“Is this demonic?” entertainment correspondent Tanika Ray jokingly whispers, as singer Saul Williams leads a mosh pit in the African chant of “Explain My Heart.” Drummer Pegasus Warning pounds out tribal beats up in L.A.’s El Rey Theatre, while Williams holds court in a fly Edwardian jacket that could’ve been nicked from Prince’s backstage room at First Avenue back in 1983. DJ CX Kidtronik blends in heavy-metal effects that sound like old-school Run-DMC. French keyboardist Julian Chirol puts a trombone to his thin lips for some melody. Overall, the band brings Williams’s fourth studio album, Volcanic Sunlight, to life in a shamanistic ritual that justifies Ray’s innocent question.
On a world tour, Saul Williams promotes his most pop-flavored record with the kind of rock chops that his former producers Rick Rubin (Amethyst Rock Star) and Trent Reznor (The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!) would respect. Living in Paris with his teenage daughter since 2009, the poet-actor-MC also recently filmed Aujourd'hui in Dakar with Senegalese director Alain Gomis. A model of the Black renaissance man in these post-millennial days, EBONY spoke with Williams about living abroad, signing with Sony France, and being an analog dude in a digital world.
EBONY: What was your motivation for moving to Paris?
Saul Williams: An opportunity came for me to move over here just through an old friend who offered me a place right when I was looking for a place in L.A. And it dawned on me that I could do it. I could actually go there and creatively and work-wise as far as what I was working on with an album and all that, I really felt like this could be a great place to do that from. I automatically started imagining this idea of reinvention (and) I like that idea. I’m constantly playing around with that idea. It’s been a really cool experience in every way.
SW: Let’s just be clear. Just in the idea of a standard contract, because in America, the system was set up with a majority Black entertainers, Black musicians, and White contractors. These contracts were set up, because of the racism institutionalized and what have you, these contracts were set up to take advantage of the artist. So the standard contract assumes more, hides more, in the U.S. than it does in France, where a standard contract was set up for French men for other French men, where they have this sense of loyalty to each other and this sense of, “I would never try to harm you, I’m an honest man.” And so just in what you get in a standard contract is shit that you’d have to fight the hell out of and would be impossible for you to get in the United States.
The Internet is kind of like a club or a party at the mall a lot of times. You can make a library of it, but it needs to be a conscious decision.
So that’s just on the level of standard. Now bring in lawyers and a little bit of expertise and some experience that tells you, “Well, I want even more than that; I want this, that and the other.” So I didn’t get a standard contract. I was able to determine and to declare what type of contract I would take and what type of contract I would like. Because of previous works and all that stuff, and positioning, they were willing to sit and talk with me.
I chose Sony France because when my first album that I did with Rick Rubin came out—I was on Sony before, that’s the first label I signed to—my experience was at its most positive in France. When Sony America at the time heard my album, they said, “That’s not hip-hop. We don’t know what to do with it. We’re not sure we wanna put it out,” Sony France heard the same album and was like, “Are you crazy? We’re putting this out now.” And there was a year-and-a-half difference between when my album came out in Europe, started by France, and then in the U.S. A year and a half time. The U.S. did it a year and a half later, after they saw what was happening in Europe.
All that was sparked by Sony France. Those people that did that then, where everybody else has been fired, those people have just moved up. Those are my friends for the past… Even when I was working albums on different labels, those same people would help out, make calls, do all this stuff, even though I wasn’t on their label anymore. So these are decade-old friends now that I was like, “Ahh, this would be…”
So my experience and the executive office and all that has shifted tremendously. Not only because I’m working with friends—because I’ve been working with friends, when I put stuff through The