Saul Williams - Biography

By Marcus Kagler

It may seem like actor, poet, musician, and writer Saul Williams has his fingers in a lot of different pies but nearly all of his creative endeavors revolve around his unconventional MC skills. Where most hip hop MC’s build base their rapping skills around elaborate rhymes, Williams turns his lyrical focus toward free form poetry performed with rhythmic and unflagging intensity. Williams portrayal of the incarcerated spoken word poet, Ray Joshua, in the independent film Slam brought national attention to the poetry slam, a spoken word contest based on Williams style of MCing. Even amongst other genre bending alternative hip hop contemporaries like Mos Def, Madlib, and Talib Kweli, the abstract ferocity of Williams style has proven far to avant-garde to break into the mainstream despite the enduring popularity of Slam and the hordes of poetry slams that popped up throughout the country because of the film.

Saul Stacey Williams was born in Newburgh, New York on February 29, 1972. Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a Masters degree in acting from NYU. While studying in New York City he became involved in with early incarnations of poetry slams held in various café’s and performance spaces. Williams appeared in the documentary film SlamNation as part of the 1996 Nuyorican Poetry Slam team alongside performers Beau Sia, muMs da Schemer, and Jessica Care Moore. Williams went on to win the competition and the film became a minor yet relevant hit but it would be his next film that introduced to world to the art of the poetry slam. Co-written and starring Williams and shot on a shoestring budget, Slam looked to be another minor indie hit in a long line of many based on real events. After the film won the film won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and the Cannes Camera D’Or prize the poetry slam went international overnight and Williams was suddenly a buzz worthy artist. Accompanying renowned hip hop artist KRS-One on track “Ocean Within” from the Slam Soundtrack (1998 Sony) became Williams official debut hip hop recording, and soon after he signed to legendary producer Rick Ruben’s label American Recordings.

The Ruben produced rock rap debut full length, Amethyst Rock Star (2001 American) was a critical disaster with many blaming Ruben’s heavy handed rock production for smothering Williams well honed style. The anti war protest EP, Not In My Name (2003 Synchronic), featured remixes by DJ Goo and Coldcut with production by DJ Spooky fared much better critically by aligning itself more with hip hop than rock. The critically lauded self titled sophomore effort, Saul Williams (2004 Fader), focused directly on Williams socio-political poetry while genre hopping wildly from rock to electronica to hip hop to ambient soundscapes. Zach de la Rocha also makes a notable guest appearance on the anti-Iraq war track, “Act III Scene 2 (Shakespeare)”. Williams stopped by Amoeba Hollywood and San Francisco for in-store performances in autumn of 2004 in support of the album. Following a string of live dates supporting Nine Inch Nails in 2005, Williams collaborated with NIN frontman Trent Reznor on his third full length album. The inspired The Inevitable Rise And Liberation Of Niggy Tardust (2007 Fader) oscillated between industrialized rock tracks and minimalist ambience while keeping it’s focus on Williams unique lyrical and vocal style. Reznor initially released the album as a $5 download from his website. A physical release from Fader Records followed in the summer of 2008, complete with five bonus tracks.




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