This week, underground favorite MC Billy Woods' new album Today I Wrote Nothing hits store shelves and digital retailers. One of the most excitingly inimitable voices to emerge in hip-hop this decade, his 2012 breakthrough album History Will Absolve Me was met with universal acclaim as his cult following continued to grow over more projects, including Dour Candy, a collaboration album with celebrated indie hip-hop super-producer Blockhead (Aesop Rock's "Daylight"). Woods' new album, which also features production from Aesop Rock, Busdriver and Willie Green, has a notably different production style from the rest of his catalog, giving his one-of-a-kind flow an entirely new context to explore short narratives and conceptual explorations on life and death.
We spoke to the elusive Woods about the new album, as well as the shifting place of political commentary in hip-hop and interesting places of inspiration.
OC Weekly (Chaz Kangas): Having been in the New York underground rap scene for so long, you've witnessed first hand the 2000s Bush Era-fad of every-rapper-is-a-political-rapper and 3rd generation Immortal Technique knock-offs gaining popularity. Being a noted world history buff as well as someone who makes music that touches on a lot of geo-political and local government topics, do you feel there's a line in creating political music between passionately tackling a subject and exploiting a topic?
Billy Woods: Well, I think there's a couple things going on. I remember when I first did Camoflauge, I took it to [New York underground hip-hop mothership record store] Fat Beats myself. I remember the girl who was working there said she'd give them to somebody, and told me to check out [political rapper] Immortal Technique's record he had just put out. It was interesting because, especially with everything happening with 9/11, all of a sudden there was more of an upswing of people talking more specifically about politics and geo-politics. To me, the conspiracy theory aspect was long in hip-hop because of how Americans and especially black American's long history of how history and the news is presented to them. I'm a huge fan of Goodie Mob, but if you listen to those records, there's a lot of conspiracy theory aspects and insightful commentary mixed in. Wu-Tang has some 5%-er ideology mixed in. But after Immortal Technique, there was a more specific thing. I had grown up in a very politicized family and had always looked at things through those lenses because that's what my family did. It was weird that all of a sudden I'd find myself [hearing] people saying "Oh, this is another political rapper" or "another person jumping on 9/11." There was definitely a bigger upsurge of people talking more specifically, if not necessarily more intelligently, about stuff like that.
From my own perspective, a lot of times I feel people are saying things that are neither insightful or interesting. I don't know if I'd call it "exploitive" as much as there's a lot of hackwork done in those days. It's very easy to be oversimplified. The War in Iraq didn't just happen over an oil company. That's one piece of a complicated puzzle, and people who had never paid attention to geo-politics or world event prior to that who jumped in "this is because of this and this is a solution to this." It's a lot deeper than that. I guess for me, it's tough to judge other people's motives, but I've never sat down thought "what political event or situation can I reference today?" It's just, if you hung around me, that's just how I am and the stuff that I talk about. It's no difference than my other references, I'm really into food and there's tons of food references in my music. It's just never been a thing. My aim is to not make some sort of didactic point.
Given how layered and complex your lyrics are, do you find critics or fans completely misinterpret your work?
It does happen, but there's a couple levels to that. The first level is, yeah, going to something like RapGenius for me is a nightmare. I'll go to RapGenius sometimes and be like "What.The.Fuck." Don't get me wrong, lots of people research and put shit correctly on there. But I had to stop going there because shit that should be pretty obvious, is so far off of a departure point for [a] reference, especially in this day-and-age when at a single keystroke more information than has ever been available to human beings is available to us faster than the entire history of humanity. There will be shit when you'll fear for the future of our country. There's shit in there that's just wacky.
But, there's another level where, as an artist, there's nuances to things that I did where later their interpretation is something I didn't even see. My mother is a critic and writer, so I always learned that the writers' intent doesn't always intend how you can interpret something. Thinking critically about art, it's not always necessary to say "what did the writer aim to do here?" That's an important part of it, but it doesn't prevent other interpretations or people showing other ways in which it may reflect unintended thoughts of the creator, which is all totally valid. It's not a top-down dictatorship when it comes to art and interpreting it.
And there's a third level where I try to leave space for myself and others to interpret lyrics as they happen. It's not always a question of "is this wrong?" Now, that said, there is shit like I said that's "definitely not it." And I could go and talk to writers who I always loved and my interpretation may not be what they intended and that's wrong, and that'd be cool to know. And other times, sometimes what bothers me more is lazy [criticism]. I don't expect everyone to like my music or be a fan. Sometimes I'll get a bad review and that's the way it goes. I'm not the type to go off on people giving me a bad review. I hate lazy stuff. I saw one review of the [new] album that said "it's essentially a rehash of Woods' other records, once again we're confronted with civilized nations doing uncivilized things around the world." None of that happened! You could write a bad review of the album, but that's just made up! There's almost no geo-politics things on this record, and lazy writing, lazy analysis from people who are being paid, that's annoying.