Saul Williams, Brixton Academy, London

The next Last Poet
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The Independent Culture

Rapper/poet Saul Williams - playing support in front of an even bigger crowd of NIN-heads - also faces the considerable obstacle that goths are, by and large, not very keen on rap (and, without wishing to overplay the innuendo, not very keen on black music in general), and therefore he clearly has his work cut out.

Perhaps it's these worries, and the experience of The Dresden Dolls, which have prompted the unequivocal statement from Trent Reznor himself, plastered on posters all around the Academy: "Saul Williams is a breath of fresh air... in a genre that is constantly replicating itself, a copy of a copy of a copy." (If their own hero has hand-picked the artist, surely this crowd should at least give them a chance, if only out of respect for Trent?) It's true, however, that Williams has already courted and consorted with the rock scene. His 2001 debut album, Amethyst Rock Star (voted Album Of The Year in that hip-hop bible, The Times) was produced by rockbeast Rick Rubin, his second, self-titled album features contributions from Serj Tankian (System Of A Down) and Zack De La Rocha (Rage Against The Machine), and he's toured with The Mars Volta, whose keyboardist Isiah "Ikey" Owens joins him onstage tonight.

It's also true that, as Reznor states, Williams is atypical of his genre: indeed, his final track tonight ("Telegram") contains the line "hip-hop is lying on the side of the road, half dead to itself," and is an open letter to hip-hop itself, accusing the genre of losing its direction and its soul.

A wild-haired, unshaven bohemian, Williams is a leading light of the poetry-slam movement (he was a writer of, and actor in, the film Slam, which won Cannes Palme D'Or and Sundance awards), his rhymes are as likely to be backed by cellos or pianos as by sampled beats, he's had three volumes of his verse published (Said A Shotgun To The Head, She and Seventh Octave), his website is bejewelled with extracts from Ben Okri and entries about Paul Robeson, and his message board has headers on "Health/Diet", "Relationships/Love" and "Spirituality". (Speaking of which, Williams lyrics like "align yourself with the divine" are worrying to an atheist, but he does redeem himself by risking the wrath of the anti-Jerry Springer The Musical lobby with the line "it turns out God is gay".) Admittedly I haven't had time to look, but I'm guessing it's not quite like that over on Jay-Z dot com.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Anyone who's turned off by the wishy-washy, tree-hugging Democrat Rap likes of Arrested Development and Fugees may be turned off by the theoretical prospect of Saul Williams. However, anyone who's turned on by conscious-rap pioneers like Gil Scott-Heron and Last Poets ought to be turned on by the reality.

As he takes the stage and opens with "Grippo", the goths are initially bemused. But by the time he launches into his third track, the concise, focused rage of "List Of Demands (Reparations)", heads are nodding. After all, a chorus like "I've got a list of demands, written on the palm of my hand/ I'll ball my fist, and then you'll know where I stand..." delivered over an electronic "I Wanna Be Your Dog" riff is not a million miles from NIN themselves.

"You have the right to remain silent," Williams deadpans during the finale of "Telegram", in the persona of a drive-by cop who's just "killed" hip-hop. Many people around me, judging by the gormless, open-hanging jaws, are exercising that right.

A small victory, but an enjoyable one.

s.price@independent.co.uk

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