is heightening consciousness and affecting people‘s reality. That can’t be done in normal ways — not according to my experience.”
Saul Williams appears at El Rey Theater, Tuesday, May 15, at 8:15 p.m.