Track for Track: billy woods on ‘Dour Candy’
Interview by John Bugbee
I knew that doing a track by track interview with billy woods about his new album Dour Candy was going to be a cool experience. The level of insight and detail he puts into every verse he writes is staggering, especially compared to most of his contemporaries. I was surprised though, not just by what a great, genuine guy he was, but by the same level of insight and detail he put into explaining the songs to me. Whether you’re considering giving the album a listen, or you already love it, hopefully this breakdown gives you a window into the creative process of one of the most brilliant artists on the planet in 2013.
Thought on Tracks: For the intro track “Prologue” what movie was sampled and why did you choose it?
billy woods: It’s called The Dancer Upstairs, it’s John Malkovich’s directorial debut. I saw it around about the time it came out, it’s old now…I just think it’s a great movie and part of the reason is I grew up with in a family where my dad and people around me really believed that Marxist revolution was stuff that they lived. When I was a kid I was really up on different groups or whatever, just out of curiosity… I lived in a country where there was wars and it was exciting to me, the of idea of being a guerilla fighter and all of these sorts of things were really glorified. I always knew the Shining Path. I would argue that it’s a top 3 name in leftist revolutionary groups of all time, and it sounds good in Spanish too, Sendero Luminoso. Now of course they ended up being total psychotics and more of a cult of personality and they got way off the reservation… [The Dancer Upstairs] is one of those movies when every time you watch it you catch something new. So I was watching it one day with this girl and [heard that dialogue] and I was like “Yo, I need that”, and then the fact that at the end he said he would never allow anybody to photograph him. Also the reference to history in the beginning he says “You’re a man who understands history right?” That’s the opening line, and obviously my last album was History Will Absolve Me.
2. The Undercard
ToT: “The Undercard” sounds like a day in the life of someone caught in between two worlds. Can you speak on that concept?
billy woods: The beat for that, “One Thousand Nights”, and “Cuito Cuanavale” were all sent to me as part of a batch of really dope loops that Blockhead chopped up when we were about 60% of the way through the record…I told him I was feeling them and he said we should sprinkle them throughout and create some sort of structure. That was one of the big things Blockhead said that helped progress the album further… It let me explore some ideas without a whole lot of structure in a way that I liked while providing structure for the rest of the album. I was really free within these little loops to imagine little self-contained scenes. With “The Undercard” the same night as a show the character that I’m portraying is going to get a re-up… before I do a show a lot of times I can’t even be in the venue, I’ll be like out walking around and just come in the venue when it’s time to perform… When (the character) leaves he’s nervous about getting bagged up, but then at the same time it’s blending with the nervousness about the show. He kills it, but never losing sight of the backpack with the re-up in it… I got this crazy story about “The Undercard” too. I was with this photographer Alexander Richter at my house this other day and he said “It was cool how you did that Clipse thing on the first song” and I was like “yeah, I thought that was cool”. Then he was like, “I put it in and as soon as it came on, before I even heard the lyrics, I was like wait…” and then I was like “wait, what are you talking about?”. Then he was like “that song, the beat, they did the same beat”…I end up looking it up, I had never heard this Clipse song “Freedom” until the other day… The crazy thing is I made, just by sheer coincidence, a “Pushed a ton, no Malice” reference on a song that [uses a beat] from a Clipse song… It was fucking bizarre.
ToT: “Gilgamesh” feels incredibly personal, at the same time it’s almost too interesting to be true. How did this song come about?
billy woods: That song is pretty important to the album. It was in the first batch that Blockhead sent me and I don’t know if anyone else he was collaborating with passed up that beat, but to me when I heard that beat I was like ‘Oh my God!’… I think it’s one of the best songs in my catalog personally… I was coming back from DC on the Chinatown bus and this really beautiful girl ends up sitting next to me and then we end up having this really involved conversation on the way up. She was half Dominican and her dad had somehow been involved with the Trujillo regime and she was like an illegitimate child or something, but she had grown up here…She was beautiful, political, and she was a writer and I’m sitting there like “Yo, I would wife this girl if I was still young.”…But she was talking about how Rafael Trujillo had this thing where he would come through and basically demand to have sex with the bride-to-be on her wedding night… Then she started talking about this story of Gilgamesh which I didn’t know, so then I looked up the legend of Gilgamesh and it was pre the Bible, but it was a creation story that was very similar to the Bible in a way…One of the reasons God made another creature for Gilgamesh to do shit with was they complained that Gilgamesh was demanding the right to sleep with their wives on their wedding nights. So my narrative starts off when an ex I’m close with comes to town and, surprising to me, we end up hanging out and she admits she’s getting married, but basically wants to fuck… I listen to songs and [rappers’] sex lives are so triumphant and that isn’t always how my life [has gone]… In the second verse I wanted to give a couple different perspectives, maybe in the video it’ll be clearer, it’s the same character in a way, but a different scenario and situation… The “rattling medals” line is because Trujillo gave himself so many medals, I always thought that was funny. Like you’re the president and the head general and he had so many medals they called him bottle caps because you could hear him clicking wherever he would go. I like the idea of him still wearing them, he probably just unzipped his fly to smash with his epaulettes on!
4. Redacted (ft. Elucid)
ToT: “Redacted” has a great feature from Elucid, you guys have developed some serious chemistry in a short period of time. What’s it like to work with him and how did this song come about?
billy woods: Starting off working with him it was a really difficult experience for me because I wasn’t used to always getting outdone on tracks. I figured you need challenges in life to get better and so I started taking a lot more time in working on those songs… Elucid can really do it all as an MC so it’s a big challenge [to work with him]… I asked him to get on it and he came up with a great chorus. To me it’s a song that makes me want to break out good trees.
ToT: Does the word Manteca have a meaning and does it relate to the concept of the song?
billy woods: I’m a huge Spike Lee fan and Crooklyn was on. There was one scene with the tranny in the convenience store and they’re playing “I’ll Never Go Back to Georgia” and it’s this whole dance scene and the bodega owner is freaking her…I was like “Why are Dominicans singing about I’ll never go back to Georgia?”… [Manteca] is the name of an Afro-Cuban jazz song that Dizzy Gillespie did and then the Joe Cuba Sextet in the 60’s put out the one that I am used to [as an homage]. They took that ‘never go back to Georgia’ chant from Dizzy Gillespie’s introduction to Manteca. Obviously Dizzy Gillespie’s “I’ll Never Go Back to Georgia” is connected to the early civil rights movement and they just took that out of context and used it and I found that interesting. So I thought it was a cool word and I already knew from living in (a Puerto Rican/Dominican) neighborhood that Manteca is lard or pig fat. I thought this is a song about living the life and the police and all of that, and I snuck that “I’ll never go back to Georgia” line in there, and the Kool Aid Man line for which I am most proud.
ToT: Have you ever been witness to someone’s door getting broken in? You’ve made a few different similar references in past rhymes.
billy woods: Yes, one time when I was living in D.C. a long time childhood friend who’s since been deported, let’s just say he chose our guests very poorly on a regular basis…They were men of ill repute and one day after they left, the cops showed up and forced their way into the apartment much to everyone’s chagrin. Suffice to say I did not sleep at that apartment again.
6. Central Park
ToT: This was one of my favorite songs on the album, I commented in my review that it feels like a much different song, especially with the beat and the scratched chorus, than the type of production that you usually work with. Was that a conscious decision or do you even feel that it’s different for you?’
billy woods: Blockhead would just send me the beats and I would [choose the ones I wanted] and hope that they wouldn’t be taken yet. I just picked it and Blockhead was like “Oh, I was hoping you would pick that, but I really didn’t think so because it’s so different.” I was like, “yeah, it’s different” but I feel like I’ve rapped on every type of beat in my career so to me it wasn’t that different… Blockhead was really excited about it and thought people hadn’t heard me rap on something like it and scratching the chorus just seemed like a no-brainer, DJ Addikt is really good.
ToT: If it was done right I could hear a whole album of you over that type of production and it would be a completely different look for you and I think it’d be great.
billy woods: If somebody came to me I would 100% do that. What I really want to do is do a 4 or 5 song EP with Lil Ugly Mane, if he gave me 5 beats, that’s all I would need… If I had 5 Ugly Mane beats, it would inspire different things than if I had 5 Aesop Rock beats, I want 5 of both of those people’s beats by the way.
ToT: Do you feel like you changed your tone with the lyrics at all?
billy woods: It’s interesting how delivery and the music itself can affect how people look at something because “Central Park” to me is a pretty depressing song. When I started writing it I latched on to the idea of the park as a central device and went from there with hustling or whatever… The second half is facetiously about removing yourself from situations, but you don’t have anything to do for other people who are caught in those situations because the manner in which you do it [might not work for them]… There was a situation with my cousin where I did one or two things, but I didn’t put myself out there like that even when I got the feeling that things were going wrong… My cousin actually did end up going to jail after he fled for a little while to Jamaica, then he came back and he took a charge and they gave him a decent plea, but he got convicted of being in possession of a gun in New York. I question the legality of why he was searched, but it was like “why is my cousin out there with a gun like that?” and “what did I do when I saw [what was going on]?”
ToT: When I first listened to the album “Poachers” didn’t hit me right away but the more I’ve listened it’s become one of my favorites.
billy woods: I tried to convince them to make it the first single and I couldn’t understand why only Blockhead and I seemed to think it was absolutely the shit, but part of the reason is that’s the only song on the album where I had anything to do with the production. I sent Blockhead the sample, I’d also like to note now that [“Poachers”] is not on the [official] album. It’s another one where the narrative is not as clear [as it might seem]. The two verses are kind of different and I think sometimes people think they’re the same. They start with the same metaphor, one is they come for somebody else and then the other one is they’re coming for me. Poaching is when you’re killing animals on the king’s land… The idea of stealing and taking things and people is part of the idea…Police come into the neighborhood and take people.
ToT: I interpreted the first verse as the ‘kingpin’ is watching as one of his underlings gets arrested and then later they come for him.
billy woods: That’s understandable, it could work like that. There’s no kingpin in this because none of these people are doing anything that’s worthy of kingpinhood. It’s more about the fact that they come for this one person and how that ripples through the community while this other person is watching the stage and then in the 2nd verse it’s another person in the wilderness and people came for me, but they’re the ones who got harmed… It’s like “everybody’s got a plan till they get hit in the mouth”, that’s a Mike Tyson quote. I tried several times to work a Mike Tyson reference in and I just couldn’t [until then]… I did that song and I told Elucid he had to do to the chorus and he took a long time to do the chorus, but when he did do it, it was flames. I love that song, I love performing that song, it’s a fun song to rhyme. The structures flip a couple times and it felt like stuff was just tumbling out.
8. One Thousand Nights
ToT: What was the concept for “One Thousand Nights”?
billy woods: That was another one where Blockhead sent me the sample where it’s more of a loop and we just kept it stripped down. The idea behind it was trying to talk about dating and sex in an interesting way… There is some aspect to getting over the end of a relationship and you’re putting yourself out there more, but I’m not really the type to be like “let me make a song about this shitty date I went on” because actually nobody gives a fuck.
ToT: I didn’t know who Scheherazade was until I looked it up and it kind of gave the song an interesting twist. Was that just added at the very end, or did you have that character in mind the whole time?
billy woods: I read your review and I was like “Blockhead, isn’t it weird that people are saying they have to google Scheherazade?” and he was like “What? I don’t know who that is.”… But as far as Scheherazade, the whole idea that she keeps this king at bay for a thousand nights with these stories.
ToT: I can’t say there’s any song I like more on the album. You had a couple lines with Indiana related wordplay, Marvin Harrison is my favorite football player of all time and then the Hoosiers reference. To me it’s as good of a beat as you’ve ever rapped over. How did it come together and how do you feel about the song?
billy woods: It was the first song I wrote. It’s cool that people like it, I like it. I remember questioning if I made the second verse long enough, but I was like, “fuck it, I like it how it is”…It was very free, the 2nd verse has a thematic relation with the first verse, but that’s it. I like the chorus a lot, a little bit of a Public Enemy interpolation there…I was really happy to get that Marvin Harrison [line] in there although almost nobody knows about that whole thing… That’s what makes the whole story so fascinating is Marvin Harrison is like such a low profile guy and then when you research the story there was this dude who just still resented him. [see: The Dirtiest Player via GQ]
ToT: There are like 4 or 5 choruses from you on here that are really good. Sometimes in the past it feels like you’ve avoided doing choruses, I know on the Super Chron albums Priviledge did a lot of them. Is that something you’re trying to do more of and do you like writing choruses?
billy woods: Yeah, you know you gotta get better. I still like having non chorus songs and doing other things, but I try to make sure that I don’t have choruses that are OK. If I’m going to do it I want it to be really good and I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better.
10. Tumbleweed ft. Aesop Rock
ToT: Aesop Rock is one of the best MC’s out there, it feels like a natural collaboration because of the pen skills that you both have. What was the concept for the song and what was it like to work with him?
billy woods: I’m a big fan… so it’s been a big thing not only working with Blockhead, but getting to know Aesop more… I can’t tell you how much it means that he’s into my music and agreed to do a song, I have a lot of respect for that dude… I admire his ability to be consistent and innovative, he really doesn’t have two albums that sound the same… We sent him three beats to pick from and he picked this one which I was happy about, and then I just let him set it off… If there was a companion piece to “Blue Dream,” this would be the song after “Blue Dream.” Now you’re broken up and you have a shit load of spare time and not many people to spend it with.
ToT: I thought I might have misinterpreted the first verse of “Hack” in my review. I noticed the cab references, but there were certain parts that convinced me it was about dealing as well.
billy woods: That is what it is. It’s both of them. Also a shout out to my man Richard Price… He wrote Clockers, in Lush Life he started using the term “quality of life” for these unmarked police cars that were disguised as yellow taxis in New York… The protagonist is like, “I hate hustling at night, just increases the chance ‘quality of life’ gonna flash them ‘misery lights,’” Those are two Richard Price terms, “quality of life” and the “misery lights” are blue and reds. I love both of those terms, what could be better than “misery lights”, they go on, that’s how you feel… It’s like yeah, you’d rather stay home and rap, it’s conflating the issue of hustling, rapping and life…The other part of it is I wanted to address being a hack…A lot of people now just pumping out product, the same thing over and over…I was also trying to say with [the chorus] “Write the rhymes they wanna hear right”, that’s what hacks are eventually doing.
ToT: The vocal sample at the end of the song, talking about guy getting trapped between and a subway train and the wall, is very creepy. Where did that come from and why was it used?
billy woods: It’s the worst… When we were doing it in the studio Blockhead was like “This is just fucked up.” I was laughing. I used to watch “Taxi Cab Confessions” when it first came on and I just searched for that episode back in the archives.
12. Fool’s Gold (ft. Open Mike Eagle, Moka Only, & Elucid)
ToT: Did you write you’re verse to “Fool’s Gold” first with the title in mind or how did that come about?
billy woods: I gave everybody a loose concept and then both Mike and Moka ended up talking a little more about the rap game and Elucid and I ended up on a different tip, but that worked because of how the song is split up… Mike’s verse is perfect to set it off, I like the Doomposter reference. Elucid’s verse is pretty fucking crazy…I believe it’s about a succubus. I think that’s what it’s about, maybe I shouldn’t even be guessing what his shit is about, but it’s like an otherworldly experience, being visited at night by this creature. My verse is pretty obvious… Me and my friends used to joke about the type of guy who says to a sex worker “I’ll take you away from all of this.”
13. Pro Wrestling
ToT: Talk about “Pro Wrestling”.
billy woods: This is one that a couple people have gotten wrong. It’s not about politicians, it’s just about 24 hour news media.
ToT: I was one of them. It’s crazy because when I first wrote my review, that’s how I interpreted that song, but after listening a couple more times something convinced me that it was about politicians.
billy woods: Obviously politicians come on the shows to engage in the wrestling drama, but that’s essentially what I’m talking about. I was reading Harpers and there was an article or an intro from the editor and he compared somebody on the news to a pro wrestler and I thought it was a great analogy… Half the time I can’t even watch CNN, I might watch Fox News to laugh, but a lot of times it’s just easier to watch the BBC or Al Jazeera because people are not shouting… I wanted to use the Ric Flair [sample] and I wanted to know the best place to put it. Once I recorded “Lucre” I really liked how it went into “Lucre,” because he’s talking about all the money.
ToT: “Lucre” was another favorite of mine. It’s a very potent song lyrically.
billy woods: “Lucre” was the last song that I recorded. The chorus was something that came to me after reading a Cormac McCarthy book. This guy said in there “They say God remakes the world every day, but the amount of good and evil, he never changes.” He didn’t say it [exactly] like that, but that’s what he said… It’s ambiguous, he doesn’t say the amount of good and evil is properly balanced or imbalanced or what it is, just that he doesn’t change it… The song itself is kind of about back room deals, how power and money are wielded and used… [The line] “What you expect with a black president elect” is talking about how it’s really hard to get certain types of ammunition because they’re scared that shit that hasn’t been grandfathered in is going to be taken by Obama, and the price of gold skyrocketing after his election, I just thought that was funny… In the second verse I’m painting a picture of a country in turmoil… This guy finds himself in the wrong place with the wrong side, even though he didn’t have his uniform on he still got expeditiously murdered… They’ll tell people “you can’t take the bodies out of the street” in order to instill fear or exert control… It’s like somebody’s life hinges on the inflection in somebody’s voice… The “Anwar Sadat/Death Parade” is my favorite line on the record, but that’s my own thing.
ToT: When you make a song like “Lucre” that has detailed political and historical references and themes, does it come out naturally or what is your process in making a detailed statement song like that?
billy woods: “Lucre” was actually not difficult to write and I felt really good about it when I was writing it…I don’t really separate the songs in my mind. I feel like Americans have a separation of the political and the other things in their life…I didn’t grow up in that scenario… My parents would have a party and people would argue about social, political, and gender ideas the whole night. So if you wanted to feel grown up when you were 8 years old, then you would find something to say and be involved.
15. Cuito Cuanavale
ToT: It feels like a continuation of some of your songs where Mugabe has been referenced before. I didn’t know about the specific battle that the song is titled after, or about Africa’s current relationship with China, can you speak on that a little?
billy woods: In Africa right now China is really active, I was just watching Al Jazeera the other day and they were talking about China’s whole thing with Nigeria and the oil, but in many ways, including the way that Africa is now a dumping ground for cheap Chinese goods, Africa stopped producing their own shit…With China owning all these things I’m trying to make the point that the people are not benefiting in any appreciable way. Obviously there’s a Cuban Linx reference [in there], there’s probably some road Cuba built and now China owns land where miners are striking something. It is mentioning Angola, but it’s less about that battle than the ideas represented within that… I’m trying to refer to the bigger idea of winning a battle like that, on one hand it’s the shattering of white supremacy. At that point South Africa had never been stopped in a military objective in its history since becoming a republic. Not only was that a new experience to them, but the South African public found out they were getting in this war they hadn’t even really known about, and that they had lost…From that point on the illusion that they could solve everything with military force was gone. They thought the CIA would come and help them and the CIA was like “actually, no we’re not going to”… That burned the South Africans because they think they’re in this global fight against communism and they realize at that moment that the United States still is not willing to put themselves as South Africa’s ally in front of the world… People that you think are riding with you, when the shit starts to go down are like “We barely know the guy”… The whole refrain is from Marlo from The Wire, “You want it one way, but it’s the other.”
ToT: The line “I bridge the gap from Marechera to Sweatshirt”, that’s one of my favorite lines on the album.
billy woods: Me too. I think of Dambudzo Marechera being the one who blazes the path for the generation that comes after Sweatshirt’s father…So I’m saying between Marechera and Earl Sweatshirt, is me.
Pick up Dour Candy over at Backwoodzstudioz.com and look out for a “Tinseltown” remix dropping soon.