Going Left is a monthly column that highlights exceptional work from indie hip-hop acts. Read previous editions of the column here.
“Tryna pay the rent but that’s not Black empowerment—that’s you tryna pay the rent,” rapper and Backwoodz Studioz co-founder billy woods says on “Protoevengalium,” a track from his new album Aethiopes. The line symbolizes his ability to encapsulate complex ideas into poignant one-liners, like on his “Nynex” collaboration where he asserts, “The future isn’t flying cars, it’s Rachel Dolezal absolved” alongside partner-in-rhyme ELUCID, Denmark Vesey, and fellow Going Left artist Quelle Chris.
The 13-track project shows billy in top form lyrically, which is a marvel 20 years into a career that’s seen him and Backwoodz carve a formidable space in the rap ecosystem. (He remembers being on tour, “driving across the country thinking whether [he] should be doing something else.”) But those qualms seem in the rearview for billy, who has become one of the most revered lyricists in the game, as well as the head of a label that’s releasing projects from a who’s who of talented acts from all over the country.
We got a chance to speak with billy about Backwood Studioz, Armand Hammer’s work with Alchemist, and why he feels like the only person who could have crafted Aethiopes. The interview, lightly edited for clarity, is below.
What has it been like creating over the pandemic, a time that’s been so tumultuous for so many people?
It’s difficult to pinpoint, because it’s been two years of life that have been totally different. Even now, when people are like, ‘It’s going back to normal,’ it’s still not the norm. There is no full going back. Life was profoundly changed in lots of ways. Of course that extended to making music. In a concrete sense, it definitely changed the way that several of the projects were made. The initial plan for working on Haram ended up being very different from what happened, but those processes became other processes, which had their own effects, benefits, and drawbacks.
What were the benefits?
One benefit was that ELUCID and I had a lot of time to write. There was a lot of time and motivation to undertake projects during the pandemic, because you were at home all the time. A lot of people’s day jobs were suspended, but they were getting paid, at least on some level. Not that that didn’t take a hit, but if you’re an artist, you suddenly became a full-time artist by default. Also, keeping your mental health and taking care of your kids, but you had to do those things anyway. It just got a little harder.
If you’re doing certain types of writing and certain types of creating where you need big chunks of time to do stuff, it was great. Your day is stretching out in front of you, if you want to take six hours to work on an album or work on a book or any fucking creative idea you ever had. It’s like, go ahead. Ain’t shit happening. TV? You know what I mean?
I spoke with Alchemist this January, and he talked about how working with Armand Hammer was a freedom that he really relished. How was it from your perspective?
Oh, it was great. He and I are very close in age. We have some other similar life circumstances, and ELUCID’s just a little bit younger than us. Al is a person who I really get along with. I have a ton of respect for what he does, but he’s also really easy to get along with. He’s funny, and we like a lot of the same things. It was nice. I made a friend and then made some really dope artwork with him, which is the best combination.
He has a lot of experience and I learned a lot from being around him. His post-production is really serious. And I give that to Preservation, too, in very different ways. Because Preservation’s very, very exacting. Everything’s got to be exactly a certain way, but that’s how he works and it is successful when you hear the finished product. With Alchemist, it’s a little different. There’s a specific thing that needs to be a specific way, and there’s little late things that he’ll bring in and add where you’re like, “Oh, that’s one thing that he added, but it does so much.”
Willie Green is an integral part of that process, him locking it in with the producer. That’s what it looked like, being a third person looking in. When Willie Green, Alchemist, and ELUCID are in a room discussing how things should sound like between the three of them, they’ve forgotten more about production than I’ve ever even known, so if I want to say something or if I’m going to try and be proactive about something, it would have to be something I felt strongly about.
That’s dope that you acknowledge that because in a lot of creative fields, artists feel like the center of the universe. Their opinion wields over everything, even outside of their expertise, but it’s dope to see you realize, “Hey, maybe I should…”
Oh, yeah. People like to do everything. I don’t see any sort of necessity to do that, man. If you’ve ever been on a team, you’ve got to know your role, then actually do it properly. Ego is a dangerous thing. Everybody has an ego. Artists have a lot of egos, but it’s important sometimes to be like, man, I’m trying to win, man. It’s not that important.
Is ego something that you ever had to substantially work on in your career, in terms of your creative process?
No, because I didn’t have anything to have an ego about. I believed in what I was doing and small groups of people here and there did, too. Most of the time, I had to keep my morale up when other people were probably like, “Man, why are you even doing this?”
I did those empty shows. I put out records where [I couldn’t] get any coverage at all. You work so hard on it, you really believe in it, and it’s like nobody else does. I’ve done tours where it’s like, three shows with no guarantee or door deals in between every show with a guarantee. And you’re driving across the country thinking whether you should be doing something else altogether. So I have a lot of perspective now. And I think for me personally, that’s a beneficial thing. I definitely want what’s mine, but I have no problem with everybody getting what is theirs. Like, I never really need more than what is actually mine.
You’ve spoken about how the market that existed when you first started rapping wasn’t as conducive to having a label as it is now. How have today’s resources helped you?
The issue back then was we didn’t have as much great work, and hadn’t been critically acclaimed, perhaps with reason. It’s hard to judge the two against each other because obviously if we’d been looked on like this at that time, maybe it would’ve been different. We also didn’t have the music [releases] to the degree that we do now. That’s a tough comparison to me. We could have been successful then if people had thought Emergency Powers was Madvillainy, you know what I mean? [Laughs] But they didn’t, so we weren’t.
But as far as right now, it’s really good to have the ability to go directly to the consumer, and once you have that fan base, you can build on it. Streaming, honestly, does a lot for a lot of people. I don’t feel like it does great for us. It just is, and you add it to the pile and it’s cool, but people actually buying the record digitally or however, it just does so much more. But I’m sure that’s different for other artists at different levels and different types of fan bases.
Having a dedicated following and people who actually go and buy your album directly—the digital version from you or from Bandcamp—that’s great. And then vinyl collectors and fans who cop on vinyl, that’s great. For the most part, we reward people who cop our stuff by putting a lot of thought and time into it and giving you an actual worthwhile artifact. I’m usually impressed with what we’ve managed to do as far as album artwork.
Can you get into the significance of the title of your album Aethiopes?
It has to do with ideas of Africa. By creating and defining Africa, Europeans also defined what they imagined themselves to be. It’s about othering, and at the same time it’s about creating an imagined self, imagined community. There’s Aethiopes, there’s the real Ethiopia, and then there’s also the Ethiopianist “thinking of diaspora peoples.” There’s layers upon layers, and even the name Ethiopia originally coming from Aethiopia on some level, which was a European creation. There’s a lot of layers to it that I think are very interesting.
What made you want to work with Preservation as the producer on Aethiopes?
He convinced me, and we made a bunch of cool stuff before, so I was down. But I was really thinking, “Hey, I just finished doing a group project with Alchemist, and planning to do something with Kenny Segal again.”
Doing another collaborative thing wasn’t really top of my mind, ironically, but I was like okay, maybe we’ll do an EP. He brought it up a few times and then he was like, “Let’s just start working. Don’t worry about how long it is.” I still had the Alchemist thing, so we just did a couple of little things early. And then once that was out of the way, it was the pandemic, [and I had] lots of time, so I just started really working and sort of putting together the bulk of the album then. I’ve always respected him as a producer. We’d done a few things on each other’s projects and then it was just him convincing me, like, let’s do it.
A lot of people are marveling that you’re still getting better so deep into your career. How do you feel about that notion, and how cognizant are you about the idea of “topping the last work”?
Long before any of that started, I always felt like, as an artist, you have to get better or you fall off. I don’t really want to sit in place, but that is a scary thing to me. Like, one day maybe you sit down and you don’t have any ideas, or the ideas that you do have, you think they’re good, but they’re not. I think about stuff like that. So yeah, I do think it’s important to push myself and try to do different things. I don’t want to make the same album over and over, but that’s just me. I’m not saying what anyone else should do.
You previously said Aethiopes is “definitely an album that I feel like I’m the only person that could have made it.” Can you expand on that?
I have a pretty unique perspective on pretty odd life circumstances and coincidences. My family history is the breadth of the Black diaspora, to some extent. We have the Caribbean, we have America, and we have Sub-Saharan Africa, if it’s still OK to use that term. Also, the fact that I was born in the new world, but I grew up in Africa itself. I go back to visit, but then I also came back here when I was still young enough for this to be a foundational part of my childhood and adolescence.
I think [my family history] is reflected in the unusually broad nature of the album. There’s a lot happening in the record and the way that it’s approached. It’s one of those records where I’m like, “I’m the only person who could make this record.” And I like that. I’m sure somebody else could make a record that explored similar themes, but not in that way. It’s good to know that [you’re] not just out here repeating things other people are doing. It’s a pretty distinctive record.
There are songs like “Nynex” and “Sauvage” that have two or three features. How do you know when you want to have certain rappers on those kinds of songs?
With “Nynex,” I liked the beat, so I selected it, and then I had some thoughts about what I was going to do with it. Sometimes if you have a collaborator who you trust, which I do [with ELUCID], you send a list of some beats. I was like, “Which song do you want to rap on, what do you like?” And that was one that he picked. So he had the beat for a minute. Quelle and Preservation had collaborated before, and I was like, “Oh, well, maybe this is a good combination,” so I sent him that beat and he was with it.
The Denmark thing happened just off of chance. He hit me up. He was in the city, I was working on the song, things were happening, and I was like, “I have this song, maybe you should come through and see if you want to do something, just kind of spur of the moment.” So he came through the studio and we did it.
With the Boldy James thing, I met him in person. I really liked him, just hanging out in California at Al’s spot a couple times. We had all been in the same place. So I just approached him to see if he’d be down to do something because I’m a fan of his work, and he was like, “Sure.” And that was the song that I’d been like, “Oh, I could hear him on this.”
With Gabe Nandez, I wanted somebody who was going to bring another aspect to that sort of diasporic nature of the album, and somebody who was multilingual and knew French. It seemed good, especially given Preservation’s own family lineage and past. And then the title of the song, which is kind of an inside baseball reference to code where a dog whistle… It is the word savage on the one hand, and then on the other hand, it’s also like a coded word, dog whistle thing in writer’s circles in France. So it has to do with immigration and other things like that.
One of my favorite things about your craft as an MC is how you’re able to encapsulate complex, layered ideas into one line or one particular visual. What do you attribute that skill to?
Part of it is I’m not that great at that many things, but I am a good writer. Part of it is just the imagination to think of certain things in the first part. And then the other part is having some sort of gift, talent, and experience with words to where you can be like, “All right, how can I be better at expressing something?” And then encapsulating an idea. You have to start off with the language tools, and then you have to have the creative side of being an imaginative person to begin with. It depends what type of writer you are and how you approach that craft, and what type of thinker you are. There is somebody who’d make a whole song about the various ideas within the idea of “the future is Rachel Dolezal absolved.” I’m not that person, but that’s not to say that somebody couldn’t make it a good song. It’s just not how I would approach it. To me, it’s key to leave some room for the person to imagine for themselves. Sometimes with horror movies, you need to see the whole monster unfold in front of you. But with other movies, it’s scary because you don’t ever fully see what is there, you know? So those two approaches are equally powerful—leaving people room to think different things. And there are other times where you want to cut off escape routes for people to think other types of ways.
One of the lines on the album that really impacted me is on “Remorseless,” where you say, “It’s a freedom in admitting it’s not going to get better.” When did you realize that freedom yourself? And what do you hold onto after that realization?
The line has two parts. It says, “There’s a freedom in admitting it’s not going to get better, washing your hands with people you’ve known forever. I’d be a liar if I feigned surprise, a goat eats where it’s tethered.”
Sometimes people do things that they’ve always done, and that’s generally what happens. And then later people are shocked. “Oh, I can’t believe they did XY.” Of course they did. This person always does that. Every time, it’s consistent, whether you’re talking about one of your friends or family members, or you’re talking about Donald Trump, who has said people were cheating his whole life whenever he lost in something. It’s the most predictable aspect of his personality. You may have family members or friends and they always did the same thing, but maybe at a certain point you were like, “I’m done with it today.”
Obviously you could look at it simply as just the first line: there is a freedom in admitting that certain things are not going to get better. It’s about unburdening yourself from expectations that are unrealistic, which obviously can be sad and upsetting, but also freeing you from a burden that you may have felt before. Even taking in the first interpretation of knowing a person and being like, “It’s not ever going to get better with you in whatever form,” it could be somebody being on drugs or it could be a toxic relationship.
There’s lots of aspects to what it could be. Or even not including that friendship aspect of it, and just taking the line on its own, there’s still the aspect of having some appreciation and understanding of, like, “Hey man, if you had been another person, and had a good run and did a lot of memorable shit…” And they’re a person who brought love in your life and you kept them in your life for a period of time, it’s not like I have to throw the baby out with the bathwater and be like, “Nah, none of that meant anything because now it’s not cool.” Because life is not a zero sum game. You hold on to what you have left to hold onto. To me, it’s that simple.
Is there anything else you wanted to say about your future plans or anything else?
I definitely have a few irons in the fire and things that I’m working on. Most immediately, I’m super excited about being able to play a role in putting together this new ELUCID solo [album]. I’m eager to see what people think of it, and really proud of him as always, as a friend and as a collaborator. I’m in awe of his talent at all times.
Read below to check out three other dope projects that dropped this month: