Laying the Groundwork: An Interview With Saul Williams

Poet/musician/auteur Saul Williams discusses the influence of Haitian post-apocalyptic art on his music, artist and listener responsibility, and more.
Saul Williams

For many sci-fi fans, 2019 is a good yardstick to gauge where we’re at from a technology standpoint. That year is the setting of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi dystopian masterpiece Blade Runner. However, judging by the current landscape, it looks like Los Angeles won’t look anywhere near like its 2019 cinematic depiction (that’s good news, since it’s a post-apocalyptic movie).

Those of us who have lived long enough to see and compare movies set in the future — and the “actual” future (think all of the hoopla commemorating reaching the setting of Back to the Future II) — have realized that for the most part, artist’s imaginations run circles around the actual pace of progress. We’re a few decades away from manufacturing androids that can pass as humans. Our skylines aren’t tall enough to demand flying cars. Today, if you really want to buy a snake, it won’t cost you a mortgage.

The relatively slow progress of technology (minus occasional game-changing innovations like the smartphone) is ingrained in our collective DNA. For example, the cars of today pretty much look like the cars of 20 years ago, minus some aesthetic tweaks. Thanks to the never-ending cycle of nostalgia, most of our fashion choices wouldn’t look too out of place from 1998. And if you didn’t know better, much of the music we listen to would fit just fine on ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s radio stations (depending on the genre).

Musically, one exception to this rule is Saul Williams. His latest album MartyrLoserKing sounds like an album that might have been in regular rotation in those types of sci-fi worlds of old where 2016 was the future. Recorded in Haiti, New York City, Paris, Swaziland, and South Africa (amongst other places) MartyrLoserKing isn’t as much of a melting of musical genres as it is a smashing/freeway pile-up of styles.

MartyrLoserKing is a concept album that revolves around a hacker, and is set in the African nation of Burundi. However, it may be more accurate to call Saul Williams’ work a concept puzzle instead of a concept album. A graphic novel adaptation is in the works, and is meant to add to the storyline (not simply retell the album’s story). A separate album, These Mthrfckrs, which includes both new songs, and remixes, is meant to be a companion piece to MartyrLoserKing, instead of a traditional remix album.

The day after the historic Brexit vote, Saul Williams spoke to PopMatters from Birmingham in England. Williams talked about the vote, the UK’s and Haiti’s influence on his latest work, and what’s still in store for MartyrLoserKing.

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So, what’s it like where you’re at this morning? (The day after the Brexit vote.)

[laughs] It’s fucked up. It’s kind of like [Bernie] Sanders in California, where I know all the Californians that I knew felt like that was going to be an easy win for Sanders. Here … mostly everyone was like “remain, remain, remain,” and then yesterday morning, we met this guy in our hotel lobby who was like “I just voted. I voted to leave.” He was this rural guy. He had that sort of weird temperament of a Trump supporter. His next words were “I’m not racist. I voted to leave. I’m not racist.” It’s fucking crazy.

It’s weird to see people voting against their own best interests. I saw that Edward Snowden tweeted that. And I agree. It’s the same sort of xenophobic fears that I see someone like Trump trying to implant, and it’s crazy to see what populism does to the vote.

It’s been almost 20 years since the movie Slam. In 1996, could you have envisioned making a concept album about all of the events that have already transpired in 2016?

It’s kind of like when you have slow Internet. It’s been such a slow loading process. Most of the recent laws that have passed around LGBTQ rights, for example, are shit that I was clear on when I was ten years old. I can’t believe that it’s taken this long for people to come to their senses while at the same time, there are so many people who have not come to their senses and who have come to arms as a result of their own ignorance and fears.

For those who grew up on science fiction in the ’80s and ’90s, MartyrLoserKing sounds like an album you could envision people listening to in those timelines where 2016 was the future.

It’s interesting. We performed in Bristol yesterday. I said to the audience, and then in an interview afterwards, how much I owed what I was doing to Bristol. Roni Size, Goldie, Tricky, trip-hop, Massive Attack, Portishead, all those groups from Bristol to me, especially drum and bass at that time in the mid-to late-’90s, I felt like it sounded like what music should sound like in my head at that time. It felt like the drum roll to the millennium. It really inspired me to try to make music that sounded like the future, or the advancing of the future.

Can you talk a little about how the song “Horn of the Clock-Bike” originated?

There’s a sculptor in Haiti named Guyodo. He’s one of the most amazing contemporary artists in Haiti right now. Post-earthquake Haiti has zero tourism. And the artisanal village that used to be used to make artwork for tourists has been taken over by artists — where they’ve started this new recyclable art trend that stems from all of the shit that’s left over since the earthquake. Like eight thousand … million pairs of shoes around, all this shit that’s just there. They started taking the remains of a dead child, an actual skeleton, and covering it with stuffed animal fur. Crazy shit. If Jamaica is music, Haiti is visual art.

Your wife, Anisia Uzeyman, shot the video for the song?

It was a quick, two-minute video [in Guyodo’s studio]. In the center of this space was a bike that he made out of a clock that had fallen off of a bank. That was one of the tires. I guess there were like ram horns where the handle bars should be.

I looked at it, and it was just so visually stunning, even the way it was shot. I was working on this piano thing, and I played it with the video, and decided to simply list everything that I was seeing in the video as it happened with the music. So the “red stain on the concrete” is the first thing that I saw on the wall in the image.

Hacking is a metaphor that’s repeated throughout MartyrLoserKing. It’s a verb that has both positive and negative implications throughout the album, especially in the song “The Bear/Coltan as Cotton”.

There’s a layer that no one actually gets about that term as it relates to MartyrLoserKing, and where the story takes place, which is Burundi, which is connected to Rwanda, and shares the same people and history.

Hacking is also aligned with a machete. And for example, the Rwanda genocide, which had great ramifications on Burundi, and is very aligned with what Burundi is going though right now, was levied out by the machete.

It’s [hacking] very closely aligned with the idea of disruption, and it makes a lot of sense to me and for the times. And then when you align that with the idea of hacking into ideas, and exploring ideas, and dissecting ideas … I think it’s crucial.

In an NPR interview, you mentioned how artists should be more socially responsible. Now that listeners have easy access to streaming sites like Spotify and Pandora, do you think music listeners share a similar responsibility as consumers?

I want to be clear on the fact [that] the responsibility of artists statement is not something that I hold over the head of other artists. My responsibility that I take on: I see it more as my responsibility as a human being than it is my responsibility as an artist. I really feel like artists play their part and they do what they do best. Some of us write beautiful love songs, some of us write beautiful party songs, and some of us are engaged with what’s going on and write socially-motivated songs. I’m all for the sort of spectrum of possibility in art. I just imagine an industry, a radio station for example, that explores that spectrum. Or a listener that explores that spectrum. That’s the only thing I think a listener should do is expand their reference points.

Is These Mthrfckrs a companion piece to MartyrLoserKing?

Yes, definitely.

Ironically, “These Mthrfckrs” is the first or second song that I wrote for MartyrLoserKing. I decided against putting it on the first album, just because I knew that I was going to do a series of releases related to it, and I wanted to save it.

What was the collaborative process like with the contributors?

Those are my friends, and people that I’m fans of. A lot of them come from the Low End Theory phenomena that’s happening in LA right now. That sound of the underground LA has become the sound of electronic music. From everything from Flying Lotus to Kendrick Lamar. There’s so many cats that’s come up through that Low End Theory place. It’s the club with the best sound in the world. The name of the event is Low End Theory. The location sometimes changes. It’s run by Daddy Kev and Gaslamp Killer.

Will there be more companion pieces released for MartyrLoserKing?

I have no idea. Right now, I’m in the middle of the next album, which I’m not going to give the title of yet. It’s expanding at an interesting way, but I can’t call it yet. Part of my creative process is trying not to control it, and seeing what happens.

If you had to choose would you prefer seeing MartyrLoserKing adapted to the stage or the screen?

MartyrLoserKing is being adapted to the screen as we speak. That’s the project I’m working on. That’s why I can’t give you the title. That’s what’s going on right now. I have producers in place. And that is the deal. That’s the excitement. [laughs] The plan was a musical, and when I started meeting with producers, quite a few of them started saying “This really sounds cinematic, I would love to see this.”

First, I was overwhelmed by the idea, like I wouldn’t know where to start. But then once the graphic novel started developing, I had a storyboard.