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

Speaking again about that region, I want to talk “Dark Woods.” Is that a Lil Ugly Mane sample on the chorus?

Yes, I love that [Ugly Mane] song.

I’d read an interview where you said, “If I had 5 Ugly Mane beats, it would inspire different things than if I had 5 Aesop Rock beats … I want 5 [Lil Ugly Mane] beats by the way.”

One-hundred percent. I mean that’ll never happen but I’d be really amped. I like his production, his Sean Kemp shit.

We talked about Goodie Mob for a while.

I’m a huge Goodie Mob fan. I would argue that Soul Food is better than any Outkast album, although Outkast is clearly the better group.

That’s one of those fringe opinions right there.

No, no, Outkast is the better group. I’m a huge Outkast fan. No single Outkast album is better than Soul Food. You can say equal but better than Soul Food? No, I reject that deposit, in the words of Tupac.

Tell me about some other Southern influences, and did you get into those while you were living in D.C. and Maryland?

Sure, because DC-Maryland is in that space between the East Coast and the South.

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.”

Which is one of the things you hear in Ugly Mane’s music and part of what makes it great in my opinion.

Where is he from?

The Richmond, Virginia area.

Really? I did not know that. I spent some interesting time in Richmond when I was a young man. Before it was like the Richmond it is today, it was pretty rugged. But when I was in high school, the No Limit movement when it first started was a big wave where I lived, and I still remember seeing “Bout It” for the first time. I always liked Beats by the Pound. Outkast was a huge influence, from Southernplayalistic on; Goodie Mob; and also long-forgotten groups like Parental Advisory. Me and Alexander Richter used to listen to that all the time. Out of No Limit, Mia X, bizarrely, was probably their best rapper.

You think Mia X was better than Mystikal? Don’t go on record with that.

When I first heard Mystikal, he wasn’t on No Limit. The first record that I heard of his, I was a freshman in college and I knew this kid from New Orleans, he had that Mystikal record, Mind of Mystikal. He was also the first one I knew who had D’Angelo’s album, which is when I realized that “Brown Sugar” was about weed. I was young at that time, but I don’t even think of Mystikal as being part of No Limit. I mean obviously he was, but when I first encountered him, “Bout It, Bout It” had already come out two years earlier.

I’ve never explored Mia X’s music.

Of No Limit, Mia X was the best rapper.

Well, there were some wack rappers on No Limit.

I mean Silkk the Shocker may have been the worst rapper of all time, besides Malachi the Nutcracker. They’re like neck and neck of just totally horrible.

[Laughs] Can I make that the headline of the interview?

Do what you do. I have no shame in saying they are two of the worst rappers of all time. Malachi the Nutcracker, I mean, I respect dude; his people just tried to put him on and keep him off the streets. He was terrible. And Silkk the Shocker was just abysmal. But that aside, yes, I would say Mystikal was sick.

Best acappellas in the game.

I have a lot of West Coast influences too. I was a big fan of The Coup; I was a fan of Da Luniz; there was a bunch of Oakland rappers that I was a fan of. As far as down South, I would also say Geto Boys’ early stuff was a big thing for me.

Bushwick Bill is slept on as a rapper, and I say that in all seriousness. His solo albums are legit.

I have to say, and this is a minority opinion, Eazy E was slept on as a rapper.

He could’ve been operating the way you’re operating on “Poor Company.” I could see Eazy E calling up people and being like, “We’re doing this.”

Also all of Dungeon Family’s stuff. Me and Alex Richter used to really fuck with Cool Breeze’s record. I remember copping that. Witchdoctor’s first album.

You have a bunch of different songs in which you play characters: the BBC reporter on The Chalice

Oh man, I haven’t listened to that in 10 million years.

On “New Museum,” you’ve got the artiste/hipster character…

Well, there’s a whole idea behind that song, which I don’t know if anyone ever got, but I find amusing, for everyone not just me. I actually think that’s a great song that is significantly underappreciated. For what it actually is, I think it was way more interesting than people gave it credit for.

And also, I don’t know if you thought about it in this regard, but at the beginning of “Warmachines,” your delivery is substantially changed, so much so that it almost sounds like you could be taking on one of the characters you’re talking about in the song.

Huh, interesting, I didn’t even think of it like that. I just felt like it was somewhat laid back, and there’s an aspect to that in which I was just thinking about war in the context of everything. I’m really into politics and history, and I don’t know — when I heard that [beat], that’s just where I went. I wasn’t really thinking of that from a character perspective so much as “True Stories” maybe, which is interesting because that’s another song I didn’t expect to be anyone’s favorite but one or two people really love that song.

“Warmachines” I loved from the minute I made it. It’s funny because since the album’s come out a couple people have talked to me about “RPMs,” which I almost didn’t put on, not because I didn’t like it.

That’s another song that takes me to the theme of laughing in the face of atrocity; the guy’s been roughed up by the police but still cracks, “I’ll be out in a minute.”

But he’s just talking shit. “They were amused” — that’s the whole line. One time I was in a liquor store around here and this dude was in there, you know the type, Long Island, Italian white dude. He was in there with his girl; she’s kind of like lips pursed, Jewish or Italian princess from Long Island. He’s tan with the muscles. And then these African-American teenagers come in and they’re like, “What are you doing here?!” He’s “Just out for Friday night,” and they’re like, “Yo, you remember that time you tried to arrest us?!” This dude is a cop in the neighborhood. This was a liquor store in Bushwick and they were coming from Joell Ortiz’s projects right there, and they started discussing the nature of [their interactions with the police], like “Last time we got locked up there weren’t any pay phones.” And he was like, “Yeah, we took the pay phones out.” They were discussing the ins and outs. It was weird. It was like that scene in The Wire, at the movies.

There’s another one where Bodie sees McNulty at the diner and they sit down and shoot the shit about the trade.

I’m thinking of the one where Bodie and his man are on a double-date at the movies and run into Carver and Herc [with their dates]. I’m like, “Is this shit for real?” Dudes are just having a casual conversation about how you arrested me.

I like The Wire sample on this record a lot: “String, where the fuck is Wallace?” D’Angelo’s looking at Stringer, not really saying anything, and then makes this self-damning declaration of morality, instantly, right at him from a dead silence.

I tried to put also that we were watching it, because you hear us laugh.

You said you hadn’t listened to The Chalice in a million years. When I hit this record the second or third time, I thought it was like The Chalice in a way, because like you said before, you freed yourself from structural constraint to assemble the record. I hear a similar type of freedom in The Chalice, where the resolutions to the larger conflicts addressed on History Will Absolve Me are found in the here and now.

That’s interesting. It’s exciting to talk about it. I’ve had literally zero conversations except for with one person, an Armenian friend who’s a very cool dude, who I’ve had some convos with about the record. We haven’t hung out in person but that’s my dude. It’s cool to hear other people’s feedback.

There are a couple of references to The Chalice on here too. We spoke last time about how you use these inside references as kinds of little Easter Eggs for billy woods fans in a way. On one song you say, “took the chalice with a shrug.” On “Warmachines” you say, “Put him in the pit then we watch the fuckin’ pendulum,” “Pit and the Pendulum” being a song on The Chalice.

I wrote those aware of that. “Put him in the pit then we watch the fuckin’ pendulum.” You know what I’m actually thinking of in there? I’m thinking of crating people, like CIA-enhanced interrogation. You put somebody in a box and then you just sit and watch the clock until it’s time to take them out and see where they’re at. After you’ve been in a box, a coffin, for 12 hours, are you ready to talk? That shit is psycho.

I don’t even believe in capitalism, but while we’re engaging in it, steel sharpens steel.

What can people expect from Save Yourself?

Oh man, [Elucid] had a lot of stuff going on in his life which was really hectic, but me as an A&R and somebody involved with the label was like, “Good! I’m glad you have problems. This is going to be great!” And yeah, I haven’t been disappointed, man. I just had a conversation with this cat Spec Boogie, who’s a really good rapper and just helped me do the video for “Flatlands,” which is one of my favorite songs [on Today, I Wrote Nothing]. There are certain places where you do something and even though you didn’t know it, later it reflects on something bigger. “Camera rolled through stone cold choke hold/ The bell tolls, in the ground you go/ Yellow summons by the headstone/ Mourners head home through dead zone/ Put money on the phone,” and it’s continued on “Scales,” where it’s, “Many a fine speech, people filled the streets/ When that died down it’s still you and the police/ Murders by numbers, better have you a piece/ Better have you a college degree/ Better move where there don’t be sweeps,” so it’s the proposal of potential solutions that are ultimately very different. Having a weapon and having a college degree are not the same thing.

But could be means to the same thing.

Yeah, yeah, I find that interesting.

Tell me more about Save Yourself. I’m as excited as you are.

He moved and was going through a lot of crazy shit and making music. The other day I went over there, he played me a joint and I really liked it and wrote my verse in I’m going to say 45 minutes, and I think it’s awesome, but it’s also part of getting to that point where you know what you’re doing. But also because I’m A&Ring the shit, I don’t want to be overbearing, so I haven’t ever been like, “Put me on this song,” but then he was like, “Yo, you need to get on these beats,” so I just wrote that joint at his crib. I think it’s interesting because on the one hand I know it’s going to be a decent amount of short songs kind of like my record, but at the same time it’s not going to be anything like my record. The same way he played a big part as a co-executive producer of my record and is featured a bunch of times, [I’ll be involved in his record] in terms of guiding it because that’s my job, but he’s doing a lot of production himself. He’s an incredible MC. It’s very personal. There are a lot of risks taken that I hope will stay in there. I’m prepared for battle, because [as] anybody who’s dealt with me knows, I’m going to challenge [him] the same way Elucid would [hear one of my drafts and] be like, “Nah, that’s good, don’t touch it.” His album’s going to be fucking great. And that’s the thing: at the same time it benefits me, it benefits everyone, it benefits music. Competition is always good. We live in capitalist country. I don’t even believe in capitalism, but while we’re engaging in it, steel sharpens steel. I told him, “Your album should be better than mine.”

That doesn’t necessarily have to be a sociopolitical thing. It’s valid from an artistic perspective as well.

Regardless, we should always step out and answer the bell. When he does his art, I feel like I have to rise and challenge [him] to do something at the same level or better. I don’t want to make albums that are worse than the ones that came before… What the fuck, who cares? It should at least be different enough that you could be like, “I don’t know if it’s better or worse but it’s different.” And hopefully, you would listen to my record and be like, “Well, that was an interesting experience.”

When we last spoke in person, I pointed out a similarity between “The Wake” and “Touch and Agree.” I feel like “Borrowed Time” draws it together because—

You went to your own funeral. Junclassic is a great, great human being, a good friend, a great producer, an awesome rapper, and just a person I really like and have nothing bad to say about and I’ve known a long time now. I’m honored that he produced something on the record and I’m proud of that. It’s funny because of how much people like that song.

It’s again a universal theme, that idea of regret and coming to terms with what you’ve either done or didn’t do. “The Wake,” as I said to you before, is my favorite billy woods song. I was hoping you might tell me if that song is talking about a real person’s wake.

Well, the second verse is to some extent concerning Alexander Richter’s mother. She passed away a few years ago. Alexander is one of my greatest friends, and his mother was a real important person to me. I was at his wedding. His wife is someone I introduced him to. He is one of the best people I know in my life, I love him dearly, I’m glad we did this album artwork together, and I’m happy for all his success. That’s definitely a very real thing in terms of that.

What’s the Vordul reference on there, at the end of the second verse? “V-Mega was spitting through the wire/ Like don’t even wet that.”

That’s a Vordul-ism. We were good friends and he would always say, “Don’t even wet that.”

Don’t even worry about that?

Yeah, another person I love dearly.

I was going to ask you about Vordul. I know you guys have a history together. Were you going to do a group called Spitamatics? That name’s shouted out a lot on The Chalice.

It’s funny because on The Chalice, I’m thinking at the time that I don’t have a solo album yet. The original pressings of Camoflague were supposed to be me, Vordul, and Thrill Gates, and everybody dropped out. I almost quit rapping, but I was like, “Shit, man, I should just finish this record.” And so then doing The Chalice, I was like, “OK, now it’s time to make my album.” It’s funny because in retrospect for me The Chalice always seems like a bit of a jumble because I was trying to do a lot.

That’s what reminds me of Today, I Wrote Nothing. I don’t mean that in any negative way at all, but the same way that I look at Today, I Wrote Nothing almost like a collection of short stories, it has that kind of jumbled feeling to it. While there are thematic connections throughout, and beats flow perfectly into one another, it does feel at times, as you were saying, like a trip, so you’re getting different vignettes that aren’t necessarily directly related. Anyway, Vordul and you kept shouting out Spitamatics. That was a song with him and C-Rayz, but was that also a crew?

Yeah, he had this whole vision of how we were going to do certain things and it involved several people. Obviously it didn’t exactly come together that way, but I’m very thankful. Without Vordul, I would not even be a rapper at all. I’ve known him since he was like 16 years old. He’s always been both an inspirational person to me and a brother that I didn’t have. He always encouraged me, like he was the type of person who’d make you feel at ease in certain situations where you might be like, “Nah, I don’t want to do it because I’m embarrassed or I’m not as good as whoever,” and he would always be like, “Nah, go ahead.” When I lived in Harlem — me and Alex Richter and this girl all lived together on 151st — 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.

Do you guys still have a relationship?

Yes, I haven’t heard from him as much recently, but I talked to him right around the time [Blade of the Ronin] came out, a little before. His family and his mother are really important to me.

Do you think you and him will ever work together again? Would you be open to that?

Of course! I love Vordul with all my heart, he’s my brother, so yeah, if he ever wants to do any songs [or] if he wanted to put out another record with Backwoodz, I would be in 100 percent, but I also respect him doing whatever he wants to do.

Which random rapper do you wish would have suddenly walked into this bar during the interview and what would you have said to them?

That’s a tough one. Ka again wouldn’t be bad, because we really are overdue to do a song together. A funny story is I thought we were going to do “Warmachines.” I sent him the beat for that. I could totally see him on that. We’ll do something eventually, I think. He’s awesome. I’m excited about [Days With Dr. Yen Lo]. I really liked the last joint, “Day 3.” It was just flames.

One of my favorite lines on your new album is “they gave us special glasses to watch the comet,” on “Born Yesterday.” Would you share the story behind that?

[It’s] from my childhood in Zimbabwe. Hailey’s comet passed over Zimbabwe, and this memory is also somewhat merged with the first full eclipse of my life, so it’s possible we were given the glasses for one and not the other, but whatever. Main point is, I remember the teachers being excited and assuring us that this was a momentous event that we would never see again, and the entire idea of time, impermanence, and the clockwork-like machinery of the universe whereby this comet had been seen by so many people for so long, but only once per lifetime, stuck with me.

Last question: History Will Absolve Me remains one of your most critically acclaimed works. There’s even a petition to have it pressed on vinyl. Do you think it will eventually be released on 2LP?

I really hope it is pressed on vinyl. That will probably be predicated on if anyone buys this vinyl for TIWN. If we can’t sell TIWN, we probably can’t sell an album from however many years ago. If it is repressed though, I would probably go ahead and put “Frozen Sunlight” on there, like it should have been in the first place, and since “Headband” wouldn’t be on it for obvious reasons, that wouldn’t affect the running time really.

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