It is a rapper’s unique privilege, perhaps, a disposition, of being able to slither and snake into and out of personas, moods, voices, and perspectives and emphatically piece these characters together for what are maximal pieces of art.
Yet where it would be easy to search and seek for these characters outside of oneself, NYC rapper, half of the duo Armand Hammer, and Backwoodz Studioz founder, billy woods recognizes and brings forth all of these characters within himself, almost with ease.
“Shrines” may as well be the exemplary project that proves this fact about woods’ ability. In my opinion, “Shrines” by Armand Hammer is one of the most important records in the US right now and is sure to make many year end lists.
Shrines, like all of woods’ projects, is sopping with poignant social metaphors and messages that, like many of their bass lines, punch you in the chest.
Boston Hassle: I was checking out that you did with Tinymixtapes and in that interview you said that your album “Today I Wrote Nothing” was “pretty squarely about death”.
What do you think “Shrines” is about?
billy woods: I think there is a bunch of themes. Even with Today I Wrote Nothing it is about death but it is about a journey also. The album takes place in a journey, which you know, our lives are also a journey. And then there is an end point.
I think Shrines is about survival, Shrines is about man and his nature and nature itself. Shrines is about a belief regeneration. I think there is a lot of different things going on.
BH: Why did you name the album “Shrines”?
bw: After a certain point of working on it, you see sometimes what themes start developing. The idea that things are spiritual and scared and not only that it’s good things but the shrines we build to things knowingly and unknowingly in our lives.
A lot of times [a shrine] is started as a means is a connection to communicate or remember. There is a connection to things that are beyond, like nature, or gods, or to people who are gone, to ancestors to all sorts of things. You might make a shrine out of a tree but the tree is a conduit or a stand-in to talk to some imagined god or it could be something as simple as a tree that is important to your family or somebody you loved carved your initials in the bark when you were kids al the way up to a mosque or a church. I like the idea that a shrine can be big and small, personal or all-encompassing.
BH: I was reading the lyrics, and I could be wrong, but in this album you reference the bible a lot. Were you reading the Bible around this time or were you thinking about religion a lot?
bw: Well that was happening and it became part of it. Religion, obviously and shrines, not just Christianity or Islam, but most human religions in some way involve shrines. Physical representations; touch stones or gateways or the Oracle in Delphi or the Aztecs had huge places where they would kill people.
As for religion, I would say both, the ideas were percolating in the work. And then that lends itself to the title. But we got decently far in before a title was decided on. I don’t think I was personally reading the bible.
BH: So how does this relate to the album cover, even if someone didn’t know the story —
bw: I don’t think you needed to know the story. Like always there is lots of layers to things. That is just one of the layers. There is so many layers to the cover, I thought it was dope and it was something I always thought about. I had lived in Harlem when I first moved to New York, I lived in Harlem for a while, though I didn’t live there when that incident occurred. It was near where I had lived at one point — It just was something that has always stuck in my mind.
How is it related? There are so many ways it could. I would say that the person had built a shrine of sorts and then of course, there are so many layers, the natural world and the man made world. That creature is so out of place with where it is. The confrontation that symbolizes the police officer. The fact that if you know NYC architecture you know that it is a project window. I think of a shrine, I would almost think of a shrine a tiger was guarding. On a basic level, on the level you seem to be asking about, that person, the gentleman who was in possession of those animals had built a shrine of sorts within his apartment for this other life he wanted to lead.
BH: On Armand Hammer’s spotify profile, David Crone writes that you and Elucid are “art rap pioneers” — How do you feel about that term?
bw: I find that it is not my term, it is Mike Eagle’s term for what he does, that he came up with. It’s cool, it isn’t what I would first to choose. I’m not mad it at either. Funnily enough, it is interesting, West Side Gun started talking about himself as an art dealer. You wouldn’t think that Mike Eagle and West Side Gun would be coming from the same perspective on too many subjects. Mike was the first one with that.
BH: What term would you use?
bw: I don’t know. I guess it depends on who I am talking to. To myself, I feel like I am rapping. I don’t think of it as wholly different from what I was interested introduced to when I was young, like Public Enemy. Of course, what I do is different but I don’t think of it as some whole other thing. Internally, if someone is asking me to put a label on it, that’s fine. I don’t know. Indie rap. It’s tough — as far as putting a category on the type of rap I make, I don’t know how much that interests me. But I’m not mad at people saying “art rap” I just don’t think like that.
Only time I think about stuff like that is when I have to come up with press releases or explain to people. So then I am usually working on whatever I think makes sense given the context who I am talking to. How much do they know about rap? If they don’t know much at all, I might just say I make weird rap music. If it is somebody who listens to a lot of rap music, but I’m not sure how much they listen to what is not on the radio, I might say it is underground or something like that. If it is somebody who I know is deep in the scene then, I probably wouldn’t bother trying to say anything.
If my dentist asked me what I’m doing, I’m not like ‘art rap’
BH: When do you write the lyrics? Do you know write them beforehand or do you write them after or does it depend?
bw: Definitely not writing any lyrics before the I hear the beat. It is possible, occasionally, I might have an idea and jot it down, it is usually a word or a phrase just to remember, if you had some weird interaction or a thought popped in your head. I never write a rhyme before I hear the beat.
BH: I’ve been curious about Backwoodz Studioz. Can you tell me a bit about when and where you came up with the idea.
bw: I guess I had the idea a long time ago. It was a different environment, it is not really going to carry over for most people. I’d never been in a studio when I was writing rhymes, everybody didn’t have a studio. I didn’t know how I sounded on the mic. And I was in DC I am pretty sure I came up with the idea in 2001.
BH: Did you smoke blunts out of backwoods?
bw: It was several things, but that was definitely related.
BH: When did the studio come to more prominence, when did you put out your first record on the label?
bw: What was it, 2002? Probably, depends what you count as first record.
BH: Is that the start when you first decided to make music, or did you try beforehand?
bw: Like I said, I had not even been into a studio and recorded at all until 2001 and when I first was doing stuff like that, we were recording on cassette tapes. Those were my first attempts for better or worse. But before that I was writing rhymes for even but didn’t even go to the studio.
BH: Did you ever write poems or stories?
bw: Yeah I did. I grew up doing a lot of writing. I definitely wrote stories.
BH: Do you still?
bw: Yes. I published one recently.
BH: Oh, really? Where at?
bw: This Canadian non-profit called Everseeker, the story is called witness. It is a part of a larger project.
BH: What were some of the books you read that inspired you?
bw: As a little kid I really liked certain Charles Dickens, I really liked Oliver Twist. I liked Steven King books, a lot, from a young age. I would scare the shit out of myself. I would read “Christine” over and over. I like Richard Wright. But then I got to be 12 or 13 and then I started reading Baldwin and then I was super into that. My mother gave me “Beloved” for the first time and I was too young to get through it. I liked the writing but it was so dense and the writing was so impenetrable to me, as a twelve year old. Then I read it again when I was a teenager and I really liked that book. Zimbabwean writers that had a big effect on me, two very different writers I would say are Doris Lessing. She is a white Zimbabwean woman. When I was a kid, my mother gave me a short story called “A Sunrise on the Veld”. I was really little then. I was so fascinated by all of the themes that were underneath the surface of this story.
And then there is Dambudzo Marechera, who had been a student at the university where my mother worked but he was never her student. He became a pretty successful and was also a pretty outlandish and colorful figure in his short life. And he had gone to the University of Zimbabwe then to Oxford. It is a big deal, becoming a celebrated international writer. But he had a lot of mental issues and his work was something that blew my mind. At that point I have read a lot of African writers, I read “Things Fall Apart’ by Achebe, I was probably twelve, I was still in Zimbabwe I think, and to read Marechera’s writing about post-colonial Africa that was so scathing in it’s examination of these black revolutionary forces who are now in power. It was the first thing I read where white people only marginally figured in the books. And colonialism, you saw more through the remains than It was an indictment of colonialism, it was an indictment of the society I was currently living in. Which at that time I had grown up, thinking it was a progressive, revolutionary government. It was an indictment of these things without it being an indictment of colonialism. It was a type of post-colonial African writing I had not been exposed to until then.
And because it was by somebody who also talking about the place where I was, which at that point was still in the twilight of its honeymoon phase as a government and a new nation. It was jarring and it seemed almost sacrilegious but he was right and it was also really powerful. Things like that, stick with you because it reminds you not to slip into easy complacency or replace your work with rhetoric. I want to make things that are real. I want to be able to tackle the complexities and the simplicities I see in the world.
Chris Hues is a human & writer from Boston, Ma & Associate Editor of bostonhassle.com. //// They can be reached at [email protected] or @crsjh_ via instagram & twitter.