billy woods and Preservation both make music that rewards repeat listening. woods’ multi-layered bars are clear on the surface but grow murkier the deeper you get. And Pres produces beats that would make waves in a vacuum but are even more fulfilling as you follow his trail of obscure samples from Hong Kong record shops to spaghetti western standoffs.
Their new collaborative record, Aethiopes, finds woods and Pres descending into rabbit holes of references both lyrical and instrumental. But first and foremost, it’s focused on the feedback loop of otherness. Its title is an antiquated European term for Africans that emphasizes both the dissonance and overlap between Africa the idea and Africa the physical place. Like all the best art, it’s open to infinite interpretation — though woods wishes some popular takes on his work involved a bit more critical thinking.
Just before the album’s release, The FADER’s Raphael Helfand sat down with woods and Pres to discuss the symbiotic relationship that birthed Aethiopes, as well as Jamaican folk legends, roulette, and MF DOOM.
This Q&A is taken from the latest episode of The FADER Interview. To hear this week's show in full, and to access the podcast's archive, click here.
The FADER: I was honestly a little surprised when you reached out to me for this interview. I don't want to retread all the old ground about you being elusive, but I am curious. Neither of you like to use your government names publicly. Do you think it's important to keep a clear split between your identities as artists and your private lives?
billy woods: I don't know, because internally, I don't feel like there's a huge difference. I don't feel like MF DOOM, where I'm putting on this persona, literally donning a mask. I do enjoy not having my face photographed, and I do a certain level of anonymity. But I don't try to put up a wall between my personal life and my art at all.
Pres: For me, the name is just kind of a homage to my namesake. My family was very close to the people who started Preservation Hall down in New Orleans. So that's the first music I heard since when I was a baby. I used to go back and forth from New York down there. It's just kind of a look to that for me, but I don't feel too much of a separation. If anything, the separation is just a physical separation, that I stay home working and being with family.
Neither of you seem particularly concerned with what's trendy in hip-hop as a whole. Do you keep up with what's going on in other areas of the genre?
woods: There's lots of things that I'm aware of and have listened to. I don't know if that makes me knowledgeable about them, I just find lots of ways to waste time. So there are things that I have listened to or know about, but I wouldn't sit here and be like, "Let me break down Sheff G's rise for you."
Pres: We were going to have a drill moment on the album, actually. Remember?
woods: Oh, man, yes. You backed down, I was waiting to see what was going to happen! That is one of my favorite moments of the album though. That sample right afterwards [on “Haarlem”] is just really funny to me.
So you were going to have a little drill sample in there?
Pres: I was going to go into maybe something paying tribute to it, but just didn't work out. It didn't sound right. It sounded a little forced.
You seem the type to change lanes suddenly and start making drill beats, Pres, or start using Auto-Tune, woods. But nothing about your music feels static or stuck in the past. Do you think it's easier to innovate from a familiar place than try to reinvent yourself on a new project?
woods: I feel like I am trying to do something new or different on every project. Even on this project, when you listen to it, I know I'm doing different things. It might take more listens to pick up on, but sonically, I feel like, "Oh, this is totally different from Terror Management or… Haram is not a solo album, but something like that, going a lot of different places.
Pres: I definitely had a couple of sounds in mind that I wanted to be inserted into the project. Looking back, some of those first ideas I had did make it. There's certain things that stayed and certain things that evolved. When [woods] let me know what the concept and the title were, I went back and adjusted and then gave him things that could fit.
woods: I think a lot of times it's like that, but this was one of more symbiotic, feedback-loop processes of making an album that I probably ever had. There were things about, not only with the title, then reinforcing certain sounds and conceptual ideas. There was a source used for almost every dialogue sample on the album. But then I've been holding onto this thing that we used dialogue from for a long time, [waiting] for the right project. It had a special place in my heart, and when I was like, “Alright, I’m gonna use it here,” I went through it, watching it and finding things I'd use. And in so doing I also found some musical segments in that source material, [and] some of them found their way into the music as well, which is pretty rare. It was a lot of that.
Pres: It definitely weaved it altogether, for sure.
woods: And Pres definitely goes over everything [with a] fine-tooth comb. So as we moved into post-production and did different things, there'd be little flourishes and little additions that also built upon things that came about as we were working.
With a lot of your music, woods, it feels like there's a common thread that runs through it, but one that I always struggle to put in words. I'm wondering what both of you feel holds these tracks together as a single document?
woods: Conceptually, it was one of the more complex ideas I've ever tried to tackle on an album. It's a lot of ideas, big and small, of a significant depth. I guess, to me, there's a lot going on about Blackness as an idea, Africa as an idea, Africa as a reality. The diaspora, looking at the land and vice versa. And obviously from the cover to the title itself, the idea of the other. Thinking about the real Ethiopia, which comes up more than once, both sonically and in words. Half of my family is Jamaican and I have Rastas in my family who feel like Haile Selassie was God, the Messiah. And half of my family is from Africa, although nowhere near Ethiopia. But again, you're talking about the other, and ideas of blackness, which don't necessarily have to line up with the reality of it. It's an idea — like, Europeans decided what Blackness was.
“No Hard Feelings" starts with a series of really brutal images, and they're delivered over an instrumental that's essentially all horns with no drums at all. Did you feel it would be harder for people to look away from those lyrics in the absence of more traditional beat?
woods: No. I mean, I heard the beat and I was like, wow, this is intense. There had been some talk about making something that was really loud and discordant and Bomb Squad-esque as one of the options of where to go. I heard that beat, and I just started writing. Also, the events that I'm writing about were happening. So it was like, this thing is happening, and this music encapsulates the way that I'm feeling sonically.
Pres: The two ideas that I started with were that Bomb Squad, very loud, very aggressive [horn] and then hitting a little more of a Jamaican kind of sound, which [The Alchemist and Armand Hammer] touched on with Haram a bit. And then when the theme started coming in, I started going all over the world and seeing what I could pull from different places that touched on the themes that [woods] was speaking about. So Bali, Ethiopia, all different places. I'm really happy with it, because I kept those two initial sonic ideas and then added onto it, and they fell into place and worked out really well.
I like to think I have a pretty good ear for samples, but I'm usually at a loss when it comes to your music, Pres. What were some of your favorite samples on the record, and particularly ones you felt like you flipped in unusual, interesting ways?
Pres: “Wharves” is definitely one of them, because I feel like it takes you to that unknown that [woods] was talking about. It takes you into this location [and] you have no idea where it is. That's the feeling I get from it. “Doldrums” is a very interesting song, style-wise and production-wise. “Christine” is a beautiful, visual track that just transports you to a place.
woods: “Christine” is very cinematic to me. There's some other joints like that. It's interesting how they’re balanced with some moments that are very chaotic.
"Christine" has the most obvious lyrical reference on the album, which is the repeated quote from "Mr. Brown."
woods: The chorus was really just me trying to find a connecting point between what the song was about to me, which was, at least on the surface, cars that have been in my life or the lives of those around me. So thinking of a way to tie that into some of the other themes on the album, and just have a good hook. I mean, I always loved that chorus, and the story that inspired Bob to write those lyrics, which was this coffin riding around Jamaica, bringing misfortune, wherever it went. And the idea of duppies and malevolent spirits. And so then it was like, oh, well, the cars depicted in the song being coffins kind of also works.
woods, I feel sort of the same way about your lyrical references as I do about Pres' beats, in that they hit me very hard, but I also feel like I'm missing a deeper meaning, even when I'm listening pretty closely. So again, not to harp on the elusive thing, but do you like to bait listeners — especially listeners like me who have a hard time taking things at face value — to overthink things?
woods: No. I’m definitely writing... the song. But sometimes something occurs to you and it's good, "And you're like, I'm not gonna not do it just because someone doesn't know." When I first heard Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. I would say I understood 50 percent of what was being said. I wasn't from New York like that. The extent of the slang and the combination of drug shit, New York-specific shit, karate movies, Five Percent. I didn't know what was happening in half of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, and probably 70 percent of Ironman. I remember not even thinking Ironman was good, and then listening to it with Vordul [Mega], and he was like, “Nah, this is what's happening here. This is what he's doing here.” I'm not out here trying to trick people. Usually I'm thinking, "Oh, this is really dope." And I want to make it work if it can work within the context of the song. But the more layers something can have to it, usually, the more it interests me.
I read an interview where you said that you were trying to be more clear without really showing it. I really like that line. I think that's a great guiding principle for all art, maybe. To state things clearly in a way that's clear to you, but that still makes people think, and leaves them with questions.
woods: Some things are complex or could be hard to figure out. Other times people bend themselves into all types of pretzels, due to just a lack of contextual listening, sometimes critical thinking. I also recognize [that] when you create something and let it go, people are free to make their interpretations. Your art takes on a life of its own. There can be meanings within your art that the artist didn't intend that are not invalidated as readings of the piece of the art in question.
But then there are other times when it’s like, “What are you doing, man? That was a story about a relationship that got fucked up. It's not some sort of crazy metaphor about my relationship with my mother. And in fact, it’s creepy that you’re saying that, due to the number of sex references in the song.” But I say that while also acknowledging that I like to accept readings of things. Critical analysis can certainly contain things I didn't intend. I just would prefer if they weren't really dumb.