There’s no one quite like the elusive New York rapper and Backwoodz Studioz founder Billy Woods. He raps in a dark, intense, and direct fashion, most often over abstract instrumentals.
His most recent album Hiding Places is a fully collaborative project with prolific art-rap producer Kenny Segal. The result is a tight, cohesive project with some of Woods’ most personal songs yet.
Woods is also a member of the experimental hip hop duo Armand Hammer with E L U C I D. Their eclectic 2018 album Paraffin is another example of Woods’ knack for creating music that truly could not have been made by anyone else.
In anticipation for his show at the Dorchester Art Project on Saturday, we talked with Billy Woods about Hiding Places, his creative inspiration, why he never shows his face online, and what makes him such a unique voice in underground hip hop.
BH: It’s funny, just by coincidence today I came across Time Magazine’s Top 10 Albums of the Year so far, and your album was on there.
Woods: I guess I’m getting lucky.
BH: [laughs]. Well, to start, could you tell me a bit about the album cover, is it sort of a “Hiding Place?”
Woods: Which one? The album has four covers.
BH: Well, the one that I know is the haunted house sort of cover.
Woods: Okay, well, there’s a bunch of different ones but the house…it’s funny, because I actually was sitting here earlier with this guy, Shane Ingersoll, who did the artwork for Known Unknowns and for Rome’s cover and other stuff. But since we were just talking about the album artwork and he was saying that he felt like the house really conveyed the title in a way that it pulls you in to imagine yourself somewhere in there. I guess for me there was an aspect of it where I was doing it, the album feels very insular and it feels like a lot of it takes place inside of places.
I also moved that year into a pretty bizarre living situation and so, in some reality, it was spurred by the idea of being in this awful mansion—semi-deserted.
I also read this Bernard Malamud story—it’s not his best work—about this white Jewish guy who’s moving into this building that has been emptied of all it’s tenants but the landlord couldn’t get rid of it and it’s just the guy and this other writer who moves in on a different floor. Anyway, it’s called The Tenant. It’s interesting. It’s funny ‘cause I read that and then I ended up moving into this building. Some of it I think was my own reflection and writing about it. Thinking of actual, physical spaces. Some of it is that, yeah, it reflects a type of hiding space. And some part is that it’s sort of an exaggerated version of a child’s idea of a haunted house….
You know, everyone sees it and people tend to say “haunted house” as a descriptor for the house. You know, if you ask them what’s on the cover they’ll say “haunted house.” Sometimes they’ll say, like “dilapidated,” but “haunted house” is the most often descriptor even though it’s not like….
BH: It’s not really a haunted house.
Woods: Yeah, obviously. And there’s no allusions to that. It’s not like there’s a scary clown on the back of the album art or something, so it’s an interesting interpretation, in that way.
BH: So, it seems like for a while you’ve been a real collaborator. You’ve worked with a lot of people like Elucid or Blockhead. Is that a conscious choice? Do you like collaborating a lot?
Woods: Yeah, I guess in a very simple sense… there’s just the concrete reality that I’m a rapper. I don’t make beats. Sometimes I’ve collaborated with people to make beats but I’m going to have to collaborate with people to make music.
But there’s a difference between doing a whole album with somebody and having them fully be part of what you’re doing, and just doing a track or whatever. To answer your question, I do enjoy collaborating with people and people get inspired, so I’m always down.
Inspiration to me is like… creativity is like a furnace and you need the fuel. You have to work, you have to chop the fuel up and throw it into the fire. You need to keep the shit balanced and stoked properly… It’s not like I’ve got the fire and then it’s just gonna run itself. You have to put in the work and chop up the fuel and maintain the furnace and just keep running at full heat.
But at the same time inspiration is the fuel and if you don’t have the fuel you could be working hard, you could have a really efficient furnace, but you’re not really gonna be generating anything. So anything that’s inspiring is good. You’re like, “This is pushing me, this is helping me create.”
Sometimes I’ve seen people be like “Oh, this was a lot like that,” and I appreciate the idea. I appreciate consistency, but I do really think that my records are a lot different from each other. I don’t want to bore people, and more importantly I don’t want to be bored.
I think any artist has these that you come back to and explore. Everyone’s been exploring the same themes since the beginning of time. But I don’t really think you listen to Known Unknowns and listen to Hiding Places and listen to Rome and think “these albums all sound the same.”
BH: So you have worked with Kenny Segal on a few tracks before. When did you know he was someone you wanted to make a whole album with?
Woods: As you said, he had done a couple things with Armand Hammer for Paraffin. At my apartment one time, Kenny brought a bunch of music with him on his laptop as well as on some hardware and so he kind of mapped out what Armand Hammer was doing, what he was giving Armand Hammer, but he had some other stuff and he went and delivered some tracks that I picked. And then after that he was like “Alright, give me a couple weeks.”
We went through two sessions and he was like, “Don’t use any of those other beats. I’m cooking up some stuff, I know where we’re going now.” And we sort of went from there.
BH: Okay, because I was wondering if it was sort of like that, because my main exposure to Kenny Segal before hearing Hiding Places was the Milo album So the Flies Don’t Come, which is very different. This album fits your sound a lot more, so I was wondering if he tailored it to you, and it seems like he did.
Woods: Yeah, and there are two songs on the records where I provided him with source material so there was some interplay back and forth, which also informed some of the sounds. “Red Dust” came from a very specific and meaningful sample source from my childhood and “Bedtime” was another weird thing that I found.
But Kenny also flips things in ways you would never expect so that’s just artists informing each others choices. It’s hard for me to say what he did, but I can tell you that we did a few joints and he said, “I’m gonna be cooking them up special from here on out.” So if I’m going to take him at his word, I’m sure there was some level of tailoring the beats to me. And I think there was some level of interplay where I sent him one or two things, which doesn’t make a huge difference but the album is only 14 tracks so there were a couple from the initial batch that he had given me and I just picked what I was feeling and the direction where I was going.
And there are times when artists will pick. Like when I do Armand Hammer records there are times where Elucid picks things and I’m like, “I would have never picked that,” and then I was like “Oh! This is dope,” because when left to your own devices, you maybe go left or right, but after working with someone for a while you have that comfort, like, “alright, well…” And he is a producer, he has a good ear for music, so sometimes he’ll pick things up that I wouldn’t necessarily do, and I’ll just say, “Fuck it,” and rhyme on it and sometimes that’s the dope thing.
Somebody else’s ear is gonna hear totally different things. And sometimes there will be things where you or somebody else will be picking beats and they don’t like a beat and later on you use it on your solo album and they’re like “Yo, that’s great! I remember getting that beat, but I didn’t hear it like that.”
I’ve definitely learned when I’m doing Armand Hammer stuff and Elucid is like, “Let’s do this,” and it’s not something I would pick, a lot of times I’m just like, “Fuck it, let’s do it.” That’s kind of the point of being in the group.
BH: A lot of times on the album made me think a bit of the Jay-Z song “Song Cry,” where the song is really emotional, but you keep pretty stoic and steady. Is that an idea that resonates with you, making the song itself the emotional part?
Woods: Um, I don’t think I would really think of it like that. Sometimes, I don’t know what people think are the most emotional songs, because for me, it might be something else other than what a listener interprets.
But a lot of times people are talking about the same things, but if it comes from a very real place, a lot of times it just happens. It depends, especially something that’s like upsetting or really serious, those are the sorts of things that just pour out when coming out. You’re not sitting there thinking about exactly how you’re gonna sound. Fucking breath. It’s not a lot of planning.
I can understand it, but it’s just the person inside. Like if you had to speak at a funeral, and someone came up to you afterwards and was just like, “Oh, that was really powerful, how did you [say all that]?” and it was probably just how you felt in that moment. It depends on the type of person you are, and I don’t think I’m the type of person who figured out how I was gonna, like, try and sound. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but usually it’s just how I feel.
BH: So, with Backwoodz Studioz, it seems like you guys are making music mostly because it means a lot to you, so, in a way, were you surprised that it’s become a bit of an underground success?
Woods: The label? Let’s wait and see. It spent a lot of time doing pretty badly, but right now, it seems like we’re doing decent/pretty good. There’s a lot of bigger fish doing bigger, different things, so I don’t want to start talking like this is Stones Throw Records or something.
I think we have a long history of doing cool things and quality things, and I’m really proud of it, don’t get me wrong. But I’m not in a position to start talking about success in a business sense. As far as the art we’re doing, I think what we’ve done for our profile, what we’ve been able to do for the artists who have been affiliated, the discography we put out, the effort, time, and energy, and the people we associate with, I have the most pride.
On that level I am very cognizant and very proud of the fact that I think we make music that I think is very relevant, very important, and we’ve got a solid discography and I’m cool with that.
BH: So you’re always very low-key with your presence online and never show your face in videos. In a way that definitely adds a lot of mystery, but it could also be seen as an impediment. Is that ever something you worry about, or are you really sure of it?
Woods: People told me for a long time that that wasn’t the right thing to do but I don’t think they were right.
BH: There’s also an appeal to it, I mean, it’s an interesting thing.
Woods: Yes. Intrigue is by its very nature an interesting thing.
Sometimes I feel like you can choose different paths to do the same thing, and one path of doing things could be like…to be a person who is very open, and people feel connected to you in a way that makes them feel like, “I know this person,” and there’s a lot of value in that. I see artists whose fan bases consist of those people and like… those people have benefited a lot for being people whose fans want to interact with them as much as they want the music.
But then there’s also something to be said for mystery and then I also think there’s something to be said for if you are just yourself it will probably work out better unless you’re a really lame, boring person, in which case it might not. But it could even be better to be that person because lots of lame, boring people would probably relate if you can find a way to get it across.
There were a lot of reasons that went into it, but the anonymity thing is definitely very much me. I’m glad that it stayed this way.
BH: I don’t want to spoil anything, but what do people have to look forward to at the show coming up at Boston Hassle, or why should they come?
Woods: I think they should listen to the record, listen to Hiding Places, maybe listen to Paraffin, the album with Armand Hammer… and if that’s something you dig, then you should come through.
I think that I’m a pretty singular artist in, like, the things that I do are just me. So if you’re into them, you should come, because you’re not gonna get it anywhere else. It’s not for everybody, but it’s interesting. And on top of that I’m coming with my DJ, Mo Niklz, who is a New England resident. And he’s a pickle vender. So even if you’re not into the music you can pick up some spicy pickles. Buy local!
Also if you want a copy of the record, those will probably be the last copies that will be available. I know that they’re sold out online.
BH: Okay, great! Well, is there anything else you want to say about the album, or the show, or anything at all?
Woods: I definitely want people to check out the album Hiding Places by Kenny Segal with Billy Woods. Um, I’ve got another project coming later this year. Check out Armand Hammer with Elucid, and I’ve got another album coming up.
BH: Oh, well that’s something to look forward to.
Woods: I hope so!