Saul Williams’ open-mic escapades with the Nuyorican Poets peaked at Sundance when Slam won the Grand Jury Prize, and the art world celebrated the arrival of a whole new kind of talent. He defied his genre’s precious reputation and tore voraciously into the guts of life, groping after the exalted and transcendent sex sensations that make it all worth living. His early success led to collaborations with the likes of Erykah Badu, Nas, The Roots and Zack De La Rocha, and descended as much from KRS One and Public Enemy as Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka, he was a new kind of poet.
With each of Williams’ great successes has come abrupt change. He has pinball bounced from Morehouse philosophy scholar to cerebral street sermonizer to breakout indie actor, from hallucinatory hip-hop alchemist to dreadlocked mohawk rockstar, vibing Nine Inch Nails, scurrying across tones, modes and media to defy categorization. He has read published poetry volumes to operahouse audiences with full orchestral backing. He has contributed to the New York Times, voiced Jean Michel Basquiat in Downtown 81 and cut records with Rick Rubin and Trent Reznor. Throughout all these chaotic ventures, Saul Williams has been one steady thing: an uncompromising voice determined to tap the adrenaline center of his existence with any tool he can get his hands on.
With 2011 release Volcanic Sunlight, Williams distills his lifelong pursuit of incendiary, gut-felt joy down from an “Amethyst Rocks” prison riff, my culture is lima beans and tambourines/ dreams, manifest dreams real, not consistent with rationale/ I dance for no reason, to an ecstatic and trance inducive ” come on everybody dance with me”. He calls it a pop album. A dance album. Volcanic Sunlight is a TV On The Radio twist on his regular Rage Against TheMachine, inspired by a life lived for love – by parents, parenthood and by time spent in Brazil as a teenager in a mansion with speakers that carried the songs of live exotic birds in the hallways, to all the rooms of the house.
Recorded in Paris, Williams’ newfound home,Volcanic Sunlight sees the breathless-spat attacks of his early slam poetry reduced to the exultation he was always chasing. He maintains his ferocity and ups the percussion, while losing the frown. Williams has also dropped his trademark verbal traffic jams in favor of more concise emotional outbursts. “There is a lot of fun to be had when you try and fit as many words as you can within a three-minute song,” he recently told Dazed Magazine, “but there is also a lot of fun in trying to get that message across in three words, or better yet when the music can overpower the words and convey something really pure and perfect… It’s as simple as wanting to lift the spirits.”
This is an appropriate sentiment for an artist who entered the world screaming to the nasty, ain’t-it-funky snare pop of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” (Williams’ mother was literally rushed from a concert hall to the hospital). Raised in Newburgh, New York by a preacher and a schoolteacher, Williams’ learned early on what it meant to have a calling. He first tasted the intoxication of performance in an elementary school production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The next year, a 4th grade encounter with T La Rock’s “It’s Yours” inspired his first poem. This creativity blossomed into academic ambition, but, as Williams told Interview Magazine, “It was always important to me to be that kid who could rock the party as well as rock the English professor’s mind.” Next came the usual muses and the major heartbreaks in their wakes, and Saul Williams was officially born. A journal he started on a heart-healing trip to Africa with his mother, and continued through his NYU acting education, gave way to the more personal verse that would eventually evolve into his Nuyorican repertoire.
These third-eye-opening experiences conspired with a background steeped in devotion, academia and deeply felt love to produce an unclassifiable creative force. Out came Saul, the ever-generous shape-shifter, who gave away The Inevitable Rise And Liberation Of Niggy Tardust, his industrial epic, for free on the Internet. The angry young poet who brought his baby daughter Saturn to slams in a backpack and let her tug on his ears while he bopped nodding heads with sci-fi rhymes on the Bowery. Williams embraces contradiction, he invites the dark side, unleashes his rage unfiltered and still always manages to channel his boundless creative energy into something beautiful and positive. On Volcanic Sunlightcloser “New Day,” Williams looks the issue in the face, answering his incidental daily suffering with a chorus ofAll I am saying/ is that it’s a new day/ and I’m gonna lift my voice/ in a new way.