An Interview with billy woods

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In late 2018, I talked on the phone with billy woods for two hours. I was a senior in college, and I interviewed him as part of a final project on Black radical art. I don’t know why he said yes, or why he was so generous with his time, but it’s to date one of the most immersive conversations I’ve ever had with an artist. I probably asked too much about topics like James Baldwin and late capitalism and not enough about, well, music, but reading this now, I’m glad I did—and I think he was, too.

I never published this because (a) I didn’t trust my voice at the time, and (b) every publication I’d wanted to pitch it to had their own billy woods interview out or on the way. (This was the year of Paraffin, which vaulted Armand Hammer onto like every year-end list.) But looking back at it, I realize how meaningful a lot of it still is to me. The son of professors—his mother, from Jamaica, taught English literature, and his father was a politician in Zimbabwe—woods grew up between D.C., Zimbabwe and NYC. Our conversation started there, then unraveled into something looser about some of the people, places and philosophy that shape the mind of one of the most talented rappers working. Here it is in full, published with woods’ permission.

Mano Sundaresan: What was it like living in Zimbabwe in the wake of the revolution there?

billy woods: I was born here [in the U.S.], so when I go there, the war is over. My father had already been there a couple years because he returned during the peace process. Lots of things were very good. In many ways it was an idyllic childhood that would be difficult to have in the United States. We lived in the city. We had a very big home that was still kind of old and cool. My father was not big on material possessions, so he didn’t have fancy cars or anything, but we had a nice home and comfortable lifestyle. And as a kid, there were a lot of opportunities to go and do stuff. I could ride my bike all around after school and nobody worried about you. I would get to go out to the countryside with my father and have experiences that were very different. And at the same time, I went to a private, very British school. There was bad things and good things about that. It was very regimented compared to American schools, but we also did a lot of creative writing, which I think was when I really got into that more. I read a lot—the TV only came on at 5 o’clock in the afternoon on weekdays, so you couldn’t just sit in front of the TV all day. It was interesting. Also other good things were I think it was a great environment for a young Black person to grow up in where there were Black people in positions of power, and the country was doing very well economically. In some measure there was social cohesion, considering what they had just been through, and that was cool. I grew up surrounded by successful Black people.

What were the bad things?

It was a very homogenous country, and that brings with it the sort of provincial, close-minded thinking at times. There were huge wealth inequalities. And the white people who were there still lived in luxury compared to the vast majority of the country. I did as well, but every Black person didn’t live like that, whereas if you met a white person, they were somewhere between comfortable and wealthy. There was not a lot of interpersonal violence, but there was state violence. There was no pizza. I would spend my Christmases in New York and I would dream about eating a bagel with cream cheese for the rest of the year, or like a slice of pepperoni pizza. Because I was born here, so I still loved things like that. Or like, our TV shows would be two years behind. I’d come here for Christmas and you’d be watching the A-Team and you were like, “Who are these people?” It’s not even the same plotline. So it was a trip. Overall, there was good and bad everywhere I’ve ever been.

How old were you when you moved to Zimbabwe?

Five years old.

And then you came back to D.C. when?

Just before my thirteenth birthday.

I know that you read a lot of books growing up. Was that your parents’ influence?

Well both of my parents were professors. The house was full of books. My mom in specific was a professor of English literature. It’s not a far leap. If both of your parents are in the NBA, it’s possible that you’re going to shoot around in the driveway at a minimum as a kid.

What were the first few books that captured your attention?

I loved Dr. Seuss a lot. The Lorax was my favorite shit. I read a lot of adult books as a child because we started reading very early and we were advanced readers. I really liked Roald Dahl, I liked The Twits. It was a former British colony so a lot of the American writing stuff comes from my mom, but in school and just around us, Roald Dahl was very popular. The BFG, I loved that book. James and the Giant Peach. I really liked Beverly Cleary when I was a little kid. Books that I remember being deeply affecting…definitely when I was probably nine, I started reading Stephen King more. I really liked Christine a lot. That’s probably one of the books I’ve read the most in my life, I read that book a lot. But I would read all of his work. And I also developed a taste for a lot of classic British science fiction guys, like Ray Bradbury. I read 1984 and stuff like that when I was really young. Animal Farm, I probably read that when I was nine, maybe ten. A lot man, a lot. I remember reading Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, which I had stolen from my sister, and being like wow, this is crazy, but not understanding what a period was. But I knew I was reading something for teenagers. You know when you’re not old enough to know, but there’s some secrets in there that you kind of halfway understand as you’re reading it? So those would be some examples. My mother would give us lots of books that were way above our age grade, and certain ones that if you didn’t like, she might pay you to read them. Not a lot, we didn’t get an allowance or anything in Zimbabwe. So if you read something like Robinson Crusoe, and that’s hard to read when you’re 10 years old. But other stuff I just liked, I liked Charles Dickens. I liked Mark Twain, definitely. I think I liked Oliver Twist more than I like Huckleberry Finn when I was little, probably because Huckleberry Finn was so long and so complex both in thought and execution. My mom believed in just giving you stuff to read. There’s definitely things I read and then I read them again later as an adult, and you see there’s aspects that you didn’t understand or whatever. She didn’t really care about that though. It was just like, if you wanted to read it, then you would try to read and then maybe you would read it again later and be like Ohhhh.

I think that’s how it was for me with Bradbury. I had to read him in like, middle school and only half got it. Some books just require multiple reads over time.

Yeah, and then I liked lots of fantasy adventure books, I don’t know, I read everything. Also, I grew up in the ‘80s which was probably the first wave of young adult fiction. Stuff like Outsiders, S.E. Henton, Rumble Fish, Pigman by Paul Zendel. I would just read all of those. And that was the beginning of Choose Your Own Adventure books and those were really influential, I loved that. And you know, the other thing I have to say is I read a lot of comics, a lot. And sometimes that was something that was difficult about being in Zimbabwe, because they were harder to get. So if somebody was travelling, you’d ask them to get some. Or you’d have to just go to this bookstore and see what they had, like they would get things sent, but you couldn’t just get current issues. I had this friend whose parents worked for USAID, and I would go to his house and he would have the brand new Spiderman, all the brand new issues in their plastic sleeves. And he’d be like, “You can only read it if you sit at the table.” It’d be a big deal.

You’d have to travel outside the country to get these books?

If you wanted current Spiderman and Punisher. I guess it wouldn’t have been impossible to get them mailed to you. But my parents weren’t gonna pay for that. Like I said, we didn’t have any type of allowance on that level. But his parents were on USAID so I don’t think it was a big deal, and he travelled back and forth. I still remember, he saw the Transformers movie on a trip home and then had to tell me everything that happened because I knew I wasn’t gonna be there for like a year, and there was no way to see it. At the end of 1989 we moved back.

Was it dramatically different when you returned to the U.S.?

Yes. My father had passed away. At the time Zimbabwe had very strict laws regarding the movement of capital outside the country. And for good reason, although they were somewhat outdated at that point. They were about to have a new reason to use them because the economy was gonna tank, but that’s neither here nor there. It was difficult to take money out of the country. The exchange rate was not as favorable as it had been when we moved there. Back then, the economy was doing very well, and it wasn’t anymore. My mom was now a single parent who didn’t really have a credit history here. Yeah, it was significantly different. I mean we weren’t living in the projects or anything, but it was not the same situation by any stretch of the imagination. And just living in the two places is very different, to begin with.

I imagine you felt like an outcast on multiple fronts at that point.

That is definitely true. Although to be fair, in Zimbabwe, it was not as though I felt like I completely fit in there either. Like I said, it’s a very homogenous country. There were white people of British descent, and then there were other people who had come there from throughout the Commonwealth, filling out the merchant class. Some Asian, East Asian people, Middle-Eastern people, Jews, and then some Soviet bloc people who had some connects. It was either white colonists or Black Africans, and then small groups of other people. And my accent made me stand out a lot, which was ironic because then I came back here and my accent made it stand out a lot. So yes it was very different. I wasn’t a kid anymore, I was becoming a teenager, my father had just died, it was very different.

Is that why you were drawn to diasporic writing? I know you love Baldwin.

Yeah, that was just my mom. If I read something, she would ask me afterward what I liked about it, and then she might say, “Ok I want you to read this.” The first thing I read was “Sonny’s Blues,” because she was giving it out to some kids in one of her classes. She had a printout of the short story and she told me to read it. So the first time it was presented to me was literally as like a college photocopied reading. And I remember reading it and thinking it was really good. My mom and I talked about it, and then I think she passed me Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone. Or I may have just decided to read it because I do remember the cover of the edition she had of that was Baldwin smoking and this collage of things behind him that involved sex and alcohol. And I was probably like 12 years old, so it seemed reasonable that I dug that. My reading habits changed through aging. I don’t know if moving here had a huge impact on that, except that I read less probably.

Wait, so you were reading Baldwin in middle school?

Yeah. There’s no reason why a person shouldn’t. I agree with my mother on that. It doesn’t matter if you can’t fully understand something. You have to take on challenging things with that understanding. I tried to read Beloved when I was 15. My mother gave it to me. I was definitely in high school and old enough to read it. I did read it, but I just lost interest. I got three-quarters of it and I probably had a bunch of other stuff that I felt more like reading. And you come back to it later and you’re like oh, ok. Nothing was lost in the effect, really. The only way something is lost if somebody isn’t there to be like, “Try it again.” I read everything in context, and I was enthusiastic in that sense. If you have a child who likes reading, as opposed to a kid where reading is a chore, then yeah of course you have to be careful not to give them things that are gonna turn them off.

Baldwin has this quote where he says that the goal of the artist is to capture “the state of being alone,” to take us places that we are actively trying to avoid.

That’s interesting.

I feel like you and Elucid are trying to do that on Paraffin in some ways.

I definitely think that in my personal music, there’s a strain of characters and protagonists who are alone or who are isolated, either in a way that’s known only to them or in a physical and temporal way.

Are you trying to capture part of your own lived experience in those characters?

I mean, well, it depends. I don’t think anybody can write about anything worthwhile without it resting in some part of yourself, something true. I guess you could also stumble upon something very true that you don’t know personally in some way. I’m not exactly sure. I’m always loathe to put down hard and fast rules. Some part of you has to be there and present and invested for it to be anything that can transcend. You can make something that’s good and cool, but to make something that reverberates, I think you have to put something in there. You have to have skin in the game.

My favorite song on Paraffin is “No Days Off.” Can you tell me about the process behind that one?

It’s funny because that song is one of the first songs we did when we started working on these projects, and by that I’m including ROME. That song was done before many many of the songs on ROME, was not substantively changed unlike some of the others. So it’s interesting how much of a reaction that got. I think that was one where I wrote my verse first, and I knew I was gonna call it “No Days Off.” My verse obviously moves around a little bit more in terms of topic and theme. Once I gave it to Elucid and talked about it with him, and not at any great length, I was like, “Here’s my verse. I want to call it ‘No Days Off.’” My verse ended with that “no days off” ad lib. And he was like, this is quite cool. I actually recorded it at his place, I think. Anyway, then he recorded the chorus, and the next thing I heard was the finished song. And obviously his song did the dirtier work of drilling to the core of the concept. I love that verse. “The Marshall’s at the door with lock breakers.”

I love that line, “On the sixth day my father looked and should’ve been dismayed.”

Oh yeah, I thought that was funny. So I had just done that. I got the beat, I liked it, there was no discussion beforehand. But then I recorded it and then he just did all the rest of the stuff. And it just slowly fell out of the playlist for ROME and ended up on the playlist for Paraffin. When we did it, I was like, this is very ROME, considering the concept of that album where everything is a little narrower. Anyway, I thought it would definitely end up on that album and it didn’t. It ended up on this album, and I was slightly worried it would be out of place. I think Elucid and I were a little bit surprised to varying degrees.

By the reaction to it?


I mean it’s definitely one of your catchier songs. I feel like it would work well in shows.

See I think of “Vindaloo” that way, but “Vindaloo” is also dense—but no, Elucid’s verse isn’t dense. Maybe because it doesn’t have a really clearly defined chorus. But that beat makes me wanna be in a backyard in Northern California grilling and shit, and smoking a J. But yeah, Elucid murdered that chorus. It just goes to show a lot of times as a creator, I have my perspective and there’s certainly people who if somebody writes something and I’m like that’s way off. But, you know, art has a life of its own. And my relationship with my art sometimes can constrain my own ability to see certain things. But I do love that song, and I’m glad. I kinda was bummed out when it wasn’t on ROME.

The chorus to that song is one of your bluntest: “You don’t work, you don’t eat.”

I was thinking of that chorus in terms of a brutalist conception of late stage capitalism, although plenty of people don’t work and they’re eating big. The sense of diminishing resources, of working people stretched ever thinner, of a system that’s completely without empathy.

How does that reality affect your own work?

To live in this society unfortunately forces people to compartmentalize their existences in many ways. So when I sit down to make music or work on art, I try to do so from the same place that’s been there since I was a kid. A desire to communicate something, a wonderment, a love for words, grasping for immortality. And the fun. And then you have the compartmentalized part of you that’s like, this is how I make money and do things. And then you have another compartmentalization which is like, regardless of the other things, I want people to recognize my work and feel like it’s good and important. And so all those things exist somewhat separated, and sometimes at odds with each other. There’s definitely situations that happen where people will be like, “Oh you’re doing great!” and I’m like…I haven’t been on tour all year. I did hit the road a couple times last year, but sometimes people will compare you to people who are your artistic peers, and be like, “Oh. XYZ person said this about being an independent musician right now.” And maybe me and them are peers on an artistic level, but I don’t really fuck with their music. Maybe we work together, travel in the same circles, mutual respect, people talk about us. But that person is in a whole different realm from me in terms of their business situation, their career situation. And I can’t speak on what it’s like touring Europe, I haven’t toured Europe. I know some artists who are dealing with people cancelling shows over controversial speech or something, and nobody even knows who the hell I am so I don’t have to worry about it.

Well that’s not exactly true, the police pulled up on you that one time.

One of the most fascinating mysteries that when I’m dead and gone, somebody will go investigate.

I’m sure you’ve told this story before a million times but could you recount the events that inspired “Police Came To My Show”? 

It was exactly like the song. We got to a venue, a very big venue, in Missoula, Montana. Great venue, great people, great promoter. I was the headliner. To say the attendance was light would be kind, cause it was like, empty. Like one of those shows, that was one of my early times I had been on the road. Actually now, at times, I embrace them because I’m just like, I’m gonna go up there and let it rip. This is like a free rehearsal. But it’s a challenge. And by the time you get to Missoula, MT, on tour, you’ve been a long way from a lot of places and things you want to be around. I thought people were really cool in Missoula, and I had a good time there, but by the end it’s like you’ve been spending your days in North Dakota or in Idaho Falls, Idaho. It’s a little tough, and so when you get to a show and it’s also completely dead, you can get to thinking about your life choices. But anyway, yeah, it was exactly like the song. It was very dead. We were waiting to perform. Maybe after I came in, I came back to the bar to ask them something. I saw two white guys and I was like, these guys are definitely cops. And I mentioned it to the people who were with me, and they were like no, and I mentioned it to the promoter, and she was like, I don’t think so, but I don’t know who they are. And this was down the road when I saw they were still there. And then eventually they came and told me that the guys were harassing the box office guy because they were like, “When he is going on?” And the [box office] guy was like, if you want your money back, you can have your money back. And they were like no, we came to see him perform. What time is he going on? They made him show them the set time list, and we were way behind schedule. Cause the promoter was waiting for more people to show up cause it was dead. Anyway, eventually, after a long time of Mo Nickels aggressively playing rap music to see if they would leave, we all rocked. I came out, did my set. PremRock was there too. We all rocked. They left immediately after my performance. I departed there that night. I called people, and I was like, this is what happened. And that’s the story in the middle of the other story in that song about my place in the rap race and the tour grind, the whole thing. Cause it’s like oh, I did that show and then you do another show opening for your peers but are really much more successful and to whom you’re very grateful because they booked you to open. It’s far from a diss, but juxtaposing those two things was part of what it was about. And the police part of the story is the amusing hook. I came out that night and I was like, I’m gonna mess up, and I had a really good performance. It’s just the song, there’s not one fictionalized word of the song. The first verse, the second verse, all drawn from real experiences.

It’s a really good entry point to your discography.

Thanks. It’s funny and sad and wry at the same time.

I was thinking about our discussion of being a rapper in late stage capitalism in the context of your song “Unstuck.” That’s a Vonnegut reference, right?

Yes, it’s a Vonnegut reference. It’s about being unstuck in time and all the things that come out of that.

Would you say you’re a determinist?

Tell me exactly what you mean by that before I say no, which is my first instinct.

Someone who thinks that all events have been determined by causes external to the will.

No, although I constantly flirt with that idea in my work. Also with Cormac McCarthy’s idea of paths chosen, is there a reality other than the reality that is? And would it matter if there was?

I think it would. It’d affect how you live your life, knowing that things are going to happen exactly one way versus having agency.

In a McCarthy novel a character would ask you, since things didn’t happen in that other way, what use is it to talk about what would’ve been when there’s only what is? And I think both things are true, and it’s funny because it’s something I try to talk about or interrogate in my music that I probably have not talked about before. I remember once I was talking to my mom about colonialism. I was a kid, I was saying chances are if some other group had colonized the world, they would have done exactly what white people did. And my mother was like, it’s possible but they didn’t so we don’t know. Of course the flipside of that, you could say the point is to show that all things are really the same. Sometimes those types of ideas and that type of thinking is a deflection from what is. This is what is! So talking about what could’ve been, or what you would’ve done, anyone can do that. I’m very into duality, so I do think intention counts, but intention only counts for so much, and what could’ve been is interesting, but what could’ve been always have to give way to what is. Nothing’s worse than a person who refuses to accept what is, as opposed to what could’ve been.

Yeah same, I generally can’t stand “what-if” questions.

Yes, and I commend you on interesting questions because people usually don’t ask them. I welcome the opportunity to tangle with the text or anything on a deeper level. I think a song like “Unstuck” in many ways concerns itself with choices and chances, and what can be made of them. It’s like, “Eight lives down before he thought about number nine.” It’s only once he gets to the end that people then start to make all the excuses. Whatever opportunities. This has happened to me. I remember losing a job, and the final write-up I got was something that was not my fault, and I was very indignant at the time. But it necessitated my firing because they had a policy of three write-ups. I was working at the YMCA in East New York, and my coworker had messed up and so we both got written up, because we had taken kids to the park. She left to go take some of them to do something, and our supervisor came while she was gone. And we were never supposed to have more than an X number of ratio of kids to counselors, and because she had taken two kids over to get an ice cream instead of taking six or whatever, our ratio was off and we both got written up. And I hadn’t realized she had left so I was indignant at first. But it’s also like, I had two write-ups, there had been other write-ups for calling out of work, other things that had happened before that that had put me in a position to get me fired. And later in life, you see more of the ways in it’s not always the last thing that happens but the path that you took that led you to the point where those are the decisions that remain for you. You have to make them. And I’m not trying to make some sort of weird conservative argument, but you’ll know people who put themselves down a road and at the end of it they’re like, Why is this happening to me? My mistress is pregnant, and my wife has cancer right now. And it’s like, the decisions you made led you to this horrible situation you made before now.

It’s sometimes hard, especially as a marginalized person, to know whether what has happened to you is a product of your choices or institutional realities.

Of course. It’s like if you have a family member who is on drugs. You could be aware of all the reasons why this person is doing drugs—the systematic issues, or your family issues, or whatever. They were molested, they were the oldest child and had to protect against an abusive parent, when I was growing up my parents were clean and when they were growing up our parents were fucked up. You have a natural understanding of how this person got there. You’re not looking at them like, what a bum. You know this is a human being who has come to that place. But still, in that situation and in certain times, you gotta make a decision regardless of how you arrived at that point. Because everyone has that reality happen, where I love this person and I recognize it’s not all their fault, but you can’t stay here anymore unless you’re going to do X, Y, and Z. Period. That’s the fucked up thing about life. A lot of times, whatever the issue is and who is to blame recede into the background in the face of the reality of what is. You could debate forever why your older brother is a crackhead, but you still have to address the question of how long you’re gonna let your older brother live in the basement. You could be like this is all fucked up, it’s a million different people’s fault, X, Y, and Z. But you might be like honestly, if you’re not gonna do X, Y, and Z, then you just gotta go. And that’s why life sucks. A lot of decisions and situations we put in, they suck.

What’s the most you can hope for in such a reality?

Well I mean, life is also incredible. Being dead doesn’t seem like any fun at all. Two, I’m firmly of the belief that very often, two different things are true in themselves. James Baldwin has a quote, “Life is terrible precisely because the sun inexorably sets and rises.” I believe? I’m kind of paraphrasing. Great whole paragraph. I’m gonna try to find it. I quoted it. I’ll find it, hold on. [rummages around room for the quote]

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns, and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.

Maybe my favorite quote.

It’s very similar to the quote I paraphrased from “The Creative Process.”

The end of that is also important to me. “One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.”

That’s beautiful.

I read that when I was a kid. It’s from The Fire Next Time. It had a tremendous, tremendous influence on me.

There’s this song “Dettol” on Paraffin where you have this line, “The sunken place, I can’t stay. ‘You built it on Indian graves,’ the lead character exclaims.” That’s so loaded, can you speak to the intersection there?

Thanks, yeah I felt like that worked on numerous levels. Obviously a grave is a sunken place. It’s:

Service weapon in my face, all I could see was his lips chapped
Wouldn’t recognize him if I saw him today
Chokehold slowly closed the airway
‘The sunken place, I can’t stay!
You built it on Indian graves!’, the lead character exclaims.

Talking about my interaction with that police officer that I’m recalling. I’m already making the chokehold as, like, taking you to the sunken place. “Christmas eve, again with the rattling chains.” That’s Christmas Carol, obviously. So the idea of Scrooge being in a form of a sunken place when he is being visited by these ghosts. And this idea of the intersectionality of film. If you’re a film student or something then you’d go, it goes from the sunken place to a very worn trope of poltergeist. There was a period of time when there would always be—Pet Sematary—this sort of colonizer’s guilt that then is brought up as a trope or device in horror, having built on an ancient burial ground. And then of course expanding that to the well-known joke about like, you take any issue in America and go, “Oh you did build it on an Indian burial ground.” So like, yeah I guess that’s what I think is funny and interesting. So that’s why when I wrote that, I was like, this is amusing. I guess in terms of intersectionality, that is a thing. The chokehold, sinking, graves, and in my mind, part of that is thinking of the scene in Poltergeist where coffins are just shooting out of the ground. They’re like, “You’re building on Indian graves!” I remember watching that in Zimbabwe through my fingers. I was a little kid. I still get scared by horror movies, but my sister and everybody else loved to watch horror movies. Even like Gremlins, I remember hiding behind the seat in the movie theatre.

You were scared of Gremlins?

Yeah I was little, man! And the part when he goes in the basement? The part when he goes down there in the cocoons, that scared me.

It’s crazy that they framed that as a kids movie.

I think it was probably PG-13, but I got scared in any scary movie. Even today, I’ll be like, that looks pretty scary. I call it a failure of imagination. People will just be like, well, why would you be scared, that can’t actually happen. And I’m like, yes I guess you’re right. Nothing’s gonna grab my leg from under the bed. But my imagination is strong enough that it might happen in the moment if I watch the movie alone.

What’s some advice you’d give to artists who are trying to go against the grain and make the music they want to make?

Well first of all I would say, if you wanna really make art that’s driven by your heart and your passion, the best thing to do is make sure you’re not gonna have to depend on it to eat. And then that way, if it’s not working, you have other options and can keep doing the art you’re trying to do and don’t have to try to do things because you got bills to pay. I also would say, the number one thing is always make the effort to push yourself to get better, but also to find something within yourself that’s true about you and your experience that you’re communicating, your style and who you are, because that’s the only way you’re gonna do something that will really last or be a work. Because at the end of the day, if it’s something that’s real to you, all you have to do is become successful at conveying that and increase your skill level and your ability to see the things that you wanna say and be able to say them.

Sometimes I just see people coming out—and I understand it because there’s a lot of good artists, and I’m influenced, everyone’s influenced—but it’s always important to identify what makes your music what it is, what makes you and your perspective worthwhile, and do that. Don’t let it be a gimmick. There were points in time in me working where people would say, “Oh you’re a political rapper.” And I’m not trying to say that this person is a gimmick or anything, but, “So you’re like Immortal Technique”? No, I’m doing this thing and I know what it is because I know what my experiences in my life are. No disrespect to anybody else, but I knew that I wasn’t doing that.

And sometimes, people would come to you and try to get you to do something in a way that would make it a gimmick. Or sometimes you might pressure yourself to do that, because nobody wants to be making art that people aren’t moved by or aren’t gravitating towards. I knew that I had a unique perspective, and I knew based on how many people didn’t like my style that I knew I had a unique style, so if I could get it good enough, I know that nobody else was gonna come in and do—You can’t really just step in and be like, I’m gonna do what billy woods does. I don’t think that you could sit down and do what I do because it’s very specific to me. So I’m glad about that, because a lot of times, I question what I was doing. If it becomes any success that I can get through that, it’s something that I can hold onto, because other people aren’t gonna be able to just come and do it.

And that goes for other artists, too. You look at somebody like Serengeti. You can’t just go and do that. He’s been around for a long time. We both briefly were involved in the same label. I can’t speak to his business affairs, he’s a cool dude I fuck with him, but I can say he got himself in a place where if you wanna hear a Serengeti do music, you gotta buy his music. If you wanna experience what [Open] Mike Eagle is doing, you gotta buy Mike Eagle’s music. And I think that’s important because there are other people out there where I like that one tape they had but I could get something similar to that from another place. And then there are other artists that people think you can steal what they have, but it’s not as easy as they think. It was like the same way me and a lot of people in my generation were influenced by MF DOOM, but you can’t just do that. It might seem like you could, especially later because his work became different. But you listen to all his stuff before 2005, like MM..Food, and there’s a degree of technical skill, pathos, and also experiences born out of his time. The differences that he’s seen, the different styles that he’s seen. You couldn’t just put on some beats and, even if you know MF DOOM now, you couldn’t just go and do some of those things justice. Like Operation Doomsday is funny and sad and beautiful and tragic and gritty and grimy in a way that you can’t just get up and go do that. And then there’s other people like Roc Marciano, a lot of people take stuff that he does, and while his subject matter is not original, not a lot of people have his chops, his technical skill, and his personality, his wit. But yeah, do something that’s unique to you, do something that means something to you. Try to tell somebody something that’s true.

billy woods and Elucid are Armand Hammer. Their album Haram, produced by The Alchemist, is out March 26 via Backwoodz Studioz.

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