“Did You Hear That?” – billy woods Interview

billy woods
photo by Alexander Richter

Music interviews: often they are nothing but boring walls of text meant to promote albums and/or artists. Sure, we at Soul Feeder also wish to give the spotlight to artists we believe deserve it. However, we also wish to get to know the artist. By sharing 3 random tracks with the artist, we wish to ignite interesting discussions regarding relevant themes, lyrics and the song itself. What does the artist think of the tracks we love? This episode: Underground hip-hop phenomenon billy woods. What are his thoughts on tracks by deem spencer, Skinny Pelembe and Injury Reserve? Also, what song would he recommend himself?

Who is billy woods? That’s a question he himself perhaps can’t even answer. Despite his critically acclaimed discography, either solo or as part of duo Armand Hammer, he lives a relatively anonymous life, mostly due to the fact that he refuses to share pictures of himself and due to the fact that he refrains from extensive promotional ventures. Nevertheless, his work has been lauded by many and he can even state with confidence that the Needle Drop is a massive fan of his work. As a founder of the label Backwoodz Studioz he’s considered one of the most prolific figures in avant-garde hip-hop and he’s a frequent collaborator of artists such as Aesop Rock, Busdriver andHomeboy Sandman. Thus, it really is an honor to interview him.

You’re known for your lyricism but more notably, your “alternative” approach to hip-hop. An upcoming artist that has recently made some waves is a young rapper named Deem Spencer. This song can best be compared to the work of rappers such as Earl Sweatshirt, although on his latest EP he showed a lot of versatility.

What do you think of this song and have you heard of it before?

I have heard it before and it’s a very good song. We have met briefly.

You’ve always seemed to prefer artistic success over commercial success and even though that has made you an incredibly interesting artist, it hasn’t made you the richest or the most popular rapper. Nevertheless, in the past few years we’ve seen a rise of rappers with a somewhat similar idea of what hip-hop should entail that have gained quite some buzz, artists such as milo, Aesop Rock and Open Mike Eagle. Do you feel like the genre has evolved in the past few years? Also, do you feel like you could potentially create a commercially successful album without having to change your style or your penmanship?

Well, I think it is important to make some distinctions here. For example, although we are close in age Aesop Rock was already a star when I was Xeroxing my own CD covers at the Astor Place Kinkos. On the flip side milo is much younger and was snagging Pitchfork reviews and touring with Busdriver before he could legally drink. So, while I feel encouraged by the success of someone like milo, I also realize his career arc is closer to someone like Aesop’s than mine. When I was in my early twenties, I was not as mature of an artist as either of those guys, nor did I understand the business or have anyone really usher me in the door- again, probably because I wasn’t as mature an artist as they were. I also didn’t have my priorities straight  but hey, if not for all my questionable decisions I’d have nothing to rap about.

Open Mike Eagle and I are closer to being contemporaries, but he is also a very unique artist whose star has risen through a combination of factors that are simply not applicable to my situation. Mike has been on the road from the jump and has become a touring monster – his live show is a beast. He is signed to a premier record label, and he combines that positioning with an array of other ventures and platforms from podcasts, to vlogs, to comedy to television; it just seems silly to compare. Nobody knows what I look like, I don’t have a smartphone and I live in an abandoned building with two cats.

Do you think the increased popularity of hip-hop as a whole has had a positive or negative influence on the quality of the genre?

Hmm… that requires thinking of such a long arc – and is hip-hop actually more popular now than it was ten years ago? And by what metrics? Was there not already a rise and fall? Sometimes I feel like it was like the NBA, where the Jordan era was so blown out of proportion, the NBA never got back to that but it settled in somewhere far north of where it was in the 70-80s.

I mean, at least in indie-rap world, there was a time when you could sell tens of thousands of vinyl SINGLES! CD’s moved –  and not just on tour –  cats was doing real numbers. I think a lot of people are doing really well in the new paradigm though. It’s tough to compare and it’s probably better this way for a lot of indie rappers because you don’t have to go suck up to a label now, but at the same time, if you NEED a label, you might not be able to get one. And they likely aren’t handing you a cash advance, setting you up with a tour our the gate or getting you a PR team.

Anyway, I think I am answering questions you didn’t ask, but I don’t think a lot about the question you did ask. I’m not sure I have an answer to that one, to be honest, at least nothing that I think would be well thought out and not just a vague impression.

You’re also known for trying to remain as anonymous as possible, with you often hiding your face. Do you think that, with the music that you make – a style that seems to be stripped of any “bling” – this has had a negative effect on sales? These days, there are a lot of rappers that brand themselves extensively but there are also successful artists that have stayed in the shades and whose mysterious image appealed to a lot of people.

Perhaps, I have certainly heard it suggested, but then consider the subject matter, tone and presentation. There is a reason more people watch Game Of Thrones or Westworld than Bojack Horseman or Black Mirror.  Even if you put Bojack Horseman on HBO, it’s not going to do GOT numbers.

This is a thing though, people who really like my music are often surprised by my own skepticism regarding commercial success. People come to shows and are shocked that there aren’t more people, and I’m flattered by that but look, there is the very real possibility that my music could be really good, I mean, it could be downright amazing, and not be met with what one might feel is the requisite amount of success. The music is art, but selling it is capitalism; quality of goods or services and amount of remuneration for said goods and services need not correlate. The likeliest explanation is that I am selling a quality product that appeals to a very small number of people, and thus far, none of them are high-powered booking agents or philanthropically-inclined heiresses.

You’ve also mentioned several times that you spent a substantial part of your youth in Zimbabwe which also (partially) sparked your major interest in war and politics. In recent years, music from all over the African continent has gained more interest, with popular music scenes in Mali, Nigeria and South Africa. Whereas, at least to our knowledge, so far little “artsy” modern music has come out of Zimbabwe, the evolution of African music is astounding. Skinny Pelembe, an artist born in South-Africa but now based in Doncaster (UK) has recently signed with Gilles Peterson’ Brownswood Recordings. This is the third track of his second EP, Spit/Swallow.

What do you think of this track?

Wow, that is really dope. The production especially but yeah, the whole thing comes together really well. Never heard of this cat, thanks, that was ill.

You’ve often been asked the question: “In which way did your time in Zimbabwe shape your music?” Whereas it’s clear that this period in your life was formative on a personal level and therefore also affected your music, how do you see music in light of the political and transitional developments that happened in the country during your period there? Do you feel like the things you’ve experienced there for example affect the way you approach subjects such as police brutality?

Hmm, good question. I learned a great deal about people from my childhood, because you learn a lot from seeing how people react to their world being turned upside down. Not just the former citizens of Rhodesia turning into Zimbabweans, but the members of my family who were adjusting to a totally foreign situation. I learned a lot about the space between rhetoric and power, between the liberator and oppressor, between who you imagine yourself to be and what you actually become. The fragility and adaptability of identity, what dead bodies look like, what blood and family means in a culture that old, how to identify unexploded ordinance, how to make a good cup of tea… I could go on. But to answer your question, I think everything I have experienced in life influences how I approach all subjects.

I’m not saying that to be a dick, I really want to answer your question. When I think about my personal interactions with the police, I think about America for several reasons. At the same time, my earliest experiences with authority, with violence, with helplessness in the face of both those things definitely took place in Zimbabwe. I just don’t know if you can divide the pie that cleanly. All of it is together.

 Whereas lines regarding war often appear in your music, a topic that doesn’t seem to be discussed often in your music (explicitly) is politics. Is there a specific reason for this?

That’s funny, I think I talk about politics all the time. But politics to me are perhaps different that to others. I’d like to explore more closely what you mean here; as in specific policies referred to by name? Genuinely curious.

To me, although I may just be an ignorant listener that can’t figure things out, it seems like there is always a political undertone in your music but one that is not specifically at the forefront of your songs. Much of the hip-hop I know often has a very explicit political tone in the sense that policies, politicians, parties etc. are named and turned into the most important narrative of the song. In many of your songs it seems like you touch upon certain issues (racism for example) without exploring its cause (for example pointing at specific racist parties, policies, etc.) or potential solutions. Rather to me, it seems like the things you rap about are grim realities of the world that seem (somewhat) inescapable or at least not solvable overnight.

Well, I think that there are some things you might be catching. I certainly have “named names” – Mugabe, Zuma, Castro, Rhodes, Kipling, Franco, Rabin, to give a few examples, but I think what you are getting at is more the approach. I often approach ideas obliquely, or directly, but with a narrative lens that may be atypical. I also feel like the personal is political so it is a tough distinction for me and perhaps an unnecessary one. That aside my verse on a song like Pakistani Brain is a very political one in my opinion, just maybe not in the way people expect to approach those ideas? I don’t know

A decent example might be African Dodger, a song that I understood to turn the concept of the old racist African Dodger game into a metaphor for how Afro-Americans are still needing to dodge (emotional/social/financial/racial/physical) beatings. Rather than pointing at the politics behind these beatings, the song seems to be more focused on the phenomenon itself.

See, I see that song as focused on the hideous absurdity of black existence in America, using the horrifying game as a reference point. The carnival sounds, the beat, the interlude, are all meant to lend to that absurdism, which is nonetheless completely real. I can barely listen to that song. I think that was the point.

Naturally, topics that cannot be ignored while discussing your music are racism and police brutality. These topics naturally served as the subject of many great songs. This track by Injury Reserve was part of their well-received latest EP Drive It Like It’s Stolen.

What do you think of this song?

Pretty cool. I have heard the name, never heard the music before. The first verse had some really cool parts.

Do you think hip-hop plays an important role in the struggle for emancipation?

Hmm, my first reaction to this question is to ask for a lot of definitions. My second one is just to say no. My third is to take that back because I do believe culture and art have a role in any human endeavors. My final answer is that this question is too broad for my liking.

The increased popularity of hip-hop has also made it more accessible for white people to engage with the genre. This might increase public awareness of racism and police brutality but simultaneously, some people have also been afraid of cultural appropriation. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think increased white interest should be celebrated or resisted?

I wonder if that interest is actually increased though. I remember moving back here in 1989 and the first day of school a white girl enthusiastically explaining who Eazy-E was. I remember Madonna “clout-chasin”- in the parlance of our times after Big Daddy Kane. I remember a group of braided white rappers calling themselves Young Black Teenagers and making a hit record about drinking 40s in the hood. I remember two white rappers calling  a superstar black rapper out for cooning, and making a video about it. I remember Eminem wearing a wave cap. So, it may be that this is just the latest manifestation of what has always been.

Perhaps what has changed is how certain things are viewed. I feel like back when I was in high school, you could be white and into rap and hang with black kids, but then you would be considered a person who “acts black” or “hangs out with black people”. And likewise if you were a black kid who loved indie rock and dressed a certain way, you were “acting white” and the community then would consider you as being on “that side”. Now I think that people listen to whatever they want. If you ask millennials what type of music they like, they like everything. You weren’t allowed to like everything when I was growing up. White people used the term “wigger” in earnest, sometimes in the same tones they might today discuss cultural appropriation.

Which is not to say that the subject is not worth scrutiny, it is, but I am always wary of reaching back to imagined pasts, and of ideas of purity. I myself am a creature of cultural appropriation, of cultural genocide, of cultural hegemony, without those things I would not be who I am. But culture also is not static, it cannot simply be inward-looking or it dies, it becomes a museum exhibit. White and black music in America have never been separate, really. It’s important to be aware of how culture is changing, and which forces are changing it in which ways, but the idea that there is a Black American culture that has evolved separate of White America, or vice versa, seems preposterous to me.

But hey, I’m a foreigner, haha.

During but also after Obama’s presidency, racial tensions seemed to reach a highpoint. A hard question: do you think the US was ready for a black president?

I didn’t think he would win, for the record. It’s tough to answer your question because what does “ready” mean in this context. Like if I asked, was America “ready” for Donald Trump, what would the answer be? A long time ago my mother told me that anything you say about America is true, and I have long found it to be so. So is the answer yes or no? Both things are true.

Finally, is there a song you wish to recommend to our audience yourselves? If yes, which song and why?

Because it goes. Your mans doesn’t have a song that goes harder than that.


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