billy woods by Cooly.fooly
Nov 22, 2022
billy woods would rather you be a little uncomfortable
With 20 years in the game, two new albums out and a forthcoming book, woods is having a moment
Billy woods doesn’t like runny eggs. The DC-bred, Brooklyn-based rapper first tried over-medium eggs as a child; he asked his mom to make them after reading Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham.” She was (understandably) annoyed when he didn’t like them then. And he still doesn’t like them now.
So, sitting across from me at Diner in Williamsburg — a meeting place of his choosing — he asks the waitress for scrambled eggs instead of sunny side up, as listed.
“Whatever it says on the menu is how the chefs make it,” she explains.
He accepts defeat, letting her know he doesn’t want eggs after all.
“It is kind of odd to me that anyone finds anything appetizing about a runny egg,” he explains. “If you stop to think about it, eggs are a pretty strange thing to be eating anyway. Imagine if someone would eat cow eyeballs if they were hard boiled or chopped up and cooked but balked at the idea of puncturing a near raw eyeball to eat the juices that ran out of it. Would that actually be that strange?”
Despite Diner’s firm menu policy, 30 minutes later, woods receives exactly what he ordered: Biscuits without gravy, a side of bacon, a caesar salad, and scrambled eggs.
On this Sunday, the day before he leaves for Japan to start his world tour, woods is meticulous. He’s usually meticulous: Whether it’s his breakfast, the diction in his bars, the release schedule for his independent label Backwoodz Studioz, or art directing the photos for this article, it’s clear that billy woods, who has been at this for 20 years now, tends to get what he wants — even if it takes longer than he’d like.
“I don’t have to make a record that sounds any particular type of way,” he says. “Some of my fans might be like, ‘I don’t like it,’ but it wouldn’t be like ‘Oh man, that’s so out of character.’ I don’t think it would be weird because I’ve done a bunch of different shit and there isn’t a template that I have to go and fit into.”
Earlier this year, for example, the rapper released two very different studio albums, “Aethiopes,” produced by Preservation and “Church,” produced by frequent collaborator Messiah Musik.
“Aethiopes,” an archaic word used in Greek and Roman literature to describe dark-skinned people from Africa, analyzes the concept of otherness through a cacophony of notes, instruments, allegories, and ideas: “Errything smooth but the gun just hiccuped / Central American ubermenschen in the bed of a pickup / Building prefab duplexes, human traffic like Department of Corrections / Godless savages, fishbone necklaces,” he raps on “Sauvages.”
“Church,” his surprise album drop at the end of September, builds on this with woods’ examination of the the tension between following his passion and surviving in a capitalistic hellscape (“Clouds cleared, I’m looking at the city like jihadis in a cockpit / Prices so fucking high, had to do ’em dirty just to make a profit / Splits like Spotify numbers / A whole lotta green, just me and the punter,” he rhymes on “Paraquat”).
“I don’t make music to make people feel comfortable or reaffirm all the things that they already thought,” woods says. “If you listen to a whole album and never had to question one of your beliefs or your opinions about the world, or yourself, then you weren’t really listening. I want to make the true believers as uncomfortable as the hardened cynics because both of them are doing the same thing: Trying to protect themselves from the true nature of this world, in its staggering beauty and its infinite horrors. I am here to plunge a knife into the gaps in that makeshift armor, so you can feel it, see the blood and know that there is no protection.”
His appreciation of a wide spectrum of art comes from his parents, who always encouraged the rapper to read anything he could get his hands on, including, surprisingly, the Judy Blume young adult classic, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” — before he even knew what menstruation was. “I was always really ahead,” woods explains. “It’s funny. [For] my parents, there was no book you weren’t old enough to read.”
The emcee’s parents met in New York City as graduate students. His father was a political refugee from Zimbabwe with a PhD who would go back alone in 1979, before woods and the rest of his family joined him in 1981, to install a Marxist government. He held two separate positions before he passed in 1988. His mother is a Jamaican-born literary scholar and feminist writer.
Woods himself is set to release his own debut book, “A is for Anarchist,” this February, though he denies calling himself an anarchist — the book is meant to be a tongue-in-cheek dissertation on the modern world, a parody of an ABC book for kids — and he disdains the performative activism of other artists who run in the same circles.
‘Music for human beings’
After breakfast, we stroll around Williamsburg looking for spots to take a few profile shots. Even though woods doesn’t show his face in photos, he’s always open to opening up. He’ll talk to you for your senior thesis, and will appear in video interviews — with his face hidden or blurred. Unlike the late MF DOOM, though, the disinclination to be photographed isn’t a part of a character he’s playing (woods raps unmasked in live performances), but is rather an attempt to maintain privacy.
“It’s interesting to see how much things have changed,” woods says when we stop at the corner of Bedford Avenue and S 6th Street. “Just the gentrifiers pushing out the gentrifiers.” He also points out the same intersection was a filming location for Ridley Scott’s 2007 “American Gangster,” as he eyes a small group of young influencer types taking selfies.
But woods isn’t here to judge anyone. His curiosity always circles back to whoever he’s talking to — in this instance, me — seeming genuinely interested in the story behind the person asking him all these questions. “I make my music for human beings, so I’m curious what anyone thinks,” he says. “I also don’t think every single opinion is something that I’d [take into consideration].”
AKAI SOLO, the newest signee on woods’ Backwoodz Studioz, notes that in spite of a tough love exterior, woods is warm by nature.
“He’s always asking me if I need anything or how I’m feeling. I’m not used to people checking in on me like that,” he says. “Working with him is like working with one of the stronger characters in a show. It’s like I got to walk into a hyperbolic time chamber with somebody and I got the shit beat out of me, but it was mad cool, [so] when somebody throws me against a rock in the real world, I’m not gonna pass out because billy woods hit me against that rock a thousand times.”
Woods’ impact on hip-hop is indisputable, although still largely overlooked by the mainstream music industry. This year, Backwoodz Studios celebrated 20 years running, and next year will be the anniversary of his debut album “Camouflage” and 10 years of Armand Hammer, his duo with fellow New York City rapper Elucid (often stylized as E L U C I D),.
“We could go on forever about woods,” Elucid says, speaking on the phone from the hospital while his wife is in labor. “Man, I think woods raises the bar for everyone who participates in this craft of rap music-making. He’s fearless, uncompromising, and doesn’t adhere to the trends of underground or mainstream hip-hop. His writing, content, and style is undeniable.”
With an ever-growing library of cult classics under his belt, it’s actually only been in recent years that woods has begun to see critical acclaim. Rappers, journalists, and fans have begun to touting the emcee, often claiming he’s one of the best rappers currently in the game. Earl Sweatshirt tweeted, “woods [is] the rawest nigga ever” back in October, and on NPR, Rodney Carmichael noted, “the best rapper of 2019 is billy woods.”
“Time will tell [if that’s true],” woods shrugs. “My job is just to make the best art I can while I am able, and once I am done, we will see where everything falls. I think it is important not to get complacent, or to think, ‘Oh, people liked XYZ album, let me just do that again.’ There are probably some artists who are talented enough that they CAN do that, but I need to constantly push myself to higher ground if I am going to thrive.”
billy woods will be returning to Brooklyn on December 7 for his Church album release show at Baby’s All Right. You can purchase tickets here.
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