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Baker's Dozen

Origin Story: Billy Woods' Favourite Albums
Zachary Lipez , May 24th, 2023 08:25

As he releases acclaimed new album Maps alongside Kenny Segal, underground hip hop mainstay Billy Woods takes tQ through the thirteen records that have defined his life, from Goodie Mob to Ghostface Killah


Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein

Huge in different, different ways. I was really close with this girl, Brooke, from Santa Cruz, who was living in Harlem, and she ended up being like, 'You should move in with me.' That was my first real taste of independence. My mom did not approve, she felt like I should be at home, working and saving money for my next semester, not paying rent in New York. I know that my mother is serious, so I took it to heart and just started taking care of myself. That summer was when a lot of my high school friends ended up in some precarious situations, and I likely would have been around for some of that, if I was in the DMV.

So I move to the city, and I meet Vordul [Mega, of Cannibal Ox] in the summer of 1996, because Brooke is a person who really gets involved in the community wherever she lives. She was also involved in the culture that was bubbling at that time around Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, and the intersection of slam poetry and indie hip hop. I feel like he had quit rapping at the time because his face got slashed, or he got jumped outside a venue, something like that, but she eventually convinced him to kick a freestyle in her kitchen. I had never heard rap like that, the style and the content just floored me, and at that point, rappers to me were not people that you actually know! I didn't grow up around people who really rapped, rappers were people on TV. So for this regular dude sitting here, to be this incredible rapper was just shocking.

He was younger than me but we hit it off really easily because he was just such a wonderful person, and really smart and funny. Then in 1998, I moved further uptown and Brooke had gone back to Cali, but Vordul and I hung out a lot. He came over to my spot all the time, and at that point his crew Atoms Family had become a bigger thing and Vordul was starting to shine more on the stuff they were putting out. His star was rising, but one day he comes to me and is like, ‘Me and Vast [Aire] are gonna be a group called Cannibal Ox, and El-P wants to fuck with us.’ And to be honest, I'm kind of like, ‘Yeah, right!’ because El-P was a big deal right then. Vordul insists that this is real. He already had the lyrics, he had the concept, he had everything, he just was waiting for El to finish what I am guessing became Little Johnny From the Hospital, and turn his focus to producing Cannibal Ox. So boom, I would hear a lot of those raps in my living room a capella, and let me be clear, before I even heard this shit over beats my mind was blown.

But before the end of 1999, I go back to D.C. and I stay there. The funny part is I refused Vordul's offer to give me the album because I thought, ‘These guys are not going to get many sales, the least I can do is try and just buy the CD.’ I was pressuring the guy at this mom and pop record store off U Street, that was mostly stocking either mainstream rap or local gangster rappers, to get me Operation Doomsday and The Cold Vein, and he's never heard of any of these artists!. It took a long time but I got both of those CDs and it was just phenomenal. I mean, it just blew me away that like, my little homie, he'd gotten to this point and the work was so incredible. Then the next thing I knew, I drove up to New York City to make this show they had at BB King’s and I was just like, ‘Wow, they’re really doing it. They're opening for Ghostface, right after Supreme Clientele!’

Just seeing somebody I actually knew in real life succeed on that level, and how incredibly talented he was and how sonically different that record was. All of that was really impactful for me. I mean, beyond anything, that also made me be like, ‘Oh, well, I can really do this.’ Vordul was always, always encouraging of that. Seeing how that album blew up gave me delusional ideas that would soon be dispelled.