Okay, so, I can’t get enough of music. It’s the most amazing thing ever.
I play music: I’m a clarinetist primarily but I also play sax and flute and I’m decent with most percussion instruments and I can eke out a bass line when I’m lucky enough to have a bass around to play with. Both my parents are musicians and one of the things I love most about my life is that when I go to visit my folks, we often relax by playing tunes together. How many people can say that about their parents?!? Not many, I reckon. I count myself lucky. So I’m really passionate about music.
There are some interesting neurobiological reasons that humans pretty much 100% go crazy for music of one kind or another, but that’s not the subject for today’s post. Today’s post is going to be easy, and I deserve to do an easy post because I worked hard on yesterday’s post. Today I’m just going to talk about a musician who I love, who I also think is under-appreciated.
Today I’m talking about Saul Williams.
Saul Williams is a poet at heart. I mean, that’s how he started. He’s been called the grandfather of spoken word, and his poetry is truly excellent. But I’m honestly not that into poetry. Whatever. It’s cool, some people like it, and I’m probably something of a philistine for being indifferent to it. (Garrison Keillor and his boring “Writer’s Almanac” certainly hasn’t helped.) Anyway, Saul is a brilliant poet, so brilliant that he can get someone like me to listen to his poetry over and over again. He has four albums now: Amethyst Rocks, Saul Williams, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust (possibly one of the best album titles ever), and now Volcanic Sunlight. In fact, I just discovered that last one, as it came out in November 2011 and I somehow missed it at the time. I’ve listened to a few of the tracks from it and they seem to be following his artistic arc: he’s gone from the very raw, un-melodic, dressed-up spoken word of his first album to more refined and harmonically advanced singing and better arrangements. Amethyst Rocks is almost just spoken word with some music and sound effects added on top. To get the best effect, I’d advise you to check out the 1998 movie SLAM! which starred Saul Williams and his poetry, along with Sonja Sohn (Wire fans will recognize her as Detective Kima Greggs). Saul Williams had more interesting and coherent musical production, but Saul mostly still stuck to rapping/speaking over a beat. His singing was impassioned but rough and ragged, as in “List of Demands”:
The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust showed a dramatic change in his delivery. I think he got voice lessons, because his singing improved, and he also sang a lot more. Also, the album was produced by the inimitable Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and the influence is obvious when you listen to one of my favorite tracks off it, “WTF!”:
Now, listening to some of the tracks from his newest album, Volcanic Sunlight, that writing this post prompted me to discover, it seems his sound has gotten even more melodic and maybe even a bit poppy. Some people think poppy is a bad thing. Not me. I love it. I like some pop music, but what I like even more is non-pop artists taking elements of pop (catchy hooks, beautiful melodic lines) and making them their own. Take this track, “Explain My Heart”, for instance:
Though Saul’s musical style may be evolving, one thing that has remained constant is his utter devotion and fascination with words, wordplay, language, politics, race, love, mysticism, and life. I love his repeated use of the rhyme “worthless” and “earthless” which he uses as a synonym for both homelessness, rootlessness, and lacking political awareness. His song “Black Stacey” was an education for me on colorism, the prejudice against dark-skinned people that is enacted within the black community as opposed to racism, which is enacted in the context of our multi-racial society.
Saul Williams is definitely hardcore. Controversial, direct, provocative, yet beautifully poetic and heartfelt. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a “industrial/punk hip hop” fan, he’s worth giving a listen to.