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.

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.

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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