Saul Williams Talks His New Album and America's Obsession With "Dumbing Down" Art
Saul Williams has long been part of hip-hop's vanguard. Ever since getting his start as a slam poet opening for hip-hop acts like the Roots and the Fugees, he's been consistently making music far ahead of its time. Confrontational, experimental, politically minded — Williams helped craft the grimy hip-hop sound that's finally made it to the radio in the forms of your Travis Scotts and Yeezuses.
Outside the lab, Williams has released several books of poetry, vaulting himself onto lists of the best-selling poets of all time. An actor, advocate and a master of dissonance and political wordplay, Williams will be releasing his fifth album early next year — one bearing the charged title Martyr Loser King.
Williams has been preluding the album with clipped poetic transmissions, leaking through outlets such as Fact Magazine and Okayplayer, introducing us to the album's protagonist, a hacker named Martyr Loser King living in the African country of Burundi. In the latest, premiering below entitled "Down For Some Ignorance," he discusses the history of black oppression and the rise of black culture from this pain.
Mic spoke with Williams recently via phone to talk the targets he's hunting with the new album and the way Americans consume revolutionary music differently than the rest of the world.
Mic: Tell me about the upcoming album. We've been digging the hacker preludes.
Saul Williams: The music is an experiment with a sort of polyrhymthic emptiness, like implied beats. I'm more interested in the other half of the equation, which is your interior world as the music affects you. How you listen, how it makes you move or think, wherever it pulls you. For me, I love watching people dance, because I can tell how they hear the music by how they respond to it. This album is really a response, or me playing with that.
Conceptually, yes, it's a thinly veiled guise that I started developing around a hacker named Martyr Loser King, who lives in Burundi and becomes a virtual sensation until he's labeled as a terrorist and is killed by the powers that be. That's the short form of the story. It's a story that circles around what's going on in the world today: the proliferation of technology and how that affects a democracy and our ability to speak up, and the craving for democracy in places where it doesn't fully exist, like [the United States of] America or Burundi or tons of places.
Pretty much everywhere, maybe?
SW: Everywhere, right? Where we celebrate the idea of democracy, but we're living in an oligarchy or a dictatorship. There's tons of ways and places where we're just affected by the realities that be.
So Martyr Loser King is, in a way, this character. I'm trying to basically create a folk legend in real time, sort of like Guy Fawkes. We have some folk legends living in real time, like Chelsea Manning, for example. We should be outside of that fucking prison, like trying to break it down, but people feel disempowered. Some people are working towards it, and some people are just watching from the sidelines.
"Artists owe it to themselves to remain students, so eventually that garble rap can turn into something that makes sense. If not, have your 15 minutes, and then step back and let the next stylish motherfucker come."
This story is a means of me parlaying certain ideas. And the music is a response to what I love in music. It comes from having traveled and enjoyed much more than just the anglophone radio that comes through the top 40, while also realizing the evolution of music — which is something I don't fight against. I'm really into trap and drill rap and garble rap, meaning that I can bump Young Thug all day. And I do actually [laughs].
In fact, a lot of these cats made me realize the path I was already on. I look back at Amethyst Rock Star and think, "Yeah I get it now. That's what I was trying to do with that double time thing."
That does make a lot of sense. I remember when I first heard Kanye West's Yeezus or Death Grips — not to name names — I was like "Damn, this is a Saul Williams record." It does feel like people's tolerance for the kinds of sounds you were bringing in the beginning of your career have caught up.
SW: Exactly. In a lot of ways I feel grateful for the modern age, because I'm like, "Oh finally, some of these ideas I was trying to play with," which at the time my record label Sony didn't want to put out. With Amethyst Rock Star they said, "That's not hip-hop."
What's crazy is the person who worked at Sony internationally and saved my ass was a woman name Delphine Ferre. She was like, "That is hip-hop. We'll put it out in France first." So Amythest Rock Star came out a year and a half earlier in Europe before it came out in the States. Since that time she's been one of my managers.
Cut to modern times, and Delphine Ferre was at that Eagles of Death Metal concert in Paris just now. And the two people she was sitting at the table with outside on the terrace at the restaurant were shot right in front of her. In fact, everybody around her was murdered, and for some reason she survived.
She's sitting there going, "Why me? Why me?"
I'm just trying to help you out by connecting all these things to the present.
It's interesting thinking of Amethyst Rock Star coming out in France. It reminds me of a conversation I was having with one of our editors, talking about the fact there had been an attack earlier that week in Beirut, about how people had reported on it, but it didn't make the same impact in the social space the way Paris did. She was saying there was something about Paris specifically, there's a magic it holds with people all over the world.
SW: In the collective consciousness, we have a romantic relationship with this city. Bombing Paris kills the romance, whereas not everyone has that relationship with other places.
Agreed. Thinking of you releasing your album there first, does that relate this romance in any way to you?
SW: Well, I don't know. I know why it happened. In fact, I learned a great deal going through the album release.
When I arrived at Sony France and met with the people they were like, "Yeah, this isn't the first time that we've put out an American artist's album first. The one we did before you was Jeff Buckley; we put that out a year before America was ready for it. After that we did Fiona Apple, and we put that that out a year before America was ready for it." And they did Macy Gray like that and the Roots and Terence Trent D'Arby. There's tons of artists actually. Jimi Hendrix happened that way as well — coming out in Europe first. The American corporate structure was kind of lackadaisical like, "I don't know if people are ready for this." And then when they saw the European response, they were like, "OK, let's do it."
That has to do with the cultural relationship to entertainment. I think in America, entertainment is way more heavily aligned with escape. Of course it goes in cycles everywhere. There's an escapist notion that prevails at times and also this idea of dumbing things down to appease the public, which is just a philosophy. It's not one that you have to follow.
There's some truth in the idea of streamlining a concept or idea, but streamlining is not dumbing down. There's a difference, but there's still this prevailing thought in entrepreneurial America. It's like Jay Z saying on his Black Album, "I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars." It's interesting to be able to say that your public and not have them think you're calling them stupid.
It doesn't seem like there was major public offense taken to that. That brings up one of the other questions I had on the debate that sprang up over the summer in earnest over lyricism in hip-hop — specifically the death of lyricism. GZA wrote an essay; a lot of people were people were pointing to Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan, a lot of people like that. How do you approach that conversation?
SW: There's some amazing lyricism today. Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, [the Creator] are heroes in terms of lyrics to me. Vince Staples. Kendrick [Lamar]. There's so many lyricists out there right now it's hard to keep up. Simultaneously, yeah you have your garble raps — your Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan — where the shit is just falling on the beat and intoned in a particular way. I'm into all that.
I think things go in cycles. And I think artists owe it to themselves to remain students, so eventually that garble rap can turn into something that makes sense. If not, have your 15 minutes, and then step back and let the next stylish motherfucker come.
For those of us standing here and staying here, who aren't falling victim to the idea of this 15-minute shit, it comes from ingesting, learning, reading, updating, upgrading, expanding, exploring. To me, that's what's interesting in art, which is why I like Pina Bausch, or Wangechi Mutu, or a Kara Walker, or Bob Dylan, or Bob Marley, or Neil Young, or James Brown, or a Miles Davis, or a[n] Alice Coltrane or a Nina Simone — these people who are expanding the idea of their work as it develops in time, but not staying in one zone. Well, Bob Marley did stay in one zone; it was the right zone.
He might have pushed on. His last album he was experimenting with some '80s synths. You never know what he would have done.
SW: True. So to respond to your question, there's a lot of great lyricists. Then the stuff that doesn't have great lyrics often has great style, and I'm for it all. Like I'll take great style over great lyrics most of the time actually. The cool shit is if you have that great style, and I'm able to listen close and hear something that feeds me, I'm like, "Holy shit!"
It seems like when people talk about this issue of lyricism in hip-hop, it's such a charged topic. These two things, style and lyricism, have gone in hand throughout hip-hop history. To take a hardline stance — like everything now is weak, everything in the golden age shines — seems completely unfair to the way music develops.
SW: Exactly, I'm super open to it. But of course I love when someone blows my wig off with some crazy Jay Electronica, "As-salaam alaikum."
My favorite thing is when someone touches the style and the content. That's why we love a Fugees or an Outkast, maybe a Radiohead — those who have been able to master something that takes it to the level of high art. That's the thing, the Björk-ish level I'm looking for. I think a Kanye too.
I think Kanye does himself a disservice by not thinking of the next idea, like "Hurry up with my damn croissants!" [from "I Am a God"] could be a little better, if he just sketched it out and came back like 10 minutes later. [laughs] I don't want to repeat that, but it's so close. It's so close sometimes. I'd prefer gibberish over that sometimes.