I recently wrote a piece for One More Robot, a Dublin-based Culture Magazine (part artbook, part DIY zine) that puts out terrific issues offering wide-ranging perspectives on mainly art, music, film, and at times, politics. Its editor, Dean Van Nguyen, has an affection for ’90s rap history which is displayed prominently throughout his work (read Dean’s piece on Mac Dre HERE). I interviewed Chuck D for OMR’s latest issue and Dean returned the favor with the following Q&A; a piece on Billy Woods, an at times enigmatic artist, whom he calls “the most slept-on rapper in the world right now.” – DM)
Making music for well over a decade now, Billy Woods learned his trade as a perennial figure in New York’s alt-rap scene, associating with Cannibal Ox’s Vordul Mega and various other members of his sizable crew The Atoms Family. Embarking on his own career as one-half of the double act, Super Chron Flight Brothers – alongside collaborator Priviledge – the duo crafted a series of records in the ilk of Cannibal Ox and other Definitive Jux signees, cutting the kind of discography that should have elevated Woods to the status of Underground King several times over.Instead, he is probably the most slept on rapper in the world right now.
Dealing with the break up of Super Chron, and frustrated with his inability to find a sizeable audience for his music, earlier this year the DC-based MC threw everything he had into what would potentially be his final record, the solo joint History Will Absolve Me. Reaching deep within himself, Woods produced one hip-hop’s standout releases of the year – a long, smart and brilliant piece of work that rounded several corners of human existence, all of which drew from it’s author’s own experiences.
Having only recently discovered Woods, I reached out to him in the hope of telling his story and unearthing the man behind History Will Absolve Me. I was not left disappointed. Like his lyrical style, Woods is upfront and thoughtful in an interview setting. Opening up about his family’s remarkable history, the satisfactions and frustrations of his career, and the creation History Will Absolve Me in length, Woods offers up the same bluntness that has makes his music so essential.
I came across History Will Absolve Me and I wanted to find out more information, but I found there wasn’t actually a whole lot out there. To start, can you tell us who you are, where you’re from, and how you got involved in music.
I was born in the United States. My mother was from Jamaica and my father, who is deceased now, was from Zimbabwe in Southern Africa. At the time they met, Zimbabwe was still called Rhodesia. You know, I’ve never really considered if when they met was before or after Rhodesia declared – basically the white population of Rhodesia declared independence from the crown, in part because they had no intention of allowing black people to vote. There was like an apartheid. Obviously its right next to South Africa; it was like a less codified version of apartheid I guess. My father was in the US getting his PHD when they met.
I was born here and when I was very young my father was active in the liberation movement in Zimbabwe, and so when they won the war and reached a negotiated settlement, he went back for the elections and we followed soon after. I lived there for the most of the 1980s although I would come to Jamaica and the United States to visit my family and my mother’s side of my family on a regular basis. Then I moved back to the DC area when I was a teenager. I moved back to Maryland right outside of DC.
And how did you get involved in making music?
Well hip-hop had a huge influence on me almost immediately when I moved here. I was very attracted to the music and a big influence was I saw Do The Right Thing maybe a day after I moved back to the US. I was like 13 years old or about to turn 13 and was just blown away by the movie and obviously Public Enemy are the soundtrack, so I went and copped A Nation of Millions… like a week later or at the first opportunity. So that started me down the road of really appreciating hip-hop. I used to like [to write down] people’s particularly striking rhymes, I would write them on all the desks in our school or whatever. I was into it, but I just didn’t feel hip-hop, at that point, was something you could just do. I wasn’t from New York where you had the culture of people doing music themselves and also vinyl records and shows. I mean, I didn’t go to a rap show until maybe I was 16 or 17, but I was just always into it.
It wasn’t until I came to New York to go to college and through this girl Brooke, I met Vordul Mega and some other people associated with Atoms Family, but it was really Vordul. We really hit it off as friends. We’d hang around and I thought he was ill you know, but I didn’t know the underground was bubbling the way it was because I was doing other things. This was like the mid 1990s, maybe 1996, and I knew people involved in the scene. I wasn’t really following it but I knew them as my friends and I’d listen to Vordul rap and I’d be like, “That’s’ great”. Also, when I was in school I met this other kid who is was in Atoms Family, like the youngest member named Chasm. He would rap and make beats in his room, which was crazy to me because at that point I never thought, “Oh you can just make music yourself”, you know what I mean? Obviously nobody thinks about this now because it’s such a bedroom producer culture, everybody can do everything on their computers, but at that time it was still new to me at least, that a couple kids could somehow hobble together some equipment and make music that I would really enjoy listening to. So that really opened my eyes to that possibility and I just started writing raps on my own and not really showing them to anybody. But it was really Vordul and then when (Cannibal Ox’s album) The Cold Vein came out and how big that record was. He was doing those raps in my living room in Harlem in 1999.
That’s what I met (Cannibal Ox’s) Vast (Aire). He’d be coming through doing verses, trading bars, and I really started seeing how great he was. So that really opened my eyes also to the fact that, “Hey you can do it”, and he was really encouraging. A lot of people were not encouraging at all in taking me seriously, and [Vordul] would always encourage me to write, always encourage me to rap, always sit down and listen to the stuff. So that’s basically what happened. He just really always encouraged me and y’know, even on my first record he played an instrumental part and getting that done. I owe a lot to Vordul Mega.
Did you always see yourself as an underground rapper?
Don’t know if I really thought in those terms, but I’m able to look at my own work in the wider context and see that it’s not for everybody. I think it’s really good, but I think for a variety of reasons there’s some people who don’t like my flow; there are other people who are not interested. I think a lot of the rewards from being a fan of my music is from repeated listening; decoding stuff and the layers. A lot of people aren’t interested in the layers of music. They want it to hit them right off. There’s a million reasons why so it’s kind of like, I don’t necessarily see myself as an underground artist, but I am aware of the fact that I’m doing something that not necessarily going to appeal to a ton of people.
It sounds like you weren’t that interested in appeasing people or following trends?
Definitely on this record [History Will Absolve Me]. That was always the case to a certain extent. I think when I was doing the group Super Chron [Flight Brothers], the vision of that group was a lot more, like, the comedy and tragedy angle was pretty high, which I think is still there in my music in general because that’s the kind of person I am, and a lot of the Super Chron stuff, to be honest, was driven by me ,which is not to take anything anyways from anyone else, it’s just the truth.
When I went into doing this record I wanted to approach it in an uncompromising fashion. I kind of had the feeling like this might be the last record I do if it doesn’t really work out. I felt like I’d been doing a lot of good work for a while and very few people recognise that, which is ok. I’m happy with the process, and the end result have to hold some value intrinsically for you. No matter what happened, I’m not going to feel like I wasted my time because it was important to me, but I think that when I went into doing this record, I definitely had the feeling that I’m going to do stuff. Y’know, sometimes you might bite your tongue or word things a different way or you might not make certain reference because you feel it might be too obscure or its going to throw people off. Not to say in anyway that the Super Chron albums are watered down, but I feel like, first of all I was collaborating with someone else, so obviously it’s not just me. Secondly, I went into those records with the idea of concept for those records and also the idea of making intelligent critical music that was also funny and had a light hearted side. And I think I was largely successful. History is not a light-hearted album obviously, although I think it has some funny things [on it]. I definitely had the intention of making something uncompromising, because I felt if it was the last thing I’m going to do, why bite your tongue?
One of the things you do quite well is painting detailed, three dimensional imagery. What kind of subject matter do you find yourself generally drawn towards? Do you set out saying, “I want to write a song about this” or “I want to write a song about that”, or does it come to you naturally?
It’s a good question; I think it’s a combination of things. Each project has its own internal logic so when I was doing History I knew what the mood and what the sentiment, or the point was, and everything was connected to that, from the title to song titles to the beat selections. A lot of those beats [came from] when I worked with the producers. They made the beats, but I’d bring samples to people, we’d share a lot of ideas on how it was going to work, and I had an overall idea of what the album was going to be about. On the wider scale, the themes are themes of human existence. On a particular song, a lot of times it’s the beat that dictates it, a combination of the beat and things that happened to me.
You know the song ‘Cash for Gold’? It’s a strip club song, but not the normal strip club song. I wasn’t trying to make anti-strip club song because I’ve been to more strip clubs than I probably needed to go to. But I’ve known people involved in the sex industry on a variety of levels and I’ve gone to strip clubs and stuff like that, so I wanted to convey a bunch of sides of the whole transaction and the whole range, different from your typical strip club song. But how that happened was, I think I had the beat and I identified it as a strip club kind of beat. [Producer] Marmaduke sent it to me and I was like, “This is kind of like a strip club track”. I happened to take a trip to LA and that’s when I wrote ‘Cash for Gold’. I went to this place called Jumbos Clown Room in LA – it’s like a hipster strip club. It just gave me inspiration. I went back to my friend’s house, she fell asleep and I just was writing. She had made me watch this weird move, El Topo, it’s a crazy psychedelic seventies movie. All those things happened; I had this beat, my friend is asleep and I’m like, “Let me write this right now”. I sat down and wrote it. And so, as you can see from that example, it’s a confluence of several different things.
What was behind the title History will Absolve Me?
I grew up in an ostensibly socialist country with a father who was a pretty dedicated Marxist writer and thinker, and obviously he was a member of the government. I always had a certain appreciation for the Cuban revolution, its faults not withstanding. I’ve just always had an interest in it. One of my aunts was actually hijacked on a plane to Cuba in the 1970s.
There are multiple levels in my music and song titles. The top level is that history will absolve me – if this was my last record, I was nice, I had a lot of good music and if people didn’t appreciate it, time will tell. And there’s another aspect to that where I actually don’t really think just because I did something good that will time will tell or that anyone will care or remember, the same way that Fidel Castro said that history will absolve him and at the end of the day it probably will not. The Cuban revolution, a lot of things didn’t really work out, so I also wanted to convey the sense of, while saying I’m nice and in the future people will see that I’m nice, on the same level I wanted to convey the futility of that idea. Fidel said it, and in a sense he was right and on another sense he was wrong. I wanted to make a reference there and I also wanted to make a reference to the idea of the movement of time and history was going to be a big part of the idea [that I’m focusing] on the personal level, which the album is a lot about. Looking back on your life, how the past impacts the future and the present, things like that. And then on a wider level, I talked about a lot of political and historical ideas that underpins a lot of the ideas and even the metaphors that I use on the record. So I wanted the title to work on a bunch of different levels.
I wanted to talk about the production on the album. It’s quite a consistent bunch or beats. They’re bruising, almost futuristic in a way. What draws you to that particular style?
You know it’s funny; I’ve rapped on a lot of different types of beats. On this album I definitely went into it knowing I wanted to push the envelope on the production but keep it cohesive. With Super Chron, we had an album with more experimental beats from like, Nasa, Marmaduke, this cat Teleseen who makes electro-dub music. We had a whole bunch of experimental music in this side project we did call Indonesia, and on the main project, it wasn’t always bomb-bap, but it was more straight up hip-hop.
I was trying to build production that was going to be progressive, futuristic, forward-leaning without necessarily trying to sound like we’re in the future, you know what I mean? I wasn’t really trying to make it shiny or smooth or anything, I just wanted to make it sound different – stuff that you wouldn’t of necessarily heard or expected. ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ has a sample of Christian Bale singing in Empire in the Sun the movie, which is one of my favourite movies as a kid, and he’s doing all this choral singing. We took that a warped it, just feeling like ‘lets find our beats and really custom make them with the producers’. And Willie Green played a huge role in that in terms of executive producing the record, in terms of handling outside production and working with people to make sure the stuff with right, and working with me, y’know? Id bring him samples and he would flip them and keep the whole thing cohesive because he’s able to make a beat that could be as out there as a Marmaduke beat and at the same time can bring something that’s just that raw hip-hop like ‘Famous Last Words’, he can hook up a rock-influenced track like ‘Crocodile Tears’. So I think the key was that Willie Green was there as lynchpin, and all the other producers I worked with – AM Breakups, Marmaduke, Nasa, Mantis – him as the lynchpin and the fact that everybody was open to working with me, getting feedback and making the beats work I think really lent a cohesive feel while still being kinda of what I wanted.
I wanted it to be progressive, I wanted it to be a record where if you weren’t into how I was rapping then at worst you’d come in and be like ‘they should have given these beats to somebody else’.