Album Review: Aesop Rock ‘Skelethon’
Skelethon is a fitting name for Aesop Rock’s soul baring new album, as he strips down not just the world around him, but holds himself to the fire as well. Rock’s dense verbosity has long made his music a favorite among hip hop fans looking for more than just punchlines, but the artistic bar is raised to a level on Skelethon that is almost unmatched in modern music. Skelethon is Aesop’s 6th full length solo album and his first since 2007’s None Shall Pass. A rapper who takes five years between solo albums might be considered lazy at first glance, but Rock’s brand of puzzle-like verses don’t write themselves, and the guy has been through a lot the last five years – ending his longtime partnership with El-P and the now defunct Def Jux Records, losing his close friend and fellow artist Camu Tao to cancer, moving from NY to San Francisco, and his marriage and subsequent divorce. These life changing events, coupled with his decision to fully produce Skelethon (something he’s never done before) and the release of his collaborative project with Rob Sonic Hail Mary Mallon, make the gap understandable.
While it will be impossible for Aesop’s reputation as a producer to ever near his rep as a lyricist, his stellar work behind the boards not only sets the mood throughout the album, but allows him to get into a comfort zone that finds him more in touch with his conflicted emotions than he’s ever been. None Shall Pass saw Aesop really come into his own as a conceptual song writer, and he ups the ante on Skelethon by creating a series of songs that are incredibly familiar and relatable, yet completely foreign territory for rap music as a whole. His beats may lack the melodic subtlety and variety that is the hallmark of his longtime collaborator Blockhead, but the cohesive feel and a great attention to detail is evident throughout. Rock’s decision to create YouTube description videos for every song is a great decision that reveals an artist who, behind all the masked meanings and cryptic couplets, ultimately wants to be understood. That’s not to say that these short clips will allow a casual listener to pick up on everything that Aesop lays out, but they at least give a foundation that puts you in the right frame of mind to absorb the album’s prodigious presence.
Upon first listen “ZZZ Top” and “Cycles To Gehenna” immediately stand out. Both songs feature hard hitting, nuanced beats that are among the best Aesop has crafted as a producer and allow him to showcase a variety of flows that he’s perfected over the years. The visceral “ZZZ Top” features three separate tales of teenage musical rebellion and the most fluid, impressive rapping of Aes’s career. “Cycles To Gehenna” is the point where you first start to get a feel for the album. A fully developed concept track, Rock explores how something dangerous like riding a motorcycle at high speeds can have a calming effect on the human mind, ending the first verse with the chilling line, “here’s how a great escape goes when you can’t take your dead friends names out your phone”. It’s not necessarily the concepts Aesop tackles, but the way he attacks them. He puts an enormous amount of work into every song and his specific word usage shows how hard he tries to accurately capture his thoughts.
Aesop has alluded to his childhood in several songs throughout his career, but he has a few songs on Skelethon that capture specific memories of his own upbringing in a way I’ve never heard before. “Grace” is a brilliant song that has Aesop recalling a time in his life many of us can relate to, him having to sit at the dinner table until he finished his vegetables. On the song’s chorus Rock speaks as his brother telling the neighborhood kids looking for Aes why he can’t come out and play, “Oh he can’t, he in the kitchen pouting and terrified of a plant”. Juxtaposed against “Grace” is “Saturn Missles”, a song about one of the simple joys of youth, fireworks. Aesop’s nervous pitter-pat beat sets the perfect tempo for his ode to that time in your life when blowing your G.I. Joes to smithereens with bottle rockets was the thing to do. “Racing Stripes” explores the carefree adolescent years when boys often get experimental with haircuts, specifically extreme styles involving clippers. Rock even details his friend Camu’s adult method of using self-inflicted bad haircuts to help pay the rent.
In addition to his unique takes on his own childhood, Aes spends a lot of time investigating how he fits into the world around him, specifically to nature and his relationship with animals. Two of the shortest but most striking songs on Skelethon are “Ruby ’81” and “Homemade Mummy”. “Ruby ‘81” is the tale of a little girl saved from drowning in a pool by the family dog while her parents party in the back yard. The song cleverly blurs the line between man and beast, asking who is truly more aware and shows how much we can take for granted. “Homemade Mummy” offers Rock’s instructions on how to mummify your dead pet, as well as his metaphorical take on mummification’s process of removing the brain and organs but leaving the heart in place, stating “you could learn a lot from a mummy”. On the last verse of the radioactive song “1,000 O’Clock” Aesop reacts to an unexplained sea lion exodus from a San Francisco pier. He explains the animals’ flight with the line “maybe it’d feel more majestic and less fatty if a 12 year old wasn’t beaning it with salt water taffy every 5 fucking seconds, sounds like your basic, liberating moment of collective “fuck fame” shit.” Whether Aesop’s opinion is right or not doesn’t matter, his ability to relate to all the varied life forms around him and draw parallels to his own life exposes a ‘think outside the box’ mentality that permeates all aspects of his work.
Skelethon closes with a dynamic 1-2 in “Tetra” and “Gopher Guts”. “Tetra” is a display of lyrical force that becomes more pointed as the song progresses. The line “out of sorts, out of water, suicidal tetra fish, who stood by the conviction in his “we should be together less, forevermore, before we are the severed heads of civil war” ” sounds like a look back at a relationship that became too claustrophobic and overwhelming and sees Rock again comparing himself to an animal, this time a fish out of water. “Gopher Guts” is a perfect contrast to the ‘no holds barred’ approach of “Tetra” and is as honest and emotional of a rap song as I will ever hear. Aesop expresses confusion about the disconnect between himself and his past and on the first couple verses before spilling his guts on the third verse and blaming all of his problems on his own personality/decisions. The verse’s harsh character assassination is hard to listen to, but it’s not your typical ‘woe is me’ emo sentiment. Aesop explains in the “Gopher Guts” description video that because of his numerous ‘temper tantrum’ songs on the album, “Gopher Guts” was a necessary way for him to be utterly honest with himself and his anti-social, self-destructive behavior.
Aesop Rock has had a magnificent career, but Skelethon is his finest hour to this point. It is an album without precedent, and another example of the top shelf artistry that hip hop has proved capable of in 2012. It should serve as no surprise to anyone who has been reading my reviews this year that while younger rappers may dominate the charts, there is a large group of MC’s over 30 that not only have no intention of putting the mic down, but are determined to keep the classic album format alive. For me as a listener to hear an MC like Aesop Rock make his best album at the age of 36 is an incredible feeling and a great sign for an artist that never seems to stop improving. Stream the album via YouTube or purchase a copy from Fifth Element.
Connect with Aesop Rock via Facebook | Twitter
Written by John Bugbee
Album Review: Ka ‘The Night’s Gambit’
Ka’s 2012 album Grief Pedigree was not only one of the best albums of the year, but also one of the best success stories hip hop had ever seen. Rap music has always referred to as a ‘young man’s game’, but Ka gave rappers on the wrong side of 35 hope that their best work could still be ahead of them. His completely self-made classic sounded both familiar and fresh at the same time. It utilized a strong word of mouth buzz and a few key twitter endorsements (Erykah Badu, Aesop Rock, & 50 Cent) to propel Ka from a virtual unknown at the start of the year to a fixture on the best of 2012 lists. Ka proved he could rap in the late 90’s as a member of the Natural Elements and later with his debut album Iron Works from ’08, but nobody could have predicted the critical acclaim that Grief Pedigree would achieve. His minimalist production style and stark, self-shot videos were the perfect canvas for his painstakingly crafted rhymes.
Grief Pedigree felt like a lifetime achievement, a gift from the hip hop gods. So when Ka announced he was releasing a self-produced follow up just over one year later, I was excited, but tempered my expectations. After all, this announcement was coming from a guy who was still holding down a day job and had just spent the last year shooting and editing videos for every song on Grief Pedigree. There was no way he could just spit out another album on Grief Pedigree’s album right? Well, The Night’s Gambit is here and thankfully, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The first thing that stands out on The Night’s Gambit is the production. While Ka’s barely-there beats on Grief Pedigree matched his monotone delivery perfectly, he was clearly an MC first, producer 2nd. While that’s still the case on The Night’s Gambit, his improvement as a producer is noticeable. His light on the drums, minimalist style is still intact, but the beats on The Night’s Gambit are layered with lush textures that insulate his intricate verses and at times force you to choose what to pay attention to. The production makes the album less immediate that Grief Pedigree, but helps set a thematic vibe that makes it an even better and more hypnotic front to back listen. If Grief Pedigree was Ka’s The Infamous, The Night’s Gambit is his Hell On Earth. All four albums are classics, but the follow ups are darker and more refined. They walk the fine line between pleasing fans wanting more of the same as well of those seeking artistic growth.
By kicking the album off with “You Know It’s About” Ka wastes no time in letting listeners know what to expect. The rumbling beat is one of his best yet and Ka rattles off a series of streetwise couplets layered his omnipresent wordplay, weaving every position in a basketball starting lineup into his verse in a way that’s not even noticeable unless the listener is playing close attention. On the album’s closer “Off The Record” Ka shows of similar skills by dropping an homage to his mentor Gza’s classic song “Labels.” While this type of song concept is nothing new in hip hop, the fact that Ka is able to seamlessly name drop so many classic hip hop albums in one four-minute verse makes it a remarkable listen and of the best songs of its type ever made.
Gza’s use of chess as a metaphor has obviously rubbed off on Ka as well, even stretching it further by adopting the viewpoint of a “smart ass pawn” on “Peace Akhi”. It features chess based vocal samples and some of the most clever couplets of Ka’s career- “I play chess, but my past is checkered” and “You just scratched the surface if you ain’t digging me”. The inspiring “Nothing Is” serves as the album’s emotional centerpiece and is perhaps the most transcendent song Ka has ever made. The song’s vivid lyrics illustrate the struggles that have brought Ka to this point in his life and allow him to proclaim “If this ain’t meant for me, nothing is”. Ka’s ability to be honest and vulnerable, coupled with his meticulous craftsmanship, make him so much more than your typical streetwise MC. He may not have the artistic range that some musicians have, but his depth of scope is almost unparalleled in the modern music scene makes his music endlessly listenable.
Ka effortlessly incorporates religious imagery into verses that are entrenched in street morality on songs like “Our Father” and “30 Pieces of Silver.” He never makes overt political statements, but always tries to give listeners a Wire-like view of the mentality that young black men grow up with in the streets of America. “Barring The Likeness” is married to these concepts as well, but Ka reveals how he had an epiphany and began to be able to view the traps that his brothers were falling victim to. The song’s unorthodox, hypnotic beat is probably Ka’s most accomplished production, and the best example of his evolution as a beat-maker. Ka’s unique wall-to-wall production is complemented perfectly by his excellent use of vocal/movie samples. I couldn’t identify them all, but each one adds to the album’s vibe and helps tell Ka’s story.
While it would be hard to say The Night’s Gambit is definitively better than Grief Pedigree, he clearly tried (and succeeded in) making it a more immersive experience. It make take a few listens for The Night’s Gambit to click in the way that Grief Pedigree did almost immediately, but when it clicks it becomes a focused supernova of an effort. Ka’s already two videos deep into The Night’s Gambit as well, here’s hoping the whole album gets the treatment like Grief Pedigree did last year (video playlist). Buy The Night’s Gambit directly from Ka at BrownsvilleKa.com.
Connect with Ka via Facebook | Twitter
Written by John Bugbee
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.