We talked to the rapper/producer duo about their bummed-the-fuck-out masterpiece, growing up in apartheid, and—of course—Yeezus.
Though NYC/DC rapper Billy Woods has been a name in the indie scene for years, but it was the release of his most recent full-length, History Will Absolve Me, that cemented Woods as a favorite emerging artist of motherfuckers in-the-know. Blockhead is a New York producer who, besides doing a number of albums with Aesop Rock, has been making, basically, the only instrumental hip hop records anyone actually listens to. The album they did together is called Dour Candy. It’s a bummed-the-fuck-out masterpiece.
I like artists who live within a tradition. That’s not to say that I abhor the avant garde or despise newness for the sake of hating it, but I like men and woman who make art within a larger scheme, be it their musical forbearers and the influence that lineage holds, or just, you know, big old history. Billy Woods is the son of revolutionaries spanning from Zimbabwe to DC to Jamaica to Brooklyn. Blockhead is the son of "old school" (as a term with actual meaning, predating the early 90s) boho New York. They both come from the American off-center intelligentsia that sidelined history—the real history—is written about. That they both, before ever knowing each other, continued this history, individually making music that hued close to numerous traditions, looked forward within those traditions, and still appealed to heads on the street is all sorts of Fievel in America levels of beautiful. That they decided to make an album together is just a goddamned gift.
I talked to both dudes for a few hours after we saw The Iceman (see appendix for their capsule reviews), the kind of Lifetime movie version of the famed New Jersey mass murderer. High points of the day were that Winona Ryder was actually pretty decent in the movie, Billy Woods talking about how where he lived in NYC in the 80s seemed like it had more homeless than Harare, and watching Blockhead and Billy Woods split a hot fudge sundae. Cuter than a sack full of baby hedgehogs.
Billy is an incredibly fascinating and expansive guy. His lyrics jump from romance-gone-noir levels of bad to post-colonial Africa in one song, often within one bar, so talking to him is a lot like that; a whirlwind of references. Blockhead just leaned back and watched, clearly enjoying himself and occasionally interjecting with basketball references that I didn’t understand but that made Woods laugh. I played with my silverware any time they went in on the various intricacies of mid-90s second string Knicks. The two of them, though they’ve really only become friends over the recording of their record, have an easy rapport. This probably comes from the collaboration coming out of a mutual appreciation, rather than any long-standing scene association. Blockhead heard one of Woods’ mixtapes and then, around the time of Body of Work, reached out to him. Woods, already a fan of Block’s work both solo and with Aesop Rock, readily agreed.
Neither come from musical families. Billy Woods’ dad was in the new Zimbabwe government under Mugabe (a young version of whom appears on the cover of History Will Absolve Me), and Blockhead's dad was the sculptor Sidney Simon. They both started making music in the mid/late-90s; Blockhead starting to make beats around ’96, and Woods, bringing his notebook to the parking lot while working (i.e. hustling) his way through college, started writing rhymes a bit later. They both were separately egged-on by various and sundry personages from the indie rap/Def Jux community.
I asked Woods about his background in Zimbabwe and he gave me a 101 history of the entire region, about how South Africa used Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) as a buffer state against what it considered the encroaching threat of communism. When Woods lived there as a child, bombing raids from South Africa were common. As South Africa is going though the post-Mandela growing pains that any newly-free country would be going through, and as the consequent bullshit historical revisionism (mainly from the English and white South African right) kicks in, it’s important to remember just how thoroughly evil the apartheid regime was, not just to its black citizenry but also to the region of Southern Africa as whole.
Billy explained how Ian Smith (who lived up the street from Woods when he was a kid and is referenced in the song, Cuito Canavale) was forced to have a co-presidency with Abel Muzorewa (“A nice enough guy. I feel bad for the dude.”), and when that didn’t take, Mugabe took over (in—it should be noted—a fair election). Woods, having grown up with a real appreciation of the struggle, has a more nuanced view of Robert Mugabe than you’ll usually get in the Western media. He doesn’t excuse him, and is the first to say that he’s got to go, but he doesn’t follow that Economist-sanctioned view that Mugabe is the devil and the white farmers of Zimbabwe are the real victims. While Nelson Mandela is usually credited as being the only political leader to treat the white population of South Africa with almost saint-like generosity, it’s often overlooked that the much-hated Mugabe actually did it first; he gave the whites the option to stay when there was a huge pressure from the population—long oppressed reprisals. The farmers had a choice early on to sell their land, at fair prices that England was supposed to cover. They declined (“I mean, it’s understandable; you’re living like—not an exaggeration—a king, and then you’re supposed to what? Go back to England and live in a flat? That’s not what’s popping.”). He compared England’s unwillingness to honor its agreement to reimburse white farmers for their farms, ostensibly because of Mugabe’s cronyism to someone refusing to pay back a crackhead money owed on the grounds that they’re just going to spend it on crack. While true…it’s awfully convenient for the debtor—in this case, the imperial power that was the root cause of the whole mess. But, and this is the main point, while Mugabe is certainly awful and totally corrupt now, “it was obvious to me, even as a child, that the status quo was completely untenable.” You can’t have that level of land inequality without, at some point down the line, consequences.
The references can get overwhelming, both in the songs and in conversation, and Woods told me that he has gotten some criticism for that in the past. Both Woods and Blockhead, however, talked about how one of the pleasures of listening to hip hop has always been the multiple levels a song can work on; the at-first intimidating layers of a lyric, and then the thrill of discovery as you figure shit out. And, you now what? Your computer has a fucking “Google” lever right on the side. Pull it. No excuses for being willfully ignorant. Knowing stuff is wicked fun. (Though I’ll admit, when Woods started going in about Alaa Abdelnaby, I thought maybe that was the limit of reasonable human knowledge.)
Billy Woods’ lyrics are not strictly political. Like I said, he skillfully interweaves multiple narratives from multiple characters’ perspectives into his songs. Revolutionaries become cabbies become cuckolds become Billy Woods himself, back and forth, each story compelling and, while sometimes dizzying in the word play and scene quick cuts, grounded in a relatable reality. He said that he wanted his album with Blockhead to be sort of the comedown record after is incendiary History Will Absolve Me. The switch-up was intentional as to avoid any sort of career malaise or repetition (he used Wes Anderson as an example) and to maintain his own interest in the music. He wanted to do what he called a “lifestyle” record, where the guy’s not rapping about his cars and his champagne, but about Billy Woods’ actual lifestyle. “When my publicist calls me, when I even have a publicist, they’re not like, ‘You’re going to Greece!’ They’re more like, ‘So, Pitchfork is not going to run it… Did you send our check?’” A lifestyle where the hustle rarely results in wealth, not every romance works out, and regret is the currency of living said life. Basically, the life most of us live, but one that’s rarely documented in hip hop (or, to be fair, in any genre).
“History Will Absolve was sort of the explosion, and then this album is the aftermath. Okay, I’m not dead, I’m still rapping, but I have to go to work. Bills need to get paid. And my relationship is…over.”
Dour Candy works, and isn’t the drag that maybe I’m making it seem like, because Blockhead’s moody, often wonderfully strange, tracks perfectly match Woods’ rhymes. It’s a hangover, but an invigorating one, like the sun through the blinds when you did or maybe just saw something perfectly awful the night before. It’s like a wake with a particularly commanding preacher. Both Billy Woods and Blockhead are drawing from a deep well. I don’t presume to have an equally deep knowledge of hip hop. I’ll spare myself and the reader the embarrassment of any ham-handed comparisons to records I don’t own. But to me, Dour Candy is part of a heritage that encompasses everything from Public Enemy to post-colonial history to Rock 'n' Roll-era Mekons to DC go-go to Built For Cuban Linx to the Black Arts Movement to Tom Waits to the Hugh Masekela albums that Blockhead samples. It’s an album that, in both the personal and the historical sense, fully inhabits the world.
1. Capsule Reviews of The Iceman:
Blockhead: So, this Iceman movie. Considering the awesome source material, I gotta say, it was pretty boring. It seems like they breezed by the interesting parts to focus on the less interesting parts. We saw it a week ago and I already don't remember a single scene from it. That's never a good sign. That said, the performances were good, and it turns out Wynona Rider is still hot at age 65. But beyond that, it was pretty cookie-cutter and could have been MUCH better.
Billy Woods: Iceman was a decent enough movie, but kinda underwhelming considering the actors they had and the story they had to work with. Take Ray Liotta as Roy DeMeo, one of the most notorious hitmen/mafia figures of his time; we get a couple good scenes, but it never really all comes together. Or Michael Shannon as Kuklinski; I mean, he does his best, but the writers really didn't give him a lot to work with. In a movie like this, you either need some great scenes (like in Abel Ferrara's The Funeral or Bad Lieutenant) or some real insight into the character's mind (Dahmer or Cobb). Those movies are all flawed to some extent, but still manage to be memorable long after seeing. Iceman plays it so close to the script that afterwards, there really is not much to remember.
2. Being a Big Time Professional Music Writer, I—of course—asked them about Yeezus:
Billy: Regarding the Kanye record, honestly, I have not heard a single song, not because I hate Kanye or anything—he is a great producer and a decent rapper—I just have never really been interested in his albums. The last one I owned was College Dropout, the last one I heard was Late Registration. I don't really download music like that, and when someone sent me the link, I asked if it was any good and their response was "It's a Kanye record," so I just didn't bother. So that's a really long-winded way of saying, "I am out of touch with pop culture.”
[Blockhead had so many feelings, or (more realistically) so many people were bugging him about it, that he devoted a blog to the subject.]