Words by Luke LaBenne
Billy woods is one of hip hop’s most prolific and potent poets. Whether through his solo work or his output as one half of the duo Armand Hammer, Woods’ career has found him working alongside some of the most revered and acclaimed artists and producers in the game. On his latest release, Aethiopes he further cements himself as a lyrical force to be reckoned with and an expert storyteller who elevates already amazing production with his unpredictable and absorbing flows. Each sentence and syllable is thoughtfully assembled and delivered with dizzying deftness. Woods’ lyrical meter and stylistic choices are as varied and shifting as the compositions that soundtrack his storytelling. DJ Preservation’s production brings a new mood and a fresh feeling to each new song, adding the atmosphere to Billy’s dense and clever lyrics that can only be fully appreciated with multiple listens and lyric read-throughs. Whether it’s vivid recollections of his past, bleak yet accurate depictions of the future that reads like sci-fi horror, or real-time expression of current experiences Woods flawlessly weaves a complex blend of ideas and emotions into each engrossing and insightful verse.
Off Shelf: I interviewed you 5 years ago when you were releasing Known Unknowns. In that time, I’ve seen you collaborate with the likes of the Alchemist and Earl Swearshirt as a part of your duo Armand Hammer, as well as release some great solo records. How do you feel like you’ve grown as an artist in the past 5 years?
Billy Woods: Hmm, as an artist, I think it is the same as it has always been for me; a refinement, a sharpening. If I was comparing it to a basketball player I would say my footwork is crisper, improved ability to know my spots on the floor and get to them early in the clock, so I can get my shot or help my teammates get theirs. Perhaps also my overall understanding of the game.
OS: On songs like “No Hard Feelings” and “Protoevangelium” the lyrics almost feel like they’re pouring out of you. Is that the way you write with a burst of thought and feeling?
BW: It really depends. “No Hard Feelings” was written as the events described were happening, more or less. The crackhead who suddenly had decamped from his usual smoke perch on the ave, and begun handing out right on the steps of my building. Which, given where my apartment is, meant he was directly out the window where I sit and write. So the song was very much written in real time as I was dealing, internally and externally, with how to rid myself of this unwelcome visitor and my own feelings about doing so. That situation carried on for about a week, and within that came thoughts about the idea of “my home”, which is really a place where I pay rent to a slumlord who actually owns the building. And accompanying ideas of who is to blame, who is the victim, and what exactly is the space is between me and this man on the other side of the glass. Mind you, my admonitions that he could not smoke crack there never fully drove him away, at best he would be back the next day. Sometimes in 30 minutes. A young woman who lived upstairs stopped and talked to him and gave him some money one day and I was both angry at what I saw as her naiveté and embarrassed at my own lack of empathy. Then one day the super (an older black man in the neighborhood who is employed by my slumlord landlord) for my building saw the crackhead on the steps and threatened him with bodily harm if he ever caught him there again. And he did it with a venom and disgust that I was both taken aback by and also knew that I felt, in some way, in my own heart. Dude never sat on the steps again to this day.
No Hard Feelings, right. The phrase can break down in so many different ways. Verse two just kinda picked up that sentiment in from a new angle but also, no less true.
OS: Are there some songs that come easier and some that you labor over more?
BW: Yes, for sure. I wrote “Wharves” and “Remorseless” pretty swiftly, albeit with several revisions. “Heavy Water” and “The Doldrums” took a while.
OS: The swirling synth sounds on “No Hard Feelings” give the listener the feeling of being adrift in space which aligns with the feeling you’re capturing in the lyrics. How do the sounds on each beat inspire different imagery and vocabulary when you’re writing your lyrics?
BW: The sounds and atmosphere of the beat are everything when it comes to writing.
OS: Both the production on this album and the meter of your lyrics bring unique, complex rhythms together in a seamless way. It seems challenging to accomplish this, how do you manage to make it feel so organic and natural?
BW: I feel like that question could be better answered by Preservation, and to some extent, Willie Green. But for my part, I’m just going where the production leads me, or in some cases trying to anticipate or contribute to it, for example a song like Haarlem where I did a little co-production.
OS: I love when music keeps the listener on their toes and you do that really well (the beat switch up on “Christine” going into the attention-grabbing “Heavy Water” is a great example). How do you go about curating that experience for the listener?
BW: Okay, so the Mike Ladd section of “Christine”, in my mind, has always actually been the beginning of “Heavy Water”. Christine is the intro, if you will. It was just that once we started putting the album together and deciding where the track cuts would be, I just didn’t “Heavy Water” could start on that beat switch. So Mike Ladd’s verse- and can I point out here that it is one of the standout moments on the album but lyrically and a musical and thematic transition from one song to the next. The whole album was basically done, and we went to Mike to do that specific thing and he did it better than I could have imagined. A consummate professional. Of course, Preservation laced the transition perfectly, as he did just about every transition on the record. Have to tip my hat to both of them but it’s no surprise, they are long time collaborators, old friends, and just veteran guys that know how to put records together.
OS: The album is titled Aethiopes, meaning a lost epic of ancient Greek literature. The vintage vinyl sound and grand storytelling on this album give it that feel of a lost epic, like a great forgotten album you would discover crate digging at a record store. Is that what you were getting at with that album title?
BW: I did not work with that intention but that is an insightful observation.
OS: This album is packed with awesome performances from featured artists like El-P, Quelle Chris and Boldy James to name a few. How did you select this all-star lineup of contributors?
BW: I would say it was a mix of access, suitability and luck with all of them. We were always thinking who do we know or like, and would they fit on this, or that. Sometimes it was just timing. Despot was supposed to rap on Haram, on “Indian Summer”, wrote his verse and everything but real life is happening for everyone and we kinda ran out of time. And when I would see him, he would mention it so I was like well, I’m working on this new thing with Preservation. He raised an eyebrow. I sent him a beat and we kinda went from there. So, the timing being off on Haram actually paved the way for all of us to make that the collaboration happen on Aethiopes. Or Denmark Vessey who just happened to hit me and say he was in New York up one day when I was working on “NYNEX” and I basically asked him if he felt like hopping on a posse cut. We talked about the concept a little bit and he just took it from there. The crazy thing is actually the stuff that came really close to happening with this record but didn’t. A couple wild ones. Stories for another day.
OS: It’s tough to pick a favorite track but I think I would have to go with, “Remorseless,” perhaps since it feels like the most honest and emotional performance (not to mention the backing composition just adds to the emotional epic-ness). I know as an artist turning your pain into music is your stock and trade, do you find making music a healing or therapeutic experience for you?
BW: On some level, yes, for sure.
OS: What do you hope the listener takes away from Aethiopes?
BW: Where to begin? On some level I don’t even like to play that game though. I have spoken quite a bit about the ideas behind this album and how I made it. So as to the question of what someone else should take away from it, either I say some broad and pithy – which no one needs – or a write I huge essay about my own work which feels a bit off. At any rate, that job is probably best left to someone else. You don’t write a novel and then teach a class about it a couple months later.