“As I came into this venue in Missoula, Montana, I saw these two guys standing at the bar and immediately my cop radar went off,” says the Bushwick-based hip-hop artist Billy Woods as he digs into a plate of rosemary fries at the Kent Ale House in Williamsburg. He was booked for a show, but after the start time had been pushed back four hours, only seven people had shown up — including the suspected plainclothes police officers, who asked the promoter questions about Woods, his setlist, and the exact time he’d be performing. When Woods eventually took the stage, the interlopers appeared to take notes on iPads.
“I was thinking, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ ” Woods recalls. “If they were there to arrest me, like there’s a federal thing out for me, I’m the only black person here and you can easily figure out who Billy Woods is. It’s not even like I’m famous.”
Woods finished the performance without trouble, but the experience left him perplexed and a little paranoid, and he turned the episode into the basis of the sardonic “Police Came to My Show” on his new album, Known Unknowns. Over a honeyed backdrop hooked up by the producer Blockhead, who handles beat duties for most of the project, Woods raps a wryly worded account of the incident that ends with him exiting the venue “zero merch sales later” and wondering if the cops “got they money’s worth.”
The song is an apt snapshot of Billy Woods’s talent: He’s an elusive figure who never shows his face in photos or videos or on social media; his music shuns mainstream trends in favor of impressionist vignettes that weave in breadcrumb references to rap and literary figures alike. (“Hemingway shotguns through the nose/Ghost’s voice, Rae’s flow,” he raps on the fiery album opener, “Bush League.”) It’s a combination that’s kept Woods under the radar but established him as one of New York City’s true underground gems.
The journey that has brought Billy Woods to subterranean repute is a geographically circuitous one. He was born in Washington, D.C., to a Jamaican mother and a father from Zimbabwe who was involved in the independence movement while it was still known as Rhodesia. In 1981, after peace negotiations began, the family moved to Africa. In 1995, after Woods’s father passed away, they returned to the United States. Woods briefly attended Howard University before heeding the call of New York City’s hip-hop scene and catching a break when a college friend introduced him to a rapper called Vordul Mega, who would soon join one of the definitive New York underground hip-hop groups, Cannibal Ox, best known for 2001’s Cold Vein on El-P’s Definitive Jux label.
Vordul sensed something in Woods and offered him a shot recording a guest verse at the legendary Electric Lady Studios in the Village. The session flatlined. Every time Woods attempted to drop his verse, the engineer would cut him off, and Vordul’s entourage was hostile. Woods left the studio in a melodramatic scene: “It was pouring down, I caught the train, I didn’t even have a place to live in the city, and I remember being like either just quit or thinking I need to do this on my own, because I knew I had a perspective and something to say that was different from other people.”
He chose the second option, founding the Backwoodz Studioz label with investment help from an engineer in Westchester he’d been working with and releasing his debut album, Camouflage, in 2003. (Vordul appears on several tracks.) At first, the venture cost Woods money and caused him stress — he “shudders to think” back to days of paying for studio time to work on songs that might never be released — but by the time of 2012’s History Will Absolve Me (a title cribbed from a Fidel Castro speech), Woods had established a voice and a label with a reputation for music that adheres to the underground’s steely sonic values while embracing lyrical risks.
“Billy Woods’s voice is very commanding and I’ve always been drawn to atypical rap styles,” says Blockhead, who tracked the MC down after hearing one of his mixtapes. “Woods doesn’t just write loose verses — he works in song format, and every verse has a home, which brings cohesion and concept to the albums.”
Known Unknowns tracks like “Superpredator” back this up. Over a bluesy bed, Woods invokes classic rowdy rap figures — Onyx, DMX, and “Kool G Rap, to us Frederick Douglass” — to comment on hip-hop’s relationship with violence. (The lyrics also have Chekhov meddling in the Jay Z–Nas beef by placing the former’s gun on the latter’s dresser, referencing both a line in Jay’s “Takeover” dis song and the Russian playwright’s maxim that if you place a gun onstage in act one, it has to go off in act two.) Crucially, it’s a viewpoint that’s pitched from within the culture.
“People bemoan real-life violence in hip-hop that comes out of the scene, but there’s an aspect to which the possibility of real-life violence is part of what makes certain things popular to begin with,” Woods explains. “It’s more complicated than one or the other.” After a beat, he adds, “I really like to think about dichotomies.”