“It’s a freedom in admitting it’s not going to get better / washing your hands of people you’ve known forever,” the veteran underground rapper billy woods boldly proclaimed on 2022’s “Remorseless,” creating an instant mantra for thousands unsure of how to embrace life amid a bleak future filled with irreversible climate change and AI pretending to be Biggie Smalls (more on that later).
The haunting song contains a transcendent but proggy flute sample that’s stretched out to imitate the howls of a lost lamb. Back even further on “The Foreigner,” the Washington D.C.-born artist uncovered beams of light amid a modern malaise, as he pondered whether antidepressants were helping or holding back his generation (“Beat the odds or eat your meds”). On these two career highlights, woods’ dizzying raps seem to be fuelled by a strict diet of robusta coffee, high strength weed, and Cormac McCarthy novels.
His guttural yet authoritative vocal delivery is like Albert Camus doing an audience reading while Cannibal Ox’s raw “Painkiller” instrumental is looped infinitely in the background. He purges metaphors in a tired yet enlightened drawl that consistently uncovers hidden revelations about the human condition and – whether as a solo artist or alongside E L U C I D in their dizzying rap duo, Armand Hammer – the raps have a habit of stopping you dead in your tracks. “Writing raps always sustained me,” woods tells Huck of his creative process – his speaking voice noticeably softer than the blunt textures of his music. “It provided an outlet for emotions and energy I didn’t otherwise know how to deal with.”
Of the way the internet instigates tensions and unrealistic expectations within the rap community, he adds separately: “There’s so many different bubbles on the internet right now. There is definitely a whole aspect of people pointing out ‘ohhhh, this rapper died!’ or got into a gang, where fans sort of sit debating it. It means that some rappers are led down this road of authenticity, where they feel like they have to go out and prove themselves [in the street] to be seen as authentic. That stuff is really poisonous.”
It's an especially interesting moment to speak to woods, with palpable levels of excitement building around his art. Over the last year the New York Times has described him as “prolific;” Pitchfork have written a long read on the history of his influential, New York-based indie rap label Backwoodz; the crowds have quadrupled at live shows; and the artist, who once felt like a complete mainstream outsider, has now moved into Billboard chart territory. It seems like he’s finally enjoying some well earned spoils after decades of grinding on the underground circuit (his debut, Camouflage, dropped all the way back in 2003) and slowly fostering a committed Backwoodz community who are prepared to pay hundreds of dollars for the label’s vinyl.
His new album Maps, which was made collaboratively with criminally underrated LA-based producer Kenny Segal (a follow-up to the duo’s 2019 album Hiding Places), is another obvious level up. Much like a stolen diamond engagement ring, each of the new project’s post-boom bap beats (particularly “Facetime”) glisten with a sad sort of elegance – Segal therefore prompts woods to spit some of the most sobering raps of his career.
On the brain-melting “Year Zero” (also featuring a pretty perfect guest verse from Danny Brown), woods weighs up how his taxes potentially pay off police brutality settlements, while the more serene vibe of “As The Crow Flies” inspires the poignant reflections of a dad noticing the physical infallibility of his infant son while pushing him on the kiddy swing. Maps is perfectly designed for a listen on noise-cancelling cans during some solitary 3AM soul searching – “Live forever in headphones and basements,” woods once tellingly rapped of his appeal on early deep cut “Gourmet” – and it is deservedly among the best-reviewed albums of the year.
The son of an English professor mother and a Marxist father, the latter active in Zimbabwe’s War of Liberation, woods spent a lot of his childhood in the African country before moving back to America in the late-80s. Some of the great novels of the last 500 years were on offer within the family’s book shelves, but it was the transgressive yet political storytelling raps of artists like 2Pac, Black Sheep, Ice Cube, and Public Enemy that arguably left the deeper impression on his formative teenage mind. This rap dream pushed the budding MC into the orbit of mentor Vordul Mega of Harlem rap duo Cannibal Ox, and later on into the realms of professional rapper with a cult fanbase dissecting his every word and proclaiming him to be the best lyricist since MF DOOM. Not that he feels this pressure too much. “I don’t think about it,” he says, half-believably. “That pressure never occurred to me.”
To celebrate the release of Maps and a summer filled with international festival appearances, Huck caught up with Woods to talk about the realities of touring as an independent artist, hiding darkness inside of levity, the ethics of AI Biggie songs, and how he’d ultimately like to be remembered.
A new song like “As The Crow Flies” seems to be all about savouring life’s small joys. Maybe on previous billy woods’ records a lot of the songs are like being stuck in the middle of troubled waters, but I love that Maps sounds more relaxed and like someone who made it across to the shore.
billy woods: I don’t feel like I’ve made it to the shore just yet, to be honest [laughs]. I think in life you must always have this recognition that you don't have control over everything that’s going to happen. You could be thinking everything is great and then you go to your next check up and they say they found a mass of cancer in your body. The blood tests might have some funny numbers, so they need to take another look. You can’t control the world, so appreciating the small moments is especially important. Conceptually, Maps definitely taps into that [realisation].
You’ve referenced Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in your raps before. In fact, he’s a figure I see eulogised a lot on the internet lately. As racist police brutality builds and builds in America, do you think there’s ever a risk of another violent insurrection from those who feel oppressed?
I don’t know, man. Like “Blue Smoke” says, “over time, symbols eclipse the things that they symbolise.” An insurrection? That’s a wild idea. But Nat Turner, like a lot of things, has maybe become more enthralling to people than the complicated reality. We live in a country with a deep history of political violence. Turner’s insurrection itself is an act of political violence; an attempt to change the law of the land and to free enslaved people through force. I guess I would say we live in a society that’s atomised. People are far apart and desperately on their own in their different ways. It means they are looking for things to identify with. Sometimes those things are causes that are honourable and admirable and scary and bad, all at once.
I don’t think an insurrection is going to happen in the US; armed [government-backed] political violence is more likely to be a tool. I mean, also: does it count as an insurrection if the people who are striking back at police are right wing? In America someone is always going to be striking back. We live in a country that’s both authoritarian and anti-authoritarian; all at once. It’s a bizarre double edged sword and it works to both America’s benefit and its detriment. We are engrained from a young age to be distrustful of the state. I actually use that for one of my arguments for needing to remain armed. Why would you build this huge administrative state, with the most powerful military and police force, but at the same time have your people be in fear of them and make constant preparations to resist them? It’s a very strange thing, but human beings are strange.
There’s this passage in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian where he writes: “When the lamb is lost in the mountain he cries. Sometimes the mother comes. Sometimes the wolf.” I know it is one of your favourite novels and I feel like your songs so often explore a similar question, but centred around humanity. With the proliferation of technology, does it feel like the wolf is now responding to our cries more and more?
If you look at any technology people have thought up… let’s say splitting the atom: there are great things about that from an energy perspective, but it’s also extinguished millions of lives and [with nuclear weapons] there is an existential threat hanging over our heads. For all things there will be an equal and opposite reaction.
Rather than exploring who responds to the cry, my question is why do we always need to go down the same road? If you are going to go down it, there will be negative outcomes. You have to ask whether they justify the positives. You cannot light up your apartment and a whole city and have electricity and refrigeration and all these things without paying a cost. You can’t live in a tech free society without a cost, either: mothers are going to die in childbirth when they don't need to, or people will die of curable diseases.
At the end of all these things, we are going to die. So, it is perhaps more of a question of how we would like to live.
It’s nuts because every time I log onto YouTube there’s a new deep fake Biggie song created by artificial intelligence mimicking his sound. Is this another way to steal a Black man’s voice and distort it? Like, if you heard a deep fake billy woods’ song, how would you feel?
It is depressing that anyone has any interest in that, but people do a lot of things that are depressing to me. How much energy can I spend on things I have no control over? If they did do [AI woods], I wouldn’t feel honoured or anything. It just isn’t very interesting to me. I guess for the people who listen, the idea of detaching themselves from humanity appeals in some way.
I don’t see any reason why we need an algorithm-created movie, either. But no doubt lots and lots of people would want to go see it at the cinema because it feels like an event, right? Artificial intelligence, just like with a lot of other technology, has people completely fascinated with its very existence, but that fascination feels greater than pushing the tech into actually doing something ethical.
“Face Time” is my favourite song from Maps. I love the idea that therapy over Zoom isn’t healthy…
I was expanding upon the idea of maintaining relationships at a distance. Your daily life when you are out on the road and touring is confusing. You look at home as real life, but is it your real life if you ain’t back there? Sometimes there’s bad things at home you ain’t dealing with, all because you are touring. Sometimes being away touring is horribly isolating and lonely. You feel like you are missing out on [family] life, but other times it is a rush and a getaway from things you can’t deal with. That song definitely explores this duality.
“Crocodile Tears” is probably the song that cemented me as a fan of your music. You rap this line, “32 bars on how to rob and kill your neighbours / Still got the nerve to ask God to save you.” Where did that come from, exactly?
That line specifically was about rappers spending a whole album bragging about terrorising the community in which they live and then they will still be like: “Oh dear god, please save me.” That moral contradiction is how humans are and it amuses me.
If it all stopped tomorrow, how do you want people to remember billy woods as an artist? Do you even think that far ahead?
I hope to be considered as one of the best of my era. I want people to go through my discography. I want them to say I was one of the best, and somebody who was original and not afraid to be themselves.
My sound can be quite bleak, sure, but there’s always these bright interruptions; I like to operate in those juxtapositions. I guess sometimes when people meet me, they are surprised that this pretty personal rapper is actually funny. But I never made a record, even the darkest album, where it wasn’t funny in some way. I am a big fan of dark comedy. Maybe that’s due to growing up around so much British humour [on television]. I like moments of darkness hidden inside of levity. That’s an interesting space.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
Maps by Billy Woods and Kenny Segal is out now on Backwoods Studios and Fat Possum Records.
Follow Thomas on Twitter.