Poet/rapper Saul Williams was too wrapped up in hip-hop as a teenager to listen to much rock. But when Trent Reznor asked the "Slam" star to open up for Nine Inch Nails earlier this year, he agreed. And when Reznor asked Williams if he could produce the MC's next album, the answer was: "What? Yeah, sure!"
"Trent asked me if I wanted to work with him," said Williams, who just wrapped up a 30-show stint opening for the pioneering industrial rocker. "I had only just met him when he asked if I wanted to tour with him, and when he asked if I'd be down with him contributing to my album, I was like, 'Yeah!' "
Williams said they began recording tracks for the still-untitled album (due in early 2007) in hotel rooms between gigs on the spring tour but have now moved the process to Reznor's Los Angeles home studio. As odd as the pairing might seem — conscious rapper and goth-rock icon — it makes perfect sense to Williams.
"It's different from both of us," he said of the material that's emerging. "I can't say that I listened to Nine Inch Nails, because I was such the hip-hop boy. I could have grown up on Nine Inch Nails, it was around, but I was too narrow-minded. But [our stuff] doesn't sound like Nine Inch Nails, and it's unique. Both of us tend to go very hard, and together we've created something that sounds more beautiful than hard. It's a middle finger up to the idea of genre, yet a beautiful, long, loving embrace to the idea of song structure and quality."
It's not like the rock thing is that foreign to Williams, whose major-label debut, Amethyst Rock Star, came out on Rick Rubin's American Recordings label in 2001 and featured some hard-rock backing tracks. He was one of the few hip-hop acts moving the crowd at last summer's Lollapalooza in Chicago, he's toured with the Mars Volta, and he collaborated with former Rage Against the Machine singer Zack de la Rocha on the song "Act III Scene 2 (Shakespeare)" on his self-titled 2004 album.
Which is why Williams doesn't look at working with Reznor as a step into the rock world at all. In fact, he thinks of Reznor as a hip-hop producer on par with the best beatmakers out there.
"Trent got into the game very inspired by hip-hop," he said. "One of his biggest inspirations is Public Enemy, which is mine as well. Nine Inch Nails are one of the few rock groups where, like hip-hop, most of the music is programmed. He's a hip-hop producer in the way he uses drum machines and synths the way hip-hop producers do."
So far, Williams said, the sessions with Reznor have been the most fun he's ever had in the studio and have inspired his biggest growth spurt as an artist. In addition to producing and writing instrumental tracks, Williams said, Reznor is playing a range of instruments on the album and, well, making him cry.
"Some of the tracks he gave me took me to places emotionally, sometimes dark or sometimes new, that I have never been to," Williams said. "It was frightening to me. Working on one song, I was afraid because I was venturing into a place that could make me cry nonstop, and I felt so far from home, so far from hip-hop."