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

It seems like there’s a lot of surreality and absurdity on the record and reactions to the absurdity of reality.

Well, give me an example. I’m curious.

“Zulu Tolstoy.” You’re rapping about writing a story rap about a rapper writing about a rapper writing [each of whom is capable of functioning independently of his creator].

Yeah, great example. I called Willie Green when I had that one written, and I was like, “Dude, I’ve got a concept, this song is going to be crazy.”

It took me two or three listens to get that the layers of reality continue to unfold like Inception. You give up on the track, then the next guy gives up on the track, and finally the other guy is still going.

He’s still going and the most successful person in their endeavors.

Except “whitey wouldn’t let him out the state.”

He’s got a hit record and he may have just written a great hook. It was weird, I had a couple of those situations with Willie Green’s beats where I was like, “Man, I don’t think anyone’s written a song like this.” And then “Woodhull” was a song I’d been wanting to write forever and had never fully succeeded in getting it. Getting it out in that way was really meaningful.

Did you sit down in Woodhull [Medical and Mental Health Center]?

I don’t have to sit down in there. I’ve been there a lot, although we actually shot some of the album artwork in there.

You’ve been there a lot?! What for?

Well, prior to Obamacare, the last time I had health care was when I moved back here in 2001 before the towers fell. The whole time I was living in New York, up until recently, any issues I had, I went to Woodhull. I live right near Woodhull, and it’s not the most fun spot in the world, but I spent a lot of time there.

In one sense you’re coming with absurd concepts, but in other parts you’re coming with super-real concepts and your reaction to them is, “What the fuck,” so “Woodhull” is another good example, wherein you find comedy in these sick situations because what else can you do. It’s gallows humor almost.

For me, the album is pretty squarely about death. There are three or four wakes that happen… four funerals and three wakes. There’s the wake in “Poor Company.” I go to a funeral of somebody and that’s actually real-life shit. I knew this person, and whether they were “a good person” is highly questionable, but that’s kind of neither here nor there.

Depends on who you believe.”

Yeah, then there’s the wake in “Borrowed Time” and there’s a mention of a wake in “Warmachines,” a body “lying in state.” My dad’s body was [lying in state] in our house for a couple days. And there’s a “Benediction,” which only happens at a funeral, and it was done by somebody else … that’s Elucid obviously. “Dark Woods” is entirely about death … “Woodhull” involves a hospital. Even at the end of “Woodhull,” they’re “All apologies outside radiology.” A lot of things happened this year that just caused me to be like that. Essentially, the album is about physical and spiritual death.

Why did you open the album with an Elucid verse?

Because [“Lost Blocks”] was clearly the first song. He actually recorded his verse first. It had nothing to do with me. He played me the song and I was like, “That’s dope, that’s really good, I’d like to rap on that. Are you using this for your album?” and he was like, “I don’t really know,” and I was like, “Well, I’m going to take it if you don’t want it.”

And he was cool?

Yeah. His album’s going to be a monster by the way. I like to think about my album as merely being a setting of the table. He is that good.

We’ll definitely get to that. On “Lost Blocks,” I like how your verse clearly sets the tone for the album, but also I find it sounds like you’re looking for the words, like it was structured as a reflection of writer’s block. Don’t take this the wrong way, but it brought me back to RZA’s description of U-God on “Knuckleheadz.” [I think it was] in The Wu-Tang Manual, RZA said U-God is the knucklehead of the song, he came with the wack verse but it serves the track ideally.

That’s interesting. I’m glad that it feels that way. That was an early, early joint. [Elucid] had just moved to East New York, so I was going out to record there, which is a place I used to work. It’s funny because the people at the label were like, “Why is Elucid starting the album? That’s weird.” But you’ve got to do what’s right for the record. And here’s the other thing: did you catch the intro at all?

Having a weapon and having a college degree are not the same thing.

Yeah, it’s the end of “Soft Places.”

It’s slowed down.

I took that as a continuation of where you left off [with Furtive Movements].

Well, originally I was going to make a chopped and screwed version of “Soft Places.”

Are you serious?

I have it on my computer. Elucid chopped and screwed it. I didn’t have space for it, but I was like, “Just morph the beginning of the chopped and screwed version into the beginning of the song,” because “Soft Places” was a song about death. I just liked that transition, but it kind of came together at the same time, and it’s interesting because in “Soft Places” Elucid is talking about a gentrifying neighborhood, and on this one he had just moved but by whatever coincidence, now he’s talking about East New York and it’s the opposite of that. Those are the things that I talk about, the magic of something that you didn’t necessarily think of that’s meaningful [on multiple levels].

I’m particularly drawn to the sequence of “U-Boats,” “Zulu Tolstoy,” and “Warmachines,” three tracks in a row that are just fire. I was going to ask about that, and then I realized there was something similar on History Will Absolve Me: “Body of Work,” “The Foreigner,” “Bill Cosby,” “Freedman’s Bureau.” And then on Race Music, it’s “Willie Bosket,” “No Roses,” “Duppy.” For some reason I’m being drawn to tracks 5 through 8 on these albums, so I guess my question is what determines the sequence of the album for you. Is it different every time, is it about the sound of the beats, is it about themes in the lyrics, or some combination?

Specific to each record, I think, but in this specific case definitely as a writer I’m thinking thematically, as well as [about] transitions of beats and so forth. On Armand Hammer records you also have to think practical, boring stuff, like you can’t have the same person starting and the same person finishing every song … don’t put four songs without choruses next to each other. In terms of doing this record, it was mostly a combination of classical things like those and the narrative, because … I guess for me one of the subtexts of this album is a journey through—

Life and death?

As well as a physical journey.

Like a billy woods road-trip album?

To a certain extent. There’s a travel that takes place, which is why you hear a train at the beginning, then there’s “Sleep” where there’s a car.

In Blood Meridian, they’re always on the move.

The whole song “Carpet Bagger” is people moving. It’s like, “Pass towns soaked in black smoke/ No water needed said black folk/ We seent it when them cracks showed/ Exchanged pounds, lit the dro/ Let it go round, then kept it moving twice as fast though.” Some of the songs I think of as little stops on your way and characters you meet here, like “African Dodger” is this weird carnival that you catch on your way to wherever you’re going, and so we have a car in “RPMs,” we have a car in “Sleep,” you have a boat sound on “U-Boats,” but then you also have a boat sound between “Dark Woods” and “Benediction,” or in “Benediction” where you hear the oars.

I hadn’t thought about that at all. That’s dope.

Yeah, I mean, this is stuff I wouldn’t expect anyone to catch until long down the road… It’s a trip and hopefully the artwork [reflects that.] There’s a definite travel aspect to the record that I intended to be there. And stops like “Woodhull,” “African Dodger,” “Dark Woods,” and even the end — well, the end goes back to the death thing, but that’s all about, “Do not go gently into that good night.”

It comes back in a way to what you were saying about creativity, about how there will come a day when you can’t capture that magic anymore.

I mean I hope not, but I see it happening to a lot of people, so yeah.

But at the same time, you’re not going to “go gently into that good night.” Create as best as you can while you can.

I mean just in general, man, I’m happy to be alive. There’s a lot of people this year and in my past, I’ve seen a lot of death, and I don’t want to die. I like being alive and obviously you have to die, but while you’re alive you should do it, you should really do it.

I wanted to discuss two other things about “Zulu Tolstoy,” while we’re on that sequence. Is there any commentary in that song about the whole “reality rap” concept or people trying to a create a reality in their songs that doesn’t actually reflect their own reality?

I don’t think so. It’s funny because after I did it the whole Bobby Shmurda thing happened.

That’s what I thought you might be talking about.

The song was recorded before that.

He got done dirty by his record company.

He didn’t get done dirty. What are they supposed to do? We live in a capitalist country. If you think a record company is going to look out for you, when your government, your schools, and everybody else doesn’t, I’m sorry, you’re sorely mistaken. Their job is to have a return on investment.

At the time it happened, his presumably record label-appointed lawyer was in the newspaper saying, “Of course his record company’s going to look after him. They’re his record company.” He has a different lawyer now. You can still hear his song on the radio every day, hourly, but this dude’s life is over.

He should be happy. At least that’s some money for his family or whatever you want to do.

Maybe a little.

It’s better than nothing. The main fact of it is, not to say that Bobby Shmurda’s situation is not unfortunate, but it has nothing really to do one way or the other with the record label. The police were investigating him before.

Alright, “done dirty” was the wrong phrase.

No, no, I understand where people are coming from, but this is the thing: there’s the way that things should be and there’s the way things are. On the record I say, “It is what it is/ Brutus slid the shiv between Julius’ ribs/ Two types of people in the world, kid/ Those with loaded guns and those who dig,” which is by the way a The Good, The Bad and The Ugly reference. That should stand for itself. It’s not like you need to get the reference.

Yeah, I didn’t at first, but now I remember the scene.

Westerns definitely figured into this in the sense of Blood Meridian.

Do you want to tell the people what the title “Zulu Tolstoy” is about?

Well yeah, it’s a Saul Bellow quote. He said, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” He caught a lot of flack for that, but basically I guess he was trying to say something about cultural relativism and Western civilization, things that I find both interesting and amusing. Again, my mother is an English literature professor. I grew up with Shakespeare, the canon. My mother lives by that shit, but at the same time my mother is not in any way thinking that other societies are lesser than… you know, it’s a very European thing to be like, “Hey, we do this, so who do you have that does this?” or to view art as if there’s the only way it can work.

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.

You totally flip that concept in the song.

I wrote the song first. I knew of that term before. I thought it was funny and I asked my girlfriend, “Should I call it ‘Tolstoy of the Zulu’ or ‘Zulu Tolstoy?’” She had no idea of the concept.

But how do you relate a story within a story within a story rap to that title?

It’s just tongue in cheek. “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” Well, here he is, especially since I’m from that part of the world.

You’re de-contexualizing and re-appropriating what he said.

And I thought it was funny. I also think that’s a stupid idea, so it’s funny to make fun of it.

It makes me think of other billy woods lyrics, like “Dr. Livingston I presume,” which you’ve spit several times. It’s that bank of knowledge of semi-obscure cultural, literary, historical references that you then take and de-contextualize. A lot of people might be like, “Why bother?” but to me, there’s something inherently hip-hop about that, because it’s like beat-making with words. You’re treating a phrase like a producer chops and flips a sample.

Well, hopefully it’s amusing too, because that shit is amusing to me. And that’s the thing: sometimes I’ve done interviews where people are like, “What are you thinking?” That’s the stuff that I’d say hanging out with people. A lot of times, Armand Hammer [songs are based off of a] joke that we’re cracking.

Are there ever times when you’re reading something and a concept hits you that you know can be turned into a line? In the case of these different references we’re talking about, do you ever know it when it happens? “OK, I’m going to flip that.” The way a producer hears a sample in a song, do you ever read a line in a book, hear a line in a movie and just know?

Of course, or a lot of times, people will say things, like, “That’s what I get for trying to do the right thing.” A person I know said that about some bullshit, so it’s an inside joke. They got their taxes back and owed money, and they previously worked in areas of the informal economy where they didn’t have to pay, so they’re like, “That’s what I get for doing the right thing,” and obviously that’s hilarious, to me, because you didn’t do anything. You haven’t done anything special, you haven’t done anything worthy of anyone feeling bad for you, you filled out your taxes and they were wrong. Before you were stealing money — which is not a problem, because it’s fine if you’re stealing — it’s just funny when after [going straight], a person is like…

“That’s why I was stealing!”

I find things like that amusing, weird inside jokes. There’s a line on there, “Did my part,” which is an inside joke from some people I used to work with.

This seems like a good point to get back to Jodorowsky’s Dune.

OK, I watched Jodorowsky’s Dune by myself in Portland, Oregon, and it was very influential in my thought about this record. It was interesting to me because he’s a genius-slash-lunatic, it’s really interestingly made, and also it was all about when he started making movies, [for him] it was all about going out and finding people who were great and bringing everyone together to [collaborate] and inspire them. A great example would be “Poor Company.” It was near the end of making the album. I had very little time left, and I woke up one morning and called Henry [Canyons] — Henry lives in California so who knows what time I woke him up — and I called Elucid, and I was like, “Yo, I’ll send you some beats, pick one of these and write a verse. Writing exercise TODAY and record it TODAY. We’re recording TODAY. I’m going to the studio in a few hours. We’re going to do this song today.” Jodorowsky was getting all these people together and giving them a proto-Marxist speech every morning like, “We are going conquer the world if we do it,” and people were inspired. Henry had his verse done that day and Elucid had his verse done that day. Not everything needs to take forever, and the spirit of the record was very much like that; this is the fastest record I’ve ever done, so you know, just trying to do things true to the spirit of what you’re doing at that time and just being cognizant.

I’d reach out to people, like Willie Green and L’Wren. “Scales” is one of my favorite songs. After I recorded [my verses for] “Scales,” I told Willie Green, “This is what I want, I want L’Wren to go do the scales, I want the beat to change to this other suite that Messiah Musik had, and I want her to carry it over to that.” Green didn’t know if it was really going to work, and I was just like, “I know you can do it, so if you can’t do it, then I accept it can’t be done. Whatever, we tried, nothing ventured, nothing gained.” And they made it work. Sometimes that’s good as a creative person, to be put on the spot and not sit there all day thinking about what you’re going to do. Fuck it, write the shit and send it to me.

[“Poor Company”] and the song after it to an extent have something that I’ve picked up on and that we talked about very briefly in the last conversation. Some of your music has a punk-rock quality to it, and you could obviously [relate that to] whatever the political slant is, but that’s not what I mean.

Are you talking about “Dreams Come True”?

Yes, but also before that, the hook of “Poor Company,” [singing] “You don’t matter at all.” All of a sudden the song breaks into this de-ne-ne-ne-ne-ne-na [riff]. It struck me as a punk song right there.

It kind of is. Elucid will send me strings of beats that are [about] 40 seconds of each, all made into one track. It’s actually like six in one song, so then I just took three, and that’s that little 10-second suite between “You don’t matter at all” and the breakdown. He had already done that, and then we just looped Messiah Musik in to make the other [parts]. I owe Messiah Musik a great debt for his diligence. I had so much stuff from him and he was so responsive … That morning when we did “Poor Company,” I called him and it was a challenge to him too. I was like, “Yo, I need beats for these people.” He sent a bunch of things out.

But then yeah, the next song, “Dreams Come True,” the whole song is what, 40 seconds, under a minute. The verse is like—

Eight bars, maybe.

You say three lines, so that gave it that punk-rock feel. The song is the song, you get the point across and that’s it. There’s no need to drag it out or labor on — when it’s done, it’s done.

Hopefully whatever is being said is being said within that [space] and you can have some sort of a picture of both of the people involved and the situation without elaborating, not that there’s anything wrong with elaborating but I’ve already made those elaborated songs.

Which also goes back to Today, I Wrote Nothing’s three-line stories, where something is two sentences long.

Yeah, absolutely.

So do you listen to any punk rock?

Like in my life? Of course. Where I was growing up in the 80s, living in a British colony, I remember obviously The Clash were big. My friend’s older brother had Clash records and also weird shit like UB-40 when they were just starting out and Sex Pistols, you know, it’s the 80s. But as far as outside of that, in college I lived in a house with this kid who was really into hardcore. Gorilla Biscuits were played a lot and of course Fugazi, being from D.C.

I was going to say you’re from D.C. and Silver Spring, Maryland. That region had a big hardcore scene.

Bad Brains, yeah. I kind of want to perform that song live, “Poor Company.” The “You don’t matter at all” [part], I came up with in my house, just thinking about the concept, contemplating death.

Most Read