billy woods “But one day it will be gone.”

“Who is more to be pitied, a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?”
– Kurt Vonnegut

The son of a Zimbabwean revolutionary and Jamaican English-literary scholar, Brooklyn-based MC billy woods (formerly one-half of Super Chron Flight Brothers, currently one-half of Armand Hammer, always all-lower-case) might prefer the words of Cormac McCarthy, Marlon James, Flannery O’Connor, and James Baldwin to those of Kurt Vonnegut, but seeing as the oppressive circumstances and existential crises inherent to creative disciplines and life in general are reoccurring themes in woods’ latest album, the above quote seemed apropos.

As you’ll read and hear, billy woods is a writer who, thankfully, still has much to say. Tiny Mix Tapes met with him at Featherweight in Bushwick to talk about Today, I Wrote Nothing, the rapper’s fifth solo album on Backwoodz Studioz. Inevitably and purposefully, this discussion (not our first) veered into tangential topics including but not limited to canonical and non-canonical film, literature, and Southern hip-hop.

This is one of the first interviews I’ve done in anticipation of the album [release]. I guess I’ve done one other interview.

Are you talking about the podcast you and [Armand Hammer rhyme partner] Elucid did?

No, that was before the album. The album wasn’t really even done yet. I actually have a great story about that: the last song recorded was actually recorded because of that. We recorded that interview at Steel Tipped Dove’s place, and when we were done I was ready to peace out and he was like, “You guys should listen to some beats.” I was like, “Elucid should listen to some beats.” I thought I had just finished a record. A lot of times after I finish a project I’m tapped out. At the same time, I’m working with Elucid on his record, so I was like, “Yeah, dude, play some beats,” but I was just sitting, texting people on my phone, or some shit. It might have still been football season, and I was looking at something — I don’t remember. Main point is he was playing these beats and I started paying more attention, and then all of a sudden I’m like, “Woah, what was that?” It was a Saturday and my album was getting mixed on Monday or Tuesday. So I went home, I took the beat, and I was like, “If I get this done, can I come back and record it ASAP?” He was like, “Sure, yeah.” So I wrote it that night, worked on it a little more the next day, went to the studio on Monday during the day, knocked it out and then walked it from there to Willie Green’s.

Was a lot of the album recorded like that, with the songs’ producers?

No. Well, in a way you could say that, but not in the way that you’re thinking, because the production was pretty in-house. It was Elucid, Willie Green, Messiah Musik, Blockhead, and then random spare joints from other people. Mostly, I recorded with Elucid in East New York, and then we came back and had a penultimate session at Willie Green’s, finished shit up. We recorded “U-Boats,” [for] which he rigged up this really cool recording [booth] so me and Elucid could just record it together back and forth. It was a really unique recording experience, because normally you go one at a time and this was a situation where he also rigged it up so we were facing each other on separate mics, so you could really get the vibe going.

It sounds like you were almost recording it in a battle scenario. That song’s back and forth, one verse into the next, and it’s “U-Boats,” a combative title.

That was an interesting song, because Busdriver and Aesop Rock made [the beat] together, presumably on a tour where I opened for them in Dallas. I think Busdriver had done a lot and then Aesop did some other stuff. They explained to me how they made it, but I don’t know anything about making beats.

Did they make it with you in mind?

No, no, no.

Then how did it come to you?

I was at Aesop Rock’s house in Portland, Oregon, so we hung out some. Obviously I’m going to be like, “Play me some of your tracks.” [Bestiary] hadn’t come out yet so he was playing me a bunch of that, which is a really good album. I liked [Are You Gonna Eat That?], but I like that one more. I like Rob Sonic’s [Alice In Thunderdome] actually — it’s really cool … Anyway, [Aesop] played me some of that stuff and then he played me some stuff I assumed was for his next album and then he was playing some beats. I was just zoned, just happy to be there. He’s so into rap, it’s nice… Sometimes I feel like I don’t really hang out with rappers and just get into rap shit. When I started out, I might be in a house [with] Vordul, guys from The Reavers, Monsta Island Czars, rapping and having cyphers. Then you get old. I haven’t had a cypher in — I can’t even tell you when the last time that happened. Elucid’s the only person like that … We’re really good friends so we hang out and talk about rap, but we’re also around each other all the time so it’s different and it’s still meaningful and important obviously because he played a huge part in this record, but going out to Aesop’s and just sitting around and talking about rap with someone I’m a big fan of and listening to rap, listening to beats and just chilling out was very cool and very inspiring to me because this dude has already done it all and his fire is [still] burning strong.

That’s one of the things I like about sitting down with you. Sometimes you read rappers’ interviews and they’re jaded, like somebody who started their job and loved it at first but they’ve been doing it so long that they’re all, “I don’t even listen to rap anymore,” and it’s like, “Oh, well that sucks, I love hip-hop.”

[Aesop and I] were just hanging out and he was playing me some beats and I liked a shitload of them. Then I heard [“U-Boats”] and I was like, “Yo, I gotta rap on this, I gotta get Elucid on this.”

It does sound like a tailor-made Armand Hammer beat.

Yeah, it sounds right. The funny thing is after we recorded it and sent it back to them, I was really into it and then Busdriver said, “We’re going to switch up the beat. Aesop pretty much insisted.” I liked it, but I’m not going to sit there and be like, “No!” I’m happy I got the beat, so then it came back and the tweaking they did made it a lot better.

I love Elucid’s last verse, with the “Bought my burial plot on Craig’s List, rock-bottom discount” line. He killed it, but then you come in with, “Send him to the ocean floor, no mea culpa” and the duh-duh-duh-duh [poorly imitating woods’ rhyme scheme]. Tell me about writing that last verse.

We had basically done the first half of [the song] and then when we actually went to record, he had made some adjustments to his last verse and we almost had a little problem because something he had changed I was previously building off, so we had to rework some things, but it came out really well. That’s where “Off the coast of Formosa” came in. I like the names of places that don’t exist anymore. I was looking at my birth certificate and the countries where my parents are from don’t even exist anymore. It says [my] mother [is] from British West Indies, and for my father it says Rhodesia.

It’s lost knowledge.

Anachronisms. If I have kids one day, they would be at a total loss figuring out what the West Indies are. Also, it’s a strange thing to put on a birth certificate, because it was never a country. It’s like saying someone’s from the South Pacific. The British West Indies is a cluster of several countries, so Formosa being like that, I like that name. And it works both ways too. Myanmar is such a better name than Burma.

Tell me about how the title of the album was conceived.

I was in this bar. It was pretty empty. There was a dude sitting right here maybe, he was reading the book [Today, I Wrote Nothing], and he engaged me in conversation. At that time, I had really been struggling to write anything, rap or otherwise, since basically the end [of Furtive Movements] — I usually take a little hiatus after projects to refresh my batteries and sometimes I feel like if you keep going it can just, I don’t know, I need that break. Also, since I finished, the next stuff [I tried] to do just fucking sucks.

So was it a case of you purposely stepping back and then having trouble coming back, an extended writer’s block?

Yeah, people are like, “Hey can you do me a verse?” and you sit and try and it’s not awful, but it’s just mediocre, or you’re just rapping and it’s not anything that will enrich anyone’s life or understanding of the world. And so at a certain point you’re like, “I need to get on my shit and get this done.” Furtive Movements was done and then I took a break and then I was just struggling to do anything.

I remember during our last interview, you said something that at the time I didn’t really think about. I was asking you and Elucid how writing solo material differs from writing in a collaborative environment, and you had said sometimes it’s comforting having somebody else contributing. “I can be at home with no idea of what I’m going to do next, and if you’re working on a solo album that’s scary because you think, ‘Will I have another idea?’” Were you experiencing this intense writer’s block at that time you said that?

I don’t think so, because at that point I was probably still in chill mode, not really thinking about that. I do know that I feel, for any artist, unless you’re very lucky, there comes a day … There’s a certain magic or transmutation that happens when you’re doing something that’s special. Later you’ll listen to it and there will be things happening that you didn’t even realize at the time, where I tried to do X, Y, Z but didn’t even know that aspect would come in, or it just happened on the spot.

Everybody talks about the magic of creativity, the spontaneity.

Yeah, there are some aspects that can’t really be quantified, and then one day that’s going to be gone.

Well, I think that’s a healthy fear that pretty much any creative person has.

But one day it will be gone. One day you’ll do some shit, and I wonder will you know that it’s gone or will you not realize? There are artists I love, where their stuff doesn’t even suck now, but the magic disappeared. I’m not saying it’s not worth listening to. All of the records are still good, but there was a point in time where I would sit and listen and not know how the person did it. Some type of magic occurred, something creative happened that takes things beyond, makes things more than the sum of its parts. One day that is going to be gone, and that doesn’t mean you couldn’t still make good music. But I feel like I’ve hit an equilibrium right now, which is good.

When I lived in Harlem… Vordul always used to come over there. He was the number-one person who would encourage me to rhyme and do whatever I was doing and not feel self-conscious about it. I owe him a lot, man.

What do you mean?

Well, I always think of it as when I started, I had a shitload of ideas and my execution was touch and go. I didn’t really know what to do with them, but I had a lot of ideas, hunger, and enthusiasm. I can hear it in the records when I go back and listen, and that can create its own magic that overcomes the deficit of not knowing what the fuck you’re doing. Then, as you continue on, sometimes the hunger and enthusiasm are what you need to keep alive, and also the ideas, because before you make your first album you’ve got your whole life full of ideas and things you haven’t said.

Reasonable Doubt syndrome.

Then after that, especially an artist like me, I have to have ideas, I have to have things to work with — I’m not just out there writing battle raps or whatever, not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s just not my wheelhouse — and so I think I’m always cognizant of that fact. Now, I think I’ve hit an equilibrium. I’d say it’s been going for a couple of years now, where execution is in a really good spot and it’s the best of my career, but the ideas [are there to match].

You get more skilled the longer you keep doing something, like look at Jay-Z: I’m sure he knows more about rapping and making records now than he did when he started, but the ideas are gone, the inspiration is gone. It doesn’t mean that he’s terrible, because he can still execute, he’s a fairly clever guy and he knows how to reach out and gain things from his own atmosphere — speaking of which, during this we have to discuss Jodorowsky’s Dune because that was an influence on this record in a big way… Anyway, back to the subject, I feel like my ideas and my inspiration and my execution are all in a pretty good equilibrium right now, and personally, I believe that you never know when that could just disappear. Even writers: I’m a huge James Baldwin fan, he made good work throughout his career, and I love a lot of late-period Baldwin, but I think there’s a general consensus that he had made his best work early in his career.

Once you had this conversation in the bar, did you go and seek out Daniil KharmsToday, I Wrote Nothing?

The dude showed me the book. It turned out he was wasted. He had been here since like 7 o’clock at night and I was in here at maybe 11.

Drunken-prophet style.

But he didn’t seem drunk at all. And then we started talking and he let me look at the book… I just found it really interesting what [Kharms] was doing. I thought A) that’s an awesome title and it relates to how I feel now; and B) maybe I should just go and write some shit and not worry about structure, because I was looking at these stories, and one story is “Today, I Wrote Nothing.” It’s just: “Today, I wrote nothing.” That’s the story. So I [told myself], “Don’t worry about structure, just go, be creative, write and let it come out.” Then I went home that night and wrote the first verse of “Big Nothing,” which was a one-verse song until almost the end of this [project], and I wrote an early version of “Warmachines” maybe the next day. I had Messiah Musik beats already, he had sent me a grip, but I wasn’t doing anything so I hadn’t even checked them.

That’s some flash of inspiration. I thought that you sat down with this book, but instead you randomly meet this guy at the bar, he has the book and you just look at it.

And it was the fastest I’ve ever made an album.

You say you threw out the idea of structure. This could just be me reading into it, but if you look at the way this short story collection is structured and the way this album is structured, it’s somewhat similar. You have tracks that are vignettes that flash into one another, where it goes perfectly but somehow creates a surreal experience.

Oh, well once we kept going, then there was definitely a central theme, there’s ideas, all of that is in there, but at the beginning it was, “Whatever, just go do it. If the idea you have is 8 bars, that’s it.” And then once I started to do that, a bigger theme came in. Also, I was reading a lot of books at that time, because I felt like I hadn’t been reading a lot of fiction in the last year or two. I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction and shit that I’m working on, and so I actually sat down and was reading a lot of fiction. A lot of books I was reading had an indelible impact on the record too.

Was Blood Meridian one of them?

Yeah, for sure. How’d you know that?

Because you’ve got the audio book samples in there, right?

How’d you know that’s where it’s from?

I’ve been reading it for the past few months.

Just by coincidence?

I picked it up because before I interviewed you last year, I interviewed Gene the Southern Child and Parallel Thought. Their last album was called Southern Meridian and it’s loosely conceptualized around Blood Meridian, because one of the guys in Parallel Thought was into the book.

It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life. I was reading Harold Bloom’s critique of that book, which he says is one of the best works of American literature of all time.

I’ve got to go back to that book with a dictionary, because the diction is so out there.

I’ve probably read that book four or five times in a year, but also I had really familiarized myself with his work.

I read The Road and wasn’t crazy about it.

That book was devastating to me. His use of language—

The “neo-biblical rhetoric”?

And also just when you read The Road, the language reflects what you’re [feeling] but Blood Meridian is beyond those feelings. There’s a couple Blood Meridian references in some of the lyrics to a certain extent, and certainly some of the ideas and premises. Have you read the end?

No, please don’t give it away.

It’s intense.

The other thing that makes it hard to get through is, emotionally, its madness: “Holy fuck, OK, they just killed that guy. Why’d they do that?!” It’s just savagery.

Yeah, it is.

It’s sanctioned savagery over and over and over and over again, and so it has a certain appeal; you’re gripped but at the same time you’re appalled, so it’s tough to get through in the same regard.

Yeah, he’s a great, great writer. When I finished the album, I gave that book to Elucid, and I’ve been thinking, man, I’d still read it again. I mean, to read a book four times in a year is a lot for me.

I thought it was a cool foil to Today, I Wrote Nothing, the short story collection.

Hold on, I also want to throw in there, and this is less obvious, but actually I have been considering sending this guy a song: “Weeper”… That’s named after a character in a Marlon James novel.

I just picked up A Brief History of Seven Killings, but I haven’t read it yet.

Dude, it’s crazy! It’s a dense read in its own way. I’ve really liked The Book of the Night Women.

I got A Brief History at the same time I got Siege and Symphony about the siege of Leningrad.

Huh, that’s when Daniil Kharms died. That’s crazy. My mother gave me The Book of the Night Women, and you know, Jamaicans are very like, if a Jamaican person does something we’re with it. My mother does not care about sports, but as soon as your man won the Olympics, it was a wrap. [She] doesn’t even care about anything except like Shakespeare and feminist writing, and she’s blowing my phone up about the 200-meter. Jamaicans go hard for their team, and so now, you know, she’s a writer and hadn’t even read the books, but she was like, “You should get this book,” and then I bought A Brief History of Seven Killings at that famous bookstore in Portland, Oregon.

So it seems a lot of stars were aligned when you were there.

Yeah, I was only like 25 percent, probably 30 percent into the album, and it’s funny because I played [Aesop] some joints, and he was like, “This is pretty weird.” [I thought] well, I’m probably on the right track. If Aesop Rock is like, “This shit is kind of weird,” then you’re probably doing alright. There are some other [authors whose influence] is less obvious, but I’m a huge fan of Flannery O’Connor. She’s a great short story writer and in my personal opinion, William Faulkner’s equal as far as American Southern writers. [The sample after “Borrowed Time”:] “I’ve never heard of an undertaker who gave a body a tip,” that’s from “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a great story by Flannery O’Connor. Obviously, I like to throw a little Baldwin in there. Who else was I reading at the time? I was reading a bunch of Cormac McCarthy, which I’m always reading.

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