We sat down with the typically low key veteran rapper billy woods. He talked about making Hiding places with Kenny Segal, his writing process, and indie-rap’s lost movement.
Imagery of barbarians and volcano rims are volleyed with bumper cars and daffodils. Hiding Places, the latest from billy woods, exists in that terrifying silence that follows a dud grenade. Anchored by Kenny Segal’s blistering beats, the album was met with heavy praise, critics’ picks and an unexpected nod from Time Magazine. “I don’t even have a booking agent,” woods said. “It hasn’t yet reflected in terms of how busier I am or anything really life-changing. I don’t know who at Time Magazine is even listening to underground rap but I’m very thankful. It’s an important record to me.”
The Brooklyn rapper and founder of independent record label Backwoodz Studioz grew up between Zimbabwe, Harlem, and Washington, DC. Despite the recent spike in accolades, he’s had a long ascendant, one that began in the late 1990s, a time spawned from the ruins of Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus — an album that sparked regional movements across the country.
File-sharing programs like WinMX aided its rise but, more importantly, independent music was being heavily purchased, emboldened by robust touring and support from a still intact print media.
“That era was a crazy time for indie-rap because, simultaneously, the music industry was detonating underneath us, but a major music revolution was also happening,” billy woods said. “Money was still around. [Rap group] Cannibal Ox did like 80,000 units or some shit. It was crazy.”
woods emerged with Vordul Mega, a friend and MC who, with partner Vast Aire, were Cannibal Ox, a pairing that made one of the era’s most coveted works, “Iron Galaxy,” produced by pre-Run The Jewels EL-P.
“I met Vordul in 1996, or so, and wasn’t rapping or anything like that. I met him through a friend from Santa Cruz who moved to NY and knew all the cool people,” woods said. “Vordul was younger than me, he was in high school still, so I was like 19. He always encouraged me to write and was always super supportive. I played around for a bit but didn’t seriously start writing until a couple years later.”
In 2003 woods released his first solo, Camouflage, followed by another, The Chalice, a year later. By 2005 he started focusing on group-concentrated projects, Terror Firma, as part of the Reavers, and three subsequent albums (Emergency Powers; The World Tour, Indonesia, and Cape Verde) as part of Super Chron Flight Brothers with then partner Privilege.
In a 2013 interview with writer Dean Van Nguyen, shortly after the release of History Will Absolve Me, woods spoke of his placement in today’s musical landscape: “I don’t necessarily see myself as an underground artist, but I’m aware of the fact that I’m doing something that’s not necessarily going to appeal to a ton of people.” Three more solo joints came thereafter, alongside three more group projects as part of Armand Hammer, his partnership with MC/producer Elucid. One of those albums was Paraffin, a 2018 effort which kindled a groundswell of hype leading into Hiding Places.
woods has kept a low and at times mysterious profile throughout, purposefully blurring his face, shunning a sometimes encroaching spotlight. “In the beginning, it was more me wanting to speak freely without being concerned with what I was saying,” woods said. “I enjoy my privacy to a certain extent and just had lots of things I was concerned about impacting real life. It kinda just evolved into its own thing. I’m a very friendly and social person but I don’t like to live super publically.’
At the year’s mid-way point, we check in with the typically low-key woods to see how Hiding Places came to be, reminisce on indie-rap’s lost movement, explore his writing process, and see what else is on deck for the understated artist whose songs are like handwritten notes — direct and personal, where the messiness of the handwriting reveals as much as the words themselves.
Part of the reason the Hiding Places resonates so much is because of Kenny Segal. There’s a dark, almost industrial palette here that fits the writing so well. Tell us how you two connected.
Elucid brought him to me. I saw him perform live just once, and I liked his beats so much I reached out to see if he could add anything to the Paraffin album. I was just being ambitious. But it turned out he was like the final jigsaw piece to the structure. Then he was like, “We should do an album.” He put it out there in the universe. There was a lot inspiration in the air and it became a matter of me not getting beats fast enough. Found out later that Kenny and I grew up in similar places too. When I moved back to the states, I lived near the DC and Maryland area and Kenny’s from there too.
Hiding Places is only a few months old but has already gotten a lot attention. How has the experience been so far? What if any surprises have you encountered?
It surprises me when a writer will say they loved your shit then write you a milquetoast review. Other times, a reviewer from a publication who you didn’t even know existed will give you a great review. The reviews have overwhelmingly been good and that’s great because we’ll take all the help we can get. I haven’t even officially gone on tour with this record yet.
You’ve been around since the early 2000s and saw movements come and go. Give people who weren’t around a sense of what that era was like 20 years ago.
People were selling a lot of records. Atmosphere started blowing up. Anticon had their own scene. [New York City] had all kinds of cats. Big shows were being booked. Everyone felt like they could make a record and did. Magazines were everywhere and all were super supportive of indie artists. All these movements were popping up and everyone was getting distribution from majors. The dream was to be on Caroline distribution. But a lot of these labels were simultaneously crumbling from the inside. It blew up and swiftly exploded to pieces.
You also had these cultural gatekeepers around 2000 who supported the music but then just didn’t’ fuck with that type of rap anymore. In 2003 they wanted to be Def Jux but by 2007 it was no longer fertile ground. The same dudes who were giving Aesop Rock good reviews were now like, “I’m only listening to Dipset now!” It was a great time to experience. It wasn’t a great era for me to start a record label in, however.
Describe the making of “Iron Galaxy” from the perspective of someone who was in the room.
In late 1999, I was living in uptown Harlem and Vordul would come over and kept saying he had this whole idea in his head. Later found out he was talking about Cannibal Ox. When I was first back in New York in 1999, Vordul told me he was being signed by EL-P. I didn’t not believe him because he wasn’t a liar or anything, but I wasn’t totally sure of what he was saying was true because I had knew EL-P from Funcrusher, and he was already established. It was almost unbelievable is what I’m saying.
That’s around the time I met Vast. They didn’t even have the beats but they knew what the songs were gonna be like. So here I am, hearing one of those joints that later turned out to be “Pigeons.” I had heard it without beat and already thought it was mind-blowing. And to finally hear it over the beat was crazy. I went from knowing this kid who was my friend who raps, to him having a real career. People hadn’t known about Cannibal Ox, I felt like I was the only person in DC who was rocking that shit. When I came back, I was inspired and was visiting New York a lot more, and I was feeling like, ‘”I could do this.”
You mentioned living between New York and DC and moving around. Tell us a bit about your upbringing.
My parents met in New York, so one side of my family lives here. I had never really lived in New York until I went here for college. In the ‘80s we used to come here every Christmas. My family moved to Zimbabwe during their independence movement. My Mother was Jamaican and met my dad in college. My father was actually a political refugee and Ph.D. student. At the time, Zimbabwe was a white-ruled country called Rhodesia and my father was active in political stuff so he fled. But after they won the war, we went back.
Walk us through your first studio experience.
I was with Vordul when he was in the studio recording his first album and he wanted me to do a verse for it. We’re at Electric Lady Studios so shit was a big deal. Admittedly, I was not very good and the time I spent on my verse it was insane. When I got there, the people who were at the studio were not having it. It was very intimidating. It was an openly hostile environment. The engineer and the managers were all there and they were just not happy. They would just cut my mic halfway, over and over, and be like ‘Try again!’ It was very discouraging. It was so embarrassing. Vordul is the nicest dude, too, so I felt bad. I dipped and still remember because it was pouring rain and I caught the train.
What was your takeaway from the experience?
That moment I thought to myself, “I need to quit or make sure I’m not in that position again.” You need to be self-reliant. I felt bad to put Vordul in that position. You don’t want to bring your boy to a pickup game and your friends think your dude is a clown.
Every since you started seriously recording you’ve refrained from having your image publicized. Explain that decision for your listeners.
I’ve hung out with fans before, so it’s not about being disconnected from listeners or anything. One time, this guy — some fan — hit me up saying he was coming to NY and wanted to meet so I ended up meeting him and made him and his friend dinner. I’m just not the type of person who wants that attention.
I want to explore your writing process a bit. Tell us what sparked your interest and how much of it is fiction and how much are lived experiences?
A story I read as a kid stuck with me and probably started my interest in writing. I can’t remember the name, but it was like a science fiction story about a time where the sun comes out to earth once in a generation. And there’s one girl, who other kids lock in the basement for fun and forgot. When they come back, after the sun had left, they realized they locked her in there and that is the only time in her life where she’d see the sun. I remember reading that story and at the end, being young and having an affect on me, even when I started writing as a little kid.
Some of my writing is definitely fiction. Some things isn’t always exactly how it happened but everything comes from lived experiences. “A Day In A Week In A Year” is written from a very visceral place and is very in the moment. A song like “Bedtime” is very conceptual. It’s tough because violence against women is something I grew up around and you can tell if you listen to my music. Obviously, all of these women and what happens to them, all of it comes from a real place, but not all the people or situations are real.
It’s been about 20 years since you started. Through the years, in what ways have you improved?
I’m a better editor. I’ve also found different ways to use my voice as opposed to only, like, two different ways in the past. It’s probably an improvement that only I can see and may not be super obvious to listeners. Nowadays, I have more ways of approaching a beat, even in the middle of a song sometimes. So a track like “Nigerian Email” it finds a rhythm and goes onward. But others morph thru the chorus. I think I know more what to leave out.
It’s been a great couple of years for you. What can you tell us about your upcoming work?
Right now I’m planning a solo record called Terror Management. We’re hoping to drop in September, then I’ll sit and chill for a bit.
David Ma is a veteran music journalist whose work has appeared in The Source, Wax Poetics, The Guardian, Red Bull Music Academy, Passion of the Weiss, Nerdtorious and others. You can follow him at @_davidma.