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Character Development: Saul Williams gives life to Niggy Tardust

By Asiana Ponciano, Photos courtesy of Evan Cohenfeatures
Apr 2, 2008 - 11:59 PM

Photo by Evan Cohen

Photo by Evan Cohen

Photo by Evan Cohen

Poet, musician and actor Saul Williams is known for creating waves with his tailored words but with his latest album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggytardust, Williams stirred a tidal wave of buzz. Produced by Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor, Niggytardust got some attention due to the strange brew between hip hop-flavored Williams and industrial-infused Reznor. The media’s interest was also piqued because William’s album was released online, mimicking Radiohead’s revolutionary move, which allowed listeners to download tracks with or without paying a cent. Williams is currently promoting Niggytardust on the Tar Spangled Banner Tour but took some time out to speak with Oh Dang!

Listen to "Tr(n)igger"

Listen to "Sunday Bloody Sunday"

Oh Dang!: Currently you have been on tour for your latest album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggytardust, how has the tour been so far?

Saul Williams: It’s been amazing. So much is high energy and great turn out and crowd results. You know, a lot fun on stage. It’s an amazing, exciting time in this country, politically and what have you. Whenever politics are at such high stakes, and when the art gets anywhere near projecting the ideas that somehow circumnavigate that whole process, it’s an exhilarating process. I think of during the 60’s when Hendrix and Janis Joplin and Dr. King and Bob Dylan, all this stuff is happening at once. It feels like that on the road right now. People are excited. We did a show yesterday and during the course of the show we ended up mentioning the speech that Barak Obama had delivered on race and it was crazy how the whole audience started cheering at mere mention of that speech. It’s amazing that so many of us are engaged in politics. It’s really cool to have music that reflects where society is right now.

OD!: In our currently political, social and environmental climate, do you think it’s paramount for artists to tackle these relevant issues?

SW: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, because each artist is their own and their art is a reflection of their individual growth and process of achieving the inner most self and who’s to say what it is. Some people are here to make us laugh. Some people are here to make us forget and not everyone is here to make us think. Even what I do as a artist, I don’t do it because I think it’s my role as an artist, it’s more what I do as my role as a human being only because it’s a reflection of how I think and what I look for in art, and what I appreciate in art is what I put into my own art but I don’t necessarily expect it from other artists.

OD!: I just want to touch upon your performances with this particular album, where at first I get images of David Bowie’s glam-rock personae. Do you feel your performances have taken a new turn or have you changed your performances in the reflection of this new album?

SW: It’s really been beautiful because it’s freed me up to allow the stage be the stage. It’s important to me to break out of the box of being seen as this political figure with a lot to say and not being afforded the privilege of being able to express even more of my being through my work. Because people may have some expectations of saying “Oh, it’s a spoken word album and we should plan to sit and listen as opposed to dance.” So I have to find conceptual ways to free myself from even myself and my own self-imposed limitations and understandings and perceptions of who I am.

When you think of David Bowie and that face paint and all of that stuff, and when you think of the roots of that make-up, the roots of that tribal mask—When I’ve been applying that make-up to myself, I realize that this is where that make-up belongs and it helps me tune into aspects of expression that I never really imagined. It’s been truly exhilarating. Niggytardust, the guy I created, essentially I label him as a hybrid ... in the same way that Ziggy Stardust was created to get us to raise questions surrounding sex and gender. With Niggytardust, I’m looking at race and identity, which is a crucial time considering the political climate to have raised that in an album and say I believe race is a social construct that even to call myself black is reactionary, and if I choose to stand under that banner, than it’s my choice and not by birth or merit, considering the fact that there is nothing scientific to prove any science of race. That it is a social construct and a socially-binding contract that we expect ourselves to live up to and give into. The goal of Niggytardust is to say, “You know what, fuck that,” essentially freeing us to create. Using life as my palate, using all sorts of music and all sorts of words and I’m not limited by drums machines, I’m not limited by hip hop, I’m not limited by your expectations of me or my own expectations of myself.

OD!: The destruction of boundaries…

SW: Exactly. Because realizing that all of that is divide and conquer and the last paradigm is the phase where we divide and conquer ourselves.

OD!: With this album I notice a lot of inspirations from U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to a nod to Public Enemy. Give us some insight into the creative process while making this album.

SW: Essentially what’s cool about this album is that I got to sample two of my all time favorite songs that I always wanted to sample. I sampled Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome” and I covered “Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2. Both songs I probably heard first when I was 16 and they stuck with me from my childhood. They have been in my mixtape collections and now iPods. What I love about these artists is that they realize the power of their music and their words and their positioning as artists. Artists whose goal was to open the hearts and minds of the listener as well as make them dance and have a good time. That music affected me as a kid in many and tremendous ways.

It was really cool to get the clearance to make that nod to them in my way. The creative process for the album had little to do with that. Both of those songs were the last two songs I did for the album as “Tr(n)igger” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” but most of the album was a collaboration between me, Trent, CX Kidtronik, Thavius Beck. And not just the music collaborations. It also was a collaboration with artists like Angelbert Metoyer, the visual artist who did the artwork and the digital download; Melody Eshani, the artist who did the design of (Niggytardust’s) jewelry. We all collaborated in envisioning who this character is and what he looks like, what he sounds like and what’s he talking about. All that stuff was there when we went into the studio and sound booth. It was something that was being conceptualized by many. It’s really been the most collaborative effort that I’ve ever really experienced.

OD!: Speaking of collaborating, a lot of attention for this album came from you working with Trent Reznor and I just want to hear more about what it was like working with him.

SW: What was really amazing working with Trent was something really simple. He was really excited about every idea that I brought to the table and the more that that happened, the more it inspired me to go further out and bring more of my ideas to the table. A lot of times with my work, with my poetry, I often am hesitant to share my work the same way someone might be hesitant to take their new born child out before its immune system has developed. It’s like, give it four months or give it four years. Let it grow strong and healthy before I share it with anyone. But with Trent, I’d have an idea one night and share it with him the next morning and he'd literally go crazy, saying, “That’s fucking amazing.”

It started building a sense of confidence in me ... I could bring anything to the table and it was going to blow his mind. So then it was kind of fun because it was a new experience for me. I really hadn’t had that before. For instance, I did my first album with Rick Ruben. He was like, “We will go into the studio when you have 20 songs” and I would play him music, trying to see if we had enough songs to go into the studio. Over the course of two years, he was like, “That’s not a song man, that just sounds like a bad Lenny Kravitz cover.” Of course, that would have me second-guessing myself, wondering if I had it in me and it was such a different experience this time. It was extremely symbiotic.

OD!: I’ve read that you're very rooted in rhythm and beat and your words wrap around that. How essential is a producer in your lyric writing process?

SW: My sense of rhythm is my own. Even with the stuff that Trent brought to the table, I often times had to try to find a way for him to re-envision it and get him to change the beats up so that they were less forward and a bit more simple, like that boom bap that your hear everyday on the radio. I had to change stuff up, or I had to listen to it in a particular way. Songs like “Skin of a Drum” and “Raised to be Lowered” are mostly produced by Trent. But what’s interesting about those tracks to Trent is the way I approached them lyrically, which is to say, you can hear a rhythm that’s in the rhythm and apply yourself to that. Working with a producer, the way it affected me the most was that the colors that he (Reznor) chose to paint with at times. For instance, in songs like “No One Ever Does” or “Banged and Blown Through,” hearing those sounds took me to places that I was not necessarily planning on or used to going. So by surrendering to the music, I’d end up in some part of myself that was unexpected. I’d come up with lyrics that were unexpected and melodies that were unexpected just based on the music.

OD!: After the album was created, you chose to distribute it in vein of how Radiohead released In Rainbows. In retrospect, how do feel about cutting out the middleman between the musician and listener?

SW: It’s been the most empowering release as an artist, to be able to communicate directly with the fan base and bring the music directly and to receive the finances directly as well. It all has been extremely empowering. It’s an interesting time to be making music, it’s an interesting time to be releasing music. Granted that we don’t have the same stature as Radiohead to most and many, but I think it has worked well for us because the sound of the album for us is so visionary that it practically sounds like something that needs to come through the other, that needs to come through the unseen, through the wires. It doesn’t sound like something that should be wrapped in plastic, so that’s really helped us as well.

OD!: Do you think distribution from artist to listener is something we are going to see more of, or do you think it’s still a little risky?

SW: I think it depends on the artist. When we released it, we did it right after Radiohead. It was the point in my career that I’m in, and it was the point in his career that Trent’s in. It was all of those things converging at once. Also the fact that I was working with Trent, a lot of people were wondering what it was going to sound like, so people were expecting something crazy, so coming to them in a crazy way was expected as well. Whether other artists will be able to do it and benefit from it the same way depends on a lot of forces other than music.

OD!: Considering you took this path with distribution, do you think about the ratio between those who downloaded your music and those who paid for it? Or are you just focused on the sheer number of downloads?

SW: I consider all those things. I’m by no means surprised by the ratio of like 6 to 1. That makes total sense to me and would say that’s completely expected. What’s great about the album is that there is a sense of integrity so when people download it for free, they're like, “I need to go back and pay for this.” The album is still doing well and we’re still coming out with a physical release of the album in the spring. A more traditional release is still happening with bonus material that Trent and I did that we haven’t released yet.

OD!: Finally, I have one more silly question. I read that your were previously a dancer for a rap group in the ATL in the 90’s, so I was wondering when people see you on stage, are they going to see some of the moves you busted in the 90’s?

SW: I hope they don’t see any moves from the 90’s. We have a lot of fun on stage and my drum technician, CX Kidtronik, it was his rap group, and so it was his rhythms that were making me dance then and it’s his rhythms that make me dance now, but it won’t be any dance moves from the 90’s.

To learn more about The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggytardust and The Tar Spangled Banner Tour, go to www.niggytardust.com.


Asiana Ponciano is a Hawaii-born transplant who lives in San Francisco as a freelance journalist. She is currently a co-host of a podcast called Girls Gone Geek, which you can download for free on iTunes or on their blog www.girlsgonegeek.tv. When Asiana is not trying to crack into the multi-media world, she is cooking, watching reality TV, singing karaoke and sitting in Golden Gate Park. This summer Asiana will accomplish one of her life-long goals by attending San Francisco's Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival where she will finally see Radiohead.

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