Who the F*^k is Saul Williams?


The always intriguing wordsmith, poet, alternative-rapper, industrial vocalist, actor of both stage and screen, singer-songwriter, philosopher, humanitarian, champion of human strength, and revealer of human weaknesses Saul Williams opened the A Tribe Called Red show Friday night (November 18th) at The Commodore Ballroom.

With the strength and diversity of his resume, it was amazing how many times the same query was overheard: “Who the fuck is Saul Williams?”

Having graduated from Morehouse College with a BA in acting and philosophy, Williams then moved to New York City where he would obtain his Masters in Fine Arts in New York University’s Graduate Acting Program at the Tisch School of Fine Arts. By 1995 Williams had found his outlet and was firmly entrenched in the open mic poetry scene. In ‘96 Williams was awarded Nuyorican Poet Cafe’s Grand Slam Champion.

By ‘98 the inevitable rise of Saul Williams saw him win the Grand Jury Prize at The Dance (Sundance Film Festival), as well as the Cam D’Or (Golden Camera) at Cannes; both for his role as writer and actor in the feature film Slam. Having worked with performers such as Nas, The Fugees, and De La Soul it is no surprise given the shared emotional content and East Coast proxy of the artists, coupled with the similar levels of success (shared by the respective artists) that collaborations would form or at the very least stages would be shared.

Being perhaps the last person to conform to complacency, Williams is also cited as working with a cross section of people as diverse as poets Allen Ginsberg and Sonia Sanchez to The Mars Volta. Another notable artist Williams has worked with is Rage Against The Machine’s Zack De La Rocha. However, it was in the post Rick Rubin years that saw the beat poet’s most eye opening collaboration unfold. Having asserted that he would not use any electronic elements in his musical endeavours, Saul Williams spoke to the dichotomy of the human spirit in his decision to work closely with the uncontested god of industrial-rock, Trent Reznor.

Adopting the moniker ‘NiggyTardust’, an obvious homage to the legend David Bowie’s years in ‘72-73 under the name Ziggy Stardust, together Reznor and Williams released The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust in 2007. Twenty-five days after the online only (at the time) independent record was released, the Saul Williams featured / Trent Reznor produced LP toured through Vancouver’s The Venue.

Expecting to be attending a performance by a New York style beat-poet that November 26th, you can imagine my surprise when Saul Williams came out and said, “When I say Niggy, you say nothing. Niggy…Niggy”.

The half-full and predominantly white Venue crowd was dumbfounded as to their role in the audience call-and-respond song “NiggyTardust”. Every time Williams would give the instructions and say “Niggy…Niggy”, the crowd had no idea as to whether they were to reply with literal silence, or say the word “nothing”. To further confuse the matter (and no doubt to the sardonic delight of Williams and Reznor in the recording process), the first bar of the chorus on the then limitedly exposed LP would see “Niggy” met with nothing. However, the second time the order of “When I say Niggy, you say nothing” comes by in the chorus, in off time fashion the desperate delivery of the word “nothing” is met with Williams returning with “shut up”.

Listening to NiggyTardust now it’s all quite humourous, being in the befuddled room only weeks after the online album was released it can be said first hand that the LP was not the only thing one could hear dropped that night.

In the years that followed Saul Williams has gone back to a mainly electronic-free set, but as his recent release “Virus” (with the Canadian dance-music act A Tribe Called Red) would indicate, there is more room in the beat-poet’s arsenal for hybrid-thinking than there once was.

The oft rumoured Reznor encouraged sequel to The Inevitable Rise… looks fairly probable due to having been substantiated by Williams on a couple occasions. Williams had indicated back in ‘08 that he was sitting on an album’s worth of material in what he considered to be “a very transformative time”. With the current political climate in the U.S. having made a complete 180 since 2008, perhaps a full decade to the year of the original could see NiggyTardust rise like the phoenix from the proverbial ashes. Whether it is delivered in the voice of Saul Williams or the late David Bowie influenced alter ego, getting the modern-day renaissance man’s thoughts on Trump as the upcoming leader of the free world is…inevitable.