Review: Saul Williams (@SaulWilliams) Live At The Garage London



Saul Williams live @ Garage 6th March. Gig Review

Call Saul Bet­ter

To label Saul Wil­li­ams a mere ‘spoken word poet’ is a dis­ser­vice to his exper­i­ence base as an excep­tion­al act­or, sing­er, mas­ter of cere­mon­ies, pro­du­cer, writer and act­iv­ist. Big Dada records’ 1998 ‘Black Whole Styles’ ensemble album with UK and USA Hip-Hop artists fea­tured Saul Wil­li­ams speak­ing on one of his first released record­ings:
“As if the heart beat was­n’t enough
They got us using drum machines now
The hums of the machines
Try­in’ to make our drums hum­drums
Try­in’ to mute our magic
Instru­ments be polit­ic­al pris­on­ers up inside com­puters
As if the heart were not enough
As if the heart were not enough”

  • Saul Wil­li­ams, Twice the First Time.

Almost twenty years after first being pissed off by com­puter trap­pings: it’s fit­ting that Saul Wil­li­ams is address­ing the motifs of protest in the age of inter­net inform­a­tion via his latest album’s prot­agan­ist: Mar­tyr­LoserKing. This is the eponym­ous screen name of a Bur­undi based miner turned hack­er, on an album that was ini­tially con­cep­tu­al­ised as a music­al. The second half of the album, a graph­ic nov­el and a film will land later in 2016.

Saul Wil­li­ams is a weary mas­ter of tech­no­logy. A  son­ic innov­at­or that util­izes haunt­ing acous­tics to fren­et­ic elec­tron­ica, pound­ing drums, dis­tor­ted instru­ments and indi­gen­ous grooves that punc­tu­ate his ubi­quit­ous and rad­ic­al mes­sage to ‘dis­rupt.’


Mar­tyr­LoserKing – A Hack­er from Bur­undi

In The Mat­rix, Neo is a Christ like hero hack­er instruc­ted to unpack real­ity by Morph­eus. Ghost in a Shell exhib­its a hack­ing vil­lain: Pup­pet Mas­ter D, who can change people’s per­son­al­it­ies. Mar­tyr­LoserKing wants US ALL to hack.

“Hack into diet­ary susten­ance
Tra­di­tion versus health
Hack into com­fort com­pli­ance
Hack into the rebel­li­ous gene
Hack into doc­trine
Cap­it­al­ism, the rela­tion of free labor and slavery
Hack into the his­tory of the bank
Is beat­ing the odds the mere act of join­ing the win­ning team?
Hack into des­per­a­tion and loneli­ness
The his­tory of com­munity and the mar­ket­place
Hack into land rights and own­er­ship
Hack into busi­ness, law of pro­pri­et­or­ship
Hack into ambi­tion and greed
Hack into forms of gov­ern­ment
The his­tory of revolu­tions
The rela­tion of suf­fer­ing and suf­fer­ance
Hack into faith and mor­al­ity
The treat­ment of one faith towards anoth­er
Hack into mas­culin­ity, fem­in­in­ity, sexu­al­ity
What is taught, what is felt, what is learned, what is shared
Hack into God
Stor­ies of cre­ation, ser­pents and eggs”

  • Saul Wil­li­ams, The Bear / Coltan as Cot­ton.

Read Octavia But­ler.

Resound­ing indi­gen­ous voices from Rawanda or Bur­undi (I think?) singing with per­cus­sion and hand clapped accom­pani­ments announced the forth­com­ing arrival of Saul Wil­li­ams to the stage. Through­out the show, a screen behind the stage exhib­ited slides of slo­gans and motifs adorned with indi­gen­ous vs. future-tech imagery with sen­tences from the afore­men­tioned song‘The Bear/Coltan as Cot­ton;’ names of indi­vidu­als shouted out by Saul Wil­li­ams on Amethyst Rock Star’s (Def Jam Poetry’s) famed poem ‘Coded Lan­guage;’ and imper­at­ive lit­er­ary recom­mend­a­tions such as ‘Read Octavia But­ler,’ which gave the night the air of a Pub­lic Ser­vice Announce­ment from the bunkers. Many of these motifs and signs can be found on


The Noise Came from Here

The pitched up vocal sample and omin­ous tolling sound­scape of “Ground­work” revealed Saul to the audi­ence for the first time — lit­er­ally cloaked in an over­coat with a bird beak-resem­bling hood. His mor­ose singing took own­er­ship of the Gar­age ven­ue over the gor­geous, fuzzy bass of the album’s open­ing song, trans­ition­ing into stun­ningly off-kiltered and syn­co­pated drums as Saul Wil­li­ams danced and head-bopped around the stage, mark­ing it as his home for the best part of 40 minutes.

Pro­du­cer, rap­per, engin­eer and an over­all Ableton teach­ing  elec­tron­ica extra­dan­noire Thavi­us Beck was in charge of sequen­cing and sound. He proved through­out the night how essen­tial a sound per­son who under­stands the dynam­ics of the record as well as the nuances of the artist’s voice is to man­age a sound­sys­tem exper­i­ence that holds back when required, pounds when needed and serves justice to a crisp voice with appro­pri­ate amounts of delay, reverb and dis­tor­tion where neces­sary.

“Horn of the Clock Bike”: Saul’s most haunt­ing piano offer­ing since “Talk to Strangers” was delivered with an open top theatre soli­lo­quiy performer’s author­ity and not for the first time in the night, Saul Wil­li­ams went into acapella mode, gradu­ally mov­ing the mic away from his mouth to fade amp­li­fic­a­tion in order to soap­box to the audi­ence —  100% organ­ic. You could hear every word all night. “No Different”s pained disco-sque groove allowed anoth­er oppor­tun­ity to dance.

Saul even­tu­ally exten­ded a taut mic chord a third of the way into the audience’s space to per­form among his packed wit­nesses. A return to the show’s intro­duct­ory chant­ing, which serves as a sound bed for one of this generation’s most poignant protest songs ‘The Noise Came from Here,’ instruc­ted the audi­ence to clap along to the rhythm of the sample before more acapella poetry. Lam­ent­a­tions about USA’s polit­ic­al cli­mate and a world in dis­ar­ray were made. Long de-cloaked, Saul’s off the shoulder vest-top exhib­ited as a con­tin­ued and needed sym­bol of address­ing (hack­ing) Hip-Hop con­cep­tions of mas­culin­it­ies on an artist who is com­fort­able enough to ‘shout out the trans com­munity’ on DJ Sway’s Wake Up show.

The protagonist’s anthem ‘Bur­undi’ saw Saul take back to the stage to defi­antly pro­claim on a hook that chilled spines as much as it pumped fists:

‘I’m a candle! I’m a candle!
Chop my neck a mil­lion times I still burn bright and stand, yo!”

Oth­er high­lights from the new album were provided by the sham­an­ic techno trance of ‘Ashes’, Saul’s stac­cato deliv­ery on the break­beat­ish “Think Like They Book Say.”  The melod­ic song sec­tion of “The Bear…” with its uni­ver­sally applic­able and decipher­able lyr­ics that would eas­ily find a home on a pop/nu-met­al (remem­ber that)/emo/ folk/ mod­ern r&B song was extremely enjoy­able:

“How can I describe it? It’s a feel­ing
That no one would talk about, but every­body knows
How to get inside it and reveal it…”

Saul Wil­li­ams could be a Kathy Den­nis (Britney’s “Tox­ic”, Kylie’s “Can’t Get You out of my Head”, Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl”) level pop song writ­ing mil­lion­aire if he wanted to — until lines like “pain is the gov­ern­ment that gov­erns the unknown” and thun­der­ous 808s appear for more hack­ing talk. Sadly, the indus­tri­al stomp of “All Col­trane Solos at Once” (with its implor­a­tion of “Fuck you under­stand me”) and “Homes/Drones…” were missed.

“Coded Lan­guage” was per­formed acapella and cres­cendoed to  its roll call  of inter­sect­ing char­ac­ters made up of Afric­an & (Black) Asi­at­ic deit­ies (Isis, Kali, Krishna, Oshun, Yemaja), Black and oth­er radicals/revolutionaries (Shak­ur, Guevera, Shabazz, Tub­man) , musi­cians & artists (Hendrix, Kuti, Rip­per­ton, Shak­ur again,  Hath­away, Mar­ley, Khalo),  poets, thinkers and philo­soph­ers (Dubois, Gibran, Lourde, Rumi…) and oth­ers. One wondered wheth­er an approach­ing two dec­ades old piece would now ques­tion the sus­pect shout outs to the racist Gandhi or reli­giously oppress­ive Teresa. I don’t even remem­ber if Cosby’s shout out was omit­ted on the night. Maybe these lat­ter names are the ones that need extra hack­ing.
This Sunday even­ing served mainly as a showpiece for the new­est record, but Saul made a brief vis­it to the pre­vi­ous dec­ade with ener­get­ic rendi­tions of “Grippo” and “List of Demands (Repar­a­tions).” The themes of these songs are still per­tin­ent today as the former’s lines of “I gave Hip-hop to white boys when nobody was look­ing” relates to the #sowhite of so many art forms today where ori­gin­al cre­at­ors are still left robbed, lurched and dis­en­fran­chised. “Found it locked in a base­ment when they gentri­fied Brook­lyn” sounds like Grime music and Lon­don. And Repar­a­tions are still light years away from being paid.


I’m Mad (He’s mad!) but I Ain’t Stress­ing

There was an inter­est­ing nar­rat­ive dur­ing Saul’s per­form­ance of “Niggy Tardust”’s hook. On the song record­ing, the faux call and response com­mands “When I say Niggy, you say noth­ing – ‘Niggy…’” The response is left blank as a com­ment­ary on white audi­ences and respons­ib­il­ity when it comes to Hip-Hop music and the ‘N word.’  An uncred­ited voice does respond with a “noth­ing” every four bars, to which a dead­pan Saul Wil­li­ams responds with “shut up.” Well… watch­ing this play out live, nearly the entire audi­ence shouted back “noth­ing!” to each prompt of the hook cre­at­ing an increas­ingly exas­per­ated Saul Wil­li­ams.

Maybe it’s just a simple rap call and response and Saul Wil­li­ams is a trained act­or who deliv­ers his reac­tion very well. Maybe Saul Wil­li­ams was mad that the (mainly white) audi­ence didn’t GET it and maybe they nev­er do and his cry of “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” at the end of the final hook was genu­ine. Maybe a year after Kanye West had mil­lions of white people singing along to “All Day Nigga,” an audi­ence really needs to under­stand the mes­sage of the “Niggy Tar­dust” hook. Maybe my ana­lys­is of this is incor­rect. Maybe Saul Wil­li­ams is mad that Kanye gets lauded as a music­al geni­us by many when really Yeezus and sub­sequent works have been poor imit­a­tions of the sort of mater­i­al Saul was con­jur­ing up  more than a dec­ade ago (Kanye did employ Saul for writ­ing duties on 808s and get live light­ing and rig­ging and sound advice from Saul & crew – go watch the recent Break­fast Club inter­view with Saul Wil­li­ams). Maybe Saul Wil­li­ams is mad that the unapo­lo­get­ic­ally Black Tupac Shak­ur inspired Broad­way pro­duc­tion he starred in got shut down. Maybe he is mad that we don’t ingest what is good for us hol­ist­ic­ally as a soci­ety and this is why Don­ald Trump has ris­en to power. Maybe that’s vic­tim blamey. Maybe there’s a point to this rhet­or­ic because Beyonce’s Form­a­tion and Super­bowl per­form­ance, and Kendrick’s Grammy awards per­form­ance happened because the audi­ences DEMAN­DED their move­ment to be rep­res­en­ted by those at the top. Maybe…

Dance Apo­ca­lyptic

Saul gave no reas­on to cel­eb­rate and pos­tu­lated few solu­tions but we danced the apo­ca­lypse regard­less. Ety­mo­lo­gic­ally, the word ‘apo­ca­lypse’ is rooted in Lat­in ‘apokalypsis,’ which means the lit­er­al lift­ing off of a lid and sym­bol­ic rev­el­a­tion of truth. Saul Wil­li­ams is an aud­it­or for Pan­dora’s Box on Earth right now and his right­eous polem­ics are a call to intent. Per­haps, the sequel to this ‘dis­rupt’ will action the changes to bet­ter­ment via Mar­tyr­LoserKing. In the mean­time, I’m still enjoy­ing the buzz from one of Saul Wil­li­ams’ finest shows and anoth­er stel­lar addi­tion to his already vast dis­co­graphy. Saul Wil­li­ams’ per­form­ance was unin­hib­itedly intense but not over­power­ing. His smiles in between songs showed us the human behind the words and beats. This is after all, a per­son who is happy to accept a role as an exag­ger­ated ver­sion of him­self on US sit­com “Girl­friends” that the pro­du­cers were sure he would turn down. There are no maybes that Saul William’s anger comes from love. Go listen to the new album and work your way back­wards through his dis­co­graphy to get a pic­ture of a man who is too multi-layered to be effect­ively por­trayed in one gig review.
Eagerly await­ing the next.


Review by Wasif Sayyed [@WasifScion]

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
Wasif Sayyed

Wasif Sayyed

Wasif Sayyed’s many years as a writer, rap­per, pro­moter, ment­or and hip-hop pro­du­cer have shaped him into an enthu­si­ast­ic and insight­ful cul­tur­al cryp­to­graph­er. He loves read­ing and cook­ing, and can hear the whis­per of an unsheathed liquid sword from 50 paces. Twit­ter @WasifScion

About Wasif Sayyed

Wasif Sayyed
Wasif Sayyed's many years as a writer, rapper, promoter, mentor and hip-hop producer have shaped him into an enthusiastic and insightful cultural cryptographer. He loves reading and cooking, and can hear the whisper of an unsheathed liquid sword from 50 paces. Twitter @WasifScion