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.