billy woods is one of the most talented writers to emerge from the indy rap scene in the last 15 years. Whether recording on his own or as part of Armand Hammer, his music is crafted with precision, creating vivid stories and wordplay that usually demands repeat listening for the words to sink in. Here he talks about his excellent recent album, Known Unknowns, the importance of artwork, working with ELUCID and more. He’s also gifted us an exclusive new track, Illegal Tints, featuring Hemlock Ernst, and produced by Blockhead.
Known Unknowns has been getting a lot of love, but you strike us as someone who probably doesn’t care too much about praise or criticism either way. Is the need for acclaim and recognition a driving factor for you at all?
Yes, certainly! Rare is the artist who hopes to go undiscovered and unappreciated into obscurity, no matter how much they enjoy their privacy. Might seem counter-intuitive but there you have it.
The album has you working closely with Blockhead again. Does collaborating on an entire project with one producer prompt you to write a cohesive narrative that works across a collection of signature sounds, or do you detach and work on each track in isolation?
The easy answer is probably that it depends on the project, but thinking about it a bit, I think the answer is no. A cohesive narrative is something that will happen in my head, the single producer can only (potentially) help ensure a cohesive sound, if that’s what one is looking for.
The artwork for your albums is always intriguing; sometimes grainy/lo-fi imagery (Camouflage, History Will Absolve Me), other times highly stylized (Known Unknowns, Dour Candy), but almost always black & white. Is it an element of your work you devote a lot of time to?
The artwork is definitely important to me. There was one time that I did something where it wasn’t important enough, and I soon regretted it. So yeah, now it is always thoroughly considered. And then I always want it to have additional meaning, even if only to me. The Camouflage artwork, that image is from a book about race riots/uprisings in 1970s urban America, that belonged to my father. And the inlay, I still own that bus ticket. It’s probably one of my most closely held personal possessions that is of no value to anyone else. When I look at that, I see a lot more than what’s there.
I also enjoy being able to reach out to talented friends and collaborate. That’s why I enjoy having Alexander Richter shoot artwork for us. Not only is he a successful and famous photographer, he is also my old, old friend, so having him shoot Emergency Powers and Today, I Wrote Nothing, and ELUCID’s album Save Yourself, had an extra layer of meaning for me. Likewise with the guy who shot Cape Verde, or having Ashes 57, another good personal friend and very talented artist, do Dour Candy and Indonesia. And most recently, my friend Shane Ingersoll, who did Furtive Movements and Known Unknowns, and is doing the artwork for the new Armand Hammer LP, Rome. Just another incredibly talented artist who I am lucky enough to actually know as a person, and who is willing to lend their talents to what I am doing. I have been very fortunate in that sense.
Also, shout out to my friend, DJ Mo Niklz. He did a great job on this album too. I never had a DJ figure so prominently into one of my official albums, and he not only killed it on the individual tracks but his presence really helped bring the overall concept together, for me anyway.
The black & white aesthetic doesn’t seem incidental. Would you say it’s a reflection of the music?
Might seem crazy but until now I had never realized that all my solo albums were in black and white except for The Chalice, which is probably my least favorite, so now I don’t know what to think.
You grew up for a time in Africa and the West Indies. How has that influenced your music, if at all?
I would maybe not say “grew up” in the West Indies, per se, but the time I spent there was formative. And certainly, my experiences in Africa are a huge part of the person I am. My music is ultimately greatly affected by both, because they are things that greatly shaped me as a person.
You work with ELUCID a lot. Is the creative process different when you are just ELUCID and billy woods appearing on each other’s solo albums compared to when you are recording together as Armand Hammer?
Good question. For him, he sends/plays me a beat and a verse or idea, and I do it. For me, I send him beats until he likes one, which could be immediate or not happen at all. Then he records it. Or I ask him for some beats, in which case it’s an entirely different scenario. Also, different albums had different internal workings. Today, I Wrote Nothing was recorded in close concert with ELUCID, he got an executive producer credit on that one. So, I might be working on something and he is right there and says hey, I want to get on that. Or the opening song Lost Blocks, which was originally something he was working on, then I heard it and felt inspired, laid a verse and it ended up being my album opener.
Whereas Known Unknowns I worked on a lot more by myself and took a long time so there was no zeitgeist moment, I just was plugging away between other things. So that was a situation where I doubt ELUCID had any real idea of the overarching sound/themes/momentum of the album. In that sense, History Will Absolve Me was the same way, albeit for different reasons. But because I didn’t know him as well at the time it was more just being like “you want to rap on this beat?” or “you think you could mess with this idea”
And of course, collaboration must be squared away with the reality of people’s lives outside of the music. People move around, they get new jobs, they take on new responsibilities, so any enduring collaboration, like a lasting friendship, has to evolve to accommodate those changes.
What’s next up for you?
Got a couple Armand Hammer projects in the can. Going on tour with the incomparable Open Mike Eagle this fall, not the whole thing but selected dates, carpetbagger that I am.