Niggy in Paris

Saul Williams sends pop-fueled compassion from the City of Love

When former Atlantan Saul Williams' Volcanic Sunlight was released in the U.S. last November, the Occupy protests over economic inequality were still fueling international headlines. If it seemed like a peculiar time to release a love-themed dance-pop album, the timing was doubly odd coming from one of the most progressive-minded wordsmiths of the era. But considering Williams ever-evolving aesthetic — from classically trained actor to hip-hop poet laureate to Amethyst Rock Star — it makes sense. Since his spoken word Slam of an onscreen intro in 1998 all the way through his electro-industrial manifesto, 2007's Trent Reznor-produced The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust!, Williams has always found comfort in nonconformity. While that kind of mix has often left him out of step with the industry, it's also kept him perpetually ahead of the curve.

Recorded in Paris, where he's lived for the last two years, Volcanic Sunlight represents a purposeful shift for Williams from conscientious confrontation to compassion, proving that perhaps nothing could be more revolutionary right now than love. He brings the movement to Atlanta on tour this week. Back in November, we talked by phone on the eve of the album's U.S. release about his new approach to songcraft, how Paris has refined his wine palate, and why Memphis rapper Project Pat is still his perfect pre-show soundtrack.

When I heard you were living in Paris, I immediately thought of famous black expatriates like—
Saul Williams: James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Nina Simone?

Exactly. They were all progressive artists escaping an atmosphere of racial oppression that doesn't necessarily exist in America anymore, but do you see yourself fitting into that tradition at all?
Nah, I can't say that I do. Although, it's not a bad list of names. My coming to Paris was kind of random. I've never really dreamt of living in Paris. One reason I came here was because there was a producer here that I wanted to work with, that's Renaud Letang, the guy that ended up producing Volcanic Sunlight with me. I've been a fan of his work for years. I could've just come to record the album here, but when I started having that idea, I was looking for a place in L.A. where I was living, and I bumped into a friend in Paris while I was on tour. He showed me a place that cost the same thing that I was paying in L.A., and that's when it hit me, like, "Oh shit, I can live in Paris for the same price as I do in L.A.? Then why the fuck am I in L.A.?"

Shortly before you released Volcanic Sunlight stateside, your label email-blasted a personal statement from you titled "It's Getting Harder to Maintain!" One of the interesting things you talked about in it was the state of music and the news, and your having this feeling of not fitting into what's going on. I imagine it's a disconnect you've probably always felt as an artist?
I didn't feel that at first. When I made my first album coming out of the poetry scene in Brooklyn, and I signed with Rick Rubin and Slam was coming out and there was this whole fanfare around what was happening with poetry, and I had this vision of this new music and all this stuff — I felt like I more than fit in. I felt like I was stepping into something that was tailor-made for me in that moment. And what I felt in response, not from people but from executives, was this sense of, "Nah, people aren't ready for that." I felt like executives were trying to speak for people.

Did that kind of corporate/label pressure have anything to do with you choosing at this point in your career to attempt your version of a pop album?
No, not at all. In fact, I lost all sense of pressure by the time I did Niggy Tardust. Niggy Tardust was my idea of a perfectly designed middle finger to everyone who was trying to say, "You belong in this category." After that, I felt free and I continue to feel free. I say that Volcanic Sunlight is like a pop album, one because I always was playing with the idea of Niggy Tardust being followed by Niggy Pop laughs, and also because I was amazed at how music was coming out of me. By the time I was finishing up Niggy Tardust, the way that I was writing songs was different. I aim to be influenced, and Trent Reznor influenced me. What I wanted to learn from that sort of mentorship was how to approach the song format in a stronger way. And that's something that I've been wanting from the beginning.

So in terms of the content, how much does the love theme have to do with the fact that you recorded this in the City of Love?
My revolutionary spirit is obvious, but I think at the crux of that spirit is a really deeply entrenched love of humanity. Most of the time, like on the song "Triumph," I'm trying to explain what I feel when I feel love because I'm not certain I've ever explained it, explored it, expressed it clearly. Just the idea of what that means when it's not pointed at a particular person or an individual, but pointed in the idea of this compassionate whole humanity — life. What does it mean to love life, does it mean, "Oh, let's pop some bottles?" How does it move you?

So I'm talking about more than a love of pussy or a love of Hennessy or weed. I'm talking about love in its most profound sense. But if you were to ask me what is the main difference between the French culture and American culture, from my observation I would say, it seems to me that ambition trumps love in America.

So how do you spend your days and nights in Paris? What's your lifestyle like over there?
First of all, I'm here with my 15-year-old daughter, so I'm a single dad in Paris. So when I'm not on tour living the rock-star dream, I'm home saying, "Why are you asking me to help you with your homework? I didn't ask my parents for help!" Or I'm like, "Aww shit, I gotta cook dinner." That's what I'm on, first of all. I'm dealing with a 15-year-old daughter, so that's primary. Secondly, I'm testing a lot of wines. I'm learning the difference between a good red wine and a good white wine. I'm learning that Champagne is a region. You know, I'm getting cultured.

Speaking of culture, I remember hearing you talk at a reading a few years ago about your love of Southern hip-hop, and you said Memphis rapper Project Pat had one of the illest flows ever.
Oh yeah, I still believe that shit.

How about on a broader level, do you still appreciate, defend, listen to rap?
Oh hell yeah. You know I had that line in that song about "not until you've listened to Rakim on a rocky mountain top have you heard hip-hop"? When you take hip-hop out of context it's brighter and more interesting. So I love listening to hip-hop living over here. I'll be in my house like blasting Lil B. laughs I listen to Lil B, Lil Wayne, right now I'm listening to this group called the Death Grips. There's a lot of shit I'm checking for.

As far as Southern hip-hop is concerned, I'm not sure where I'm at with it right now. Usually my taste in hip-hop is pretty raunchy. Like I'm performing tonight and more than likely I will listen to Project Pat before the show.

Why Project Pat before the show?
My thing with Southern hip-hop is it's not necessarily what they're saying, it's how they're saying it, it's how they're riding the beat. Niggy Tardust was all about that. The Dead Emcee Scrolls was all about how cats were riding the beat, where they placed their voice — I don't give a fuck what they're saying. It took me a long time to get to that.

For a while, I was only concerned with what people were saying and I could never pinpoint why some things excited me and other things didn't. But I realized that other thing was how they were saying it. That's the same reason why I like James Brown, where he places his voice in the track. He doesn't have to say anything, but where he says it and how he says it, his emphasis, that's what the South is about and that's what Project Pat is about. Robert Johnson played the same blues guitar as everybody else, but he turned his back to the audience because it's not what he was playing it was how he was playing it.

And that's what I feel about Southern hip-hop, it's not what they're saying, it's how they're saying it.