Hope in a Hopeless Situation: An Interview With Billy Woods

Joel Biswas speaks with the underground rap legend about getting into rap and whether or not Backwoods Studioz is the new Definitive Jux.
By    November 15, 2018

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Over the course of a sprawling conversation, Billy Woods is only definitive once, when he states: “My only goal in life was to be a creative writer. I was always interested in politics.” During the last decade, he has quietly become the standard bearer for a potent strain of New York art-rap that’s unafraid to grapple with the profound – both through his celebrated indie imprint Backwoodz Studioz and his own prolific catalogue as an MC. His latest collaboration with Elucid, Armand Hammer’s Paraffin, is already acclaimed as one of the best albums to come out of New York in 2018 but Woods is a reluctant touchstone. When I suggest that its success points to a burgeoning renaissance for the kind of ambitious conceptual rap that The Cold Vein once embodied, he politely demurs.

Woods doesn’t do glib insight or tidy resolutions. His style is rap as moral inquiry: ill-at-ease, hyper-attuned, fearless and punctuated with mordant humor. In conversion he’s expansive and curious, always reaching towards something bigger hovering just overhead – race, identity, fathers, masculinity, death, loss, the nature of violence, the idea of America or the contradictions at the heart of rap music. He’s constantly on the move as we talk, getting coffee, stopping by the studio and at one point evacuating his possessions after the roof leaks in his apartment. Nothing seems to stop the flow of ideas.

Our conversation covers V.S Naipaul, Kool G Rap’s infamous “Mister Mister”, Bojack Horseman, Marxism, counter-intelligence tactics, slap-boxing as masculine initiation, post-colonialism, Better Call Saul, the NFL (“I’m like the last NFL fan without shame,”), reminiscences of formative years spent between Howard University, a progressive liberal arts college, DC, Brooklyn, holidays in the Jamaican bush, childhood in Zimbabwe and a recently finished solo album.

It’s a heady brew but Woods isn’t above wearing his allusions on his sleeve. Take his current super group Armand Hammer, named after the enigmatic American billionaire industrialist, Jewish émigré and art collector who was also the son of fervent communists and a close friend to Khaddafi, Nixon and Brezhnev. Hammer was in many ways, the archetypal hero/ supervillain hiding in plain sight, steeped in contradiction. As a Reagan staffer once told the New York Times in 1981, “We simply don’t know which side of the fence Hammer is on.” So it goes with Billy Woods. — Joel Biswas

It feels like it’s been a big year for you and Backwoodz.

Billy Woods: 2018 is been a strange year. I’m happy with the response to Paraffin and Known Unknowns, but for me, they’re already a long time ago. I mean, Elucid has released loads since then – this project with Milo, a film soundtrack… whereas for me it feels like my time was spent creatively in other places. There’s been the Henry Canyons album which feels to me like a defining project for him, a new Blockhead project coming out and Curly Castro next year.

Projects are kind of dictated by availability of resource – studio time, access to producers and how they work. Like do they work fast? Give me a ton of beats or just a few? You work differently if they only give you a few beats. It changes your process. You might go back to and pick up something you didn’t initially think you could rap to and make it work as opposed to like just picking out the things that you love the first time. So the process is always part of the project.

We wrote Paraffin in 3-4 distinct phases separated by chunks of inactivity. And we brought in Kenny Siegel towards the end and he did several pieces of post-production and key stuff on “Alternate Side Parking” and “Ecomog”. Every producer is different. Some you get are like a Madlib “here’s the beat,” others work a lot in post-production.

We started collaborating at the end of Paraffin and he kept sharing ideas, I would write, until he was like I’ve got a direction I’m going to work to. With Kenny, it was about time and opportunity plus I got the sense that Kenny likes working in that milieu.

In fact, we’ve literally finished everything like yesterday – mixing and all that stuff notwithstanding. I don’t want to get too much into it now – but it’s called “Hiding Places” and it’s…. well that’s what it’s about.

What are you reading, listening to, watching at the moment?

Billy Woods: Most recently, I read Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor. I have always loved her short stories and a friend left it for me and I thought it was really, really good. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. I re-read Richard Price’s Clockers for like the fourth time, the first time in a long time. It’s very, very good. I mean I like the movie too but it’s different in important ways. I read the New York Times like every day.  I started reading this book I found at my mother’s called Shadows by the Zimbabwean writer Novuyo Tshuma. It’s kind of old and in the form of a lyric poem. I don’t know if I’m gonna make it through it. The structure is throwing me off a little bit. My mom also gave me John Fowles’ A Maggot. I’ve checked out the first few pages. It’s an undertaking but I’ve just cleared my plate so I should start reading something new. I have this biography of James Baldwin that I’ve been working through – it’s this old beat-up paperback and I can’t take it on the train because it’s like shedding. Slow-going but it’s a nice little thing.

You’ve got roots in both Jamaica and Zimbabwe?

Billy Woods: My father was originally from Zimbabwe. My parents met in the United States as graduate students in New York City not all that far from where I live now. He was in New York to further his education as a political refugee, my mother was here studying and many of her siblings, the Jamaican side of my family already lived here.

He went back when peace talks started in 1979 and we went in 1980. They had won the election and my father held two separate positions in his government before he died. I lived there for nine years.

When we got there it was a very triumphant moment for Zimbabwe, for my father of course. Because they had defeated this white supremacist regime and installed Marxist government and the country was successful in many ways. And he had returned home with a wife and kids – although it was essentially an interracial relationship in the eyes of Zimbabweans. My mother was a professor and I imagine she was involved in politics on some level. They had fundraisers for refugees and political parties and people from Zimbabwe coming through the house. And when we went to Zimbabwe, my mother’s way of engaging in politics was mostly on the level of her work in academia and the fact that she was married to someone in government but she was not a member of Zanu PF or anything.

I definitely remember being a child taking me to these places in Zimbabwe. He would me take to far flung places, he imagined himself as a populist – places where people were doing regular stuff – which I think is what Marxists fancy themselves doing (laughs). So at a young age I’d be places, playing with some kid and realize that this clothes that he’s wearing are the clothes that he has, period. This little kid has a pair of shorts. And a shirt. I mean, we were young enough to just play but these people don’t have electricity. The house is literally a one room, square room, people sleep on the floor.

What were his politics vis a vis the US?

Billy Woods: I can only infer from what I remember that his view of America was mostly negative. But the time I was cognizant, Ronald Reagan was the president – my father was anti-imperialist, he was anti-capitalist in his rhetoric and writings and in my personal recollections. So I don’t think that he had something against Americans or America as an idea but I can’t imagine he had a positive view of American imperialism and economic policy as it refers to the rest of the world. But I kind of doubt that was the reason he never came here again. He had very little reason to go. He traveled loads – mostly other non-aligned countries or Eastern Bloc countries and mostly for work. He had very little reason to go. Most of his work in the government involved thinks in those places, the Non-Aligned Movement – so he went to Holland a lot –  for seminars, summits, places in Eastern Europe. I remember he got our first computer on a trip to Switzerland. But I don’t think he ever came back to the United States.

How did you discover rap?

Billy Woods: I remember little things about rap – in the 80’s there was a band called Snap with that dance song “I Got the Power!” and there was a rapper on it.  Our exposure to American popular culture was limited but Zimbabwe was very Anglophile. There was show called Sounds on Saturday that would play music videos on the one TV station on Saturday night and I remember it there. Also, stuff like Cameo “Word Up” – I was like oh shit this is cool. It was different. Right before we moved, you started hearing hip hop in movies – there’d usually be some corny contest in the ghetto and somebody’s got a boom box. Probably in like Beverley Hills Cop 2 or something.

I remember 1988 or ‘89 me and my mom were flying here and we stopped in Amsterdam. I saw this Public Enemy T-shirt for sale and begged my mother to get it but she wouldn’t because she was like “I’m not buying anything violent,” you know the logo had the crosshairs. And when I got here, the second or third night we were staying in Maryland with family on my mother’s side and they went to Erroll’s Video and rented Do the Right Thing. I watched it and I was so just blown away by “Fight the Power”, by that movie. It was one of those experiences like holy shit.

That video for “Fight the Power” at the end of the movie with Public Enemy walking through the streets with this big crowd, that song – everything just blew my mind. Also, I’ve landed in this culture and I’m trying to figure out how it works. I know a lot about American intellectually, from reading – but my parents aren’t Americans. I was still trying to familiarize myself with like black American slang and to understand what people were saying.


The liner notes are something I still fuck with in my solo shit because they helped me.

It means a lot to me that when a fan comes up and is like “Yo, once I started listening to this…” because in art there is always shit that you encounter where after you listen to it, your life is changed forever. Like you read this writer or this book or listen to this band – and you can draw a line in your life, however imperceptibly. Your understanding of an entire thing changes. Like the first time I read James Baldwin. The way he wrote was so much more provocative and visceral and kind of fragile that it was incredible to me in a way that was different to African American writers writing about things that I had encountered before – Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison – I respect those guys, but this blew my mind. Or the first time that I heard Company Flow. I had never heard anything like that, man.

Until I first got to NY and met people in Adam’s family through this girl Brook, I appreciated rap but I didn’t know anyone who rapped. If I knew people who rapped at that time it was some white boy fucking around at a party on some Beastie Boys shit but I didn’t know anyone who made beats and was like I’m going to be a rapper. It wasn’t a thing. So to meet people like that and with a style of music that had nothing to do with anything that I was hearing on the radio – it was bugged out.

The writing kind of started sophomore year but it was definitely affected by knowing Vordul Mega from Cannibal Ox. We got to be pretty close and knew each other through that girl Brook and he was always very encouraging about anyone’s creative instincts and always encouraged me to freestyle.

I wrote my first real rhyme in a laundromat in Kennebunk, Maine in 1997. I was there with Alexander Richter, who shot the Paraffin album cover. I was working in a hotel laundromat. I remember it has something about Fidel Castro in it so I guess I’ve been working the same gimmick for a cool twenty years now. [Richter] said it wasn’t very good.

Do you identify as an American?

Billy Woods: I’m more American than anything else. I’m really not from a place but I know more about how it works here than anywhere else. Sometimes I think I understand Americans better than Americans do because I am from here but not. Any time you are a stranger you get insights others don’t.

To certain extent, I know what it’s like to walk around as a white person and I also know what it’s like to walk around in Western Society and know everything as foreign and strange.  I present as a black American and I’m what people think of black American but my experience is different. I didn’t grow up with my mom playing Aretha Franklin in the house. I grew up around religion but not black American churches. Like I don’t know how to play spades. The first time I went to Baptist church I was a grown man. It just wasn’t a thing.

Beyond identity, your music is soaked in the language of politics. You clearly have in interest in the construction of political language and concepts.

Billy Woods: There isn’t a time I remember when politics weren’t discussed. It was like talking about work, an aspect of life. I don’t ever want it to be like just saying political names or ideas. On “Nigerian Email” where it’s like, “Face bloated wrists frozen/ When he wave from outdated Soviet tank don’t be frontin’ like you don’t know him,” I hope that it’s conjuring an image. I just think of it as part of the tapestry that telling the story like literature – like in those things lie ideas and people and images of varied sorts. So if I say “Mugabe in a Doom Mask,” it’s an image that amuses me on some level. Doom is Zimbabwean, and then this whole supervillain either-you root-for-him-or-not-thing and lastly on the level of the ‘Doom-postors’. So I’m trying to create or image that lends itself to the wider idea of the song, whatever I’m doing there.

There are vernacular observations, fragments of narrative allusions to history and mythology and the kind of nakedly socio-political.

Billy Woods: There are layers to how I write. I want my writing to be both cohesive and like an onion. For me, it’s best when the writing has a fourth layer – something else that is an inside reference that maybe even only the people in the room who were there will get. But like these ideas begin to permeate in ways you can’t even see until afterward.  It’s crazy. So on the Rome album on “Barbarians”, Elucid raps “Oversee your cyborg” and then there’s my line on “Pakistani Brains” “life-like face plate hit the wires”… We didn’t even notice or discuss those connections. Every project gathers its own weight and projects its own power.

The Blockhead song “Unstuck” references that Vonnegut idea about a person becoming unstuck in time and I was reading a book about the Korean War at the time so those merged in my mind. That’s generally how it happens, whether it’s politics and literature – points of intersectionality. So on “Superpredator”, there’s a line “Chekhov put Jay’s tech on Nas’ dresser.” If you’re familiar with the idea of Chekhov’s gun, if you have a gun on wall in the first act, it has to go off in the third. Hopefully you don’t even need to know that and recognise Jay’s tech, Nas’ dresser as the point of contention in their beef. But I like that idea in Chekhov’s writing.

The whole song is about the relationship between violence and hip hop and my own uneasy coexistence with this thing. On the one hand, the music gains an aspect of authenticity from violence and on the other violence is made-up. At the same time made-up violence can lead to real violence. I was trying to explore the whole idea of violence in hip hop and dispelling the idea that it’s a new thing. Hip hop has grown up having to try to deflect this notion that rap music causes violence, rap music is bad, like C. Dolores Tucker shit. I wanted to move beyond that and begin to examine what is there  – good, bad or otherwise. I want shit to serve a purpose.

Rap is so mainstream now – is it still subversive and dangerous anymore? Does the genre still have that power?

Billy Woods: If I had to look at artists that are out there today, the way its talked about has definitely changed but you’ve still got XXXTentacion getting killed, Troy Ave at Irving Plaza, the antics of somebody like 6ix9ine. But I guess like America is less violent now or someone like that would already be dead. There was a time when making music, a lot of these artists whether they wanted to or not, there were criminal organisations and groups all in the mix – that was like the regular. There was a time though when people running the labels were gangsters at a time when America was much more violent and they had grown up in America that was even more violent than that! There was real money, real gangsters and people getting killed.

I still feel like those questions came up around 21 Savage’s music or the early presentations of Chief Keef – I mean Chicago is in the midst of an epidemic of violence and here’s this dude and all the early videos dude’s waving a gun in a trap house. I mean there weren’t even women in those videos.

There are also things that people just don’t do anymore. People make hypersexualised songs and songs that could be construed as degrading to women that will be rude and dismissive but not like music that is actively violent towards them. I remember songs that were some beat a b*tch up type shit. Remember that intro on Black Sheep’s “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?”  It’s an ongoing conversation and has a lot to do with the wider currents of Black America and the idea of America itself which is a violent place. Which is something that I don’t think that Americans fully appreciate.

But when you come here from somewhere else you’re like, “What the fuck?” When I moved here, I had never been in a fist fight. A that time in America, it probably would have been hard to be a thirteen-year-old American black boy and not have been in fist-fight.

I moved here in ‘89 and DC was the murder capital. Last year it was Chicago and I looked it up – they had the same amount of murders as DC in 1990 and DC is one-tenth the size of Chicago. Like, everyone was getting killed! That was a period in Black America history that is stunning to think about – the levels of violence between the 1970’s and mid 1990s in Black America. One of my cousins was murdered in 1986 and left dead in an alley way. And my family found out on of those unidentified body things on the news – like fucked up shit.

I remember when 50 Cent was coming up on the mixtape circuit. It was dope, he was spitting but a certain part of his rise was tied to real violence and real animosity spurred by real violence. Some people’s whole careers are based on proximity to violence.

When I make a song like that I want to engage with a bunch of different ideas because it is something that is complex and interesting. Complex and interesting you know?

When Get Rich or Die Trying came out it felt like the most cynical extrapolation of what you’re describing.

Billy Woods: It’s interesting to look at that period of commercial rap with perspective. The two-thousands were strange. A lot of things that were popular at the time didn’t have any staying power, like no one would even fuck with that nostalgically now. There was that whole period were everyone rapped like Jadakiss. I mean he’s good rapper but… I don’t know, it was strange.

There’s a lot of talk of Backwoodz being the heir to Def Jux.

Billy Woods: I think that’s because New York hasn’t been rap’s epicenter for a long time. There have been a lot of intervening scenes. There was a time when Das Racist, Lakutis – those guys had a moment, like a lot of groups. But there wasn’t a certain artist to coalesce around. There wasn’t like a particular marker and nobody was going to write an article and be like Armand Hammer comes in the wake of xyz artist because that scene didn’t have an easily identifiable hook for a writer to refer to. But in between Def Jux and now there have definitely been various hip-hop scenes that have had a moment in the sun in New York. But I’m loathe to say that this is a marker of the scene now because people will be like this new group harkens back to the days of Def Jux. I definitely feel there has been a strong scene in which I’m operating that included other groups like Uncommon Music, Ka, Mach Hommy… but I don’t know.

I couldn’t say where Backwoodz is in the wider hip-hop world. Is it possible for an indie label today to progress to the level of say a Stones Throw? I’m not sure. When we started we spent a long time trying to position ourselves in ways that are mostly irrelevant now because of the state of the music industry. My goal is to be a reliable wellspring of creative energies.

That acceptance of defeat we talked about is all over this record. Lines like “we lost and I can’t see doing it over” or “every victory’s pyrrhic” and the next album is called “Hiding Places”.

Billy Woods: It’s funny because at first, I had one thing in mind. You wonder if life imitates art or if it affects it – I’m not sure. But I did have one thing in mind that became something else, because your life is happening and you react to it.

There is hopelessness in my work but there are competing ideas. I mean it’s funny too. And there is a hard-won pragmatism – like you lost but like hope in a hopeless situation. Acceptance of loss – you aren’t going to be a professional athlete, you aren’t going to get back together with that person, those things aren’t coming back – I’m really interested in that. Like a refusal to become less than human and a warning of what happens when you forget what makes you a human being.

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