Interview by Vinnie Baggadonuts
Illustration by Erik Rose


Vinnie Baggadonuts: So, I spent a week with your album.

Saul Williams: Yeah?

VB: And, from the very first note, I had goose bumps.

SW: Yeah?

VB: It's unbelievable.

SW: Thank you!

VB: "Talk To Strangers" alone is unbelievable, and the rest of it was just surprise after surprise.

SW: I think that might be my favorite song, actually, thatís not a song.

Both: (laugh)

VB: You know, when I got my little cheat sheet for you and I read through it, it said that these songs were experiments-- just you messing around with no label or anything. Did you intend for it to sound like it does, or was the whole process completely free and uninhibited?

SW: Completely free and uninhibited.

VB: And when you finally decided to approach somebody to put it out, was it hard to describe it to people?

SW: Oh, no. You know, the first song I recorded for the album was "Grippo".

VB: Really?

SW: Yeah. And I recorded that maybe two years ago. Maybe three. Two years ago. And the whole time I was like, "Thatís the sound!"

VB: (laughs)

SW: And I called it "industrial punk-hop".

Both: (laugh)

SW: Actually, I called it "grippo". Thatís the sound.

Both: (laugh)

SW: I would describe it, though, as "industrial punk-hop". But I never really... I guess we did shop it around, but not too much. Actually, I guess we considered it; we considered shopping it right after I got off of Rick Rubinís label. Then we were like, "You know what? Letís hold off."

Both: (laugh)

SW: And that was the coolest thing, to record an entire album without anyone breathing down my back.

VB: Did you not have that luxury with Amethyst Rock Star?

SW: No. Rick told me that I couldnít go into the studio until I had 20 songs.

VB: Whoa!

SW: Every couple of months, Iíd play him everything Iíd done, and heíd say, "Mmmm... no. Thatís not a song. Thatís not a song. That oneís cool. That oneís alright." Finally, after, I think, two years, he let me go into the studio. And the album came out in America a year and ten months after I recorded it.

VB: Really?

SW: Yeah. It wasnít a fun experience.

Both: (laugh)

SW: It was also me. I had a lot of ego and all that, and I was totally new to it. It was a big growing process to me. This one was a growing process, as well, but it felt good.

VB: It was more personal than professional.

SW: Yeah.

VB: Well, how long after you recorded the last note of this record before it was released?

SW: I finished recording this in June.

VB: Whoa. Thatís pretty quick.

SW: Yeah, Iím happy.

VB: Then this is a very current representation of you.

SW: Yeah. It was due June 25th; I remember I had to hand it in then.

VB: I know itís not technically out yet, but have you heard any feedback on it?

SW: This is my first week of press, really, so Iím just starting to hear responses.

VB: What about family or friends?

SW: All my family and friends keep going on and on about "Black Stacy".

VB: "Black Stacy" is awesome.

SW: My middle name is Stacy, so they know it rings so true.

Both: (laugh)

SW: I guess thatís the most personal thing on the album.

VB: Iím really curious about how you made this album. Did you make music, then come up with lyrics? Or did it all go hand in hand?

SW: Every song was different. "Talk To Strangers", for example... my friend Serj Tankian wrote the music for that and gave it to me, and I wrote to it. "Grippo" I actually wrote in Milwaukee.

VB: Really?!?

SW: Yep.

Both: (laugh)

SW: I was teaching a poetry workshop in Milwaukee--

VB: What?!? How did I not know about this?

SW: Oh, this was, like, two years ago. And one night, some kids were like, "We want to take you to see some local hip-hop groups perform at this bar or club." So I went, and it happened to be two white rap groups, and they were awesome.

VB: Do you remember who they were?

SW: All I remember is that there was a girl named Luna.

VB: Lunaversol!

SW: Yeah!

VB: Sheís a friend of ours!

SW: Really?

VB: Yeah.

SW: Dope!

VB: Was she with Jason Todd or Def Harmonic?

SW: Yeah, I think so. Oh, wow! You know the groups!

VB: Me and a couple of my friends have painted behind some of them while theyíve performed.

SW: Thatís awesome! Yeah, I saw them perform at this bar/restaurant place, and I sat at the bar watching them, and they were amazing. They reminded me of Digable Planets a bit. The beats were dope and the lyrics were great. I was really into it. What I really liked about it was, they werenít acting black.

VB: (laughs)

SW: They were just being themselves... and it worked! I was sitting at the bar thinking, "Hmmm... this is interesting. I really like this, and Iím not angry about it!"

Both: (laugh)

SW: I was thinking, "Why does it work? Well, it works because it seems that the angst and sense of oppression I get from hip-hop I grew up with is not there. It seems to be replaced with this sense of guilt and depression or whatever." And I thought, "Hmmm... I think thatís a valid substitute!"

Both: (laugh)

SW: And I wrote on a napkin: "Substitute the anger and oppression / With guilt and depression / And itís yours."

VB: Wow!

Both: (laugh)

VB: Wait until I tell them this. Luna might cry!

SW: (laughs)

VB: I did a painting of Lee Perry at a gig, and she wanted to buy it because she thought it was you!

SW: (laughs) Was it the one where his leg is up, and heís dancing?

VB: No, no. Heís standing in a boat.

SW: (laughs) You know, the whole artwork for my album was inspired by Lee "Scratch" Perry.

VB: You know what? With you in the truck, the suitcase, and everything, I was like, "Yeah, thatís whatís going on." And you talk about "Black Stacy"? All the rhythms in that, and the piano, itís totally Trenchtown.

SW: Yeah! One of the main things I was listening to all of last year was Lee Perry. I have a picture of him in my house, which everyone thinks is me. Itís hilarious.

VB: Did you try and get him on the record?

SW: No, not at all. Iíve met him, though. Performed with him twice.

VB: Really?

SW: Yeah.

VB: What was that experience like?

SW: Oh, heís just a weirdo.

Both: (laugh)

SW: The first time I met him, he was wearing a suit of CDs.

Both: (laugh)

SW: Thatís all I have to say. He was wearing a suit made of CDs, and had a Swedish wife running around trying to find him weed.

Both: (laugh)

SW: But, yeah, I wrote "Grippo" while in Milwaukee. The whole thing with that song is, someone might listen to it and think I was angry, but the whole point of the song is, "You know what? It doesnít matter whoís doing this shit. Letís just talk about the essence of us. 'I want to show you what the stars are made of / I want to show you the stars.'" Thatís what the song is about: letís just focus on the essence.

VB: You know, I listen to your work and, Iíll admit, I initially misconstrue a lot of your stuff as being angry. But when I really listen or read the lyrics, I realize thereís just this underlying message of, "Be true to who you really are. Donít be what you think youíre supposed to be."

SW: Yeah.

VB: And Iíve had this album on loop, trying to figure out what itís like, but there isnít anything!

SW: Excellent.

VB: I think thatís all because of that underlying message-- you making what you want to make.

SW: I guess it would have to be that, since itís self-titled.

VB: (laughs)

SW: No, for real. I got scared when we finally decided. I was trying to figure out what the title would be, and my manager suggested, "Why not let it be self-titled?" I was like, "No, no." The only reason why I said no was itís kind of scary. And Iíd have to go back and listen to everything to make sure itís fully representative of me. Thatís a great challenge!

VB: But donít you feel like you could self-title every album you make, because it is representative of you?

SW: Um, no. Not the last one.

VB: No?

SW: I think the next one could be called Saul Williams, Too.

Both: (laugh)

SW: The last one was definitely an interesting experience for me.

VB: I know Iím jumping ahead now, but did that initial experience make you want to record every future record like you recorded this one?

SW: No! Not at all! Freedom isnít-- (laughs) I was about to quote Slam: "Freedom isnít out there. Itís in here." (laughs) Itís not that I needed to actually be free of a label to record what I recorded. I needed to feel comfortable in my skin. Thatís what this album is about. Thatís what "Black Stacy" is about. And once you feel that and can maintain that, then you can be comfortable in a corporate structure, or any type of structure. As long as you donít lose that sense of connection to yourself.

VB: How are you going to tour for this record? You played all the music yourself, didnít you?

SW: A band.

VB: The same one from Amethyst...?

SW: No. A different one. Iím putting it together right now.

VB: Are you planning on touring right around election time?

SW: I think Iím going to tour after election. Iíve done so much activist work with the Not In Our Name Project, and Iíll probably do more speaking engagements leading up to election. But I wonít start touring the album until late November, I think. We might need it then.

Both: (laugh)

VB: You have children. Does it scare you for the world, the closer we get to November?

SW: Nah. Iím not scared. Iím more excited. I mean, either way you look at it, itís an amazing time to be alive. Whatever is the karmic plight of this country, whatever it is that we have to go through, weíre all going to have to live through it and die through it. Weíre all going to have to experience it, and play our part determining it, as well. I have no fear when it comes to facing the future, regardless of how beautiful or bleak. Iím excited. The only thing that frightens me is the possibility of apathy setting in again.

VB: I think itís interesting how non-apathetic people are now, especially this electoral go-around.

SW: Yeah, itís amazing. And we have to thank Bush for that.

Both: (laugh)

VB: Itís funny you say that, because I was going to say I have to thank Bush. Since heís been in office, Iíve seen more great art and heard more amazing music.

SW: Exactly!

Both: (laugh)

SW: Bush is good for poetry. Now heís good for film. Heís bad for the preservation of humanity, but....

Both: (laugh)

VB: Have you sent him a copy of the album?

SW: Not yet. Itís not really for him. Itís more important that the people hear it, because thatís where the power is.

VB: You havenít performed any of these songs yet, have you?

SW: I performed "Grippo" once with my old band.

VB: Because I wondered if it's hard to perform songs from this album. The music alone seems so overwhelming. It kind of just takes you over.

SW: It will be interesting. See, my favorite outlet, of everything I do, is performing. This album sets the stage for me, I feel. Iím so excited to perform this.

Both: (laugh)

SW: Iím kind of intimidated, because I spent part of last year touring with The Mars Volta, and that was, like, the best live show Iíve seen in a long time. So Iím like, "Fuck! Well, maybe I was on that tour because I was supposed to see that."

VB: And you can hear the influence of that energy on this record, too. Iím excited because this will be my first "industrial punk-hop" show.

SW: (laughs) Weíll call it "grippo".

Both: (laugh)

VB: I read that you like having a challenging audience, too. Is that going to affect who you pick to tour with?

SW: Yeah. But I havenít really thought about who, specifically, yet. Itís gonna have to be someone I want to hear about 40 times.

Both: (laugh)

VB: Are you nervous at all about your upcoming show [free show in Central Park] with Nas?

SW: Yes.

Both: (laugh)

SW: But not because of Nas, because of the crowd. I believe this will be my largest audience ever, first of all.

VB: But Nas has a pretty eclectic, diverse audience.

SW: Yeah. But in New York right now, [radio station] HOT 97 is blowing this thing up. So, itís a HOT 97 crowd. All my little anti-hip-hop comments are going to come to test.

Both: (laugh)

VB: I hope this is not the last time I speak with you.

SW: (laughs) Nah. Iím so excited. This is a blessing, you know? To have this opportunity to say all the things Iíve wanted to say, to the people Iíve wanted to say it to.

VB: Is Nas aware of what you do?

SW: Oh, yeah. He asked me.

VB: Thatís awesome. I kinda came up listening to Nas.

SW: Me, too. Heís one of the few MCs out there, in the new batch, that I can say is an actual influence. He actually influenced my writing.

VB: Have you discussed these anti-hip-hop comments of yours with him?

SW: Never met him.

VB: Have you talked to anybody in hip-hop about it, and gotten their feedback?

SW: I wrote a piece once for Fader about a conversation I had with Hype Williams. Iím sure you can find it online somewhere. It was about a conversation we had about hip-hop, and he was like, "Hip-hop is just fast food, man. Itís fast food."

VB: Whoa.

SW: And I was like, "Nooo...."

Both: (laugh)

SW: But the only people Iíve really talked to about it are the people youíd expect me to talk to, like Common and Mos and Talib and Amhir. But Iíve never talked to Nelly. (laughs)

VB: Did you listen to a lot of the HOT 97 hip-hop when you were making the record?

SW: Yeah. I listen to a lot of stuff. You know, my biggest hip-hop record of last year was probably 50 Cent's.

VB: Really?

SW: Straight up. I liked that album. I really did. It was one of the things I just couldnít deny. I mean, there was some shit said on that album where I was like, "Wow!" Like, "The D.A. can play this motherfuckin' tape in court / Iíll kill you."

Both: (laugh)

SW: I was like, "Wow! This is crazy!" You should have seen me! I have this '86 yellow Volvo, blasting 50 Cent. But then, on the other hand, thereís other cats I listen to, like Brother Ali, Aesop, El-P, Busdriver. But I canít think of a hip-hop album Iíve been gung-ho about in a long time. I was listening to Nas.

VB: I asked if you listened to HOT 97 type of stuff because I know you have some very strong opinions of hip-hop.

SW: You know, I donít live in New York anymore, but whenever Iím there, itís what I listen to. I just want to know whatís going on. But I canít listen to a lot of it, just like I canít read certain magazines a lot. Itís like eating meat: I have to be careful of what I put into my body.

Both: (laugh)

VB: Your children have heard your album? Because I know Saturnís [Saul's daughter] on the album.

SW: Oh, yeah. Saturn was there cracking up while Iíd record.

Both: (laugh)

SW: Thereís a song called "Surrender", and I had to do different takes of the vocals. But the first take actually has Saturn and Xuly [Saul's son] in the background, wrestling.

VB: I think thatís my favorite song on the album.

SW: Oh, yeah?!? Thatís my "Screamo" song.

VB: There were just some lines in there that made me think about things in my own life. And not that Iím gangster, but that line, "Itís hard to be gangster when youíre always getting kissed"--

Both: (laugh)

VB: I laughed so hard, and then felt bad because I thought, "Should I be laughing at this?"

SW: (laughs)

VB: Itís smack-dab in the middle of all this stuff where youíre realizing, "Shit. Iíve behaved like that! Iíve been at fault in some of those ways."

SW: Yep.

VB: And then that line shows up and brings all this laughter, like a little relief.


SW: Iím being told we have to wrap this up. But first, a quick note on that. Again, I was in Milwaukee, and one of the other things I did was go into a record store. I went up to the guy and was like, "Dude, what the fuck is 'emo'? Just tell me what 'emo' shit I should get." So I bought four or five records. That was the time when I started listening to Bright Eyes, Death Cab For Cutie, and I forget what else. But that was another part of that same trip.

VB: I think Iíve heard one Bright Eyes song.

SW: That stuffís pretty intense. Where he goes emotionally, itís really passion-filled. Musically, I think Iím more into Cursive. But as far as what he puts into a song, emotionally, itís crazy. You could fuckin' cry!

VB: Okay. Well, thanks again, Saul.

SW: No problem. Definitely tell Luna I said, "Hi."

VB: Definitely.

SW: Alright, bro. Nice speaking with you.