Backwoodz Studioz, the New York label started by billy woods, has long been a bastion of challenging, forward-thinking rap music. Though it’s been simmering just below the surface for years — woods initially established Backwoodz to release his solo album Camouflage in 2003 — the label arguably had its breakthrough moment in 2018 with the release of Paraffin, the third record from Armand Hammer, woods’ duo with ELUCID.
The momentum continued, and 2021 saw Backwoodz level up once again, as Armand Hammer joined forces with veteran producer The Alchemist (who is on his ownlegendarystreak) to release Haram, a critically-acclaimed odyssey that gave the label one of its most visible albums since its inception. Since then, Backwoodz has had one of the most unimpeachable release runs in recent memory, culminating in an incredible nine-album schedule in 2022 (10 including the reissue of woods’ History Will Absolve Me).
When discussing Backwoodz, it would be remiss to not credit engineer Willie Green. His work on each of these releases — whether mixing, mastering, or both — is consistently impeccable. Green knows exactly when and how to add effects, using filters, delays, and distortion to add depth and dimension. His attention to detail makes each Backwoodz release an immersive listening experience. Here is the breakdown of Backwoodz establishing themselves as the new leader of the underground in 2022.
billy woods x Preservation – Aethiopes
There may not be a better album to illustrate Backwoodz talents in 2022 than billy woods and Preservation’s virtuosic collab project Aethiopes. The album’s opening verse, wherein woods wonders if his new neighbor is former Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, ratchets up to Rear Window-level tension in just a minute and a half. On “NYNEX,” he offers a sober assessment of how little the world has ever changed: “The future isn’t flying cars, it’s Rachel Dolezal absolved.” He can also be bleakly hilarious, offering the kind of withering gallows humor usually found in a Cormac McCarthy novel. Woods’ declaration that “life is a zipline in the dark” on “Remorseless” elicits the kind of spasmodic laugh the crowd in a horror movie emits after a jumpscare. When life gives him lemonade, he counters by “pour[ing] his spirit of choice.”
Preservation’s shifting-sands production beautifully complements woods’ layered writing. The beats morph, slither, and bend beneath woods’ feet, creating an otherworldly backdrop that elevates Aethiopes beyond his past work. The Ethiopian jazz of “Asylum” gives way to the mournful squall of horns and synths in “No Hard Feelings.” There’s wailing Moog theremin on “Remorseless,” which comes after the roots/dub workout of “Protoevangelium.” “Haarlem” ends with Fatboi Sharif rapping over what sounds like pianos being dropped down a stairwell. It’s thrilling at every moment.
The world woods so adeptly builds in Aethiopes isn’t new. It’s our current one, pockmarked and scarred by the viciousness of history. It’s an explanation of the violence that lurks behind every interaction, how cruelty becomes commonplace, and the ways we’ve learned to cope with collapse. Woods is a mind-bendingly good writer, penning short stories the length of a rap verse. It’s easily one of the best albums of 2022 and a new pinnacle in a career full of them.
E L U C I D – I Told Bessie
There’s a moment near the end of I Told Bessie, in the first first of “Betamax,” wherein ELUCID perfectly describes his style: “I don’t wanna lie to you, sometimes the reason never mattered/ you gonna feel it in the rhythm and the patterns.” Often — and inaccurately — described as being cryptic for cryptic’s sake, ELUCID’s raps don’t offer immediate guidance. You may not know the exact message behind his words, but he delivers them with such stately force that you recognize their weight. Each line could double as a mantra or be cut out and rearranged to form his complete autobiography. ELUCID can give all-too human foibles and desires a cosmic tinge, acknowledging the often disappointing complexities of humanity while leaving plenty of space for grace. “If you’re seeking understanding, you should jam this where you are,” he advises.
In that sense, I Told Bessie, named for the grandmother with whom he lived in Crown Heights, feels like a spiritual text. Rather than provide any moral code, Bessie offers a collection of spells: one for protection, one for understanding, one to experience love, one to accept who you are. The beats are spacious and atmospheric, assembled by a murderer’s row of production talent. ELUCID sounds comfortable on everything from the Swishahouse bounce of Sebb Bash’s “Bunny Chow” to Alchemist’s ominous and droning beat on “Nostrand.” The overall effect is that of a flickering candle, slowly revealing the contours of the space around you. I Told Bessie is a hypnotizing listen and will take you to some powerful places if you give yourself over to it. “There’s…many portals,” ELUCID continues on “Betamax.” “[Where] the fuck you going with the door closed?”
billy woods x Messiah Musik – Church
On September 30, billy woods dropped his second album of 2022. Church, a full-length collaboration with Messiah Musik, at first felt slight as compared to the towering Aethiopes. Where that album had a shapeshifting soundscape akin to a prog-rock album, Church is mostly made up of thundering boom bap. It has a more traditional construction and feels a bit more insular. These songs exist in bodegas, hospital rooms, and tiny New York apartments. Instead of using history to examine the scars of humanity at large, woods uses it as allegory for the tiny conflicts that color relationships. On Aethiopes, a song like “Cossack Wedding” might take aim at the vicious cycle of how institutional structures eventually harm the people they serve. Instead, woods uses the Chernobyl disaster as a way to the fracturing of a romantic relationship. His writing is brilliant as ever, but the scale is much smaller.
Messiah Musik, in his second full-length showing for Backwoodz, expands the parameters of his heavy bag sound. It’s still all syncopated loops and winter-trudge drums, but he more fully explores some of the weirder patterns his previous work has hinted at. Some of these beats, like the third switch up on “Fever Grass,” could fit comfortably on a record like Portishead’s Third. Other tracks show the depth of his influences; “Cossack Wedding” channels DJ Paul; “Frankie” sounds like Madlib scoring a Giallo film.
If Aethiopes seems mythical, Church feels brutally real. The stories woods tells have the foggy feeling of deep memory, full of the tiny, devastating details that stay firmly stuck in the rivulets of your brain. He continues to operate at an impossibly high level, writing about the human condition like few can, rapper or otherwise.
ShrapKnel – Metal Lung
What makes an experience truly psychedelic is the warping of the familiar and Metal Lung, the second album from ShrapKnel (PremRock and Curly Castro of Wrecking Crew), is a gleefully bent rap record. Prem and Castro are the (dilated) pupils of rap music of all strains, synthesizing sounds as disparate as the 504 Boyz and Def Jux into a mind-expanding palette. The two rappers are perfect foils for each other: as Castro kicks down doors with his snarling energy, Prem calmly explains the universe as the single rock in his glass of whiskey melts. They both pair searing insight with Inside Baseball-type references, creating dense thickets of double entendres and extended metaphors. Both emcees have had a busy few years, as they’ve each dropped superb solo albums in 2021 — not to mention an excellent Wrecking Crew LP in July. Even still, Prem and Castro are Rapping on Metal Lung.
The beats, handled mostly by fellow Backwoodz artist Steel Tipped Dove, are smoked out and colorful. Warped-tape drones nudge up against hypnotic drums (“Cold Burn”), chunky grooves burst through shimmering noise (“Damn, Alice!”), vocal samples throb like a headache (“A Tribe All Stressed”). It’s thick but not impenetrable, tense without being overwhelming. It all feels like you’ve had one too much of whatever substance was on offer, but you never fully tip into oblivion. The covert art from Shane Ingersoll fits perfectly: a tangled, vibrant cityscape building upward while collapsing in on itself, Castro and PremRock at the center of it all.
AKAI SOLO – Spirit Roaming
AKAI SOLO was introduced to rap music when his sixth grade math teacher played Aesop Rock’s “Nickel Plated Pockets.” It’s easy to hear how deeply it wormed its way into AKAI’s consciousness: both the song and AKAI’s catalog are examinations of what survival means in a world one must work to recognize anew each day. Spirit Roaming, AKAI’s debut full length for Backwoodz (he released an EP, Body Feeling, with the label in May), plays like a deep reading of “Nickel Plated Pockets”’s themes. In each verse, Aesop takes the same route to the bodega, uses the same amount of money to purchase cigarettes, and interacts with the same unhoused person each time. He ponders the little things — like his smokes — that help people survive an existence they don’t understand. It’s Aesop describing what it’s like to be in a rut; he takes the same journey over and over only to conclude that “if this means anything at all, anyway, it’s a riddle.”
AKAI takes a similar tack with Spirit Roaming, but alters it slightly. He wants to “grasp every crack in the terra firma,” taking as many different journeys as possible that may all lead to the same place. You can hear this manifest in the way he flows, as he sometimes begins and ends a rhyme scheme in a single bar, ignoring any “traditional” patterns. It’s evident in his production taste; there are 14 different producers on Spirit Roaming, but it sounds like one cohesive statement. AKAI favors lumbering beats with murky, noise-obscured samples, but they all feel luminous, glowing around the edges like clouds obscuring sunshine. Across the album, he catalogs his moments of survival. He volunteers to bag up fruit at the local co-op (“S.O.M.”); he learns to look at darkness from new angles (“Musashi”); he embraces simplicity (“For A Few”). Spirit Roaming is a beautiful, soul-bearing document of AKAI SOLO trying his best to crack the riddle.
Defcee x Messiah Musik – Trapdoor
Though released at the end of 2021, Trapdoor still belongs on this list. It served as an end cap to a more slight — but no less impactful — year of releases while ushering in the label’s astonishing 2022 schedule. The album was a bit overlooked, partially due to timing, partially due to Defcee’s own excellent follow-up in March of 2022, For All Debts Public and Private. But Trapdoor is a milestone in both Defcee and Backwoodz’s discographies. For one, it fully solidifies the idea that Backwoodz is a label of capital W Writers; while the Chicago rapper’s bars aren’t as enigmatic as some of his labelmates’, they’re just as exquisitely designed. He makes disarming observations in the space of a couplet, like the final two lines from “Small Comforts:” “therapy or surgery, either way you bout to open up/ or that one-way toward the exit blocked by what you won’t confront.” On the blistering Chicago posse cut, “Pyramid Dust,” Defcee proves that he’s a connoisseur of the gas face, stating he’s “more brilliant while unconscious than any other rapper is on an Adderall.”
Trapdoor is also the label’s first full-length produced by longtime Backwoodz collaborator Messiah Musik. Defcee has often described the Baltimore producer’s work on the album as “the beats RZA lost in the flood.” Messiah finds off-kilter loops and pairs them with drums that thud like boots on a Chicago winter snowpack. Chiming guitar lines and dusty piano samples snake between Messiah’s crushing snares, providing the precise emotional backdrop for Defcee’s ruminations on the prison industrial complex, substance abuse, anxiety, and (of course) garbage rappers. The two make a perfect pair; their ability to build and sustain tension with no wasted space makes Trapdoor a harrowing and deeply rewarding listen.
Hajino x Duncecap – Go Climb a Tree
Backwoodz’s first release of 2022, a collaboration between producer Hajino and rapper/video artist Duncecap, is a charming examination of millennial malaise. Hajino’s beats are delightfully weird, accenting chaotic sample chops and synth squiggles with percussion that clicks and whirrs in the corners of the stereo field. It all adds up to be pleasantly tranquil, complementing Dunce’s daydreaming lyrics about the small joys and frustrations of life in the roaring 2020s. Dunce doesn’t sound angry when complaining about money troubles or his tendency to self-isolate, but his lyrics exude a simmering frustration that colors each day. He’s “always grinding like a molar,” often skipping lunch to buy scratch offs. In moments of comfort, when he’s “buried in his blankets,” he still finds himself shouting into his pillow. Ultimately, Go Climb a Tree is a record about living in service of your art, reflecting on the sacrifices and successes that come with. What Dunce wants more than anything is “perspective, protection, and some good rhymes.”
Jeff Markey – Sports & Leisure
Backwoodz has what can now be considered a tradition of dropping an excellent project at the end of the year. The label gave us billy woods and Moor Mother’s BRASS in 2020 and Defcee and Messiah Musik’s Trapdoor in 2021. This year, Backwoodz dropped Jeff Markey’s (mostly) instrumental project, Sports & Leisure, on Christmas Day. Even though only seven of its 17 songs feature rappers, this is no tossed-off, minor project. Markey’s popped up on several Backwoodz releases, producing “Western Education is Forbidden” off woods’ Terror Management, and “Black Ark” off Armand Hammer’s 2013 debut, Race Music. While those productions were complicated, highly left-field compositions that championed dread and atmosphere above all, his work on Sports & Leisure is more straightforward. Simply put, it really jams.
These beats are spacious and warm, consisting of samples chopped and warped into tiny psychedelic grooves. Everything is smeared with tape hiss and the drums are often muffled, but Markey’s not making innocuous beats to study to. He has a real ear for melody and texture. Dub delay on “Mo Lava” sends bits of the track’s horn and piano into the stratosphere. On “Quick Realignment,” Markey submerges the chord progression under a pool of distortion. He expertly mixes the samples of “Head Fake” into stratified layers, creating a trippy, disorienting effect. It makes for a deeply absorbing headphones listen. Members of the extended Backwoodz universe (Defcee, woods, Fatboi Sharif, SKECH185, and more) appear every now and then, but the album is so skillfully sequenced that it never feels jarring. Markey knows how to produce for each of his guests, but most of all, he knows how to sustain a mood.
Be sure to check out some of our other articles about 2022 in Hip Hop.
- Best Female Rappers of 2022
- 10 Artists Who Shouldn’t Drop In 2023
- Most Disappointing Albums of 2022
- Best HipHopDX Interviews of 2022
- Most Anticipated Albums Of 2023
And check out all of our 2o22 HipHopDX Award Winners.