Interview by Jason Fullerton
Billy Woods is a rapper who defies easy categorization; he claims Washington D.C. as his hometown but has spent much of his life in New York City. He was born in the U.S. although spent much of his childhood in Africa, 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 the familiar ones.
After spending much of the 2000’s 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 wit and fury, with production to match it’s uncompromising vision. 2013 sees Billy Woods’ first work since History Will Absolve Me, a full-length collaboration with New York producer Blockhead entitled Dour Candy.
In the lead up to the release of Dour Candy, Billy Woods was kind enough to take some time out to talk with us here at New Noise Hip-Hop.
I know you are from New York by way of DC. I also understand that you have travelled throughout Africa & Jamaica, has this constant change of cultures and environment had a profound effect on your musical nuances?
Well, to be completely accurate, I would not say that I have traveled a lot in those regions. Jamaica and in Africa I have only set foot in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia, a Mozambican border town and the airport in Khartoum haha but hair-splitting aside, if living in a bunch of places has impacted my music, it is mostly by how it has helped shape me as a person. The only actual music related things I can think of are; the impact of New York on me as a rapper is obviously very direct. If not for my long involvement with this city and the people I knew/know here, I would have never been doing this. I also would credit Jamaica a little bit just because reggae and dancehall are influences for me, but again, the impact of Jamaica on my music is more about the culture I grew up in, and how it shaped me as a person.
There were real strong political and social message on your last record, History Will Absolve Me. “DMCA” was one of many tracks that had a real strong message. You speak on people uploading, downloading and deleting things in the blink of an eye. Is it safe to say that you are not a fan of the internet generation?
“DMCA” is not about me abusing the internet generation or anything. I was trying to address ideas of ownership and theft in regards to music. And talking about some of the frustrations and contradictions of being an artist in the internet age. So, on the one hand, in that “DMCA” I talk about how annoying it is to have people sharing your music for free, while also not being willing to give it any sort of sustained attention because they are off to download the next thing and then cut out their favorite songs and throw them on a playlist. The flip side is I addressed how at the same time as I get annoyed by this, I am sampling other people’s music and repurposing it for my own use. So that maybe makes me a hypocrite. Or the idea that now there is this upper echelon of the indie scene where endorsement deals, Youtube/ringtone money and being picked up by bigger labels, means you dwell in a totally different arena and all this complaining about downloads means nada to you. In the end, what I am often looking to do is create nuance, and hopefully I did that on “DMCA”, not just making a song about “People who steal my music are assholes” hahaha I mean, that’s just not a very interesting idea.
Very true. Also tracks like “Bill Cosby” depicting a father who never wanted that responsibility growing to become old and bitter, “Ca$h 4 Gold” lyrically paints strip club scenarios where woman are pedalling their bodies for these soulless apes with no compassion and “Pompeii” contains some intense military violence and war crimes. These are some of the strongest lyrical analogies I ever have heard. Where do your inspiration from as far as lyrical content is concerned?
So, speaking of ideas, I think your next question is an extension of the end of my last answer. Take, “Ca$h for Gold”, right? It’s defintely a dark take on the quintessential “strip club rap song” but I don’t know that I intended it to simply be something binary like “strip clubs are bad and dehumanize women, the patrons are all monsters”. Far from it, I just wanted to provide a window into my own experiences and interpretations, make a strip club song that is real to me. Like, I have been to strip clubs many times, I have been friends with sex workers and people who sought their services, I dont want to reduce all of those nuances to: strip clubs are bad, sex workers are exploited and the clients are all horrible. Even though in some ways those statements are true. As I see it, life is complicated. Once you think you know something for sure…something else comes up. Hopefully I don’t make too many songs where it’s all black-and-white, nuance is where my work succeeds or fails, I think. As for where do these ideas come from? Life! I am a curious person, I have a lot of interests, I have a bit of an odd life in terms of having , spent time around a lot of very different people in different places. Also, this is what I do. I have been writing and doing art and shit since I was a little kid. Ideas are my stock and trade. So, a song like “Pompeii” just comes from me thinking about the idea of how a little thing becomes a bigger thing. How each step in one direction, each excuse one makes for their small transgressions, can eventually lead you to something much bigger than you were ever willing to admit to while you were making the journey. Then you have a song like “Bill Cosby” just comes from a.) being old and broke myself, b.) knowing plenty of bitter cats in the hood, mad at the world in the bodega getting their 22s after work, mean muggin’ everybody and screaming on their kids and c.) living in a building where they slang off the steps all day, all night, and sometimes you look outside and the new cars is pulled up, knocking the latest Rick Ross-French Montana track, the weed is blowing in broad day, the girls are out there and you think, ‘what the fuck did I go to college for?’ Obviously, that is just a momentary feeling but you can take all of those things, put em together and boom, you got an idea. Basically, if you are a writer, you gotta keep your eyes open and you gotta be interested in what makes people tick.
Your music is very deep and can be perceived from many different views, can safely say nothing I’ve heard is black and white but it’s great to get an inside look to the inner workings of your craft. Can you let us know some of your favourite albums.
I listen to a lot of rap so this is going to be rap heavy. No apologies.
Favorite albums right now.
Quelle Chris Niggas Is Men
Shabazz Palaces Black Up
Ka Grief Pedigree
Kendrick Lamar Good Kid, Maad City
Aesop Rock Skelethon
Open Mike Eagle Rappers Will Die Of Natural Causes
Cult Favorite For Madmen Only
Erykah Badu, both of those New Amerykah albums. Both have stayed in rotation for years.
I also have gone back to Cam’Ron’s SDE a bit recently and decided it is probably his best album. Great summertime record and absent the regional radio pandering that make Purple Haze such an iffy listen.
Favorite albums ever (in no particular order).
Black Sheep A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing
Goodie Mob Soul Food
Cannibal Ox Cold Vein
Sizzla Black Woman & Child
Public Enemy Fear of a Black Planet & It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Ghostface Supreme Clientele
MF DOOM- Doomsday & Madvillainy
Luniz Operation Stackola
Outkast ATLiens & Southernplayalistic
Da Lench Mob Guerrillas in the Mist
ODB Return to the 36 Chambers: the Dirty Version
CNN The War Report
Del I Wish My Brother George Was Here
Company Flow Funcrusher Plus
Redman Dare Iz a Darkside
Scaramanga Seven Eyes, Seven Horns
Bob Marley & Wailers Catch a Fire
Man…actually looking at my list, this is just way too hard. I would come up with a 50% different list if you asked me next week haha.
No apology needed! Your a man after my own heart haha Operation: Doomsday, Funcrusher Plus, Shabazz Palaces Black Up, some of my favourites! Your musical cadences, especially your voice is one that reminds me of Chuck D, there’s a real toughness to your voice and lyrics that makes people listen but at the same time you have this off pitch, abstract flow. Is this something that happened naturally or where there any major influences in these regards?
That comparison is really nuts to me because the first rap album I ever, ever bought was Nation Of Millions. I moved back to the US in 1989 and the third night here or something, the family friends we were staying with rented Do The Right Thing. I was blown away. Spike Lee basically made me a P.E. fan for life. Bought the cassette tape like two weeks later and at first I was mad because “Fight The Power” wasn’t on there but I was captivated by that album. Public Enemy was really the soundtrack to my re-introduction to America. It was an interesting experience to move back to the US from Africa during the height of the “afrocentric” Hip-Hop era, on many levels.
How did the relationship between yourself and Blockhead come to be?
Blockhead either emailed me or told someone who knew me to pass along a message- I can’t remember which- and that was pretty much that. Obviously I already knew who he was, and was surprised that he knew who I was.
You have a new album with Blockhead entitled Dour Candy, was the dynamic of one mc/one producer a catalyst for making this album? Could you talk us through the creative process of Dour Candy?
I had always been interested in doing a one mc, one producer record but I would not say it was the catalyst. The catalyst was just that I had not really done any planning for what I was going to do after History WIll Absolve Me. I was not sure if I would even be doing another record. So the album is making whatever small amount of noise it made and I’m sitting there with no idea what I am going to do next when Blockhead starts sending me beats. So I started writing.
The first track we’ve heard is “Tinseltown” which depicts the harsh realities living in the inner city. A perfect way to set the album off. What more can we expect from this release?
The first two songs we did were “Tinseltown” and “Gilgamesh.” That was really all it took to be like, “oh word?” It’s also really important to say that Willie Green played a key role in making Dour Candy. He engineered, mixed and mastered the whole album. He was a great conduit between me and Blockhead in the entire process and then just came through and knocked the mixes out of the park. Invaluable. It’s my shortest solo album. Dour Candy feels like a an ill little pulp paperback to me, a cross between a Richard Price novel and the Ray Bradbury short story collections I used to read when I was a kid. Something you pick up cause the cover is kinda ill and it looks like a relatively short read but ends up being a really intense read.
Engineering and mastering albums is a craft in music I feel is often overlooked. respect to Willie Green.I see Elucid and L’wren are making appearences once again on your new LP. Moka Only, Open Mike Eagle and Aesop Rock also feature, what do you feel each of these individuals have brought to the album?
You know what a five tool player is in baseball? It’s when someone hits for power, hits for average, can field the ball, throw and is fast. Elucid is that in rap terms. It’s obviously very useful to collaborate with an artist like that when you are making a record. Because they can take on any role and make the shit better. Andre 3000 would be another example. Or Max B, Max was a four tool rapper, if he had any real content he would have been an all-timer. L’Wren is an old friend and incredible singer. Aesop Rock is who I want to be when I grow up and Mike Eagle is who I wish I was when I was younger. I always like to try and collaborate with someone I haven’t really worked with before. Moka is a guy who I have two of his records that I really like but he has such a huge discography, having two of his albums is nothing. His hardcore fans are really dedicated and one of them is this friend of mine, who has worked with Moka business-wise. I was kicking around ideas for who else would be good over that beat, thought of Moka and my friend was all about it. He was really instrumental in making it happen, shout outs to my Armenian posse. Let’s not forget DJ Addikt, out of Baltimore. He really worked with me to get “Central Park” right. Good dude, I did a mixtape with him a few years back and he was on History Will Absolve Me too.
As an artist you have been going steady for about ten years now. What would you say where some of the main factors behind your longevity?
The main factor of my longevity? Well, ignoring the fact that virtually no one knows who I am so it’s hard to say it’s longevity but I guess working with a label that I helped start made it tougher for them to give up on me.
Can we expect any other material from yourself in the near future?
Hopefully in the fall Elucid and I are dropping an LP as a duo called Armand Hammer. The album is basically done. It’s some of the best work of my life.