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Hip-hop's poet laureate speaks out

By Tyson Wheatley
CNN Headline News

Saul Williams drew raves for his gutsy performance as an imprisoned street poet in the independent movie "Slam."
Saul Williams

(CNN) -- Saul Williams isn't out to save hip-hop, but he is out to elevate the art form. The actor, activist and leader of the self-described "industrial punk-hop" movement, is effectively breaking boundaries while blurring the lines between poetry and rap.

He's one of the most recognizable poets in America, and has established a worldwide fan base with his magnetic spoken-word performance. Williams drew raves for his gutsy performance as an imprisoned street poet in "Slam," winner of the Camera d'Or at Cannes and the Grand Jury prize at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.

His most recent book of poetry, ", Said Shotgun to the Head," is a sharp and chilling deconstruction of flawed concepts of gender, race and religion. As a musician, he couples his way with words with an ear for beats. Influenced by Public Enemy, and armed to the teeth with a lexicon matched by few, Williams illuminates hip-hop's golden era while setting sights on the future.

His first album, 2001's "Amethyst Rock Star" drew critical acclaim for it's raw emotion, political visceral, and crushing beats. On his self-titled sophomore release (Fader, 2004), Williams offers a provocative, personal and powerful follow up.

Williams spits fiery phrases and breathes potent metaphors over distorted beats, and fuzzy guitars, while tackling love, war and downfall of the black community. Activist friends Serj Tankian (System of a Down) and Zach de la Rocha (Rage Against the Machine) pitch in with notable performances.

"Hit Play" caught up with Williams in his Los Angeles home to discuss rap, politics and what Jay-Z and George W. Bush have in common.

CNN: What's wrong with hip-hop?

SAUL WILLIAMS: The only reason I've been so critical of hip-hop is because I've always been aware of the effect that it has, and the reflection that it gives of the African-American community. I remember back in the day when Chuck D called hip-hop the "black people's CNN." Well now, hip-hop is more like Fox News. It's biased, and highly suspect. Hip-hop is still cool at a party. But to me, hip-hop has never been strictly a party; it is also there to elevate consciousness. What's wrong with hip-hop is the system that controls the definition of it. There needs to be more balance on the airwaves. I mean look at Eminem, getting airplay on rock radio. Does he get airplay on rock radio because he's a rock musician? No, it's because rock radio pictures itself as white radio. We just need to broaden our definitions of ourselves and then about the music. Hip-hop is too young to put a definition on it.

CNN: Tell me about the album.

WILLIAMS: My goal was for the album to excite me. I didn't sit back and say, "I'm going to add two spoons of punk rock, four spoons of hip-hop, and a half a cup of rock." [For] most of the album, the music was written first. The music kinda told me what I was going to write about.

CNN: Who are your influences?

WILLIAMS: James Brown, KRS-One, LL Cool J, Run-DMC, Radiohead, Bjork, Goldie, Soul II Soul, Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake, Fionna Apple. Just tons of folks.

Williams' recent book of poetry, ",Said Shotgun to the Head."

CNN: Does poetry end where rap begins?

WILLIAMS: I think there can be a distinction made. The MC -- master of ceremonies -- has to be just that, a master in control. They can show no signs of weakness. The MC that we love are usually the ones that we consider be kinda heartless, like 50 Cent. That's pretty much the prowess and power of an MC. That's what sells. Jay Z and President Bush have a lot in common, that same brash confidence. To me, it's kind of interesting to hear Jay Z say 'you know I've held ya'll down for six summers.' And those have been the same six summers of unhappiness under Bush. Where as a poet on the other hand - the strengths and power of a poet is in their vulnerability. In hip hop we say what? "Act like ya know." The poet is one of the first people to say, "I don't know."

CNN: Is life-changing music still possible?

WILLIAMS: It will always be possible. We all have different relationships with music. But the music is always there. Think of the orchestration in the films- like "Jaws," you wouldn't have that knot in your stomach if that music weren't going [hums Jaws theme]. Music controls those emotional strings, music is POW-ER. It effects change, much more so than legislation. Legislation won't necessarily start a riot. But the right song can make someone pick up a chair.

Saul Williams is performing two shows January 21-22 during the Sundance Film Festival and appears in HBO's upcoming rhythm and blues-fueled drama "Lackwanna Blues," a film adaptation of Ruben Santiago-Hudson's one-man play. Saul Williams is also planning a North American tour this summer, and is working on a fourth book of poetry.

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