billy woods is a rapper who defies easy categorisation; he claims Washington D.C. as his hometown but has spent the majority of his life in New York City. He was born in the U.S. but spent much of his childhood in Africa and the West Indies, the second child of a Jamaican intellectual and a would-be Marxist revolutionary. On the mic, woods is no less of a conundrum, possessed of versatile flows and an ability to not only tackle topics other artists wouldn’t dream of, but also to bring unique perspectives to familiar ones.
After spending much of the 2000s as half of the now defunct Super Chron Flight Brothers, woods struck out on his own with 2012’s audacious mission statement, History Will Absolve Me. An album two years in the making, History…was a molotov cocktail of sarcastic fury, with production to match it’s uncompromising vision.
2013 saw billy woods collaborating with producer Blockhead on the darkly humorous LP, Dour Candy. A noteworthy about-face from History…, Dour Candy garnered praise for it’s understated tone and wry wit, paired with Blockhead’s subtle craftsmanship. That same year, woods and fellow NYC rapper Elucid joined forces as Armand Hammer and released the incendiary album Race Music to critical acclaim.
woods has shown no signs of slowing down with his sensational creative output, releasing several projects in the last few years including the impeccable Rome and Parrafin as one half of Armand Hammer and the equally impressive solo LPs Today, I Wrote Nothing and Known Unknowns. However, 2019 arguably marks woods most impressive release to date with the Kenny Segal produced Hiding Places. Segal’s lush soundscapes have a new edge compared to his previous work and woods’ writing is, paradoxically, at its most direct. Hiding Places is a child’s game; funny and cruel and functions as a brutal contemporary fairy tale.
We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak with woods recently. Read the full interview below.
I wanted to find out a little bit more about woods the person because you are a pretty elusive individual by design. I know you grew up in Zimbabwe where you father held a political position and your mother is Jamaican and was a professor I believe. What was the dynamic like growing up in the Marxist regime under Robert Mugabe and how did it shape your worldview?
Okay, well, it’s important to know all those things you said are correct but it’s important to know I was born in the United States. I then went to live in Zimbabwe because when I was born… [woods pauses to ask me a question] How old are you?
Okay, so when I was born, Zimbabwe was a totally different country called Rhodesia. Do you know anything about the history of that?
A little bit. I know it was a colonial white supremacist power that ruled.
Yeah okay, well it was like South Africa except instead of Afrikaners, you had British colonists. So it was the same sort of thing that when England decided to get rid of its colonies they decided they didn’t want to let go. So when I was born, it was in the midst of the fiercest period of the war for independence, my father had been here for some time at that point and he had met my mother in graduate school, they were both graduates in different disciplines. When I went there I was a little kid, I was five years old. My life was always kind of a little bit back and forth because my mother wasn’t from there and we would always come back to New York on our holidays and often go to Jamaica. So I moved through the diaspora a lot as a child but it was concentrated in Zimbabwe. To be honest, it was a lot of different things. In some ways, it was a pretty magical and an old fashioned place to be a kid because it was safe in the sense that everyday crime, there wasn’t really any. I rode my bike to school when I was six years old. There were lots of old-fashioned British things, like we had a milkman who brought milk in the little jars and you leave your little basket outside your gate, you know what I’m talking about? [Laughs].
Yeah, I know what you’re talking about [laughs].
I mean you’ve probably only seen it in like TV shows. Kind of quaint things, some old fashioned. I remember going with my sister’s older friends and seeing movies at a drive in theatre. I remember seeing… I think I saw E.T., stuff like that, quaint, you wore uniforms to school. It’s interesting to spend time in the developing world, so to speak, and move back and forth and to see the wealth because it was there but it was stark. It’s more visible, you go in to rural areas with my dad and you’re just hanging out and you realise the kids you’re playing with, like the shorts and shirt they are wearing are the clothes they have, period.
“If that record completely flopped then I probably don’t know what would have happened but that might have been it…”
I can imagine the dichotomy between Marxism and capitalism from Zimbabwe to America is ridiculously different.
But I’d have to say that the Zimbabwean regime was more Marxist in its rhetoric and political affiliations than in the actual workings of the economy in many ways. It was a top down economy that was directed by the state but there was private property, private landowners, private businesses. They had basically seized the means of the Rhodesian state as it had existed but it hadn’t been dismantled and the economy was quite robust in those early years. So the political alignment and things were very different but we didn’t live in Cuba. Although the way people talked you might have thought you lived in Cuba. Most of the time, lots of parts of it on micro levels, it wouldn’t have been that different from growing up in any capitalist developing country, you know?
Bringing things forward, when you’re back in the states and beginning to become an emcee, I believe Vordul Mega of Cannibal Ox was the first person to really spur you on to do so. I wondered how did you two first cross paths and what lead to him being heavily featured on your debut LP Camouflage?
He was already rapping but I knew him through a girl I went to school with and she was living in Harlem and she was the type of creative person that was just out doing stuff, you know? I was hanging out with her and she would introduce me to people and we would go and do things and that was the first people I met that were rappers. Before then, rappers were people I seen on TV or listened to their records so that was crazy. But I was just friendly I wasn’t like “Oh I’m going to start rapping…” but Vordul and I became quite friendly through this girl, Brooke, and we just continued to hangout after that and he was the kind of person that always encouraged people to get involved and have fun. I started writing on my own but I didn’t really have the courage or think “You know you could just do this!” Then obviously we had our personal friendship and when I was like “I’m doing this…” he was very encouraging. Long story short is I was going to be doing my own project and he was like “Yo I’m down…” and we done this thing together and as it went along he needed to do more of his own album and yeah, he just helped me out. He was my friend and wanted to help me.
What was behind the decision to establish your own record label Backwoodz Studioz opposed to trying to sign with an established label?
Absolutely nobody was going to give me a shot. That was the reason. I couldn’t even get people to let me like… I was not even anywhere near close to having a foot in the door and I didn’t have any people who liked what I was doing. I mean there were people when I started doing it for myself, there were a few people who liked what I was doing but in general you know if Vordul was like “Meet this person…” and I met them they would not be feeling it. So at a certain point I was like if I’m going to do this the way I want to, because it’s pretty embarrassing, a successful person is bringing you places and you can tell everybody else thinks that you’re garbage, you know what I mean? And it’s like, alright… they’re just tolerating you being in the room because they respect this other person. I mean you’re not really going to get anywhere like that and I wouldn’t put that on somebody. Vordul had his own career and things to manage, I didn’t want him to have to feel… he done a lot for me, I didn’t want him to feel like I’m sitting there expecting him to do everything.
I recently seen you say producer Willie Green is the person that saved you from homelessness…
That was a joke [laughs]. But meeting him was crucial to the label getting where it is.
My introduction to your music was in 2012 with History Will Absolve Me. Was that in reference to that turning point in your career where your album got a lot of critical acclaim?
Yeah, we connected a couple of years before that and worked together on the Super Chron project but everything around that fell apart as we were finishing the album. The other person in the group kind of bailed and it was a wreck sort of. It was not cool and everyone was pretty discouraged and financially the label was in a bad place and Willie Green himself was transitioning from working as a studio engineer to doing his own thing. I think he had a lot of faith in what we were doing and I came and said: “I’m going to take another crack at this.” He was making beats, he was engineering and we really partnered up to make that record and without that record then yeah… if that record completely flopped then I probably don’t know what would have happened but that might have been it. I think the other people involved in the label would’ve been too discouraged to continue. That was a big connection meeting him, great artist, and not only that, he made everything sound great. He was someone I could trust on so many levels, as a friend, as a person and also as somebody who just, he is going to make the shit sound tight!
“When I have people be like “Oh, it was a cool listen, it was really chill…” I’m like “What kind of sick twisted fuck are you!?” [laughs]. You’re just listening to the beats which is fine. But I’m glad, people should have a reaction, I have to be in the mood to listen to it myself to be honest…”
I personally do feel he has become a bit of a secret weapon with Backwoodz Studioz with the Armand Hammer projects Rome and Paraffin and your own albums like Today, I wrote Nothing. He is very consistent.
Also, I feel our records sound really good. I’m not saying you have to have records sound like that to do well but I think that is something about us, that we do indy records but there’s a lot of thought put in to how they sound. Hopefully, that is sort of a trademark to what we do. There’s lots of ways to skin a cat but that’s just how we do it. I dig that Willie Green is a good part of that.
I wanted to ask about the artwork for History Will Absolve Me also. It’s Robert Mugabe on the cover and the title itself is a quote from Fidel Castro. You are very politically-oriented and I wondered what the thought process was behind this decision?
I thought it worked on several levels. I thought on the one hand it was a powerful image and also because it was old, it kind of spoke to the title. I thought it also kind of connected with my own history and my own past, I met Robert Mugabe personally as a child. That whole era that that picture representative the becoming of is something I grew up with, so there was a part of my history in it. I thought from the aspect as an artist, I was making that record and I thought that ‘History Will Absolve Me‘ in the sense that I was better than I was given credit for and I didn’t know if that would be my last record and if it is, it’s going to be some type of a statement. There was another part though, politically, I liked taking the Castro quote and flipping it with Mugabe and there’s a certain aspect of “Did history absolve Castro or not?” I don’t know. I don’t think history did absolve Mugabe or Castro but at the same time… it did! Both things are true. I mean the Cuban Revolution, whatever became of it was a powerful moment that resonated throughout the world and was justified in many ways. But we could sit and say what happened to the American Revolution and how successful the end of it was but that doesn’t remove its power and it’s importance in history. All of those things are true. I just thought it worked in a lot of levels and was a good title.
Before I talk about your new album Hiding Places, I just wanted to say that to me it is something truly special. It has been a long time since I can remember being engulfed by an album like the way I have by this one and even at that I can’t recall being made to feel so unnerved yet utterly captivated by someone’s lyrical content.
Good! When I have people be like “Oh, it was a cool listen, it was really chill…” I’m like “What kind of sick twisted fuck are you!?” [laughs]. You’re just listening to the beats which is fine. But I’m glad, people should have a reaction, I have to be in the mood to listen to it myself, to be honest. That’s what you as an artist I feel that you’re always aiming for that moment. I can’t speak for other people, but I’m aiming for that moment of delivering experiences in some pure form. That is more than just the words, that is the hardest thing. You can’t always fully grasp it like that but when but when you can get something to where it’s more than just the words or saying it… there’s some sort of magic in there. It’s cool. You can put someone into a situation… do you ever read a book and you’re just so consumed by the characters and everything that when the book is over you are emotionally wrong? You’re sad that the book is over but also you’re still in it. Being able to take somebody and being able to pull someone in to an experience you had or thought or felt, I think it’s where the magic lies if you can do that and it’s very, very, very hard. If I managed to do it on this one then that’s good. I think it’s a good record. I want people to be pulled in but it’s good when you’ve done it in something that you feel is worth the time. It’s not a waste of anybody’s time.
I wanted to touch on you’re collaborator Kenny Segal. His production appears to be a lot more menacing on this record opposed to his other projects, but I think your commanding delivery reiterates this aspect. As morbid as it may appear to the casual listener, Hiding Places is laden with some pretty hilarious bars on tracks like ‘Checkmate’, ‘Steak Knives’, ‘Bigfakelaugh’ and ‘Speak Gently.’ I think there is a great juxtaposition of humour and tragedy on this album. Is this balanced approach something you take in whole you’re writing?
Yeah but I think that’s how I am. I think that’s part of the person I am, how I perceive and interact with the world. I don’t want to be type of person where you can’t enjoy the record because you didn’t get some obscure reference. I wanted it to be like you’re loving the song for a minute then it won’t be until years later that you’re like “Oh shit!” and it adds another layer to it that you didn’t see before or whatever. But as far as that balance of humour and tragedy, to be honest if you look back to Super Chron Flight Brothers, that’s always what I have been doing or trying to do. Although that being said, I think that’s intrinsic to my personality and always has been so it’s about refining it and getting it right more so than it is about me trying to put it on. Because if you hang around me, gallous humour is my thing. I like to laugh a lot but I think I’m a serious person at the same time. But I’m a little bit of a strange guy I think…
Speaking of strange guys. I hope you don’t mind me drawing a comparison to your writing process. I see a lot of MF DOOM in your work. I think how you communicate your vivid imagery, deadpan comedy, pensive concepts and numerous layers within the space of a bar or two is very akin. The best example I could use is off of your track ‘Superpredator’ where you say “Chekov put Jay’s tech on Nas’ dresser…” There is so many levels to that. Do you think this is a fair comparison?
MF DOOM is one of the greatest rappers of all time to me and one of the greatest Zimbabwean/ West Indian people of all time so I’m humbled to stand in his shadow such as it is. I think that there is lots of things I learned about rapping from MF DOOM. There’s lots of things he kind of crafted that affected how I write. I think one of the big differences between us is where the references lie… I mean once upon a time he had crazy flows. I think in his best work there is definitely a balance of comedy and tragedy. There’s a lot of things I think he did in hip-hop that changed things for a lot of emcees. His use of perspective, of the third person.
I believe you use similar techniques or homage to DOOM on…
Oh yeah! Lots of times. But that’s the thing, he wasn’t the first. But I would give MF DOOM a lot of credit to making ‘it’ a thing more and his ability to move with that is genius. I don’t think there is anything wrong with acknowledging that. That’s what giants do. They move in the way that a culture operates.
This might sound like a bit of a stupid question but the lyrical cohesion on your new album, to me, is about the concept of Hiding Places. Hiding passports, hiding in the ceiling in a crawl space when the police come etc.
Yeah everything, that’s it. Even when someone pauses when you talk, what they were thinking about in that moment, that is a hiding place you know? You know what’s funny, some of these things are things I was very conscious of at the time, others I was not. But when you think about that, pause in speech, what was hiding in the part that didn’t happen, you understand what I mean? Like you ever talk to somebody and you ask them something and they stop and you’re like “I wonder what they were thinking of saying.” But I think there’s lots and lots of hiding places, especially hidden from yourself.
One of the pieces of imagery you used on the album that I found pretty compelling, I don’t remember the quote directly but it’s from a moment of being in the arcade with two cents, when the game’s finished and you’re hitting the buttons on the dashboard wishing you could play, hiding in plain sight almost.
That image was actually something that’s really um… for me is really tied to a memory. There was this dollar movie theatre when we moved back here and when we moved back there was a significant change in our socio-economic bracket. My father died in Zimbabwe so in a single parent household, with not a whole lot of savings because you couldn’t take money out of the country. It was a little bit of a struggle you know. Right near us was this movie theatre and they had video games in the foyer and whenever I could I’d duck in there and look at all these games. It was the early 90’s so Golden Axe, Bad Dudes, Mortal Kombat…
Streets of Rage was one of my favourites from the early 90’s…
Streets of Rage! Yeah [laughs]. There was so many games. Operation Wolf! I’m a little kid and I’ve been in Zimbabwe and we didn’t have a lot of video games there so when you went to the arcade there they weren’t up on it as much but we would hang – like juvenile delinquent shit. Sometimes I would go and I had no money so I would hit the buttons and pretend to play during the Game Over screen. “Ah man… If I could just have this game!” and just thinking about how a little bit of money could… if you have a dollar it’s nothing but if you don’t have a dollar and you don’t have a way to get it, it’s everything. Life is like that.
I wanted to say one of the more unnerving tracks on the album I think is ‘Toothy.’ The narrative of the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood. The Red Riding Hood theme is carried over to the artwork of this project with he CD, tapes, T shirts etc. What drew you towards this artistic concept?
You’re talking about the CD artwork?
Yeah and the cassette tape and T shirt artwork as well.
Yeah. The vinyl also has a separate piece of the artwork in the insert that’s different too. I really think all of the artwork from the house to the back of the piece of vinyl, I think all of it, even the CD there’s a reversal, with Red Riding Hood and the weird wolf in the bed and on the back it’s Red Riding Hood in the bed and the wolf under it. But I think all parts of the artwork has something to say about the album.
I wanted to ask about literature also as it seems as though it has a substantial impact on your lyricism. I’ve noticed a few referred on the new album such as JD Salanger, Charles Dickens, Douglas Adams…
Oh you got the Miss Havisham reference?
Yeah, I picked up on that.
I knew I would have to depend on someone within the vicinity of the United Kingdom for that one [laughs]. My mother would appreciate that. I loved Great Expectations when I was a kid. My mother, she’s a literature professor, she’s a really smart person, we grew up around books and literature our whole lives. It’s the greatest influence on my music and I guess I reference it as well as other rap music.
There’s a reference on one of your songs, ‘A Day, In A Week, In A Year’, and the lyric is “Best laid plans of mice and tin men…” I feel as if it’s John Steinbeck although it could be Robert Burns, I’m not too sure.
It’s Of Mice and Men but then the tin men I’m mostly referring to The Wizard of Oz.
Because one of my good friends, who is also a writer at the site, is a professor of Scottish literature and “The best laid plans of mice…” is a line lifted from a Robert Burns poem.
I don’t even think if I knew that…
There’s one question we always finish our interviews with, more than anything it’s to help settle a debate among the writers at the site. What album do you prefer between Raekwon’s Only Built For Cuban Linx and GZA’s Liquid Swords?
This question to me is a bit like the first three Outkast albums or like Operation: Doomsday or Madvillainy...? If somebody thinks Madvillainy is better then that’s cool and I like to argue, I like to debate. If you caught me on a different day I’d disagree and I like tough questions, this isn’t me trying to word it out or anything. If I did have to choose I think I’m going give it to the GZA. It’s so tight but I guess I think GZA’s album is a little bit leaner. The highs are a little bit higher on Cuban Linx but there’s no lulls on either record… I think Liquid Swords is a more tightly realised package, and again, I’m splitting between a 9.4 and a 9.6. I would have to give it to the GZA but it’s a tough question. I have a question for you… Ironman or Supreme Clientele?
[Long pause]… I would probably go with Supreme Clientele and the reason behind that choice is that I feel that album is it’s own separate entity. Ironman and Cuban Linx could be either one of Ghostface or Rae’s albums because of how heavily featured on them they are. But I feel with Supreme Clientele Ghostface finally realised his potential as a solo artist. He stood-out and stole the limelight a little more than on his previous album. I think Ghostface displays all of his cadences on that record too, there’s several different ways in which he approaches his music and it’s an overall more diverse but cohesive project.
But the thing I like give Ironman is that Ghost sort of gets a bit further out in ways on Supreme Clientele but on Ironman he’s doing a lot of far-out shit but it’s a little more tethered to earth so the storytelling is a little bit tighter. Something like ‘Soul Controller,’ I really fuck with that song… I’d take it over anything on Supreme Clientele but I agree with you. I could talk about this shit all day.
Can I put something back to you?
I genuinely thought you would have picked Cuban Linx and it’s because of one of your bars off of ‘Bush League’ where you say “Hemingway shotguns through the nose/ Ghost’s voice, Rae’s flows…”
Yeah [laughs]. I mean I love Cuban Linx – that album is great – but it’s really tight.
Be sure to check out Backwoodz Studioz to order Hiding Places and keep up to date with future billy woods projects.