Review which finds that Saul Williams fails to translate potent political polemics into poetic musical magic...
Slam Dunk Funk Sunk by Clunky Punk Junk
Performance poet Saul Williams first came to prominence (rather than just being supreme Nuyorican Grand Slam Champion) thanks to the superb cinematic showcase, Slam (dir. Marc Levin, 1998), portraying a low level soft drugs dealer honing his rapping skills and ambitions in prison before trouncing his trendy peers in an arts café spoken word competition. Since then he has solidified his rep as a premier exponent of oral street literacy, including providing the name, theme song (with Coldcut & DJ Spooky) and publicity text, ‘Pledge of Resistance’, for the anti-war Not In My Name coalition (1).
“America is at war, not only with Iraq but with itself. Many Americans are slowly beginning to realize that the norms of American comfort come at the cost of foreign discomfort. Our leaders have always known this. Yet, we have not always truly known our leaders. Thus, now, we are led astray. Our current regime is see-through. They aim to manipulate the world for their own personal gain. As an American of an antebellum bloodline I recognize colonial imperialism under any name and refuse to allow the goals of our leaders to be perpetuated in my name. George Bush is not president of me. He is not representative of my beliefs. He claims no earned authority over the American people. Those who follow his command are misguided. They are many, yet outnumbered. I stand on the side of humanity, marching in the streets of Cairo, London, Paris, Mexico City, NY, Los Angeles, screaming these songs for the world to hear.” (2)
The eponymously titled Saul Williams (The Fader Label) is his second foray into mainstream music releases (after Amethyst Rock Star, 2001 – co-produced by rap-rock veteran Rick Rubin). His searing, excoriating and exhilarating vocals are set to heavy guitar-based quasi-rock beats which he ambitiously describes as industrial punk-hop – evoking techno and electro, Public Enemy’s cacophonous Bomb Squad production, and sundry descendants of punk ethics: “the tracks range from politics to relationships and the politics of relationships. What I ended up with was something that captured the authoritative cool of hip-hop, the playful angst of rock and roll, the raw emotional torment of emo … and the fuck offness of punk.” (2)
The lyrics themselves are outstanding and often inspired, especially when nailing the laziness, foolishness, complacencies or darker hidden downsides of everyday clichés and common sense and the dishonest malice of politicians. There is humour aplenty, too, as in the intro to ‘List Of Demands’ riffing on the pretensions of gangsta hip-pop: ‘Saul Williams DID NOT almost die, get shot, beat up, stand trial for murder, but he does have babies by two different women if that counts. Say word.’ However, the percussion and rock focus bring to mind the relative slickness as well as the political sensibility of Rage Against the Machine (with whom Williams worked closely on ‘Not In My Name’) – as well as the punk influence, with more ragged rough and ready slashing guitars echoing 1980s New York pioneers Henry Rollins, Black Flag, and Bad Brains (3).
And there’s the rub (but minus the dub). The rhythmic qualities of poetry as literature (with a big ‘L’) are intrinsically tied into the conjunctions of syllable, word, line and stanza; whereas in oral traditions co-rooted in music it is necessary to dissolve ego to some pragmatic extent in the beating of hearts or drums, for example, and in the generally interacting vibrations of audiences. This he seems unwilling or unable to contemplate, instead preferring to thrash his fantastic lyrics to death-by-metal:
“I did most of the music myself. The cool thing about recording before there was an actual deal in place was the fact that most songs simply started as experiments done in my free time with absolutely no pressure to anyone. I was the only one whose head nod determined the fate of a song. Oh, and, of course, your’s too …” (www.contactmusic.com).
Hmm … dead giveaway, that tagged-on acknowledgement of the listener’s existence … Furthermore, while I’ve yet to snag any new versions, Newcastle upon Tyne beatmakers extraordinaire DC Joseph deployed an artfully offbeat snare kick in their slow funky house remix of ‘Amethyst Rocks’ (from the previous album) in a valiant attempt to accommodate Williams’ rhythmically errant diction. But even this couldn’t disguise his refusal to meet the demands of music halfway. And I don’t think it’s just a technical problem of marrying divergent literary traditions. After all, our own dub poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah never have such trouble – and neither do American spoken wordsmiths such as Sarah Jones, Ursula Rucker or Dana Bryant.
Perhaps things are different in the Big Apple, where the freaky cliquey fashionable arts scene has long specialised in co-opting street expression into high-concept commodities. But these days the only obvious reason to dredge up a rock sensibility is the commercial pressure to sell to middle class white kids, who tolerate developments in Black culture only when accompanied by posing shrieking angst (4). Otherwise, the younger mixed urban generations in particular are quite capable of appreciating the real thing, thank you very much – whoever it’s produced by. Next up, check out the website hype (at www.saulwilliams.com):
“In an age where boundless leaps are being made in communication, Saul Williams is evolutionary proof that age old concepts can be fused with new age precepts and expressed with mind opening precision. Never before has the power of word and our ability to dictate our reality been expressed so clearly and creatively, at once. Saul's poetry represents an evolution of thought, artistry and spiritual consciousness delivered with the lyrical fervor of hip hop and the grace and linguistic mastery of Shakespeare. Saul channels the voice of the New Age, yet allows a wide ranging stream of consciousness to distort the melody like some sort of lyrical Hendrix.”
Exactly. Sounds a little on the hippy-dippy tip, don’t it? … Saul, I’m not saying you’re (musico-culturally) extinct; but you’re definitely late.
1. which included luminary liberal celebrity signatories such as Ossie Davis, Susan Sarandon, Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem, Sean Penn and Kurt Vonnegut. Saul Williams has also recorded on Lyricist Lounge compilations; toured with Blackalicious, Cursive and The Mars Volta; co-starred in the Kevin Spacey vehicle K-Pax; has a current broadway show; and plans to perform ‘Said The Shotgun To The Head’ with the Basel Symphony Orchestra in Switzerland.
2. see (www.artistsnetwork.org)
3. Thanks to Kev Anderson for setting me straight there.
4. recent examples being Jay-Z & Linkin Park, and Limp Bizkit & Wu-Tang Clan; or, back in the day, Ice-T’s Body Count, Run-DMC’s work with Rick Rubin, and countless Public Enemy and Cypress Hill collabos. For greater blues-rock-rap profundity, see Mos Def’s Black Jack Johnson project (on The New Danger, 2004) or the Nas & Olu Dara father and son reunion in ‘Bridging the Gap’ (on Street’s Disciple, 2004).
Music review published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 13, July 2005.
For other essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see: