billy woods Is at the Forefront of Rap's Avant-Garde

The rapper premieres his new video for "Keloid," and discusses his new album 'Known Unknowns.'

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Oct 6 2017, 3:15pm

billy woods is a superlatively talented rapper and writer who, in the last half-decade, has reemerged from obscurity to become a darling of the avant-garde. History Will Absolve Me, his first solo record in eight years, was released in 2012 to rave reviews; he followed it with three more solo LPs and two records with Elucid as the duo Armand Hammer. The most recent of those projects, this summer's Known Unknowns, is produced entirely by Blockhead (save for two contributions from Aesop Rock), and grapples with the nature and limits of knowledge, all stemming from a Donald Rumsfeld quote about invading Iraq.

woods, the son of a writer and professor from Jamaica and a father who was a political revolutionary from the former Rhodesia, makes smart, labyrinthine music that resists disappearing into itself. His writing is grounded in familial gun charges and Max B smirks. When, as a child, he and his family eventually settled in America, it was in the greater D.C. area; by the turn of the century, he was recording on the peripheries of New York's underground scene, in part due to his relationship with Vordul Mega from Cannibal Ox. Those early recordings developed into Backwoodz Studioz, a label that woods operates to this day.

I spoke to woods about the new video from Known Unknowns, the Joseph-directed "Keloid" (premiering above), and about how the new album differs from his last record, Today, I Wrote Nothing, which marked a departure in structure and style from his previous work. We also talked about music videos as a creative medium, and about their place in the modern media landscape.

You also worked with Joseph on "Groundhogs Day." How did "Keloid" come together, and what was the idea behind it?
He heard the album before other people—he might have actually been there filming when I recorded that song; he's working on this sort of wider project about Armand Hammer. And he was like, 'Oh, I wanna do a video for that.' The "Groundhogs Day" video was more my idea: we collaborated on getting it done, but it was definitely something that I had thought up and envisioned. This was one where he came to me with a concept and idea that he had worked on for a while, kind of about leaving things behind and departing a place. And, you know, I added some ideas from how I relate to that song and we made it work. I like to think of it as a little bit of hyper-realism, and there's this whole ritualistic aspect to it that I dig. But yeah, it was basically something where he came to me and said, 'This is what I'm getting from the song.' He's a really easy guy to work with. Basically, it's the idea of leaving somewhere, departing somewhere, and some aspect of cleansing.

Is this the most outside input you've had in the video process?
It's tough to say, but we've certainly built up a good amount of trust in a short amount of time. He's just a good dude. A lot of times when I do stuff, I have a really clear visual idea in my head of what I think the song is about. Then again, I didn't even do a video for Today, I Wrote Nothing. It's funny thinking back how unceremonious it was: [ Today] was both made swiftly and released swiftly. I really, really like it. It's funny: it's probably going to end up being one of those records that has its own little following. And people who were fans of mine might not really dig it, but that's one of my favorite records. And that one we didn't even do a video for. So it's been a while; we did that little video for "CRWNS," [ed.- from Armand Hammer's Furtive Movements], but it's been a while. As far as outside input, this has gotta be the most, or close to it. It's interesting that for such a personal song, someone else's vision really shaped where we were going.

You and I have talked in the past about how, even though we're from slightly different generations, videos were a big entry point into hip-hop. Do you think, with the potential for things to go viral and be called up on demand, videos are still an important part of promo? Or is the fact that there isn't a consistent, captive audience for videos something that makes them more trouble than they're worth?
Probably unsurprisingly, marketing and branding is not my strong suit, and occupies very little of my headspace. But it is a necessary thing, and that's probably why I am where I am. I never want to force it, and also sometimes there is that question of the trade-off, the value...it's all very elusive to me. The Willie Green record had, I thought, two really strong videos, including the Open Mike Eagle and Elucid joint, "Feathered Octopus," which is just a great song. Sometimes you'll be like, 'Man, we really jumped through all the hoops, had a great song, hooked it all up, and then, is it really worth it? But I also feel that when you get a really great video, or something that really captures something—which that video did, for example—then it's valuable. Or it's like, did you really get to do the idea justice? I hate when it's like, 'I just need to do a video.' A lot of times you have an idea and it's like, 'Well, I don't have the budget or wherewithal to do that.' And I hate that feeling. I wanna do something that pushes it forward. As far as the efficacy and marketing aspect of it, I have not a single idea.

What videos were formative for you, or particularly interesting when you were a kid?
That was really how I followed and became a fan of rap music—it was moreso on TV than any other outlet. People would exchange tapes and stuff, but I wasn't in New York. That was just how I would absorb the genre. So there are a lot. Sometimes, it's very tied to if it was something that made me fall in love with an artist, like Redman's video for "Can't Wait"—it's black and white, they drive to Newark after stealing this car. Before that, I wasn't really a Redman fan. I didn't like the first album, and Dare Iz a Darkside, my friend Ken had it and we'd listen to it all the time—or he'd listen to it all the time, so I was like, 'Maybe this guy is a little bit good,' and then I saw that video and was sold.

Sometimes you just remember videos that were a big deal: the Apocalypse 91 "Can't Truss It," when Public Enemy kinda came back, was a big deal. The production value seemed huge [ed.- On "Tinseltown," from 2013's Dour Candy, woods nods to that song's title in the chorus]. Or something like "Burn Hollywood Burn," where you have Ice Cube and Kane, the star power, plus the video was cool itself with the old racist cartoons and minstrel show stuff.

I remember coming to New York and visiting my family. Video Music Box was a lot more local obviously, and they would have interviews and things like that. I remember watching, and I could be wrong about this, but I swear it was a Video Music Box special about Nas, before I ever heard of him. And I still don't think I saw—I didn't even really listen to Illmatic when it came out in D.C. Nobody I knew was listening to that record. I remember seeing this promotional video for it, and I feel like at one point he was walking around Queensbridge, and maybe there's another part where they were looking at Rikers from the shore—I can't really remember. Maybe he had a bandana on. That as the first time I ever heard of Nas, and I was like, 'Why are they talking this guy up so much?'

I liked Ice Cube, "It Was a Good Day," and then there were some that I think really stuck with me that people...it could have been just me. I don't even remember the song, but early Tragedy Khadafi, but he's rapping on the Queensboro Bridge, and this is before he was Tragedy Khadafi and I'd never heard anybody rap like that, it was so bleak [ed.- maybe "Black and Proud"]. Also of course, "Shook Ones Pt 2" was the first time I'd ever heard that song, when Prodigy's leaning out the car window as they go over the bridge—speaking of the bridge. I wasn't hearing these songs on the radio.

Pivoting to Known Unknowns, how do you feel this record fits in with the rest of your catalog?
I think it fits in in the sense that it's probably the most complete and polished of the projects, although I don't think that it's in any way watered down or anything like that. It would really depend on a person's taste in production. I could see it being a lot of people's' favorite record of mine. Unlike Today, I Wrote Nothing, I wouldn't expect it to be divisive in any way. I feel like if you like billy woods, you probably like this album to some extent. That's unless you're a person who just likes Today, I Wrote Nothing. Take something like Dr. Octagon: all Kool Keith fans probably like Dr. Octagon. I could see someone saying it's overrated, or saying they prefer Matthew or whatever, but I couldn't see someone saying "I'm a Kool Keith fan, but Dr. Octagon is just not good." But I could see people who like Dr. Octagon saying, 'Eh, I got some of the other Kool Keith stuff and it didn't really do anything for me, but I still love Dr. Octagon.' [ Known Unknowns] is one that fits much more easily within the canon, although I think it's unique also: it has choruses on every track, it's a more conventional approach in its structure. It was intentionally structured in a way that was more conventional in the way of records that I grew up on.

We've talked before about choruses—I remember you saying that, in the Super Chron Flight Brothers days, you were comfortable taking a backseat often when it came to them.
I always felt like, if you feel then you do it, if you don't, don't worry about it. And when I was in a group there was somebody else who really liked choruses and would do them a lot. And so it would be like, 'Oh, okay, if you want to do one, and you're pretty good at it, then I'm cool with it.' I'm just gonna do the ones where I really feel it. Coming out of that, I just stuck with that ethos. It's interesting though, because the reaction [to the choruses on this record] has either been, 'I really like the choruses on this album,' or they hate them, think a bunch of them don't work. Which is interesting to me, because I was not going to force it—any choruses on there are ones I really like. Also, as a fan, sometimes I don't need something complicated for me to like it. Sometimes I like a chorus that isn't eight different bars, you know? It could be one phrase.

Speaking creatively, what are you better at today than you were five years ago, after History Will Absolve Me ?
Editing. I'm a better editor. And with that comes the ability to getting more done with fewer words, in less time. Even records where I didn't edit a lot— Today, I Wrote Nothing was like the opposite of this record: I was just doing things, not editing. But it was still concise. Make the point, say the thing you're trying to say. I have nothing against a long and/or rambling verse, but it's about making sure everything in it is serving a purpose, which is very difficult.

Where does the editing come in the process—are you editing before you record, or are you cutting drafts and then redoing them?
It depends on which record you're talking about. I've operated all along that spectrum depending on the record you're talking about. On Today, I don't think I re-recorded a single thing. There was a conscious effort to approach it as something very visceral, sudden bursts, you don't want to completely reign that in and tamp it down, because that's what you're trying to capture. So a song like "Lambs," I just wrote it one day, and I probably recorded it the next day. I'm sure I went through it, but it's very raw, capturing the moment, which is also easier to do when you don't have to worry about making a full song, quote-unquote.

But then on this record, I did more recording and recording over than I had [before], but most of the editing takes place before I go record things. Because the other thing is, I'm one of the few rappers left who doesn't have a studio at my house. I have to go somewhere. One of the downsides of that is I don't get to try something a thousand times, or I'll have to wait to see if something is working when I get to the studio. The upside of that, for me, is that I tend to really focus in and get prepared. It's kind of like the difference—if someone's a freelancer—between working at home and going to an office space. And then you're like, 'Okay, well, I'm here, so I just need to get this done and go.' I came all the way here.

Do you tend to approach a new album with a fixed idea of its themes, or do you watch them develop as you write each song?
I think it depends, again, on the record. On this record, I went in and let the idea behind the record come out as I worked on songs. I tend to have an idea of the record and then the themes... obviously things change and new things emerge, things fall by the wayside, but I tend to go in with a more concrete idea of what the record is about, and a loose idea of its structure. And this time I intentionally went in with a concrete idea of its structure, and a very loose idea of what it was about.

Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.