Tag Archives: billy woods

The Best Hip-Hop on Bandcamp: March 2019

Hip Hop

March’s most vital new hip-hop projects on Bandcamp include an Afro-Chicano MC’s coming-of-age story set to by sweet soul samples, a hardcore Nottingham-to-New York collaboration inspired by Chekhov’s gun theory, and a svelte EP from a Chicago rapper that drops feisty commentary on identity politics. We also spotlight the latest rap figure to represent the increasingly vibrant scene in Rochester.  Continue reading

An Introduction to the Dystopian Hip-Hop of Backwoodz Studioz

Backwoodz Studio

Willie Green, the in-house producer for the Brooklyn-based record label Backwoodz, vividly remembers his first meeting with label founder Billy Woods.

“I go outside to wait for him, and I see some dude walk by, face buried in a book, oblivious to everything else. I’m thinking, ‘Who the hell is this guy, reading as he’s walking through Times Square?’ He eventually comes back up the street and we go in the studio. That’s kind of Woods in a nutshell: he’s on a deeper wavelength than all the bullshit around him.”

The same could be said about the label itself, running 15 years strong all while maintaining a defiant, idiosyncratic sound. Now, Backwoodz is at its apex, a proven team of creators whose new and upcoming records are garnering more critical attention (and sales) than ever before.

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A Walk Through The Avant-Garde World of ‘Art Rap’ Music


Illustrations by Daiana Ruiz

Coined by Chicago native Open Mike Eagle in the early aughts, “art rap” was originally a reactionary phrase, one that responded directly to the subgenre of “art rock” and implied that the standard set of sonic or lyrical conventions did not apply. On another level, it was a way to distinguish his music from the music that fell under broad and nebulous labels like “hip-hop” and “underground rap,” which are sometimes embraced by rappers and listeners who believe that anything that doesn’t explicitly champion “real hip-hop” is, well, you know—the opposite.

“Having studied the history of American pop music and black music, it’s appalling where we are now,” Eagle told L.A. Weekly in 2010. “That’s why I wanted to give my music another term, something to differentiate itself from the pack. You can’t call everything ‘hip-hop.’ I was listening to rock music, and it struck me that a lot of the rock I liked was called ‘art rock.’ I started wondering why they had a genre where they can do whatever the fuck they want to do, and rappers are scorned if they don’t have enough machismo.”

Today, art rap is even a tag on this website. To sum it up (albeit reductively), art rap is avant-garde rap music that is antithetical to terrestrial radio station playlists. (That’s not always the case—records by artists like Kendrick Lamar certainly push the boundaries of rap.) More broadly, the subgenre has some identifying characteristics, including but not limited to: left field, forward-thinking production, unconventional song structures and cadences, songs written from the perspective of fictional characters, explicit and protracted engagement with social and political issues, and absurdist metaphors and similes.

From the description above, it should be clear that labeling a song/album “art rap” does not mean that it’s only that. Nor are any of those characteristics necessarily new. The list of art rap forebears is long, spanning from west coast jazz-rap progenitors Freestyle Fellowship to one-time Def Jukies like El-P, Aesop Rock, and Cannibal Ox. The list below features 12 rappers whose output—either recent or career-long—meets some of the above criteria. Most, if not all of them, have worked with at least one other rapper on the list in some capacity. This overlap was not intentional, but its existence affirms the artists’ aesthetic kinship, the reality that art rap has always been and will continue to flourish.

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The Best New Hip-Hop on Bandcamp: July 2017

Best Hip Hop

This month’s selection of vital hip-hop projects covers albums inspired by the socially-conscious poetics of Gil Scott-Heron, plus beat tapes homaging the production genius of Prince Paul, and a regional showcase themed around the Street Fighter II video game. Elsewhere, you’ll be pleased to hear that the age-old battle cry against the high-end corporate machinations of the hip-hop industry is still booming through loud and clear.

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Album of the Day: billy woods, “Known Unknowns”

To live in billy woods’s world is to battle the daily problems Phife expressed on “8 Million Stories,” or the “six million ways to die” as discussed by Cutty Ranks (which is also the name of Ranks’s 1996 album). Woods doesn’t dance around the terror of being a Black American citizen; on his new album, Known Unknowns, he wants listeners to feel the burden. Take the hook on “Unstuck” as an example: “Rolled the dice / Fucked around and lost your life / Double or nothing? / It’s only right.” Woods rhymes as though life is the opening scene of The Wire and he’s explaining the American way to Jimmy McNulty. This is the war Prodigy once predicted.

On Known Unknowns, woods presents terror as a common occurrence in places where it’s not supposed to happen. “Entourage exchanging rounds in your gentrified downtown,” he quips on “Superpredator,” a Kool G Rap-influenced track with a kill-or-be-killed aesthetic. There is carnage on this record. The hooks express consequence: death is not a cold-blooded aberration, it’s the daily forecast.

Produced entirely by Blockhead, Known Unknowns is a sobering record, which isn’t surprising given much of woods’s catalogue. And yet, even in its bleakest moments, there’s a concerted effort to be playful on tracks like “Police Came To My Show,” “Groundhogs Day,” and the intro to “Fall Back,” where woods laments his second-class status in a woman’s heart. “Police Came To My Show” dials into a “Funky Dividends” levity, subverting the anti-blue stance in rap: the cops pay the cover price to get in, stay for a while, and dip before his last verse. The song’s hook focuses on the positive aspects of performing a masterful set as feds watch from the crowd. Any good will woods established on “Police” quickly evaporates on the paranoid “Everybody Knows”: “They know who you are!” he howls atop ominous piano chords.

This isn’t the first time woods and Blockhead have teamed up. 2013’s Dour Candy helped elevate woods out of New York’s underground anonymity, and gave Blockhead the foundation to grapple with the rapper’s voluble style. With Known Unknowns, Blockhead embellishes the production—like on “Washington Redskins,” where he blends grungy bass, somber horns, and sampled chants. Elsewhere, Blockhead pairs woods with brooding bass lines presumably lifted from African psych-rock. Think of it as a melting pot of New York rap, an unflinching backdrop for woods’s pithy character sketches.

In fact, psychedelia gestates within the production like a bad trip, while a few delicate melodies attempt to reconcile the terror. Woods is joined by Homeboy Sandman, Aesop Rock, and his other half to Armand Hammer, Elucid, but it’s the vocal samples that compliment his message the most, whether it’s Ghostface’s “my heart is cold like Russia” on “Source Awards,” or the voice of MF DOOM on “Keloid” with the lament “Born alone / Die alone / No matter who your man is.” A solemn way to live, but there’s no escaping the anguish.

Blake Gillespie