Intro and questions by Dan-O

Answers by Billy Woods

It has been very difficult this to year to pick an MVP. So many artists committed to their vision on a very high level. I will reveal the Honorable Mention next week and roll out the OFFICIAL MVP post the week after that. In the meantime, one of the brightest stars of 2019 hip hop was Billy Woods. He came to Maine recently and somehow, through a chain of cool people, I scored an interview with him. Five questions for one of the most analytical rappers still releasing new content. I am so happy my seething nerd brain found his for this brief time.

1. If someone references your music as pessimistic do you view that as a pejorative? Do you reject the classification? Pessimism keeps closer to the things in life that need the most attention. Well managed, it is a real plus for me and your music is a natural part of that for me. How do you feel about it?
Hmm. Good question. I do not think of it as a pejorative, and I feel like as a general statement that could be an accurate description but I do feel like “pessimistic” is a bit of an oversimplification. Or perhaps just not as nuanced a term as I might choose. “Pessimism” in-and-of-itself is only interesting to a point, and ultimately is no more revealing of life and humanity than optimism. I think my music can be bleak and unsparing, but it is also about snatching one’s humanity from the fire’s that rage about and within us. Sometimes it’s about coming to terms (or failing to) with loss and powerlessness, which are negative things but opportunities to be human, to pull something meaningful from the chaos. In life, everything that ever meant anything to you will eventually be taken away. How to confront that inescapable truth and not be beggared by it, is the question that I often find myself chipping away at.
2. You’ve hit a real high point visibility wise. I have a theory that artists with dense or experimental material need to teach the audience how to listen. Once they do, that audience opens up for others (Prince’s popularity makes it easier for D’Angelo to break) Are you feeling things opening up? When did you mark that transition?
In regards your second sentence, I agree that audiences need to be prepared or taught to listen, but where and by whom is the question. Example one; I was a big fan of the Wu as a teenager, by the time I am in college, Liquid Swords, Cuban Linx are two of my favorite rap records of all time but Ironman just didn’t connect the same way. It was still Wu, and I liked it but Ghostface was not in my top tier of rappers. I really didn’t think about him much. Then in 1998 I am in my apartment in Harlem and Vordul comes through and starts talking about this song “Cobra Clutch” on the new Wu-Tang compilation/side-project The Swarm. I had already heard the album and the song, and Vordul is gassing it up like this is one of the greatest verses he ever heard and I am skeptical. Then we listen to it, and he is breaking down the slang and visuals, the fucking technique, you understand? And we start going through some other Ghost shit that I already had heard but I hadn’t really heard! And it changed everything for me. So often I think it’s about fans and artists and critics putting people on to “how to listen” to someone. As an artist, I can’t come out the speaker and explain to someone why “The Man Who Would Be King” is special, someone listening has to be in tuned to what’s happening, has to hear it, and put people on. As an artist, I have to try and make something that is compelling enough that someone out there wants to do that. Wants to press rewind, wants to take that dive, wants to put people on. Either that, or get a really expensive publicist.
And while agree that previous artists lay the groundwork, if what you are doing is original enough that it is not immediately recognizable as the fruit of it’s predecessors, the average person is not going to make that effort. For example, I was just starting out as an artist when I found MF DOOM, and he appealed to me as a listener and greatly influenced me  as an artist. I took a lot from him as I was trying to find my own way but I wasn’t making knockoff DOOM records, I was doing billy woods. The references were totally different, the perspectives more personal, the style more literary, the flow more unkempt. I needed people to ++make a leap and people don’t want to make a leap, they want to hear what they are expecting to hear and already know they will like.
3. You’ve tattooed 2019 with gripping personal stories about poverty. “F’n with the joystick, pretendin’ I was really playin’” at the end of A Day In A Week In A Year comes to mind. Images like that are part of hip hops enduring legacy of explaining poverty to America. Do you see this musical focus dissipating? What happens if we lose art about poverty?
I will answer your question, but I want to say that although “poverty” is the overarching metaphor in that end piece, there are other things happening too. A  desire for escapism, a lonely latchkey child, the bitterness of coveting…after all, I didn’t need to play those games. We aren’t talking about having enough to eat. But at the same time, the barrier between being and out is hard and fast. The age when you realize that you want things which you cannot have but other people can, for reasons completely beyond your control or (seemingly) ability to remedy. It also functions, in the song, as the unveiling of another moment in the narrators simultaneous journey through his past and a suddenly very immediate present. The song in some ways is the equivalent of finding a shoebox full of polaroid photographs when you are clearing out your childhood home.
As to your query, that will likely never happen. And if it does, it will mean that either poverty or human beings have ceased to exist.
4.Is it reasonable to believe we can at some point move America past colonialism/manifest destiny mentality? Is it too ingrained in our national character?
America is simultaneously a powerful nation state and just an idea in people’s heads, so this is a difficult question to answer. But all things eventually give way, right? Or at least under the names we have ascribed to them.
5. How many levels of your writing do you NEED your audience to understand in order to feel comfortable?
It should sounds dope. It should stay with you, long after you have put it aside. 
Please go to Billy Woods bandcamp and bump everything. If you’ve never heard him everyone says you start with History Will Absolve Me which is considered an underground CLASSIC. Buy what strikes you. Teach your friends why it is dope.

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