black history month: the inevitable resurgence of niggy tardust

February 16, 2015

February is Black History Month! Are you familiar with this album? About ten years ago Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails embarked on their “comeback” tour for the underrated analogue-tinged electronic album, ‘With Teeth’. Dresden Dolls and Saul Williams were two artists selected to support NIN during the Teeth tour. At the time, Saul’s group consisted of himself on vocals and sonic madman Christopher X better known as CX Kidtronik on programs and beats. Collaborations between NIN and Saul began to take place on stage with Trent and NIN backing Saul for his revolutionary industrial hip hop anthem ‘List Of Demands’ and ‘African Student Exchange’ at Voodoo fest in New Orleans 2005.

By Kelsey Warren, AFROPUNK Contributor

In early 2007 NIN released the politically inspired Year Zero album featuring Saul’s background vocals on the riveting first single ‘Survivalism’ and ‘Me, I’m Not’. While Kanye West was successfully collaborating with Jon Brion creating a unique sound in the world of popular hip hop, Trent and Saul went underground to conceive a masterpiece that proved to be way ahead of its time. Word spread that the two were working on a full fledged album together. Back then, I was a musically-obsessed Prince and Trent Reznor fan and I was blown away by Saul’s intellectually addictive poetry, activism and overall coolness (still am of course for these three heroes.) So once I heard about the Saul and Trent recordings, I was that kid in the candy store waiting for the new candy to arrive. ‘The Inevitable Rise And Liberation Of Niggy Tardust’ by Saul Williams was released November 1 2007. Upon first listen, I found the collaboration between Saul and Trent to be astonishing. Essential to this recording too was the powerful ensemble of Thavius Beck, Atticus Ross and the glue of Niggy, CX Kidtronik. With an album title play on David Bowie’s breakthrough ‘Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’, the sound had the spirit and vibe of Nine Inch Nails meets Public Enemy with Saul’s poetic and sharp-witted expression. Trent changed music and Saul was and still is one of our generation’s most important voices. Before Yeezus, Death Grips and Young Fathers, there was Niggy Tardust.

The opening track ‘Black History Month’ sounds like battle cry with its hardcore industrial hip hop beats setting the tone for an intense sonic and lyrical ride. When Saul states “as the song in your ear or the book in your hand, now the whole fuckin world bout to know who I am”, there’s a serious mission here. From introspective trip hop, beautiful ballads, teeth kicking fight songs, political and social criticism, Niggy Tardust still sounds fresh eight years later. Niggy displays the perfect blend of heavy content with lightweight fun. Tracks like ‘Break’, ‘The Ritual’ and ‘Tr(n)igger’ (based on a Public Enemy sample from their classic ‘Terrordome’) also follow in the vein of the opener with its NIN-styled industrial build while non hip hop tracks like ‘No One Ever Does’ and album centerpiece ‘Bang And Blown Through’ represent the beautiful ambient and melodic portion o the album. The first single and video was an excellent cover of U2’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ that should have been a huge rock radio hit but unfortunately never was. There is no denying the album sounds like NIN but Saul takes the formula to another level, flips it and makes it his own.

CX Kidtronik who has also collaborated with Kanye West and Atari Teenage Riot was an instrumental player on the Niggy project and has worked with Saul since the early nineties in the group K.I.N. from Atlanta (check out both CX’s Krak Attack albums for some of the craziest Clockwork Orange-like electro hip hop punk you’ve ever heard.) “When we were starting to work on the Niggy album we were on the road constantly. We were recording backstage with Trent on tour using my same drum machine sounds I use on stage.” CX explains. The kinship from the road and live shows was critically influential to the creation of the album. ‘Convict Colony’ was a powerful track and one of the two videos made for the release. The song, recorded after their Australian tour refers to Australia being the place England once sent its convicts. Musically there was a surprise in the beat making and production that they weren’t aware of. “Saul looped up the first measure of one of Trent’s demo beats and added his own bassline riff. We got to chop the beat up one night on tour and then we surprisingly found out a year later that Dave Grohl had originally played those drums.”

The Niggy album was also one of the first high profile releases to offer fans a choice of downloading the regular MP3 format for free or higher quality formats for $5 which went directly to the artist via the Nine Inch Nails website Previously Radiohead offered fans a “pay what you wish” option for their first non-major label release ‘In Rainbows’. Trent was very vocal about the $5 option and noted that Saul wasn’t a household name like Radiohead so the financial support for Saul and lesser known artists in general was and still is crucial. After 100,000 free downloads, the free option was removed. This was a groundbreaking deal at the time. In a two month span 154,449 fans downloaded the album with 28,322 of those fans paying the $5. In the end Saul’s audience grew tremendously, however a small percentage chose the purchase route for the album. “Radiohead had just done incredible business with that model.” CX remembers. “I personally never really liked the idea especially since two of my productions/beats weren’t included in the free download. And then I think Trent said in an interview soon after that it was a bad idea too and no one is going to get rich off this album.” The album was later released on the Fader label and available in CD format and for download on iTunes at a regular $9.99 price.

One of those non-included tracks CX was referring to is an electro-punk version of the classic Earth Wind & Fire ballad cover of Creative Source’s dance song ‘Can’t Hide Love’. The EWF styled version has also been covered by D’Angelo, pILLOW tHEORY and even Prince with Mary J Blige for a spectacular live duet. “Trent approached me about making a fast fun beat for the album.” he explains. “I joked with Saul about someone doing a bad cover song and how I’d rather hear something creative like a God damn punk rock Earth Wind & Fire cover.” After many jokes and laughs, Saul took his buddy’s dare to heart, CX constructed a beat and Trent tweaked the melody for an out-of-the-ordinary EWF cover to enhance the extended version of the album.


So why am I writing about an album that was released many years ago? My hope is that Niggy gains the recognition and respect that it rightfully deserves. This album truly was a game changer, let alone a collaboration many had been wanting to hear for ages. D.I.Y. is an amazing option and provides a lot of freedom for artists but sometimes that art can get lost without proper publicity, promotion or a machine behind it. NIN definitely had the muscle and the critically acclaimed album was a success among underground fans. But it still hasn’t reached its audience potential. Niggy is a demanding sound collision of two masters raising the musical bar for hip hop and popular music in general. Years later after listening to ‘New Slaves’, ‘On Sight’ and especially ‘Black Skinhead’ (one of my all time favorite Kanye songs) from Yeezus, I was immediately reminded of the Niggy album. “Kanye watched our entire Lollapalooza 2008 performance and after the show complimented me for my live MPC playing. I got to work personally with Kanye soon after that Lollapalooza show.” CX says. “I’ve also seen bloopers of his DJ Mano fucking up all types of shit completely, similar to how I have made more than a few train wrecks on stage with Saul.”

The influence of Niggy is already here. Maybe one day it’ll become one of those releases like the first Velvet Underground record that very few purchased in the sixties, but became one of the most highly respected rock classics influencing hundreds of bands decades later. Perhaps it could reach the status of David Bowie’s Low, an album that was too avant-garde for the masses in 1977; but was discovered by a new audience, becoming one of his most-praised albums, thanks to props from a Trent Reznor interview about twenty years later. Miles Davis’s On The Corner from the early seventies pissed off jazz fans so much because it was laced in bizarre minimal experimentation, funk and future drum and bass. Not only does the album not sound as weird these days, it’s a classic and found a huge widespread music-loving audience. I was ready when Niggy first dropped. Are you ready now?

Saul and CX are currently working on a new album and will invade your area on tour this year.

* Afro Punk contributor Kelsey Warren is a musician/producer/songwriter in NYC who fronts the band pILLOW         tHEORY.