Saul Williams' sonic revolution

SHARE Saul Williams' sonic revolution

In a twist on the Radiohead experiment, the third album by fiery political poet and rapper Saul Williams was released last November via the Web because no major record company was interested. Listeners could download the music for free as mid-fidelity MP3s, or pay $5 for one of three higher-fidelity formats.

The difference was that while the majority of Radiohead fans are thought to have paid an average of $10, his patron and producer Trent Reznor eventually revealed that only 18 percent of the people who downloaded Williams album paid for it. The rest took it for free.

While this may say something about the future of the record industry, it was no reflection on the quality of The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! (available via With a title that cheekily references David Bowies concept album Ziggy Stardust and complete with a wonderfully recontextualized cover of U2s Sunday Bloody Sunday, the disc is a wonderfully powerful merger of industrial rock backing tracks, hip-hop grooves and Wiliams impressionistic lyrics surveying the ugly realities of life as an African-American.

I spoke to the artist by phone in the midst of a tour that brings him to Chicago Friday.

Q. Lets start with how you came to collaborate with Trent on Niggy Tardust.

A. I was asked to tour with Trent and Nine Inch Nails, and a while after that, he asked me if I was down to collaborate with him. I said yeah; I thought it would be a cool idea, so I played him the stuff I was working on, and he loved it and kept the ball rolling. I never met him before I was on the road with him; I never had listened to a Nine Inch Nails album, either! He told me that he liked my album and it grew from that. Ive had really diverse fans, from old ladies to young punk kids — the people that are looking for the intellectual or the people who are looking for the adrenaline rush with the energy that comes through the bass drums.

Q. Thats how I became a fan: by seeing you perform live. Too many rappers cant duplicate the energy of the record onstage, whereas youre even more intense in concert.

A. At a point where I started things with hip-hop, all the gangsta s–t started taking off, and everyone wanted to be the Godfather. In hip-hop, a lot of times you have to prove that you never lose your cool, as opposed to punk, where youre supposed to lose it. Youre supposed to throw it all to the f—ing wind, go to the floor and lose it. I thought that the most exciting hip-hop performance would come from that perspective.

Q. Im calling from Chicago, which in many ways is positive rap central, with Common, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Kid Sister and others. All of those rappers get dismissed in some corners for being soft — which I dont think they are — but thats a charge no one could ever throw at you, because despite the positivity, the music always hits hard.

A. Yeah, I dont like soft. Its interesting: Im a fan of everyone you mentioned; I really like Lupes new album [The Cool]. To me, back in the day, the stuff they called hardcore, most of that stuff had guitars, like Run-D.M.C. or Public Enemy. I just liked guitars, you know? So Ive kept that in my music, and its half of the inspiration. You dont have to be that hardcore for your music to be powerful, but I enjoy that.

Q. Lets get back to Niggy Tardust. How did you and Trent actually make the record? Was he crafting tracks and giving them to you? Were you in the studio at the same time?

A. We were on the tour bus together, and there werent a lot of tracks that he crafted on his own. He sent me this CD that had 14 tracks on it, and maybe four made the album. Some of the others were chopped up. He said, Here are some songs; some are new that I was working on while thinking about you, and others are stuff I had from as far back as the Fragile era that I had been sitting on. What happened was, we were in Australia — and I point that out because the first song I wrote was called Convict Colony — and there was one drum loop on Trents CD that was crazy, so I rapped over that, added guitars to it and made a new song.

Q. The idea for that tune came from being in a country that started as a dumping ground for the people England didnt want?

A. Yeah, but I was also thinking of America — our inner cities. So that was our first collaborative effort, and sort of typical of how it went.

Q. So it wasnt conceived as a concept album, though it works very well as such?

A. When Im writing hooks, it doesnt necessarily mean that it has to be conceived as a concept album from the start to work as one. I knew that it would be a matter of piecing together pieces and seeing what story is told, and letting whatever story is told serve as the concept. Its not so much as creating the concept album as much as it is promoting it as such.

Q. The title, obviously, is an homage to David Bowies Ziggy Stardust. Have you heard from him? Hes famously a voracious listener, and Id think he take it as a compliment.

A. Im sure he has; I know that Trent has talked with him, but I havent bothered to ask Trent what the response was. I already know that Bowie has heard it, and Bono, too, and I know Ive gotten the thumbs up from both of them, but I havent heard the actual responses.

Q. What about the business model? You and Trent took a risk releasing the album on the Web, but the gamble seems to have paid off: If you didnt sell more than 20 percent of the downloads, you did double the number of listeners whod heard you in the past.

A. Oh my God! Its totally an ongoing confirmation of the fact that people are willing and ready to support artists and integrity, and we dont need a middle man to make it happen. Sometimes it just takes the artist to have some [guts] and savvy, and thats what Trent has been able to do.


Saul Williams, Dragons of Zynth

10 p.m. Friday

Martyrs, 3855 N. Lincoln


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