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 http://martyrloserking.com/.
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…
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]
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