posted: 07-15-04
interview : tadah
photo : comi bassard
Okay, please introduce yourself.
I am the billy woods.
Any crew affiliations we should know about?
Well, everyone at the label is tight and we stay hustling together. So Backwoods is almost a crew in and of itself. That's me, Priviledge, Thrill Gatez, and in-house producers Aerotaxi, DJ Marmaduke and, of course, James Bond AKA 007.
Then we got all the affiliates like Stretch Nyce from Rec Circle, Proximity Minds - they put on one of the best live shows you are going to see for under ten bucks, Mike C is wild. Karniege from Definitive Jux, Akir from One Enterprises, Malene Younglao, Monsta Island Czars and of course Cannibal Ox!
Then there's Spit=a-Matics, but you can ask Vordul Mega about that, that's his brainchild. Vordul is a big part of everything I've achieved. He is an old friend, a dope person and one of the most humble cats you will ever meet.
So where are you from? You gotta rep your hood.
I'm from a lot of places. In chronological order: Washington DC, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, Silver Spring Maryland, NYC.
How come you did this travelling?
Many reasons: I was born in DC, moved to Africa because my family was active in the Zimbabwean revolutionary struggle. I lived in Jamaica because I have family there as well. I moved back to Maryland with my mother because she didn't want to live in Africa anymore, for various reasons. NY is where I went to college and eventually lived: Harlem and Brooklyn mostly.
You say Zimbabwe: do you remember the group Zimbabwe Legit?
Nope. I probably should though.
Can you try to compare the different places?
That's a little hard because it's so may of them. But here goes: as far as different nations; Zimbabwe, Jamaica and The United States are all very different. I lived in Zimbabwe during the cold war and we were officially a 'socialist' country. So that was a big difference.
Zimbabwe is very homogenous: there are two sizable black ethnic groups and a small but wealthy white settler class. In the US, there is, obviously a much broader group of ethnicities, more wealth - but that wealth is also very unevenly distributed. Another simple fact is that white supremacy, as an idea, was defeated in the civil/race war that led to Rhodesia becoming Zimbabwe. White supremacy is the basis of America, for better or worse, and it has never been seriously threatened.
Okay, I cant really go on because I could write a book on the differences between Zimbabwe and the US, especially with what is going on in both countries right now.
You just said that your family was active in the Zimbabwe revolutionary struggle. Does that explain the political person you appear to be, considering your rhymes?
I guess, to a certain extent, that is definitely the case. But then again, I have siblings who are very different from me. I always loved history and history informs my opinions on a lot of things. I don't know if it is so much politics as it is just life. How can you discuss life without discussing the ways in which we as humans organize ourselves and govern our disputes? Politics is not just who you vote for, politics is one of the lenses with which to understand the world and ourselves, in my humble opinion. Politics is just history that hasn't happened yet.
What do we need to know about you?
Nothing that you wont hear on one of my albums.
What would you like to tell us about you, that we probably don't care to know? (smile)
People think my lyrics are real serious, which I guess sometimes they are. But I am one of the silliest people. I act like a ten-year-old a lot of the time. A ten year old that's been eating spacecake.
Any other fun facts about you?
I wrote my first real rhyme in a Laundromat in Maine. I worked there but I was on my break.
That's an interesting place to write a rhyme. Have you found a place, location or state that is most inspiring to write rhymes?
Not particularly. But I do write a lot late at night. I am an insomniac, so I am often alone for hours in the early morning and that can be a good time to work because you are not going to get interrupted.
So, what are you plugging right now?
Well, "The Chalice" is out there. It's doing pretty well. And most importantly, I think it's a valuable record. It's not perfect but I think it's some shit that we can build on. And I know some people have really been inspired by the album, so that is cool.
I don't know how many people heard "Eminent Domain" by 007. But that was like the stealth promo. It's instrumentals, lost tracks and remixes by Bond along with freestyles by me, Vordul and Kong. We were giving it away with "The Chalice" and then selling a few and before you know it, the joint went out of print. But it's probably still out there in a couple places like CDBaby and HipHopSite.
The next thing we have going on is a Beep Beep project. He is one half of Aerotaxi. But it's not instrumentals. It's a double EP called "N.P.R. vs M.A.D.". "N.P.R." is Priviledge rapping and Beep Beep on the boards. "M.A.D." is me and Thrill Gatez, again with Beep Beep doing all the production. I'm telling you now: Priviledge is a beast on the mic and Beep Beep really kills it beatwise. Aerotaxi is still going but Beep Beep really showed me he has something unique on his own too. Gatez is also going to surprise a lot of people on this "M.A.D." joint; wait and see.
Oh, and Vordul's new joint on Nature Sounds is Sid Vicious. It's gonna bury everything.
Tell us a little bit more about "The Chalice". I reviewed it, but it's always more interesting to hear things from the horse's mouth. If you don't mind me referring to you as a horse (laugh). Just kidding.
Well, time has given me a really good perspective on "The Chalice". I think that for the most part, we succeeded in what we wanted to do: Broaden our musical range, improve our sound quality, push my self lyrically and try to also surprise ourselves. I think that it is a solid and at times, really fresh album.
At the same time, I want to keep moving, doing different stuff and trying to keep pushing myself and everyone else to get things several notches above where they are. I want to make a classic. Period. And I haven't yet. But, I do think that both "Camouflage" and "The Chalice" are very good albums, and worthy of picking up.
"The Chalice" is superior, in my opinion, but it's hard to say. I just feel like the best material on "The Chalice" is really, really good and the guests really hit their marks. Perhaps most importantly, the production is off the wall, and our sound quality improved a ton.
It's funny, I get some people who tell me that they preferred "Camouflage" and I can understand that because the album is more focused in terms of subject matter and production, overall theme. I listen to it now and its sometimes surprising because we recorded most of Camouflage in 2002 and some of that Iraq shit turned out to be so on target. Like that line "I got more mobile labs than Iraq turned out not to have." off "BFGs". I wrote that in early '02 and I remember recording it and being like: if I turn out to be wrong this line is going to be retarded. But I was confident that the post-9/11 US aggression towards the 'Axis of Evil' and Iraq in particular had little or nothing to do with WMD. And I was right, so that's good. Although it didn't prevent what happened.
What do you hope we'll get out of this record.
Some dope tracks and some ideas about life. It's art. Hopefully it's good art. And you can't really dictate what people will get out of your art.
How did you get into this lil' culture we call hip hop?
I came back from Zimbabwe in 1989 and the first night back here I watched "Do The Right Thing" and was blown away by Public Enemy. Three days later I bought "It Takes A Nation Of Millions…" on cassette.
What is it about this culture that influences and inspires you?
I love words. And I love music. And hip-hop brings the two closer together than anything else.
Do you write words that are to remain without music?
Sometimes. I am a writer, so I write all types of stuff.
What had you start participating, rather than just watching and listening?
I never thought about it like that. I wrote because I wanted to and eventually I started letting friends hear me spit and it just continued growing for years. It was very organic. I think the conception of music - or any other type of art - being made into a spectator sport is questionable. In Africa, when people are singing or dancing, everyone sings and dances, not just whoever is the 'most talented'. I never thought of myself as having a barrier between artist and fan. I still am a fan even though I am an artist. I like it that way.
At the same time, do we really wanna hear and see a bunch of people sing and dance, that can neither sing nor dance, nor rap for that matter?
But who decides who can rap? I know people who say Tupac was a mediocre MC and people who think all southern rap is garbage. Aesop Rock is an example of somebody who certain people think is the illest and others think is just spitting nonsense. Who is right? For example, who on this list is nice and who should quit rapping: El-P, Ghostface, Trick Daddy, Aceyalone, Sage Francis, E-40, Lloyd Banks.
Go to different parts of the country/world, ask different color/gender/age/ class of people and you will get entirely different answers on which people can rap and which can't. So all that is entirely subjective. Art is, by its nature, entirely subjective. I don't care how many people rap, or try to rap. I only care that some people get tons of exposure and others get none because of corporate decision makers and a complacent public.
So there really is no good and bad? Or is everybody good and bad?
I know what I like. And I can say why I think certain things are 'bad'. But is Trick Daddy a good rapper? I like a decent amount of his stuff. But lots of people think he sucks. What about The Streets? I like some of his shit but I can see why a lot of people cant listen to him, for various stylistic reasons. A lot of people shitted on "Bazooka Tooth" and maybe they had solid reasons, but was it a bad album or was it just different from what they like or expected? I dunno.
And hip hop was founded on competition: b-boy-, freestyle-, scratch battles. And within a competition, where someone wins and someone loses, one is considered better than the other. What's your take on that concept then?
If El-P battled Eminem on wax, who would win? Both have proven an ability to answer any diss and launch lyrical assaults of their own. The winner would all depend on who was judging. Who won LL versus Canibus? I say Canibus, but I read in magazines all the time how LL crushed him. Or Nas versus Jay? I say "Ether" ended it but many people say Jay won in the end because of "Super Ugly". Same goes for Cage and Esoteric, Beans and Jadakiss or pretty much anything. Art can never be anywhere but in the eye of the beholder.
If you weren't an artists, what other job would you like to have?
I have had a lot of jobs. I really enjoyed teaching. I also have experience in the informal economy.
Who would you like to work with the most? Dead or living? Why?
Bob Marley, because I am half Jamaican and we could do a remake of "Zimbabwe". Plus I'd put him onto the super silver haze and he could show me how to play the guitar. But Peter Tosh too, cause he was rough. He could show me a thing or two as far as revolutionary music. 2Pac because I always thought he was ill. He brings that fire, that energy. Alive, it's a lot of people: Breezly Brewin, Bigg Jus, Ghostface, MF Doom, MF Grimm - Grimm: "Go Back To Africa", lets do a remix. Cam'ron, David Banner, Goodie Mob, Del, Aesop Rock, Madlib, it's mad people. I would want to work with them because they are people who's work inspires me to get in the studio.
I'm not one of those people who doesn't listen to any rap post-95 or something, I love hip-hop that's coming out today just as much as I did back in the day. I buy other people's albums and shit, whatever. I love hiphop music. People ask me when the new Can Ox is dropping and I'm like: trust me, I'll be at Fat Beats before anybody else. Sleeping in a tent to get my copy. I love rap music, straight up.
So when is the new Can Ox dropping? (laugh)
They coming with an EP called "Cipher Unknown" before the end of the year. I think.
Now, you go from MF Grimm to David Banner in a heartbeat. But these are very different types of rap. So you don't mind the more commercial and less complex, just as much as the gritty underground stuff?
If I like the music, I like it. To me, Tupac was complex and so is Grimm. But Grimm is also one to just spit the truth and so is Banner. And that's what I like about both of them. I like a lot of different stuff and I think that's good, at least I know something before I say it is wack.
So all those people that only listen to the one or the other, what are they missing and/or what do they not get?
They are probably missing out on some good music. It reminds me of people who read a lot who wont read a comic book or a graphic novel. Or people who don't like to read. When you block out whole areas of things you know little about, rest assured, you are missing something.
File sharing on the internet: I do it too, or I'll do you if you do it?
I don't care about file sharing. If that's how these ideas I have are going to find an audience, so be it. Money makes the world go round so I do need it. But it can't ever take precedence over the art itself. Buy "The Chalice" if you can or want to. If you can't or don't trust if it's any good, then download it. I cant worry about that. I got music to make.
What was the last album/showcase/experience that had you go: man, I better step up my skills before I step out with something again?
Listen to the track "Shinin'": I talk about that near the end of the first beat.
What do you really enjoy listening to right now?
Ghostface's "Pretty Toney", MF Doom's "Operation Doomsday" and "Madvillainy", Mosta Island Czars' "Escape From Monsta Island", Sizzla's "Black Woman And Child", "N.P.R.", Luniz' "Operation Stackola", Redman's "Muddy Waters", "Champion EP", "Boy In Da Corner", Vast Aire's "Look Ma, No Hands", Wu-Tang Clan's "The W" and 007's "Eminent Domain".
When you hang up your superhero artist cape, what else do you do for fun?
Eat, smoke, talk, read, watch "Aqua Teen Hunger Force".
State of hip hop: good or bad?
Hip-hop is fine man. I really get tired of all the bitching and moaning. People have this idealized picture in their heads of when hip-hop was 'keeping it real'. I came into hip-hop in the early 90s and I remember Hammer and Vanilla Ice or better yet: MC Brains, Young Black Teenagers, Deion Sanders album. Some of the wackest shit ever was real popular in the so-called rap golden ages.
Right now, hip hop is real competitive with a lot of ill motherfuckers out there. How can that be bad for the art? The mainstream is what it is, nothing less, nothing more. But there are dope mainstream artists: Ghostface, Nas, E-40, Beanie Siegel, dead prez, Jadakiss, RZA, Goodie Mob, OutKast, and that's just a few. And underground? Watch yourself if you think you nice. I'm not even going to name names cause its too many. A lot of cats is ridiculoid.
What do you want to achieve before you retire?
Making something unforgettable.
You must have a website, right? What is it? It will be up and runnin' soon.
Comments or shout outs?
Shouts to all our fans, anyone who came to our shows. Peace to Anton from the Lone Star studios/Alamo and whaddup to Cool'eh magazine for giving us some press. Shouts to Screamphoenix productions, Al Bueno covering all bases, DVDs, promotions, whatever. Casino Earl: we waiting for the Opus, man!, PEM Designs, Day by Day Entertainment, Nature Sounds, everyone who's lighting a wood right now!
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