billy woods at The GreenHouse recording studio in Brooklyn
billy woods at The GreenHouse recording studio in Brooklyn

How billy woods’ Backwoodz Studioz Became New York’s Best Underground Rap Label

After steadily leveling up across more than two decades, the label is a bastion for uncompromising artists looking to get weird, loose, and honest.

billy woods and Elucid are barreling their way through fever dreams involving exiled Ethiopian presidents, boxing matches with daytime TV judges, and broken promises from God, as a crowd of around 800 people looks on, transfixed. At this New Jersey set during the doldrums of winter, part of a festival supporting DIY culture organized by the punk band Screaming Females, woods paces the stage dressed like the underground-rap lifer he is, his long locs stuffed into a hoodie underneath a maroon windbreaker. His booming voice gives dimension to solo tracks that weave dry humor and hyper-specific political and literary references into a tapestry of grave paranoia; Elucid, in a black zip-up sweater and cuffed khakis, follows with his own time-jumping astral projections. Experiencing their brand of left-of-center hip-hop can feel like doomscrolling while hurtling through whitewater rapids: It’s treacherous, disorienting, flowing, and entertaining all at once.

By the time they start running through their songs as a duo under the moniker Armand Hammer, particularly from 2021’s Haram, their collaborative album with the Alchemist, the diehard fans of woods’ long-running Backwoodz Studioz label truly reveal themselves. A cheer erupts from the back of the room when the psychedelic beat for “Black Sunlight” churns to life, before woods offsets the smooth instrumental with bars that zip from the disgraced investment bank Bear Stearns to Wesley Snipes’ taxes to KMD’s cult classic 1993 album Black Bastards, like a deadpan Ghostface Killah. Several people let their rap hands fly, including one in the mosh pit who’s rapping every word to the eerie “Scaffolds,” including ominous parables in miniature like, “Men wrack our brains over past deeds/Indeed the ground’s cold but the bones not deep.”

 After their set it becomes even clearer how deep the fandom runs. The line for Backwoodz merch curls through one entrance and circles back into another. By the time I make it to the front, certain CDs are completely sold out. One loyalist who traveled an hour and a half to see Armand Hammer perform carries a cardboard box under his arm stuffed with Backwoodz vinyl, including out-of-print albums and special editions. When he gets to the table, Elucid and woods gently sift through the stack, humbled at their own history staring them in the face, and patiently sign each and every record.

Such devotion isn’t something woods would’ve expected when he first founded Backwoodz Studioz in 2002. What started as a one-man operation  has ballooned into an indie rap powerhouse with a growing roster of like-minded artists eager to buck the system. Since the release of woods’ acclaimed 2012 solo album History Will Absolve Me in particular, Backwoodz has been on a steady incline in terms of both profit and quality, garnering cosigns from rap names across the spectrum, from Earl Sweatshirt to El-P to Moor Mother. The label is part of the lineage of independent New York hip-hop, standing on the shoulders of Fondle ‘Em Records, Definitive Jux, Rawkus, and Fat Beats, charting a path for uncompromising rap on its own frequency. “We’re at the point now where we need to be included in the conversation,” says woods, “even if it’s just, ‘I hate them dudes.’” 

On top of being one of Backwoodz’s flagship artists, woods executive produces albums for others, handles A&R, and, alongside label president Anton Schlesinger, negotiates contracts and payouts. “We pay our artists really well,” Schlesinger attests. “We don’t own anybody, and everyone’s got a piece of it.” Not only do artists signed to Backwoodz get full ownership of their work, most contracts through the label are offered on a project-by-project basis, as opposed to locking artists into multiple-project deals upfront. “Nobody is stuck here, which is important to me,” woods says. “People do things other places and come back, so you can have a feeling that no one’s capping anyone over here.” 

All of the nearly two dozen artists I spoke to for this piece cosigned the label’s atmosphere of financial trust and creative freedom. Chicago-based rapper defcee, one of the younger artists in the label’s orbit, who released Trapdoor in 2021, vouches for the straightforward approach. “Their business is always straight up and simple, where the other shoe never drops,” he says. “It’s weird that those qualities are such anomalies in independent music, but they’re also the qualities that make Backwoodz feel so much like home.” Brooklyn rapper AKAI SOLO, who released his full-length Backwoodz debut this past November, goes a step further by adding that seeing woods in action as a label head inspires him to persevere through the music industry’s less glamorous aspects as he tries to jumpstart his own label, Break All Records: “I lament the label meetings where we gotta talk about logistics and all that shit, but woods is just effortlessly doing it. It’s like the fucking Justice League’s at the table, and he’s got his Batman suit on. It makes me hopeful, like, ‘All right, this can work.’”    

Outside of a handful of assistants, interns, and trusted creatives—including longtime producer and engineer Steel Tipped Dove—woods and Schlesinger run most of the in-house operations themselves. “I’m the president of the company, but [woods] is the leader of the ship, for sure,” Schlesinger says. “It’s his vision, and I’m here to help execute it.” Brooklyn-based singer, producer, and songwriter Fielded, who released her 2020 debut Demisexual Lovelace on Backwoodz, appreciates the label’s aesthetic stewardship. “woods has created a safe space for artists to get weird, get loose, and get honest,” she says. “In turn the artists have woven together a highly curated and deliciously experimental sonic experience through the label’s discography.” 

“There’s quality control,” adds Philadelphia-based rapper Curly Castro, one-half of the duo ShrapKnel alongside PremRock. “Other places you get people’s boys and people’s weed dealers dropping records. That’s not happening here.” Curly Castro’s connection to the label goes beyond music: Last year, as the rapper was battling cancer and recovering from hip surgery, Backwoodz held an auction of rare items to help fund his treatment.

Artist-run labels, whether independent or mainstream, can often be little more than glorified vanity projects, making Backwoodz’s longevity and consistency that much more impressive. “I was always really determined for it to be an actual viable record label and not just an output for me,” woods says. It’s a platform, as Elucid notes, whose flagship artists are in their 40s and dealing with what it means to hold relevance with younger fans. And its founder is a chill father of two who enjoys his weed, his freedom, and occasionally proving that he and his cohorts are making some of the best hip-hop of our era. “I feel vindicated to some extent,” says woods. “We’ve made some important and just dope records.”

After staying on a steady rise for over 20 years, Backwoodz continues to expand. They’ve just signed a distribution deal with Fat Possum Records, who are helping to promote woods and producer Kenny Segal’s new album Maps—a spellbinding ride through the ups and downs of tour life—along with a robust slate of albums for the rest of the year, including a new Armand Hammer record. 

woods takes his artfully efficient approach into the booth when it’s time to record. During an April afternoon at The GreenHouse, a Brooklyn studio owned by Backwoodz’s in-house engineer Willie Green, woods lays out his laptop, jars of weed, and a backpack stuffed with Moleskine notebooks (he owns hundreds filled with lyrics). He’s here to record a guest verse and, as Green loops a lurching beat over and over, woods falls into a rhythm: write, edit, grind, roll, smoke, send email, repeat. 

The atmosphere jumps from sharply focused to casual on a dime. With smoke hanging over the windows like drapes, woods, Green, and resident Backwoodz photographer Alexander Richter reminisce about old CD stores and their favorite songs from JAY-Z’s Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter (for the record, woods’ favorite is “Come and Get Me”) before snapping back into place when it’s time for business. woods lays a few takes of his verse, tossing ideas back and forth with Green: pronounce that word this way, punch the vocals up at this measure, fold this obscure ’90s rap reference into this line with that vocal effect. 

“I want you to have a physical reaction when you listen to a Backwoodz record,” Green explains. “It’s not just some shit to throw on while you’re playing spades or doing dishes. Sit down and stop what you’re doing, because you’ll miss something if you’re not paying attention.” Seeing how woods blends history, politics, pop culture, obscure weed strains, and wildly specific food references into his rhymes in real time, it’s hard to disagree. 

Backwoodz engineer Willie Green

Going out on a limb for the bold idea has been woods’ M.O. since his early days growing up in Washington, D.C. The son of a Jamaican literature professor mother, and a Zimbabwean writer and Marxist revolutionary father who was forced into exile, woods was always surrounded by bubbling ideas. “There was no book you were too young to read,” he remembers with a laugh. His father decamped back to Zimbabwe in 1979 to help overthrow a local government, and he and his mother followed in 1981. They spent the next seven years there, before woods’ dad passed away. In 1989, a teenage woods moved back to D.C. to live with his mother’s relatives. He soon encountered Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” on a rented copy of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, inspiring him to buy a cassette of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. 

He began writing his own verses in the mid-’90s but didn’t take it seriously until he started spending time in New York while attending a college he declines to name. (Privacy is important to woods, which is partly why he always covers or digitally alters his face in music videos and press photos.) In the city, he met Shamar Gardner, better known as the rapper Vordul Mega, who was immediately taken with woods’ abstract style. Before long, Vordul had enough clout as one-half of the underground duo Cannibal Ox to invite woods to the studio to spit a verse. But what woods initially imagined as his big break quickly turned into a nightmare. 

“I’d never even been to a real studio before,” woods explains. “It was just a very hostile environment—not from Vordul, but from his management and other people in the studio. Every time I started my verse, the engineer would just be like, ‘Nope,’ click it off. ‘Nope,’ click it off. It was humiliating, embarrassing, a low point. I smoked some weed outside to save face and just dipped.” 

The rejection stung, and woods decided to strike out on his own. “I had to make sure I wasn’t in that situation again,” he says. “I needed to be in a place where I have control and can do what I want to do.” After scrounging together some money from odd jobs, woods rented out a studio in Yonkers, where he recorded his 2002 debut album Camouflage, the inaugural release from Backwoodz Studioz.

The person he’d rented studio time from was none other than Schlesinger, who had moved to New York from Texas for college and had recently spent a grip of money on furnishing his own recording space. They developed a working relationship, which eventually transformed into a 50-50 partnership for Backwoodz. In the early days, woods handled artist outreach and contacted record stores about getting their music on shelves, while Schlesinger, who was an intern at Caroline Records at the time, engineered and took care of the financial side. 

They started releasing music they believed in—hazy rap records by Super Chron Flight Brothers, a duo composed of woods and the rapper Priviledge; the 11-member strong Reavers; and others—but it was far from lucrative. “That was not a period of building steam,” woods admits. “It was a period of mostly losing money.” 

The label’s records were being distributed through Green Streets Entertainment, a subsidiary of the indie Nature Sounds, and the amount of middle men involved made the process prohibitively expensive. “You’re getting pennies on the dollar for what you spend, and it just wasn’t the hip-hop that people wanted back then,” Schlesinger remembers. Then, around the time of the 2008 recession, brick-and-mortar music stores were going out of business left and right, leading Green Streets to send all the Backwooodz inventory they’d bought back to woods and Schlesinger. “Our accounts went negative,” Schlesinger says. “I still have a storage unit stocked to the brim with all these records, like, ‘Maybe one day they’ll all be worth something.’” 

By 2012, most of the artists involved with Backwoodz had moved on, given up, or drifted away—including woods’ rap partner Priviledge. Though woods hadn’t released a solo album since 2004’s The Chalice, he decided to bet it all on his third solo project, History Will Absolve Me. Lacking a proper studio, woods and Willie Green recorded, mixed, and mastered the album out of Green’s apartment kitchen. “Cats was under pressure,” woods says with a chuckle. If History didn’t work out, both woods and Green’s music careers would’ve most likely ended on the spot. “It was the last gasp,” adds Green, who produced eight of the album’s beats. “We knew we had something, but we weren’t thinking about long-term impact.”  

The album marked the most realized encapsulation of the Backwoodz ethos to date, stuffed with verses that balance on the edge of well-read and street smart alongside forward-thinking beats. Songs like the war crime saga “Pompeii” grab life by the hoodie strings, while others like “Duck Hunt” split the difference between abstract and tactile imagery. 

History wasn’t a rousing success upon its release in April 2012, but it might as well have gone double platinum by Backwoodz’s meager standards. Around this time, Schlesinger also created the label’s first webstore to sell History CDs and T-shirts. “Making that e-commerce store is the best thing we ever did,” Schlesinger says. “I could actually see the fanbase for the first time and watch it develop.” 

This was around the time that Elucid, who was already years deep into a career of his own as a rapper-producer, entered the Backwoodz fold after being introduced to woods through New York underground rap fixture Uncommon Nasa (“There is no Armand Hammer without Nasa,” woods clarifies). “It was some kinship from the jump,” Elucid says of his creative bond with woods. Elucid recorded two features for History, and the pair’s partnership bloomed from there. 

Their chemistry was immediate, but woods had his doubts about fully committing to a collaborative project based on choppy past experiences. “I was wary of setting up any sort of group again,” he confesses. “But this was a person who pushed me to do things better. It just felt good.” woods was the one who ultimately suggested they form a duo, officially bringing Armand Hammer into the world. 

In the mid-2010s, the label further sharpened its sound—woods’ elongated booming vignettes and Elucid’s rapid-fire koans over rattling production—with records including woods’ fifth album, Today, I Wrote Nothing, Elucid’s solo debut for Backwoodz, Save Yourself, and Armand Hammer’s proper debut, Race Music. The money still wasn’t rolling in—“Everyone had day jobs at this point,” woods emphasizes—but they were getting decent press coverage and struggling less. 

Backwoodz hit another milestone with the one-two punch of Armand Hammer’s second and third albums, 2017’s ROME and 2018’s Paraffin. For ROME, they compiled some bold-name features (Mach-Hommy, Quelle Chris) and producers (August Fanon, JPEGMAFIA) from their scene, and were expecting to get a big reaction from fans. The album got some good reviews, but it was Paraffin that wound up being the runaway hit. “That record was very successful for us, in a very unorthodox way,” woods says. “We sold the vinyl with no digital, and then when it came out [on streaming services], all of a sudden the vinyl was gone.”

Things start happening very fast for woods and Elucid following Paraffin’s popularity. The duo booked their first string of tour dates together through Europe. And Backwoodz started seeing more profitable returns for woods’ next couple of solo albums, Hiding Places and Terror Management, both released in 2019. This also led to a bout of expansion, with artists like Curly Castro, Brooklyn rapper Henry Canyons, and rapper-producer Duncecap dropping solo projects. Backwoodz’s broader range are displayed in the list of collaborations on Armand Hammer’s 2020 album Shrines, including Pink Siifu, keiyaA, R.A.P. Ferreira, and Moor Mother, many of whom came through connections with Elucid, whom woods cites as the label’s secret weapon as an A&R.  

Another of those collaborators was Earl Sweatshirt, who had played Paraffin for veteran beatmaker Alchemist when it first dropped in 2018. Alchemist then reached out to woods, who suggested he fully produce an Armand Hammer album. The anticipation for that record, 2021’s Haram, was so high that the Backwoodz site crashed from sheer demand when pre-orders first went live. The label had officially gone from barely having enough support to keep their doors open to people busting down their website’s doors to buy records. And thanks to their limited vinyl pressings, some of their records’ resale value has gone through the roof: As of this writing, mint-condition copies of both History and Hiding Places are going for as much as $519 and $750 on Discogs, respectively. Meanwhile, an OG pressing of Paraffin is priced at just over $2,200. As predatory as the resale market can be, such price tags speak for themselves.   

Today, Schlesinger still fulfills most Backwoodz orders himself from his office in Texas, where the floor is covered in shipping labels. More than 20 years later, he and woods remain the two heads working to keep the body in motion. 

After finishing his verse at The GreenHouse on that afternoon in April, woods prepares for an in-store appearance at the luxe bookstore Rizzoli in Manhattan to promote a children’s book he wrote called A Is for Anarchist. There, he trades in his black tee and jeans for a button-down shirt and slacks as he answers questions and signs books in the store’s stately backroom. It’s a far cry from the smoky studio, but woods’ candor carries him through all the same. As the night draws to a close, I notice the small crowd of book and music lovers gathered to see woods (none of whom are children, by the way) and wonder how many of them realize how rare it is to see his face unobscured. There’s something ironic about having to seek him out to get that full experience—the music he makes and releases is more accessible and popular than ever, but the only way to truly see the head of indie rap’s most consistent label is to meet him in the flesh.