Word-wise Saul Williams

Funky L.A. soul diva Medusa, dubbed "the Angela Davis of hiphop," tears it up with Philadelphia poet/activist Sonia Sanchez.


Funky L.A. soul diva Medusa, dubbed “the Angela Davis of hiphop,” tears it up with Philadelphia poet/activist Sonia Sanchez at the Reverb Wednesday (October 25). Rating: NNNNN


Poetry isn’t known for creating pop stars, but Saul Williams is about to blow up anyway. NThe 28-year-old son of a preacher has done more for spoken-word culture than anyone else of his generation.

He co-wrote and starred in the film Slam, has released books of poetry through MTV’s publishing arm and performs to packed clubs of young, hiphop-fed music fans.

The hiphop connection is an obvious one. Even at its most gaudy and vulgar, hiphop is street poetry, and Williams is a full-blown addict, the kind of mega-fan who can remember the first hiphop track he ever heard, and his verses riff off the rhymes of Chuck D and Rakim.

His own writing builds on hiphop aesthetics but also incorporates older styles of black oral culture like spirituals and work songs.

Given his love for rap culture, then, why not choose to express a love of words through hiphop, not the considerably less glamorous world of spoken word?


Boundaries ignored

“To me, what I do is hiphop,” Williams counters from New York. He performs with a four-piece band at Lee’s Palace Friday (October 20). “If you’re judging by what’s happened to hiphop in the last five years, though, maybe it’s good not to be called that. I come out of hiphop culture, but my whole thing is to not pay attention to the boundaries imposed by motherfuckers who say ‘Keep it real.’

“The groups that are responsible for putting hiphop on the map — Run DMC, LL Cool J, Public Enemy and Eric B & Rakim — all came from the suburbs and lived in houses with basements. None of them grew up in the projects, so this whole thing of what’s real in hiphop is bullshit.

“As far as I’m concerned, everything is hiphop. The only reason I have the patience to listen to Led Zeppelin is to listen to the breakbeats. We listen through hiphop filters, and when you do that, everything is hiphop — Nirvana’s Nevermind, Black Sabbath, all of that. We’re taught to listen for the breaks, and as long as that continues, anything we create will be hiphop, whether we’re singing, rapping or reading poetry.”

Williams’s love-hate relationship with hiphop runs deep, but don’t let it fool you. While a Williams poem put to a DJ Premier beat might sound like a dream pairing, he’s not interested.

Williams’s forthcoming Amethyst Rock Star album, due out in March, was produced by Rick Rubin. The conscious, neck-snapping hiphop jams you might expect are not there.

Instead, Williams puts his poems to dense, aggressive songs based around loud guitars and clattering beats. For anyone familiar with his past recordings with DJ Krush and KRS-One, the remarkable album will come as a shock, but after a few listens it becomes obvious that the raw energy of the music fits Williams’s intense performance style perfectly.

“Everyone just expected I would hook up with a producer and read over beats,” Williams laughs. “Columbia signed me thinking that I would make a hiphop album. I said no. My lyrics are fluid and I need living music, and I also saw a bigger picture.

“Rick sent me 50 CDs of beats, and I called him back and said they were all shit, so he was, like, ‘Fine. Do it yourself.’ Then he gave me a copy of the Beatles’ White Album and told me to study songwriting.

“I’d never written music before, but I knew what I wanted. I wrote the music I wanted to hear with my words, which might not be what other people would want to hear, but that’s fine.”


Uncomfortable listen

What will be interesting is how people categorize Amethyst Rock Star. While there are elements of metal, hiphop, jungle and poetry on the album, Williams makes sure that it never aligns itself with one area for too long.

“People get uncomfortable and fucked up by records like this, which is great,” he laughs. “It’s like those fools with all the food on their plate who won’t let the rice touch the cabbage. That’s all of us in a sense, because we’ve been trained to split shit up.

“I would love to be an artist like Madonna or Radiohead, who have the balls to suddenly say they’re not a rock band, and if you’re mad at them because you expected this or that, fuck you. I want to come different every time.”

mattg@nowtoronto.com


SAUL WILLIAMS, with CLIFTON JOSEPH, DUANE MORGAN, JEMENI and DJs KOLA and DEE JAY NAV, at Lee’s Palace (529 Bloor West), Friday (October 20). $15/advance, $20/door. 596-1598.


Medusa Funky L.A. soul diva Medusa, dubbed “the Angela Davis of hiphop,” tears it up with Philadelphia poet/activist Sonia Sanchez at the Reverb Wednesday (October 25). NOBODY Soulmates “It’s something you can ride to or you can kick it in the house. Nobody’s got the flava.”PHOEBE SNOW Phoebe Snow “I’m really an old-school head. I just love her lyrics and use of instrumentation.” CAROLE KINGFantasy “She’s also an incredible lyricist. Even her between-song segues are amazing. Fantasy is the hot shit.”

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