ISBN: 1416516328
MTV Books Published 2006-01
Paperback , $12.95 (208p)
Literary Collections | American - General;
Music | Genres & Styles - Rap & Hip Hop Reviewed 2005-12-19

The ultimate collection of “hip-hop poetry,” The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip-Hop is a book written as if it is the recently recovered manuscripts of the original b-boys (Sirius b). Through what is essentially a collection of hip-hop poetry, it aims to unveil the metaphysics of hip-hop.  The writings are credited “By Anonymous.” Thus, the author, Saul Williams, is listed as the editor/translator. The book includes a disclaimer and apology from Saul Williams for previously claiming authorship of some of the text included. In truth, the book is a collection of poems, commentary, and essays by Saul Williams all dealing with hip-hop.  “Yes,” he says, “I am willing to refer to my poetry as “hip-hop poetry” in this instance. Why?  Because its approach makes this book so interesting.”  Saul has fictionalized his personal story in the introduction, by asserting that he found these ancient manuscripts and simply translated them and read them at poetry readings. 

The book includes commentary and footnotes on some of the poems so that overall the book reads as if Saul is truly and simply the editor/translator of these ancient texts.  Some of the poems included in this collection – many that Saul is best known for - were previously collected in his first book The Seventh Octave: The Early Writings of Saul Stacey Williams  (published in 1997 by Moore Black Press and now out of print.)   However a great many are new poems. This is Saul Williams at his best.  A serious collection of his work, yet overlain with humor, so that it is at once a spoof (a satirical take on hip-hop) and intense commentary on our existential search for peace, among many other layers of interpretation.

"Saul is every kind of great artist combined into one. He is the best of every genre in one. A brilliant, brilliant guy."  —Nas  

    “Saul Williams is the prototype synthesis between poetry and hip-hop, stage and page, rap and prose, funk and mythology, slam and verse…he avoids classifications, and empowers the human voice. All of this is represented in Williams’ newest book. The Dead Emcee Scrolls.” —Mark Eleveld, author of The Spoken Word Revolution: Slam, hip-hop and the Poetry of the Next Generation

“Once again one of the finest minds in the country has put pen to paper, voice to verse, and dug into the deep, rich planet better known as the souls of black folks.” — Nelson George, author of hip-hop America

“One of the most inspiring voices in American hip-hop.”—Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails

“An astonishing . . . poet. The internal rhyme, metrics, and imagery are so fleet . . . that they’re humbling.” —The Washington Post

“hip-hop’s poet laureate…Saul Williams isn’t out to save hip-hop, but he is out to elevate the art form [and] is effectively breaking boundaries while blurring the line between poetry and rap.”—CNN

“[Saul Williams] is a mighty talent. He takes readers on epic voyages into frontiers that offer a refreshing awakening of the mind and a roller coaster ride into an abyss of demons, deities, occult symbols, and more.” —Amsterdam News

"A profound poet who inspires us."—Russell Simmons

Williams is not the first to take hip-hop diction and rhyme to the page and make beautiful stanzaic poetry (see everyone from Gil Scott-Heron to Thomas Sayers Ellis), but he creates, in this third book, a kind of "In Memorium" for hip-hop's redemptive promise, trying, as Tennyson did, to find light shining through the wreckage of hope. If this effort falls short of that great poem, the ambition behind it is not the less for it. Skip the self-mythologizing intro and launch right into the long opening serial poem, "NGH WHT": "BCH NGH. Gun trigga. Dick's bigga. Why/ fuck? Killer. Blood spiller. Mack/ truck. Bad luck, fuckin with this black buck./ Bigger Thomas, I promise. Leave a corpse in/ the furnace." The sly way in which the speaker simultaneously inhabits and repudiates male rap clichs and effects sonic sneak attacks (one hears "kill her" in "killer") gets worked out over 33 "chapters" of anywhere from three to 10 \stanzas, giving a fierce, assured tour of hip-hop history and contradiction. There are six other, shorter serial poems, and the book's last third consists of verse "Journal Entries." Williams, who starred in Slam, has authored two previous books, s/he and said the shotgun to the head ; both are uneven and contain long, ambitious pieces, but neither has a poem like "NGH WHT." (Feb.) — Publishers Weekly Copyright © 1997-2005 Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved

SAUL WILLIAMS, one of America’s bestselling poets, is the author of three previous books of poetry:, said the shotgun to the head. and S√he (both from MTV/Pocket Books) and The Seventh Octave (Moore Black Press). His music albums, Amethyst Rock Star and Saul Williams, earned him great critical acclaim, as did his starring role in Slam. Williams also co-wrote that film, which garnered the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Camera D’or at the Cannes Film Festival.

National Post February 28, 2006 Tuesday Toronto Edition

SECTION: ARTS & LIFE; Pg. AL5 HEADLINE: Hip-hop poet doesn't rap to the converted: Saul Williams keen to face Trent Reznor's audience of 'white kids wearing all black'

BYLINE: Mike Doherty, National Post

 "To have great poets," Walt Whitman once wrote, "there must be great audiences too." But sometimes great poets have to seek out their audiences inunusual circumstances. Thus, Saul Williams, author of four volumes of poetry and the man whom CNN has dubbed "hip hop's poet laureate," is about to embark on a North American arena tour opening for Nine Inch Nails.

This won't be the first time Williams has stood on the same stage as Trent Reznor, the so-called Dark Prince of industrial rock, performing music and spoken word to a sea of fans who can most easily be categorized, as the poet acknowledges with a laugh, as "white kids wearing all black." A European tour with the same bill last year was, apparently, auspicious.

 "I really enjoy not preaching to the converted," says Williams, "so any time I have an opportunity to introduce my work to people that might not automatically be exposed to it because they think they wouldn't be into it, I'm totally into the opportunity to blow minds."

 Williams first blew minds when, as a graduate acting student in New York in the mid-'90s, he began performing his poetry in coffee shops. Not for him the staid tones of the conventional literary reading; Williams would declaim his verses, which bring together the elevated and the vernacular, the spiritual and the street, with intensity, passion and conviction. He soon became a champion on the slam poetry circuit, and starred in the 1998 movie Slam, which won the Camera D'Or at Cannes and introduced wide audiences to competitive poetry performance.

This exposure led to a contract with MTV, which has just released his book, The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip-Hop. It's a collection of poems which, Williams tells us in his introduction, emerged from scrolls of "aged yellowish-brown paper" he discovered in a can of spray paint left at an abandoned site by an unknown graffiti artist. The poems historicize hip-hop culture, relating, for instance, the modern-day breakbeat to polyrhythmic African drumming and graffiti to hieroglyphics. Williams separates his poems into chapters and states that his goal "is for you to be able to look at hip-hop lyricism in a similar fashion in which you might look at scripture."

The most potentially controversial aspect of this association of hip hop with scripture may be Williams' writing of the word "niggah" as "NGH," akin to the way the Hebrew word for God appears as "YHWH" in sacred texts.

 "There's all this talk about the 'N-word,' " says Williams. "I thought, 'Instead of trying to push it down, what would happen if we lifted it up?' If you look at the indigenous languages surrounding the Niger River, several words are very similar to the word 'nigger' and 'negro,' and some of those words are sacred. It is a possibility that the only word of indigenous African origin in the American English lexicon is the word 'nigger,' which may explain why it's not going anywhere. We do know internally much more than we know intellectually. Maybe the switching of it into a positive thing, like, 'You're my niggah,' may have some kind of subconscious subtext that is bigger than what we imagine."

Williams is happy to create controversy if it will get people to think, as he is fond of saying, "outside of boxes." His whole career has been founded on this notion. He has recorded two genre-defying albums, 2001's Amethyst Rock Star (which contains readings of some of the poems in The Dead Emcee Scrolls) and 2004's Saul Williams, with producer Rick Rubin, famed as an originator of rap-rock. He tries to write with the substance of an underground MC but the catchiness of a Dr. Dre or a Tupac Shakur, all the while calling out commercial rappers when they slip into uncreative depictions of violence and misogyny.

One of the biggest debates over the content of hip hop has centred around how much an artist who raps about, say, toting guns and "pimpin' hos" can be meaningfully separated from his persona. In order to address this in his own work, Williams affirms that he has challenged himself "to sincerely keep it real. That's why I don't have an MC name, although I'm tempted to, because I love coming up with names. There's a part of me that's like, 'actually, I think it would be more fun and insightful to try to show the real meaning of keeping it real,' and still keeping it extremely creative."

All the same, one shouldn't necessarily take everything Williams writes or declaims entirely literally: He may not really "stand on the corner of the block slinging amethyst rocks / Drinkin 40's of Mother Earth's private nectar stock." He may not even really have found a scroll inside of a paint can. One must grant the poet his poetic licence.

 "I do get some people that are quick to want to make me a prophet or something like that," says Williams. "I'm much more comfortable thinking of myself as an artist who's playing around with all of these existing infrastructures. Picasso said, 'Art is the big lie through which we realize the truth.'

"Words capture ideas in boxes. We think in boxes. How can we use these boxes to get people to open up or break the boxes? ... Anybody would say, 'Oh, you're a poet. You must love words.' I could give a fuck about words. I treat words like rappers treat women in videos. It's because of that detachment that I'm
able to use them the way that I do."