Saul Williams is tired of the same old shit.
Maybe that’s why he’s been keeping himself so busy these days. He just finished writing his third book of poetry, Said the Shotgun to the Head. He’s slated to star in a French play in Los Angeles called Beautiful Burials. He has a recurring role in the UPN sitcom Girlfriends. He’s performed with artists such as KRS-One, De La Soul, the Fugees and Blackalicious. He’s won several awards for Slam, a film he wrote and starred in, and is planning to write another screenplay. He’s written articles for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Details, Essence, Vibe, Source, The FADER and countless other periodicals. He’s a father of two: a daughter, Saturn and a son, Xuly. And perhaps eventually, he’ll sit down and make more music. But at the moment, he’s getting ready to perform at Bowery Ballroom in New York City, and he took a little time out to talk to Prefix Magazine.
As a musician, Williams first made waves with his critically acclaimed debut album, 2001’s Amethyst Rock Star, produced by Rick Rubin, which combines Williams’ love of words and his love of hip-hop. But Amethyst Rock Star is a far cry from straight-up hip-hop; Williams’ frantic and rhythmic spoken-word style arranged over a full-scale band, with political and social lyrics to boot, is more Rage Against the Machine than Dr. Dre. For Williams, hip-hop is becoming increasingly less relevant as it evolves away from socially minded artists like Public Enemy and toward contemporary rappers like 50 Cent. And words, as saviors, are becoming increasingly more important.
“We have the whole ‘keep it real’ phenomenon, which started around ’92,” Williams says. “This whole thugged-out, ‘keep it real’ thing. Which is like, if it’s not street, if ain’t ghetto, then it ain’t hip-hop. This attitude neglected the roots of hip-hop. Yes, the roots are in the ghettoes, but hip-hop has very suburban roots as well — Public Enemy, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, LL Cool J, Run DMC. They all came from Queens, Long Island, houses with basements, front yards, back yards, and not necessarily projects.”
He also suggests the relevancy of hip-hop declined not only because of the “keep it real” mentality, but also due to the prevalent force of beats in hip-hop music.
“Beats are extremely, extremely powerful. When the beat drops, you nod your head. Like yes. The affirmative. Dr. Dre puts out the Chronic. All of a sudden the beats are so hypnotic and the lyrics are like ‘Bitches ain’t shit,’ and we start making excuses. ‘Oh I just like the beat. I just like to dance to this. I really don’t care about what he’s saying.’ And so over time we built up a tolerance for bullshit lyrics.
“So 10 years after ‘Fight the Power’ we’re listening to ‘Jigga my nigga, bitches better get it right.’ And we’re just like, ‘Yeah it’s all right. That’s dope,’ because we’ve built up a tolerance for bullshit. We’re in the haze of addiction. So Nas is correct when he says, ‘You’re a slave to a page in my rap book.’ We become literally addicted. There are no metaphors anymore.”
The lack of metaphors is apparent by looking at the current state of contemporary hip-hop, the lyrics of which often depict the literal gangster life that many rappers are living. The deaths of Tupac and Biggie, the arrest of Suge Knight, and most recently the investigation into Irv Gotti’s label Murder Inc. have all brought negative attention to hip-hop culture and the lifestyle that rappers seem to carry out. “At the end of the day if we’re just trying to live up to some gangster shit, then what are we trying to do?” Williams asks. “It’s like we’re just trying to make life a reflection of The Godfather and Scarface.”
Though much of contemporary hip-hop may not address the larger realities that are affecting its culture, those who have a more direct influence over life in our society have adopted the gangster attitude, namely the Bush administration. According to Williams, President George W. Bush may be a gangster in his own right.
“The American government right now is very purposefully trying to live out some gangster shit,” explains Williams. “The reason why they want the Iraqi soil is not because we’re so dependent on the oil. Other imperialistic nations are as dependent, if not more dependent, than we are, because we’ve already stolen other oil resources. We’ll be fine for a while. But other countries won’t, so we want that turf, because if we control that turf, we can control them. It’s just gangster play, and hip-hop is a reflection of that. So both unfortunately reflect each other politically. It’s become one and the same.”
But how can hip-hop change? If hip-hop is as stubborn as the president, than the outlook of hip-hop music seems grim. Williams offers a little inspiration.
“To me hip-hop is a reflection of the world and everything else. The only way hip-hop can change, the only way that the world can change, is if people realize that power lies within vision. So the idea of ‘keeping it real’ is null and void until you realize that you determine your reality through your vision of it. Reality is not determined. We determine it through our envisioning of it.”
Williams continues: “If you want to live in a world of peace you have to envision it and you have to carry out your ideas peacefully in your everyday life. You also have to speak up against the wrongs and the injustices that you see, because some people are not aware that they are being unjust until it’s brought to their attention. So it’s our responsibility to bring things to people’s attention.”
He says hopefully, “Another reality is possible.”
Williams decides to perform tonight without music in order to get his message across. No beats. Just words. “Don’t nod your head,” he says. “Not tonight.”