A 1930s Paris cafe is pining after billy woods. Imagine: a throng of rickety chairs and tables decorating a cobblestone side street, with espresso steam and weed smoke billowing up to cover woods’ face. He’s seated across from himself, and no doubt he’s taking notes. wood’s new record, Known Unknowns, finds him probing at his identity over a pack of challenging but engaging Blockhead beats. Bright vocal samples work in tandem with menacing, crackling rhythms to create an obstacle course for woods to rap over. This album confronts the dynamic distance between billy woods the person and billy woods the artist, especially on final track “Robespierre,” where woods simultaneously is and is not who he pretends to be.
At his core, woods is a storyteller. See “Police Came To My Show,” his humorous take on a pack of undercovers, staking out his set in Missoula. It’s been joked that billy woods ‘raps his booklist,’ who can blame him when his literary influences span from the virtuosic James Baldwin to Zimbabwean author Dambudzo Marechera, and back stateside to Flannery O’Connor?
woods extracts the terrifying from the mundane, with ease, a dash of wit and a nod to Biz Markie on “Unstuck.” Known Unknowns is our chance to sit across from and get to know billy woods, if that’s even possible.
We spoke on the phone about the inspiration for his latest album, the complexities of identity, working with Blockhead, his literary influences, and the next Armand Hammer record. —Donna-Claire
Starting with the title, you said the idea for it first came from a quote about invading Iraq. What about that quote stayed with you?
billy woods:When it happened, the quote became a symbol of political disassembling in the wake of what was happening in Iraq. They couldn’t find weapons of mass destruction, things were going badly, the Bush administration had spent its good will on 9/11. So the people are asking about the decision to invade Iraq and Donald Rumsfeld is trying to defend it. So the phrase (‘As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.’) seems to obfuscate the situation. Then when I thought about it, it became an interesting idea. That’s not to say that Donald Rumsfeld’s use of it was appropriate in any way, but the underlying concept is interesting.
It’s a thought experiment about how to approach future events and things that you know, things that you know that you don’t know, things that you know that you know that you don’t know about some sort of situation. That dichotomy was interesting to me. In a very practical way, though this was not my first thought, I am kind of a ‘known unknown.’ A few people have heard my music, I’ve been around for a while, but as an artist I’m pretty obscure.
Aside from the quote, what were the other catalysts to begin working on this project?
billy woods:I probably suggested this record to Blockhead, and so we were working. Then I had a beat from Aesop, then we did a track. It’s just my natural instinct to think: ‘Oh, what am I gonna do with this stuff?’ I’m not the guy who puts out a lot of random singles or tracks, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just generally start with a few joints and then think about what I’m going to do with them. A lot of times, I’m thinking about that before I even start.
You described the title as ‘something that you know, that you don’t know.’ How does the fluidity of knowledge come across on the record?
billy woods:I think more about turning that inwards and making it things about yourself and your everyday life, and those known unknowns. Things you do know you’ll do in situations, things you don’t know you’ll do in situations. It was personal in a lot of ways, though I think of the previous album as being much more personal and direct, but this album was personal, too.
Do you think that the record is a thought experiment in it’s own right?
billy woods:Probably only from the perspective of me as the creator. I know that when I was making it, I had a template idea of what I was going for, and that’s how I made the record. The final product, no, I don’t think so. But listen, my mom is always the first one to say that once you make a piece of art and send it out into the world, you don’t control it’s meaning anymore. I can tell you my perspective on creating it and how I look at it now, but that’s no more valid than what you think it’s about.
‘Known Unknowns’ feels like a very succinct way of describing yourself as an artist, or at least how people experience your music with the meaning coming in waves. So how does that listener’s experience influence the way you write?
billy woods:I do think about that experience in terms of the fact that as an artist and a person who enjoys art, those are usually the most rewarding pieces of art. Things that I’ve read so many times and when you come back to them with new life experiences, and boom! All of a sudden you hear something and it’s like ‘before I never got that part, but now I really get that part.’ So I do really appreciate layered work. I try to create layered work in my own art, just because that’s what I enjoy. I think most of the time people are making things that they would enjoy.
Were there any interpretations of your songs that surprised you?
billy woods:Yes! I obviously go to Rap Genius. What’s weird is the things that nobody seems to pick up on. You’ll think that something is so obvious, but nobody gets it. Meanwhile, someone will have some totally obscure 1980s sports reference down with an image and Wikipedia definition.
Any specific examples?
billy woods:I couldn’t pull up one, but I’m sure that they’re out there. The thing is, I’m not popular enough that all of the songs will be annotated. I’m more surprised by which ones were and which ones weren’t annotated at all. I think as an artist sometimes you’re surprised by which songs become the most popular.
You said earlier, ‘Nobody actually knows who you are,’ but I want to think about it in terms of the distance between yourself and your artistic self. What is that distance like for you?
billy woods:That’s a good question. At times it’s far and at times it’s close. I think everything I do artistically reflects myself. If you knew me, and you listened to the music, I don’t think you’d be surprised by my sense of humor or my look at the world. It is a tough thing of where exactly to draw a line. Sometimes you’ll tell a story and people will think it’s the exact story, and it’s just a compilation of things that happened. Other times, people will think something is made up, but it’s the real story of exactly what happened.
I hear that dichotomy on “Everybody Knows,” where it feels like you’re taunting yourself when you slur, ‘They know who you are, man. They know who you are.’ So how does that distance shape this satirical track?
billy woods:There are a lot of questions of identity on this album: who one is, how other people relate to each other, what parts of yourself are you trying to hide even from other parts of yourself, how you view yourself. That’s one of the themes that emerged from this album organically. I never sat down and thought to push them, but then they started to be there. I think that there’s an aspect of identity to a lot of things, all the way down to the chorus on “Robespierre.” They’re asking the same question, both myself and the listener are asking the same thing. It’s a difficult question to answer of where the space lies, at least for me. There are definitely things that I rap about that I do, or am doing, but I am telling stories. A lot of times I think about my raps as stories in and of themselves.
What does it take to know another person?
billy woods:Well, you can’t. But you also can. That sounds like dime-store psychology, but to know someone takes time and experience, and some sort of perception and desire to know other people. At the same time, you have to understand that you can’t truly know another person. How many people truly, truly can say they know themselves?
On this track, you sound angry about being remembered, so where are you directing that anger?
billy woods:In general, in life, art is a great outlet for my personal anger and frustration. The same way, it’s a great place for me to be happy and celebrate my life. I felt like this is a pretty—well I don’t make sunny-happy-go-lucky records. The last record was at a particularly dark time about a particularly dark subject, but I like the project for what it is. It’s nice to make a different type of record, but this isn’t a happy-go-lucky album at it’s core.
In terms of brightness, I feel like this record is free-er. “Unstuck” comes to mind as a surprisingly bright song, still poised and technical, but with bright pops. I also think of the vocal sample on “Groundhogs Day.” Where does this new ease come from?
billy woods:The beats Blockhead makes. “Unstuck,” I really, really like that one. For “Groundhogs Day,” I actually was at a bar and this DJ was spinning records, and I heard it and asked him for it. Then I was listening to that record for weeks, so that was something where I actively took a part. But “Unstuck” or “Police Came To My Show” are just beats he gave me, or ones I picked out. Considering on the last album we did “Central Park,” that’s a pretty bouncy or happy sounding beat, but I don’t really feel like that always dictates the content. I think “Unstuck” and “Cheap Shoes” are funny songs to me, even though the beats are menacing. Whereas “Unstuck” is a pretty sad song in a certain way.
How has working with Blockhead evolved from the days of Dour Candy?
billy woods:It’s definitely more familiar. I know more about how his beats are arranged, and I feel free-er in saying, ‘Move this here,’ but that doesn’t happen very much. I feel free-er in saying, ‘Hey, can we do this part like this and that,’ because he has everything set up to where he is very efficient with moving parts around. The main thing with Blockhead is when you contact him, he replies. When you call or email, he answers. A lot of times in music, it’s hard to get things done collaboratively, because it’s hard to be in a rhythm and be exchanging something. You could ask for the beat to be moved around, and then it gets sent two weeks later. In the same way, I have producers who give up on doing projects because you can’t just be waiting months to get a verse done. So between us, the communication is good and efficient, and just generally we get along.
How does a single-producer record challenge you as an artist?
billy woods:It’s totally different. I can only talk about Blockhead, unless we went really far back, back, back in the catalogue. Blockhead is really the only person I’ve done full LPs with. It’s very different because sometimes you might wake up in a mood wanting to rap over this type of beat or that type of beat, but you can’t go to a producer and say, ‘Hey, give me this type of beat.’ It’s more that you’re working together, you’re getting their sound. It’s more about having to bend and having to pick a beat that you might not pick. Sometimes those will be the joints that you really, really like. There were some songs on the album that I probably would not have picked on the first pass that I really ended up liking.
What tracks wouldn’t have come to fruition without Blockhead?
billy woods:All of the Aesop tracks, because I met him through Blockhead. Some of the stuff with guests, too. “Nomento” was one where I let ELUCID pick the beat. I like that joint, but I probably wouldn’t have picked it, especially because of where we were in the record right then. I was thinking of doing a different type of song. “Wonderful” is the same sort of thing, you know you’re working, and it’s nice to let someone else pick the beat. So Aesop liked that one and we took it from there. “Cheap Shoes,” that’s not a beat that I would have picked at first, but I really like it. It may be my favorite chorus on the album to perform or listen to.
You mentioned Aesop, and he’s got two production credits on the record: “Bush League” and “Cheap Shoes.” What’s the working relationship with him like?
billy woods:It was cool, man. He was busy and he had his record, and he was going on tour. Basically, we were hanging out at his crib and he played me some records and I was like, ‘Yo, I like this beat and this,’ and all of his beats were fire. Then I just took a few of them, and those are the ones that stuck. He had a ton, a ton, a ton of great beats.
Is Aesop the Producer any different than Aesop the Rapper?
billy woods:I don’t know, because when I hung out with him he wasn’t actively working. The beats were already made. The feeling I got was that he goes through a creative spurt and then he sits back. I don’t know if he’s making beats every day, but I feel like generally with rapper-producers they tend to get in one mode or the other.
Your music is very intricate and you grew up wanting to be a writer, so let’s talk about books. What authors inspired your writing style?
billy woods:Well I would definitely put James Baldwin because I started reading him at a young age. I would put him in this category of transformative artists where after you encounter their work, you move forward, however slightly, attuned to the world in a new type of way. After you’ve ingested that person’s work, everything after that point has clearly delineated. So one of those people for me is James Baldwin. I read a lot when I was a little kid and I already read Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison. I remember reading Go Tell it on the Mountain, which I thought was really good. But it was when I read Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, after that I was like, ‘Okay, this is something different than what I’ve seen.’ The way this person uses character and language, there were layers there that weren’t present in other things that I had seen.
A similar sort of transformative artist for me, if we’re only talking writers, because it’s different. Because definitely after I heard Operation: Doomsday, I was attuned differently to the world and to rap music. As far as writers, I would say Cormac McCarthy, who I read much later in life. He was probably the last author who had me reorient. I really liked his work, but it was Blood Meridian that really changed things.
There’s this little known Zimbabwean author named Dambudzo Marechera. I knew him through my family, but I’m not related to him at all. He was a very eccentric and incendiary sort of writer, and he died very young. I met him once as a child. Anyway, when I first read his book, it was at this time where the sort of writing I had read by African writers centered around the idea of certain postcolonial tropes. They’re valuable and interesting, but that was where everything was centered. It was always some look at the clash between Western society, colonialism, and African-ness, and the aftermath of that, which was done in ways I was already familiar with. So to encounter this author whose work just brushed all of that to the side and was so brazenly raw and dark, and sexual. It gave no consideration to the things that were the part of the central crux of what you were used to reading; it was really stunning.
I would also say Flannery O’Connor and “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” or the other one where the guy steals the woman’s leg (“Good Country People”). My mother put me on to Flannery O’Connor and gave me an anthology of her stories at some point. I really dug that. She was close to my mind when I was working on Today, I Wrote Nothing.
I don’t think this would be the first person that anyone would think of, but I would say early to mid-career Stephen King. I needed to make it very clear that’s the time period. I was a huge, huge fan. I think I always, whatever other flaws he had, I always appreciated his ability bring together the mundane and the horrifying. I try to do that, I think, a lot.
What’s your favorite Baldwin novel?
billy woods:If we’re talking fiction, I’m going with Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone. At the same time, I do allow other answers. It’s kind of like what your favorite OutKast album is. So if you have one OutKast album that you think is the best, cool, but if you don’t have one other answer that you’re willing to accept as the best, you’re probably an asshole. Come on, it’s debatable. So long as you don’t say some really out there shit. It’s Aquemini, ATLiens, Southernplayalistic, and I’ll even leave the door slightly open for a fourth one.
Similarly, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone is my favorite and what I think is the best, but there’s an argument there for Another Country or Giovanni’s Room, and even for Go Tell it on the Mountain. Though, I would not be the one making that argument.
I would agree that Another Country is up there, but Giovanni’s Room has a special place in my heart.
billy woods:Yeah! Giovanni’s Room is very good. It’s hard to single it out as his best book, because the things he does well in that book are on display in his other works. Another Country is superior to Giovanni’s Room.
Are there any authors that are essential reads for someone that wants to rap?
billy woods:No. I mean, there are authors that I think are essential reads for people just living their lives, but obviously not everyone will agree with me. I don’t think that there’s anybody that in order to rap you have to read them first. There are so amazing rappers I know that don’t really like to read. I remember being flabbergasted when I first saw Aesop Rock and he told me that he didn’t really like to read. I like to stay away from absolutes, man.
One time, a long time ago, I foolishly told Jordan Peele to not drop out of college. Another example of known unknowns AKA: I clearly didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about. The last time I saw him was a long, long time ago in Europe. So I try not to think that I know everything, but there are definitely lots of writers where I think your life can only improve from reading them.
billy woods:For myself, I never really read much Hemingway, but recently I decided to fix that because my mom was clowning me. I had a close friend who was a big Hemingway fan so I knocked out a book and a couple short stories. It was cool and my life has improved for having read it. I’m not going to be a huge, huge Hemingway fan, but I dug it.
I also hear a lot of Faulkner in your music, the way he uses language and has these endless sentences. I can hear some A Light in August and some of the abstract nature of As I Lay Dying.
billy woods:Of course, he was so influential on other writers that I’m a fan of. He had an influence on Baldwin, and Cormac McCarthy spent almost half of his career as an almost-naked Faulkner impersonator, and a good one. So, I, too have borrowed from Faulkner. I think his use of language is both flowered and at the same time able to be blunt. I really appreciate his ability to shape characters, even in short stories. For all of his real and imagined racism, he was very attentive to black characters, there was a humanity to his black characters—to all of his characters.
Where would you place yourself in the literary canon, next to what author?
billy woods:Nowhere, because I don’t have any published book, so that would be crazy. The only canon I can be in is the rap canon, because that is where I’ve done things of note.
So how do you feel about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel for literature?
billy woods:I didn’t know that happened, and that sounds very stupid. Unless he wrote some book of poetry recently, but even then I wonder, ‘Was it really the best?’ If it was, then I retract this entire statement, but on its surface that sounds dumb as hell.
Where would you then place yourself in the rap canon?
billy woods:All-time is deep as hell. [As far as this current time period goes] I think I’m pretty fucking good though. All-time, however, is a pretty deep, deep roster.
billy woods:I feel like I’ve been doing pretty well. I feel like I’ve been on people’s minds for the last five or so. I’m always doing new dope stop. This new Armand Hammer record is going to be crazy, and the Blockhead record is crazy, and I can always, always, always get better. Right now, I feel like I’m pretty high up there. That’s my personal opinion; I’m not that good at too many things, so I try not to be overly modest about the things I am good at. There are a lot of good artists right now. I don’t find it particularly difficult to be inspired to be better, and every time I do, I just hear some new person and think, ‘Oh, shit!’
What artists push you the most?
billy woods:Probably ELUCID, because I rap with him and we’re on the same label. Aesop Rock, really good, and I see this sort of longevity to keep pushing the envelope and keep getting better. I really like the last Open Mike Eagle record the most out of everyone, that was my favorite Mike Eagle record. Now he’s going to be doing all sorts of different things, but I’ve always found him inspiring. You just have a lane, an approach, and an idea about yourself and you really get it. There’s no fake Mike Eagle. I got milo shows and I talk to milo. He’s a very intelligent guy. I always like meeting and talking to people who have interesting perspectives. Somewhere there’s a cafe in Paris that’s missing me.
We obviously have to talk about “Police Came To My Show.” You’ve retold the story a few times now, but what really puzzles me are the notes the cops were taking during your set. So can you give the briefest synopsis and then take a guess at what they were writing down while you performed?
billy woods:To answer the question, I suspect they weren’t writing anything down. I suspect they realized that this whole thing was a huge waste of time. It was super late at night. They were probably looking at sports, or looking at the ESPN ticker. If they thought they were still doing some investigative reporting, then they’re complete morons. I really, to this day, have no idea. There was nobody there, there weren’t even any fans. There were seven people at the show, besides the cops. I think it was pretty clear that I posed no threat to either law and order or racial harmony on that particular night. Perhaps I can change that moving forward, we’ll see. Maybe they were writing something? These were white middle-aged men, it was long past their bedtime, they wanted to leave for a while. One of the dudes did wave when I had one line about police.
They just showed up and were waiting until I performed. They were demanding to know when I was performing, and nobody really believed me, but I was like, ‘Yo, those are cops! I know it.’ So the show dragged on a long time, because no one really showed up so the promoter wasn’t rushing us.
Do you think it was a case of mistaken identity?
billy woods:I have a couple different theories. One was they just started to monitor some of the out-of-town rap shows, which is countered by the specificity of knowing when I was going to perform. Another: someone saw some video that made them think I was anti-police, or yes, there was some other artist with the same name and there was some confusion. The name’s pretty generic, but I have a feeling nobody intended to send them over to hear me, as milo would put it, to rap my booklist. Maybe there’s an FBI file of me spitting to like five people and a four-beers-deep PremRock and it reads: ‘The subject appeared discouraged.’ I hope so.
Pivoting back to the record, the one line that haunts me is off “Superpredator,” where you rap, ‘He killed what he loved, so he had to die.’ What inspired that moral quandary?
billy woods: can’t remember where I exactly heard that line. I heard it either in poetry or in some other form of music, and I liked it. I was just thinking about the music itself and the dichotomies that come with being a hip-hop fan.
Which dichotomies are you referring to?
billy woods:Sure, there are lots of artists that I really like and the only subject that they talk about, as some people would put it, is violence in their communities and violence against other black bodies. I still like those artists, they still have a place and belong. There are things where sometimes you hear it and you know it represents regressive thought, but there’s a context to the music. There’s a lot of levels to it. It’s not about making excuses, it’s about recognizing the levels. So if the music is violent, there’s a level to which it is and a level to which it isn’t. You don’t need rap music for there to be violence. When I first started listening to rap, it was all positive and the murder rate was like ten times higher.
Is that what inspired the ‘trigger warning’ line?
billy woods:I guess it was more something that I was already thinking about. A lot of my songs and my interests deal with people’s inhumanity to each other, people’s degradation and exploitation of each other, people’s ability to make excuses for their own behavior. Within those things, I talk about a lot of upsetting ideas, so that’s where that whole thought came from. You probably couldn’t have a trigger warning in every verse.
As a final note, can you give us some insight on the next Armand Hammer project? Were those features recorded in tandem with the new Armand Hammer project?
billy woods:No, no. ELUCID did his verse for “Tupac Jackets” a while ago, before he even left for South Africa and did Valley Of Grace. “Nomento” he had done a while ago, as well. We had only done a few songs for the Armand Hammer record until recently, and now it’s like boom, boom boom, knocking it out. I would say the record has mostly been recorded in the last few months, with a few small pieces from before. Known Unknowns has been finished for a little while.
As far as insights, I think that there will be an album and an EP. I don’t know what order they will come out, but I suspect the album first. It is 92% done. We hope to have it mixed and mastered by the end of July. Then it’s just a question of when we’re going to come out. I’m really excited about it, there’s some really cool producers involved and it’s very different. Really, when I think about it, we did Race Music a long time ago and then we did Furtive Movements, which is really cool. I look at that as a bridge onto at least my solo work and his solo production after that. So this is the first full piece since then. The production on the new project is different and challenging.