In a twist on the Radiohead experiment, the third album by fiery political poet and rapper Saul Williams was released last November via the Web because no major record company was interested. Listeners could download the music for free as mid-fidelity MP3s, or pay $5 for one of three higher-fidelity formats.
The difference was that while the majority of Radiohead fans are thought to have paid an average of $10, his patron and producer Trent Reznor eventually revealed that only 18 percent of the people who downloaded Williams’ album paid for it. The rest took it for free.
While this may say something about the future of the record industry, it was no reflection on the quality of “The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!” (available via www.niggytardust.com). With a title that cheekily references David Bowie’s concept album “Ziggy Stardust” and complete with a wonderfully recontextualized cover of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” the disc is a wonderfully powerful merger of industrial rock backing tracks, hip-hop grooves and Wiliams’ impressionistic lyrics surveying the ugly realities of life as an African-American.
I spoke to the artist by phone in the midst of a tour that brings him to Chicago Friday.
Q. Let’s start with how you came to collaborate with Trent on “Niggy Tardust.”
A. I was asked to tour with Trent and Nine Inch Nails, and a while after that, he asked me if I was down to collaborate with him. I said yeah; I thought it would be a cool idea, so I played him the stuff I was working on, and he loved it and kept the ball rolling. I never met him before I was on the road with him; I never had listened to a Nine Inch Nails album, either! He told me that he liked my album and it grew from that. I’ve had really diverse fans, from old ladies to young punk kids -- the people that are looking for the intellectual or the people who are looking for the adrenaline rush with the energy that comes through the bass drums.
Q. That’s how I became a fan: by seeing you perform live. Too many rappers can’t duplicate the energy of the record onstage, whereas you’re even more intense in concert.
A. At a point where I started things with hip-hop, all the gangsta s--t started taking off, and everyone wanted to be the Godfather. In hip-hop, a lot of times you have to prove that you never lose your cool, as opposed to punk, where you’re supposed to lose it. You’re supposed to throw it all to the f---ing wind, go to the floor and lose it. I thought that the most exciting hip-hop performance would come from that perspective.
Q. I’m calling from Chicago, which in many ways is positive rap central, with Common, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Kid Sister and others. All of those rappers get dismissed in some corners for being soft -- which I don’t think they are -- but that’s a charge no one could ever throw at you, because despite the positivity, the music always hits hard.
A. Yeah, I don’t like soft. It’s interesting: I’m a fan of everyone you mentioned; I really like Lupe’s new album [“The Cool”]. To me, back in the day, the stuff they called hardcore, most of that stuff had guitars, like Run-D.M.C. or Public Enemy. I just liked guitars, you know? So I’ve kept that in my music, and it’s half of the inspiration. You don’t have to be that hardcore for your music to be powerful, but I enjoy that.
Q. Let’s get back to “Niggy Tardust.” How did you and Trent actually make the record? Was he crafting tracks and giving them to you? Were you in the studio at the same time?
A. We were on the tour bus together, and there weren’t a lot of tracks that he crafted on his own. He sent me this CD that had 14 tracks on it, and maybe four made the album. Some of the others were chopped up. He said, “Here are some songs; some are new that I was working on while thinking about you, and others are stuff I had from as far back as the ‘Fragile’ era that I had been sitting on.’ What happened was, we were in Australia -- and I point that out because the first song I wrote was called “Convict Colony” -- and there was one drum loop on Trent’s CD that was crazy, so I rapped over that, added guitars to it and made a new song.
Q. The idea for that tune came from being in a country that started as a dumping ground for the people England didn’t want?
A. Yeah, but I was also thinking of America -- our inner cities. So that was our first collaborative effort, and sort of typical of how it went.
Q. So it wasn’t conceived as a concept album, though it works very well as such?
A. When I’m writing hooks, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be conceived as a concept album from the start to work as one. I knew that it would be a matter of piecing together pieces and seeing what story is told, and letting whatever story is told serve as the concept. It’s not so much as creating the concept album as much as it is promoting it as such.
Q. The title, obviously, is an homage to David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust.” Have you heard from him? He’s famously a voracious listener, and I’d think he take it as a compliment.
A. I’m sure he has; I know that Trent has talked with him, but I haven’t bothered to ask Trent what the response was. I already know that Bowie has heard it, and Bono, too, and I know I’ve gotten the thumbs up from both of them, but I haven’t heard the actual responses.
Q. What about the business model? You and Trent took a risk releasing the album on the Web, but the gamble seems to have paid off: If you didn’t sell more than 20 percent of the downloads, you did double the number of listeners who’d heard you in the past.
A. Oh my God! It’s totally an ongoing confirmation of the fact that people are willing and ready to support artists and integrity, and we don’t need a middle man to make it happen. Sometimes it just takes the artist to have some [guts] and savvy, and that’s what Trent has been able to do.
Saul Williams, Dragons of Zynth
10 p.m. Friday
Martyr’s, 3855 N. Lincoln