The following conversation with billy woods took place over the phone back in June of this year, right before the release of Armand Hammer’s Shrines —the eighth-best hip-hop album of the year according to this newsletter and critically acclaimed in general—for Backwoodz Studioz. During the call, we discussed life in a pandemic, how working with ELUCID and Willie Green suits his creative process, and his desire to make art that is both layered and timeless. (His most recent album is BRASS, a full-length collaboration with Moor Mother that topped the 2020 CABBAGES year-end list.)
For people who haven't really experienced anything that resembling true hardship, this is a jarring time. For others, there's this precedent and, while not apples to apples, some of us have been prepared for this without realizing it. Does that make sense?
For sure. The same way, sometimes I'm around people in moments of great fervor, and they start talking about like civil war or something in these theoretical terms. And I'm like, you do know that means you might spend the rest of your life in, like, a Canadian refugee camp, right? You do understand that. But people who have been somewhere, you look at what's going on in your country and you're like, hopefully my child will be able to go back there one day and have some vague idea of what our life was like. Real, real shit. I was just thinking about that with Syria, obviously the Arab Spring and Syrian rebellion. There are people who probably left the country back then like, it'll all be over soon. And ten years later, you're risking your life trying to get to fucking Portugal, or sitting in a camp somewhere. Things can be a lot worse. Even with fireworks sometimes I'll sit and I'll think about the fact that there's people in places in the world where that's actual explosions and you're just waiting to see if it’s your house. You're just in your house, listening to shells whistle. This next one is about to shatter your ceiling. That shit must be fucking crazy.
I went to elementary school and junior high with a lot of kids who were Eastern European immigrants. I remember I sat in class once next to a kid who was from what we now call the former Yugoslavia. And he was telling me shit about what was going on, like right then at home, that was blowing my mind. I'm like, we're not learning this in school. I'll never forget, some kid my age was just like, yeah, this is what's happening to my family back home. So, perspective—
—will do a lot. So overall, you know, I've eating good meals, I've been cooking a lot. I've been trying to work on writing and obviously been busy working on this [Shrines] album, trying to get all our assets in order for that. It could be worse for sure.
Are you able to create amid all this stuff or is it harder to get in that mindset?
Well, I do different types of writing, but I guess if we're talking about music… In some ways, it hasn't been terrible, but also I feel like I'm lacking some level of stimulation. I always try to take a different approach to everything, take some type of, at least in some small way, different approach to each project or thing that I'm doing, in terms of the process or whatever my life experience at the time. And so one of the things I'm working on now, I had initially envisioned it as something where, as part of trying to do something different, I might like travel somewhere and just do a bulk of the recording there with the other person I'm working with. This threw a wrench into that, at least in the near term, and maybe the mid term—we're already past the near term, we're into the mid term.
On the one hand, it’s disappointing that's not happening. And then on the other hand, I can be like, well, this is also a unique situation, so let's see what comes out of it. I know, man, life is unpredictable. I’ve found that a lot of times, at the end of the day, it makes more sense to embrace some of the changes. Sometimes things happen and you're like, oh man, it's the worst thing that ever happened. And then down the road, you're like, thank God, thank God that group broke up, this is going way better. So you never know. Ultimately, it's something you can't do anything about, just complaining and getting mad is not going to… I mean, nobody cares. You're just ruining your own day. At a certain point, it's like, all right, what am I going to do with what I got? There were so many situations that happened in my life that at the time felt like the worst thing that could happen. And then later: thank you, that was actually the best thing that could happen.
Yeah, it's the consequences that happen, the unexpected stuff that comes out of it. I wouldn't be where I am today, wherever the hell I am, without some difficult decisions and decisions that were made for me. I'm not in the worst position, so I have to recognize that there's some good that came out of some of the harder things I’ve had to deal with.
In music, sometimes, you think, if this thing doesn't goes this way… And then it's the things that you don't expect or that you couldn't have predicted that actually that made it great, like when I was recording [Armand Hammer’s] “Eucharist,” for example. I’d written it and I was frustrated at certain points with how the recording process went. Then, Willie Green and ELUCID both convinced me like, you should just end it right there, that's the joint right there. At the time, I felt kind of disappointed in myself. Thank God everyone stopped me. It was like an extra six bars that I just didn't like how they were landing. Later I realized that’s the actual perfect ending place. I'm very thankful that I was in a studio with people who are astute enough to know that, and also that I was at such a point with them that I begrudgingly was able to trust them.
Those are two guys who you’ve worked with for a long time, consistently people. At this stage, you have to be speaking the same language and be able to trust each other in order to do what you guys are doing.
For sure, and definitely with Willie Green at this point. I met him a long time ago. I mean, I've been the best man at his wedding. All sorts of things have happened. We've seen the entire landscape of indie hip-hop change. So, it's super meaningful. And obviously ELUCID and I have a creative rapport and a friendship that I'm lucky to have.
That’s apparent, obviously, from listening to all the projects you and ELUCID have done together. And what gets me is about Shrines is how much you guys seem to be on the same page, which, given the complexity of the work that you’re doing, speaks volumes. From a listener’s perspective, you have to ask, how do you do a project like this?
So I'm going to tell you, man. I'm not given to over to evidence of things that I can't see very often. I like things that are quantifiable. I tend not to get too deep into sort of new age ideas or anything. I have worked with enough people, doing this enough times, that I can say that there is a creative rapport that I, at times, would struggle to explain, if I were to be completely honest. There's obviously lots of communication. We're good friends. We've worked together a lot, so it's cool. He's also a super talented person who could make lots of people look good—or bad, depending on how good of a rapper you are. In the course of doing this, there've been all sorts of things where we get together to do something, and sometimes it's just more than the sum of its parts. or congruent in some way that seems beyond explanation.
The theme of this album didn't really get decided on until well into doing it. And then I was like, all right, what are we going to call the album? I mean, there was never a sit down, this is the theme. I guess that would be part of it. We have an ability that, for me, has been unique. We could discuss something a lot, or discuss it a little, or almost not discuss it and achieve similar results. I guess I've been doing this long enough to know that that is not how it always goes or to be taken for granted. There's lots of talented people you could do something with and it's cool, but not always where you're going to express really complicated idea to somebody in a brief conversation—or maybe not even express it, just have a title that hints at certain things—and be able to operate with confidence that when each of you do your parts, at the very least, it will be the sum of its parts and perhaps greater than them.
That's ideally the goal of any collaboration, to at least be the sum of the parts. I think it speaks to your experience, but also to your process. The way that you're describing your relationship with ELUCID seems to reinforce the uniqueness of that experience.
Yes, that would be my estimation. I have no expectation, in general. I don't think it would be a fair expectation in life to be like, I'm just gonna tell somebody the title of a song—especially knowing how I make music. Sometimes I've collaborated with people where I was like, here's the concept. And then we did it and I was like, wow, that was really on the nose what you did. Not like it was bad, but you know. Somehow it's always congruent. It's something though that I think I’m smart enough to recognize is rare and valuable, and that I don't have a readymade explanation for.
You can't explain something like that. I asked you about it out of my own perverse curiosity.
That’s the thing I'm telling you. Most of the time, if you ask me a question, I shy away from like, you can't explain it. It’s not really my typical way of approaching things. I'm into interrogating and explaining things. And that's the other interesting thing: we’re both congruent in a lot of ways and the way we approach things is very different. But it all works together and sometimes over time you can be like, that's pretty cool. When those moments happen and they come out on wax, it's even more so. Songs like “Soft Places” [off of 2014’s Furtive Movements]—complicated idea. I mean, we discussed it a little, I had a little bit of an idea. But that song was something where I was like, some type of magic occurred here.
I was waiting for you to use that word.
I know that the pieces of this are good, but the overall thing of it is something more than that. I felt like I could probably listen to this in 20 years and still be like, something special happened there. Or, “Touch And Agree” right before it, or a song like “Charms” on this record where I wrote my verse and I was like, wow, this is special. And then ELUCID showed up and kind of finished his in the studio. They're different, but congruent. And then this crazy beat. We both went home and I was like, this is what you do it for. You know what I mean? Those moments of magic, really, where everything is somehow falling into place to make something that, a little bit, surprises you, its creator and the person who envisioned it, is a special feeling. I'm sure, as a writer, there's times where you write something and you're like, it's good. And then there's times where you write something and read it and you're like, I don't even know how I did that. So then something else occurred.
With Shrines, I feel that way when I listen to “Parables” into “Ramses II” and that beat switch, ELUCID’s last verse on the album over that sort of shimmering beat. Mindbogglingly incredible. And “Eucharist” as a finisher, it was one of the first songs we did, before the album had a theme or anything. It so thoroughly puts the exclamation point on the record and the theme and everything in a way that there's no way I could have envisioned when I was trying to do it. Not only that, when I was originally doing it, I was trying to have a different end piece that, thank the Lord, didn't even come to pass. Not that it was bad. It's just like, this is perfect.
The thing about “Eucharist” in particular is that it's, to me, the reward for the person who listens to the whole album start to finish, which I know is not as common these days overall. But with your fan base, with your listenership, I think there is an understanding of the importance of the album itself and the sequencing of an album. Your records are never one-and-done listens for me. These records demand revisiting.
I appreciate that. That's kinda how I listen to music. For me, personally, something tha Operation: Doomsday or Ironman, Supreme Clientele, It Takes A Nation Of Millions… A lot of times there, it's more about the production. Lyrically, Public Enemy pretty much hits you the first time, but there's so much else in there. Artists like Serengeti, man, some of his records. Family And Friends, you could listen to that at different points in your life and find totally different points that you understand or not understand or wouldn’t have understood before. There are books I could read a million times and there's always gonna be something new in there revealing itself. For me, that's the Holy Grail as an artist, to do something that is layered and capable of withstanding. Because there's some things you're like, this was my favorite thing when I was 15. And then, ten years later, you're like, it's cool. And there are other things where I feel like each time you read it, there's some other aspect that can continue to unveil itself also as your own understanding of the world changes and expands.
Exactly. You're not the same person you were the first time you consumed it. One of the ways that I think about it is as a hip hop fan. You’d end up having this conversation multiple times: who's your favorite member of the Wu-Tang Clan? You ask people that question when they're 18 and you ask people that question when they're 40 and the answers are legitimately interesting. And occasionally an anniversary comes along and those are fun because you can actually go back to things that you enjoyed and try to see what more you can derive from it.
Yeah, man. There are works of art that are of their time. Think of somebody like Norman Mailer, for example. Does a person actually need to read Norman Mailer's books anymore? I probably would say no, you know what I mean? But he was a relevant and important writer in his time. But if somebody was like, should I read James Baldwin books now? You should, because it's a different level. And that's the difference. When they were both alive, Norman Mailer was unquestionably the bigger author, but his work didn't have that timelessness. Obviously that's subjective and there are a lot of things going on, but you can kind of see that.
I've been doing this a long time and I've gone through lots of periods of people at large—and I mean, let's be honest, at large, nobody really cares what I'm doing, period. But even within the indie world, being a very, very obscure artist, there were people who would approach me or who dealt with my work, who would be like, wow, this is interesting or special in some way…
As a child, I wanted to like write things that would be like the writers who were inspiring to me and the artists who were inspiring to me, timeless works from where you might might snatch some shard of immortality. I guess that's what I've been trying to do.
I mean, I look at my bookshelf and I'm like, why do I keep holding on to that? Should I? Does it still have relevance to me? I’ve obviously have pared things back a lot over the years in moves, but that copy of The Anarchist Cookbook that I bought when I was 15 is still on my shelf.
It's funny. I haven't heard anyone mentioned that in a long time. That's like an Internet book. I mean, it's not an Internet book, but it's something that now we would think of as Internet, because that’s how our mind has been trained to think about things. I was just having a conversation with steel tipped dove and he was talking about how he first got into certain rappers was on these skate videos. Before there was an Internet, that was a whole very specific, mostly like young white male entry point into culture that lay beyond their specific suburban neighborhood or town. Some girls too. They’d be like, oh, I heard this thing in a skate video and then I would find out the name of it and then I went to the store and bought the record. The same idea of human beings always searching for and creating communities that now happens online, I’m thinking about that in that context.
The ways people discover things are extraordinary. And one thing that I want to touch on with you is this idea of discovery. Over the past four or five years, the amount of discovery of your work seems like it has grown so much. Back when I reviewed Today, I Wrote Nothing at The Quietus in 2015, people were talking about you. And then over the next five years, more and more people knew who you were. I’ve had to do less explaining when I’ve talked about your music since then. Is it strange to you that you've had such recognition in this time period considering how far back you go?
It is a little bit strange, but in another way, no. I can honestly say that every time I approach doing music and doing art, I try to push myself further. I was always cognizant of the fact of trying to dig deeper, do something. I've never really sat and been like, oh, it's cool. I always felt like I wasn't really getting—not in an angry way, but you feel like people aren't really seeing everything that you're doing or appreciating everything that you're doing, which has pushed me to try to do more. It's interesting to be a point where people say, maybe this person is the one of the best people who's doing it, and for a while. But at the same time, I know that I always was pushing. There were always situations where I said, what way can I try to like push myself a little bit further, do something else.
Second to that, I have gotten lucky in certain ways, you know, I was lucky to hook up with Willie Green, a person who’s an incredible engineer and ear to have around. Being able to work with ELUCID has made me a better artist and also allowed me to do things that I couldn't have done as a solo artist. I had a lot of people who took chances, helping me go on the road and do things that made me a better live performer. So to an extent, it's surprising. And then, to another extent, I never stopped pushing myself.
Purchase billy woods’ music, including the just-released BRASS album with Moor Mother, here.