There are undoubtedly those in the music industry who view Trent Reznor as the antichrist. Last fall, for example, the Nine Inch Nails mastermind incited fans in Australia to steal the band’s latest album, Year Zero, by downloading it illegally rather than paying the “absurd” price set by Universal Music Group, the parent company of NIN’s label, Interscope Records.
Recently freed from his Interscope contract, Reznor has been releasing music independently via the Internet. His latest project, Ghosts I-IV, is a 36-track instrumental album, which fans can buy at a wide range of price points, from a free download to a $300 deluxe boxed set from ghosts.nin.com/main/home. What’s more, Reznor is allowing fans to alter and redistribute the music under a Creative Commons licence. The suits may scratch their heads, but Reznor isn’t trying to change the world; he’s merely acknowledging that it has already changed and that the music business has failed to change with it.
Saul Williams is a believer. Reznor aided the New York City–based slam poet and musician with the production of his latest album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!, and convinced him that he could put it out on-line without the backing of a major label. He also convinced him to give it away; the first 100,000 downloaders were given the option of getting the album for free, after which a $5 price became mandatory.
“It was initially Trent’s idea, which he was trying to convince me of for over a year,” Williams says, reached in Los Angeles just before a rehearsal with his touring band. “And I wasn’t really certain it was the route I wanted to do, quite frankly, because I figured if I had Trent Reznor onboard, maybe I wanted to cash in on that and get the big advance that I wanted, and pay off some debts.”
As work on the album progressed, it became clear to Williams that it was the type of project the majors wouldn’t have a clue how to deal with. NiggyTardust! is an artifact of a new economy, one where kids no longer consume music by going to a bricks-and-mortar store and selecting a CD from bins marked Alternative or Hip-Hop.
Williams realized it would be simpler to take the reins rather than explain himself to a marketing department. “We figured if we did it ourselves, we could forgo all of that, because the Internet speaks above and beyond all of their self-projected boundaries, and the way that they [marketers] don’t get it, the regular common kids of today do,” he says.
NiggyTardust! is a lot to process. Dense with imagery and bursting at the seams with disparate musical ideas, the album is a head-spinning sonic ride that takes listeners from the punishing industrial-rock groove of “Convict Colony” to the Bomb Squad–issue breakbeat of “Tr(n)igger”. The title is a reference to David Bowie’s landmark 1972 LP The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Like Bowie’s Ziggy, who descended from outer space to free humankind from banal music and antiquated notions of gender and propriety through the power of his glitter-dusted glam rock, Niggy Tardust is on a mission. Williams is a strong believer in the power of music as a tool for personal liberation, and as a means for defining one’s identity in a world that doesn’t always encourage self-expression. This is a point the poet makes explicitly on the track “Banged and Blown Through”, on which he sings “Conductor! Conductor!/I feel electricity/Conductor! Conductor!/Can you bring out the orchestra in me?”
In much the same way that Williams defies categorization by straddling the worlds of rock and hip-hop, Niggy Tardust blurs the colour lines that divide people, insisting that they’re only imaginary anyway. Just as Ziggy Stardust had little use for restrictive gender roles (“I’m a mama-papa coming for you,” Bowie announced on “Moonage Daydream”), his 2008 counterpart refuses to define himself in racial terms.
“Niggy Tardust is a hybrid,” Williams says. “And by hybrid, I mean that he’s part one thing, part another. He’s someone that fully acknowledges that race is a social construct, that it has no true hold on the spirit and the soul, that saying ”˜I am a black man’ only speaks to one aspect—a small aspect—of who I am. We all try to file ourselves under these banners that speak to who we are, and it’s bullshit, because we have so much blood flowing through us, so many ideas, so many words, so much information, that it’s hard to be just one thing in this day and age. It’s practically impossible. It’s like having one song on your iPod.”
Saul Williams plays the Plaza Club on Monday (March 17).
In + out
Saul Williams sounds off on the things enquiring minds want to know.
On working with Trent Reznor: “He made me feel comfortable in being me, and in exploring the kinds of sounds that I had been exploring since before I connected with him. When I did my first album with Rick Rubin [2001’s Amethyst Rock Star ], Rick was like, ”˜I want you to do a straight-ahead hip-hop album.’ He was not excited about me exploring the world between genres.”
On how many times The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! has been downloaded: “I have no idea. It is possible to tell, but I stopped looking at the numbers after they crossed the 200,000 mark. I know it’s over that, but I stopped looking, just because, as an artist, it’s not the funnest thing to stay in that mind state all the time.”
On the power of poets: “As John Keats said, ”˜Poets are the midwives of reality,’ which is to say that when a new idea of freedom and independence is being born, sometimes the first to capture it is a poet.”
On music’s ability to unite people: “The song has the power to unite, to uplift, to kind of bring everybody to the same page, to the same rhythm, to the same note. Music is based on harmony, and in a time of warfare, harmony is essential.”