Question in the Form of An Answer: An Interview With Billy Woods

 Paul Thompson goes hard like Old Testament God. Billy woods never shows his face. Press photos, videos, even Instagram posts with fans—he’s always hiding in the shadows. Understandably, it can...
By    February 7, 2014
Credit: Alexander Richter

 Paul Thompson goes hard like Old Testament God.

Billy woods never shows his face. Press photos, videos, even Instagram posts with fans—he’s always hiding in the shadows. Understandably, it can be easy to forget that the enigmatic rapper has been a fixture in underground hip-hop for more than fifteen years now.

Woods has not only an encyclopedic knowledge of politics and world history, but a knack for putting both in immediate, personal terms. To wit, last year’s Dour Candy hears him summon Dominican leader Rafael Trujillo and the Mesopotamian god Gilgamesh in recalling a one-night stand. He’s also a detailed and cinematic storyteller: on opener “The Undercard”, a rapper-slash-hustler is distracted while he plays a show—he has one eye on the backpack that holds his re-up. The record is as visceral as it is cerebral.

When I spoke with Woods over the holidays, he was in Oregon in search of beats for his next project. He opened up about a childhood split between Africa and America, the early days of Cannibal Ox, and what really happened between him and Privilege. But I still don’t know what he looks like.

You spent some time as a child in Zimbabwe, correct? Was that during the revolution that led to Robert Mugabe taking power?

I didn’t move there during the revolution. My father was pretty much in exile during. He had come here as somewhat of a political refugee. It wasn’t really safe for him to go in and out of the country.

Zimbabwe—it was called Rhodesia at the time—was ruled by a white minority. It was almost exactly like South Africa, the difference being that unlike South Africa, where that white minority was made up of the descendants of Dutch settlers, these were the descendents of British settlers. The British East India Company, run by Cecil Rhodes, showed up [in the 1880s], signing contracts to exploit some of the material resources of the land. Eventually this leads to a conflict in which the native people lose in spectacular fashion, and from that point [the native population is] pretty much subjugated.

What happened then was, in the 1960s, the United Kingdom kind of made it known that they were divesting themselves of some of their colonial possessions, and in so doing they were probably going to allow black people to vote on the course of the country. So then the white settlers, appalled at that possibility, unilaterally declared independence from Britain. At that point, that was sort of the message to the black population: “we have no intention of ever living with you in this country as equals”. But obviously, you know, if you have an election, the whites represent ten percent of the country and are going to lose.

At that point, what was your father doing?

Well, the ‘60s was when he left the country for his education, and also because while he was out of the country, his involvement in the liberation made it very dangerous for him to go back into Rhodesia. For example, when my father’s father died, he met the family—but he went to Zambia, which is on the border of what’s now Zimbabwe, and family members came across the border to see him.

Ultimately, South Africa brought pressure on the whites in Zimbabwe to accept a settlement, and Robert Mugabe is pressured from the other side to go to the negotiation table. Once negotiations had begun in earnest in the late 1970s, that’s when my father started to go back without fearing that he would be detained.

Is that the time when you ended up moving there?

No, my mother was very skeptical about the whole thing, as far as moving there herself, you know? We didn’t actually go until the beginning of 1981.

What was your personal level of awareness about the political climate and what it meant for your family?

I remember when September 11th happened, people were so shocked, but it reminded me of how when I was a little kid, the ANC [The African National Congress, of which Mugabe was a member] had opened an office in downtown Harare. In retaliation for some ANC strike in South Africa, some South African fighter jets bombed the city. Things like that would happen. Politics was not abstract to me.

The war was fought so recently that you might pass a blown-up tank or something if you were in the countryside. As a little boy, it was like “whoa!’” That was always one of my interests. My parents were involved in it—they were always reading the paper and discussing those topics at home. My mother taught at a university [woods’ mother, a native of Jamaica taught English literature and was a feminist writer]; my parents were intellectuals. We’d have dinner parties, and there would be academics and quote-unquote revolutionaries in our house. That was my way to not be sent to bed. If I had something interesting to say to these people, my parents would be really proud of me. I thought it was totally normal.

So when you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a writer my whole life, but like I said, I was always into war as a kid. So I wanted to be a cross between Rambo and Michael Dudikoff from American Ninja [laughs]. Those guys crossed with Che Guevara and lots of the—this is going to sound crazy—but lots of the groups like Shining Path and even groups that weren’t even that functional anymore, like the Japanese Red [Army] Faction. I just found it interesting on a historical level or whatever. That was my daydream—being a world liberator, a Mandela-slash-Rambo. But my real love has always been writing.

How did music make its way into that equation?

The first time that I really became interested in hip-hop from a different perspective was after my father died and we moved back to the U.S. in 1989. My mother was very happy to leave Zimbabwe, but we were all kind of in shock. The first night we stayed in a hotel near the airport [in Washington, D.C.], and the second night we stayed with some friends of hers. They had these two daughters who rented a bunch of movies. One of them was Do The Right Thing, and that was a very formative experience for me on a lot of levels. When I was coming back to America, I was spending pretty much all my time with the children of Jamaican immigrants. But once we moved, I started seeing things that I had no idea about. So, to answer your question: Public Enemy. After the movie, they had that video for “Fight The Power”, and I was just blown away. Probably like two weeks later, I bought It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back. That was the first music I ever bought with my own money.

When did you start rapping, or at least writing rhymes?

I was always really into the rhymes. I would write verses that I really liked onto my desk at school. But the environment I grew up in—I don’t remember anybody who rapped. It wasn’t a participatory thing. I don’t remember anyone who was like ‘I’m going to be a rapper’. D.C., especially then, wasn’t a rap town. I knew kids who were really into rap, but were interested in doing go-go.

I went to a small liberal arts school outside of New York City While I was there, I started dating this girl from California. She was this crazy little Jewish girl from Santa Cruz named Brooke. I hadn’t really met white people like her in America until I got to college. She was super into social justice, super into leftist politics, and her parents were super lefties in the seventies or whatever. I lived with her in Harlem after my freshman year. Brooke introduced me to Vordul Mega. He was only 16 at the time, but I met him and we just became friends. He’s one of the best people ever, and I consider him my brother, my family.

Did she know him as an artist or just as a friend?

You know, I guess as an artist? But Vordul was, like, the least-known member of Atoms Family at the time. He was the youngest person. I think that he, in her mind, was a cool kid from Harlem who was a great rapper. I remember her telling me ‘he’s really young, and the way he raps, you can tell he’s super into comic books’. It wasn’t anything where she thought she was introducing me to a great artist. She wanted to be connected to the community.

But actually, if you listen to [Cannibal Ox’s] The Cold Vein, there’s this song [“Iron Galaxy”] where he says “C4 blew the door, number eight/summer face, tank top, with a knot, number nine said run the place/took my girl stereo, CD, plus the tapes/Brooke star, don’t wet that/fucked her face, let’s stuff the place/jet back to Santa Cruz, Californ-i-a”. That’s a reference to when she was living on 139th and Edgecombe, where I was staying with her. At one point, somebody broke into her apartment and stole all of her CDs and tapes.

So how come you weren’t included in Cannibal Ox from the get-go?

Well, I was friends with these kids, but I was really into…my profession at the time. I was going to school, but other than that I was making money, so those were my focuses. But in 1997, I was living in Harlem again and Vordul and I were spending a lot of time together. He would always encourage me to rap, so that was the point when I started to think about it more seriously. I started writing on my own.

It’s funny, that’s when I started getting into the so-called burgeoning underground—I wasn’t in New York, I was in D.C., at Howard. Now [turn-of-the-century ‘underground’ rap] is portrayed as this nerdy, white thing, but I was at a historically black college when people were like ”yo, you got to hear Funcrusher Plus!”. But back in DC, that was when I basically decided that rap was what I was going to do.

And you moved to New York. You started making music right away?

I was already coming back and forth from New York, where I would always see Vordul. Cold Vein had come out, and honestly, I didn’t expect it to do anything [commercially], I was just really proud of my boys. It became this huge phenomenon, and then at the same time, Vordul got his jaw broken by this dude who sucker punched him, so he was recuperating. Anyway, I would see him, and he was always pushing me to do music. I knew he had a deal to do a solo album [with Nature Sounds], and he said he wanted me to be on it. So I stacked up enough bread and went to New York.

This one night, we were at Electric Lady Studios. I was thinking “this is my night!’”. Vordul told me to come through, and I had never even been in a studio before. But it turned out to be a huge anticlimax. His manager and everyone else in the studio basically thought I sucked. And I probably was not that great, but it was just a crushing blow to me. I hadn’t been in a studio, and once I got there and realized that I was only there because Vordul liked me and had been my friend for years. I’m not an idiot, so it didn’t take me long to glean the fact that nobody else had any idea why I was there and didn’t think I was very cool. The engineer was literally saying “again…again…hey, are you going to be able to get it?”. I was thrown off, because I thought I knew what I was doing. I must have tried to kick the verse ten times, and the engineer and everyone else there was just openly hostile. Nobody except for Vordul offered any advice or help.

I left the studio, and in the time I had been in there, it had started raining. I came out to this pouring rain, no umbrella. That was one of the low points in my career. I was riding the A train, and I remember thinking “man, maybe I just can’t do this”. But another part of me decided that if I was going to do it, I needed to be in a situation where I had some sort of control.

After you established yourself a bit with Camouflage and The Chalice, you spent the 2000s rapping mostly with other emcees, especially with Privilege [as Super Chron Flight Brothers].

Me and Privilege were friends; he was like my little brother. And I thought the music was really good. He even lived at my apartment for a couple of stretches there. Anyway, I thought that we could do more as a group than I could as a soloist. There was a certain aspect where the label felt we should do one thing and follow through on it as opposed to having a ton of one-off collaborations where we can’t establish a brand identity. We were doing one-offs with non-famous rappers [laughs].

What led to the dissolution of that group?

It’s interesting, because I never knew—until very recently, when Privilege contacted me. The dude literally disappeared. It was something he had done before, but not for that amount of time. I never knew, which was one of the most painful parts about it. I knew his family; I had stayed at his house before. It was just, like, if you don’t want to rap together, just tell me.

So you had the record finished, and he just vanished?

Disappeared. Before it was even fully finished, really. And this is after I met Willie Green, who was a key part in making Cape Verde. If not for his involvement, I may have just said “fuck it, I quit”. We had put in all this work, and that was almost the last straw. It was the worst.

Anyway, he did get in contact with me, and he apologized. I don’t want to get into his personal situation that led to it, but he had been in some situations that caused him to make some poor choices. He called me, you know, way too late, but it’s never too late to admit that you were wrong. So I respect him on that level.

Coming out of that situation, what was the catalyst for History Will Absolve Me?

I was at this kid Essex Dogs’—who did the beat for “Headband”—place, and I was just hanging out there. That was the first rhyme I wrote for a while after [Chron] broke up. I really wasn’t sure if I was going to [make a comeback], but I heard that beat and wrote that, then I made him give me that beat instead of continuing to work on it, which is why there’s that line “told the white boy to just loop it”.

When I wrote that, that was a big moment for me. It was good, and it didn’t feel like a Super Chron song without the other guy. Super Chron had a very specific aesthetic, which was part of the idea from the beginning—that it was going to be comedy and tragedy together, like the masks on the side of the video game, where they’re the masks from theatre, only in blackface.

The title of that record is from the Castro speech—what comment were you making?

Castro said “history will absolve me” and, well…it might not [laughs]. As for the cover, I felt that, first, I grew up with that speech and idolizing Fidel Castro, and history was always a big part of my life. In a more literal sense, it was “yeah, okay, they can front on this record, but somebody’s going to hear what I’m doing here, and someone will know I was doing some things”. The other side of it is that history didn’t absolve Castro, and I figure it probably won’t absolve me either. People might ignore it the same way as always. So like everything I do, I wanted there to be a duality there.

At which point did you decide it wouldn’t be your last record?

[Even after it was pressed up] I felt it was totally possible. The people at the label were getting older, and they weren’t trying to continually lose money. Things were starting to happen in peoples’ lives to where we didn’t even live in the same places anymore, and there’s a certain extent to which I didn’t want to be that guy who’s just continuing to make records that nobody cares about or listens to. If it was still fulfilling for me, I would, but a lot of time and money goes into it. People aren’t going to sit around and record your vocals for fun.

I owe Willie Green a ton for his work on that record. I hope you put something of that nature in there, because, like I said, he was one of those people who would be there for me to play him tracks once I got back from recording. He let me know that, regardless of what happened, he just wanted to be a piece of it.

Listening to History and Dour Candy back-to-back, it occurs that Dour Candy is the perspective of a man in one city, where History takes a much broader look at things.

That’s very true. A lot of themes and ideas run through them, but I agree. Here’s the thing: for rappers to do the same thing all the time, that’s fine. But for me to be interested in what I’m doing, I need to come up with ideas, or some sort of angle on what I’m going to do, and why. After doing History, I wanted to do something shorter, and I wanted to do something different. I didn’t switch up everything, but on a certain level I wanted to explore something different. My girlfriend says that one record is projecting outward, and the other is very insular. Dour Candy is definitely writ on a small scale, even though I think that there are bigger ideas at play.

Both History Will Absolve Me and Dour Candy are available via Backwoodz Studioz. Also be sure to check out RACE MUSIC, woods’ collaboration with Elucid as Armand Hammer.


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