We already interviewed billy woods once this year, but since then he has been responsible for another incredible album, in the form of Armand Hammer’s Rome. So we thought we should return for more insights into his creative process, what it’s like working with Elucid, and how he’s feeling as 2017 comes to an end. Interview by Gingerslim.
2017 has been a good year for you, with two of the best albums of the past 12 months under your belt. How are you feeling now it’s all drawing to a close?
I feel really good about it, on a personal level, it’s always a good thing to feel productive. It’s satisfying to achieve a goal, however small, I try not to take stuff for granted. That said, it hasn’t felt like any kind of sea change or anything, my phone isn’t ringing off the hook. I also felt like I was part of two really great albums the label put out last year; Elucid’s Save Yourself and Willie Green’s Doc Savage, that didn’t get the attention they deserved, so I’m not going to complain either.
All you can do is do the work, and be happy with the work itself. On that level, I feel pretty happy with it. Rome is so tightly wound, so efficient, it’s one of the best things I have ever been part of, as an artist. And Known Unknowns is a completely different album, different sound, different ideas, but I think it’s really successful. And both of these projects are collaborations with people I genuinely am friends with, and who push me in directions I might not go on my own.
From reading various interviews, it seems you and Elucid have found a connection with each other that extends beyond your collaborations. How did you guys first meet?
Nasa (Uncommon Nasa) booked him for this Yule Prog event we did every December in New York for the last ten years. I had never heard of him before then, but I checked out his music before the show and was captivated by the Automatic Writing track. He had a really dope video for the song on Youtube, done by his man Ali, who also did the Obama Incense and Willie Bosket videos. Then I saw his live set and, well, I’m neither blind nor deaf, so I thought I should reach out.
How different is the dynamic when you’re making a record with him, as opposed to working on a solo project?
Completely different. From the ground up, it’s a different process. From the production choices – which includes the fact that Elucid is a producer himself – to the subject matter, to the process of writing and recording, it’s very different. One thing that I will say sets apart Armand Hammer stuff from a lot of other collaborative projects I have done is the amount of trust. I have total faith that if I go in a certain direction conceptually or stylistically, whatever Elucid does will compliment it, and likewise, if he gives me some beat or concept to try, I just go for it.
It’s a rare thing. And that ties into the next question, which is that I am fortunate to have that relationship with both Elucid and Willie Green. It’s not an accident what I have been able to do personally, what the label has been able to do, since I started working with them.
I found it interesting hearing you talk about Willie Green setting up a booth for guys to record at the same time – I think this was back when you did Today I Wrote Nothing – you said it made the recording much more exciting. I was wondering if that is how you guys have continued to record since then, for example with the new Armand Hammer record?
That was a one-time thing, but it was very cool, and ties back into the trust I have in Green to get the best sounds out of us. That said, recording for Rome was pretty random; some at The Greenhouse, a lot at Elucid’s spot in East NY. Speaking for myself, I cut some demos with some cats I know like Jeff Markey, Lt. Headtrip, definitely recorded a couple things with Steel Tipped Dove. I did a lot of recording over the last year, and as someone without a home studio or the slightest hint of engineering experience, I relied a lot on other artists to help me out.
Given your background and the current state of affairs, I wanted to see how you’re feeling about what has been happening in Zimbabwe recently. Are you hopeful for their future?
I am very much a child of the Independence Struggle, so to speak, so to see that whole paradigm finally fall apart was interesting and conflicting and cathartic. Not to say that what comes next will be better or worse, but with Mugabe gone, that era is finished.
I read an interview with you a few years ago, where you spoke about hanging out with Aesop Rock at his place, listening to beats and chatting about rap, which was something you said you never really got to do any more. Is that because you just don’t have the time?
It’s because I am old and all my friends don’t just drop by randomly to smoke weed and listen to beats every day.
Your latest solo album, Known Unknowns, is your second full-length collaboration with Blockhead. If you’re working with only one producer, does your creative process vary much from if you were making an album with beats from various producers?
It is definitely different when I am working with a single producer. For me, it’s more of a compromise on sound and direction just from the fact that you can’t just go looking for the beat you want that day. You gotta dig into the beats they got or work with them to make something new. Working with Blockhead, I think there is an element of that for both of us; I pick some beats he is surprised I picked, or randomly send him a sample I stumbled on, meanwhile I will end up rapping over beats that I wouldn’t have chosen left to my own devices. I go over to Blockhead’s later in the process, when we are getting started we mostly work through email and over the phone. I’ll call and be like I like this part at :15 seconds and this other part at 32 seconds should be the chorus and hold the phone to my speakers like “this part”. It’s kinda ridiculous but it works.
One of my favorite songs on Known Unknowns is Police Came to My Show. Can you tell me a little bit about the story behind it?
I once read something where a writer mused about what the song was about. I thought that was funny because it’s a pretty straightforward song. I was on the road with PremRock and Mo Niklz and Henry Canyons a couple years ago and this all happened when we did a show in Missoula, Montana. Actually, Henry may not have been on this leg of the tour but anyway, as soon as we showed up at this venue – and it was a really, really nice venue, really nice promoter, good town overall – I saw these two guys at the bar and I immediately knew they were cops.
Anyway, I wait till we are backstage and ask everyone including the promoter about it and they think I am imagining things. I’m pretty certain I am not but I say okay and then we settle in backstage and Mo is DJ-ing and this place is dead. Like, embarrassing, humiliating dead. Not to say I haven’t seen deader rooms but this was like five people in a pretty big venue. So the promoter is kinda feeling bad and keeps saying maybe push back the start time and Mo keeps spinning, ever denser and more aggressive shit too, and these undercover cops are just sitting there, getting more and more annoyed which is understandable because wow, I mean, what a waste of time and overtime pay. Nobody is at this show. No one. So they go and start demanding that I perform at the box office, which gives away the fact that they are cops, now everyone is all surprised and I’m just like “even when I win, I lose”.
So boom, I’m like fuck it, I’mma give em a good show, and I think I really did. I felt like I caught something and carried it through the rest of the tour, and maybe since, where I get on stage like “I’m gonna do my thing right now, however it comes out, and then when it’s over, whatever, but the next however long is my time”. I wrote the first verse of that song, that night. You can ask PremRock the rest of the story.
I’m a big fan of your desire to never show your face in press shots and videos. Is that purely down to you wanting to be able to walk the streets without being recognized, or is there more to it?
There was more to it, now it’s mostly just what it is. I don’t think people are going to be out recognizing me anyway, but christ, that would be awful.
How hard it is to maintain that level of anonymity, given how many people at your shows are likely to have a camera phone?
Not hard at all. Not that many people come to my shows.
Your label has been enjoying some much deserved success the past few years, having survived the earlier industry crash. Has your vision changed much as the years have progressed?
At it’s core, it has remained the same. I wanted to help push artists that I liked, that I thought were making or were capable of making dope music, important music, interesting music. How I thought that would look has certainly changed, but the motivation is the same.
Do you think things are moving in a better direction now, in terms of the industry and the options available to artists?
I have no idea. Honestly. As a working artist living in NYC, I am just trying to stay above water right now.
What’s next for woods?
There is a little project being mixed right now, but it’s not a solo thing. As far as that goes, I am really not entirely sure.
Rome by Armand Hammer, and Known Unknowns by billy woods are both out now. Get them from Backwoodz Studioz.
Gingerslim has been a hip-hop fan since 1994 and has written for various blogs and websites since around 2006. During that time he has contributed to style43, Think Zebra, Headsknow and Front Magazine. His main interests in rap are UK hip-hop and the underground movement in America, with a focus on Rhymesayers Entertainment and the once mighty Def Jux label. He lives in Bristol and has a beard. All other details are sketchy at best. Follow him here.