One of NY’s most creative hip-hop artists breaks down his process and inspiration
Depending on the area and era you’re describing, the term underground hip-hop can mean various things. It almost always means the artists who fit the description have far less mainstream success than those you hear on the commercial airwaves, though even in some cases where an act has found commercial fame and fortune—take, for example, Wu-Tang Clan—underground is also often used to describe a sound grittier, and dare I say realer than the pop trash used in advertisements for everything from cell phones to fast food.
And yet while New York MC Billy Woods spelunks the subterranean guts of his city to dredge up beauty as well as bacteria to inform his rhymes, the word underground doesn’t quite fit his music and mood. Though he certainly has friends in that realm of hip-hop, and has done tracks with contemporaries such as MF Doom and Homeboy Sandman, he’s not trying to be part of a club, underground or any other. Rather, as he matures musically, Woods is becoming something of a nomadic talent, bringing his stories and skills from one lab and producer to another to create inventive LPs one after the other.
I have followed Woods and his career since he first came out as half of the group Super Chron Flight Brothers with Privilege more than a decade ago. In the time since, he’s dropped two stunning full-length albums with producer Blockhead, 2013’s Dour Candy and Known Unknowns in 2017, and has found critical acclaim with the tag team Armand Hammer alongside fellow rapper Elucid. His latest solo MC outing, Hiding Places, is a collaboration with producer Kenny Segal, and is another certifiable pinata of thoughts like this line that I can’t hear enough of: “I don’t wanna go see Nas with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall / No man of the people, I wouldn’t be caught dead with most of y’all.”
With Woods doing his first show in Boston in several years this coming Saturday at the Dorchester Art Project, I tossed a couple of questions his way.
I’ve been listening to you for years, but I still feel like I don’t know much about you other than what’s in the music. Which isn’t a bad thing—I suppose it’s because you aren’t exactly having your personal baggage dragged across WorldStarHipHop every day. So basically, what are you all about? What moves you these days?
My music, especially at its best, is going to convey some essential part of myself and my experience. In whatever form. You take a song like “Bedtime,” which is pretty fantastical. But it draws upon real places, childhood traumas and fears. You have the second verse, which is a story about kids waking up and all their parents are gone. They run around and sort of have their way with the world and are free from the world that adults have constructed. And it starts to turn to night, and that’s where the story ends. It’s not an actual experience that I had, but it reflects on that feeling of growing up and thinking that if all the parents were gone, stuff would be so much better. There’s also the aspect of a child’s fear of abandonment and being alone in a big empty house. If you were a kid and your parents disappeared, it would be all fun and games until it became nighttime. Then you’d be like, “What are we going to eat for dinner?”
Your stuff is really intricate. Did you start off doing spoken word? I don’t want to talk about process too much, but did you start off writing long-form rhymes like this? That often connect right through a whole entire verse or even song? It’s also accessible somehow, even though it’s not, if that makes any sense.
I never did start by doing spoken word or anything. Vordul Mega [of Cannibal Ox] was a person who was really influential for me, and I would just start writing and try to make it sound good. There is some kind of process and ideas about things I want to do, but at the beginning I was basically just trying to write dope rhymes but also have my own perspective. It wasn’t hard to bring perspective of my own; I didn’t want to just be on some real basic battle rap whatever. [Cannibal Ox] was really creative, so I had to do it like that too.
Do you see yourself as a kind of man on an island in the genre?
That was a quick response. Please elaborate.
I don’t know, I’ve just been doing it for a long time, and people were always like, Yeah. I knew that people liked it—I didn’t think I was delusional—but I definitely feel as if my music and perspective, a lot of times it’s not what people are trying to check for. I think that’s better, but there was a time when it was too complex, or it wasn’t the vibe, or it was too dark, or any number of things. I put the records out myself, so it’s not like I have ever been embraced by some wider group. That never happened. As far as individuals, or people who I knew over time, that’s different. I’m not bitter over any of it, I definitely feel like there’s a thing that we were doing, and that I am continuing to do, and we’re fine in our own way. It was done alone, 100%.
Let’s talk about the new album. I love the vibe. I don’t want to see Nas with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall either.
I’m not a Nas hater, I just want to clarify that. There’s a whole class of people out here who spend half their life wishing Nas picked another beat or something. Leave him alone, man, leave him alone. Nobody’s forcing you to go out and buy more of his records. The man has done so much—just continue listening to the old shit. It’s annoying. Nas should do whatever he wants to do, though that’s a real thing that happened. Somebody invited me and I was just like, Nah, I don’t wanna go. I pictured it all happening and I was like, No.
You don’t seem to be at any loss for topics here—even this many albums into your career. Are you still just some kind of insane font of creativity?
I don’t know, it depends. Certainly it depends on what’s going on in my life. I know there are people who never did anything in life, they’ve never even been in a relationship, and they write classic love stories. But not for me—I definitely need inspiration. It’s a big thing. I live in New York City, and I don’t wear headphones or anything, I’m just immersed in it. That provides a lot of inspiration, and so do my friends and family. Coming up with ideas is usually not the hardest part, but it can be. And I always have the fear after finishing a project that I won’t be able to come up with other things. I don’t want to be out here wasting everybody’s time.
What’s your show like these days? Seems like something intimate is sort of required.
Yeah, I guess so, especially with this record. It’s intense, and I want it to be an intense experience. I will definitely try and bring what is on record, but allow it to be what it is live. I don’t stray too far from the script, I just want to bring it to life.
BILLY WOODS AT DORCHESTER ART PROJECT. SAT 7.6. $10. MORE INFO AT BOSTONHASSLE.COM.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.