Upon going to the website niggytardust.com, you’ll see two options. One says "I want to directly support the artists involved in the creation of this music ($5)." The other reads "I’m not concerned about that. I just want the music (Free)." Clicking on either will get you an electronic version of Saul Williams’ The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!
The announcement that NiggyTardust would be released in direct-to-download format came right on the heels of the release of Radiohead’s In Rainbows. That album went platinum within three days of hitting the web in a similar format. Williams, though well respected in the slam poetry and alternative hip-hop scenes, is hardly the household name of Radiohead. This makes Niggy all the more brave. It is a test on whether musicians can do without the ever-parasitic record industry.
It was a test fervently taken up by Nine Inch Nails brain Trent Reznor, who was on board as Williams’ producer for this project. The teaming up of these two is a meeting of minds from two different ends of the spectrum. Williams is the consummate hip-hop poet who has never shied away from articulating both the pain and promise of rap. Reznor is the intense studio virtuoso whose albums gave industrial music a new lease on life in the 1990s.
When he hasn’t been chastising Bush and Fox News, Reznor’s been trashing his label. This past summer he became so fed up with Universal Music Group that he started telling fans to steal his albums, either online or straight from the store.
So it comes as little surprise that the direct-to-download release of NiggyTardust would come at Reznor’s urging. "From the start, I remember Trent saying ‘let’s give it away for free,’" Williams recalled in a recent interview. "At first I was like ‘this dude is out of his mind.’ But then it really started making sense, and, of course, with Radiohead doing it, we were like ‘what the fuck? The idea we had was great, and we should really follow it through.’"
The idea would undoubtedly be a gamble. Radiohead, having already sold millions of albums, had little trouble bringing the mountain to Moses. Would Williams and Reznor be as successful?
This was, in essence, the question asked in an early January Salon.com article, written two months after NiggyTardust’s release. The article cited a post on Reznor’s website stating that while over 150,000 people have downloaded the album, less than 29,000 opted to pay the five dollars. As the post points out, that’s about 4,000 less than went out and bought Williams’ previous album three years ago.
It’s hard to say that the percentage of people who paid isn’t low. Reznor himself admits that the numbers are "troubling." There are things to keep in mind, though. Firstly, not a dime of those 150,000 people’s money for this is in the hands of Sony, EMI and the like. All went to Williams and Reznor to recoup recording and online costs.
Secondly, it would be somewhat crass to view an experiment like this solely in terms of money and raw numbers. Williams and Reznor are both unique voices who could never fit into the cookie cutters on which the music industry makes its bank. This album is an attempt to show what is possible artistically outside those shallow interests. At that, it succeeds brilliantly.
For one thing, NiggyTardust blatantly defies any easy label. Williams himself is hesitant to fit it into any genre: "Gosh, I don’t know, ghetto gothic? I guess I’d characterize it as hard-core dance. I don’t know if I’d include spoken word in it actually. It’s so danceable. I have a lot to say, but I wanted to find a way to say it that didn’t get in the way of me dancing my ass off."
Williams understands how this album breaks the mold. His confrontational-yet-playful brand of slam poetry could easily land the record in the rap section of any record store (albeit among the best in any record store), were it not for Reznor’s own contribution. Overdriven guitars, keys, temple-pounding drumbeats and abstract samples all blend into a mesmerizing sound-scape that is more trademark NIN than anything else. It’s most definitely a weird mix with Williams’ firebrand rants against everything from racism to the modern hip-hop nation, but the end result is something unique.
Song’s like "Black History Month," "Convict Colony" and "Break" invoke a kind of controlled chaos that mimics both monotony and repressed rage at the same time. The distorted backgrounds make Williams out to be the lone voice of sanity in a world quickly careening toward the edge of oblivion. Williams has always played this role with fearless ease and good humor. His politics have always been stylishly worn on his sleeve, and this album is no exception.
Pulling heavily from Public Enemy, "Tr(n)igger" would inevitably provoke a tsk-tsk from the censors. There’s no mistake that it’s Chuck D’s powerful vocals declaring "from the hand of a nigger, pull the trigger," while Williams’ forceful voice bounces overhead about ghettoes and bombs falling on Lebanon. What Williams has done is put the post-Imus backlash on its head. He puts it in the context of war, racism and poverty, a world that can only provoke outrage and frustration.
Yet both artists take time on this album to show off some surprising versatility. "Scared Money" incorporates an Afrobeat sound, complete with sampled horns and congas. The intimate "No One Ever Does" is little else besides quiet keyboards and Williams’ singing.
Perhaps the most intriguing song would be the one the album is named after. Of all the tracks that might make the major labels balk, "NiggyTardust" is first and foremost. Throughout the song Williams constructs the title character as a mockery of the modern circus of big-business hip-hop. There’s even a thinly veiled jab at 50 Cent ("you can call him Curtis"). Williams’ parody is topped off by the acerbically witty chorus: "When I say Niggy, you say nothin’. Niggy… Niggy…" It’s a funny song that, in its own twisted way, speaks some truth that the BET’s and P. Diddies would rather ignore.
Perhaps it goes without saying that you won’t normally hear all this on MTV. That’s ultimately what makes NiggyTardust an important album; the example it sets for musicians and fans sick of the music-business-as-usual. As long as music is reduced to mere commodity in this system, then the creativity of artists and musicians can only be limited. But outside the realms of profit-shares and marketability, there’s an alternative where that same creativity can find a voice. NiggyTardust is an early example of what that alternative might look like.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Washington, DC. He is a regular contributor to DissidentVoice.org and Znet. He is currently working on his first book, The Sounds of Liberation: Music and Social Change in the 21st Century.
His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com. To contact him or subscribe to his column, email [email protected]