Backxwash isn’t so much a misunderstood artist as she is perhaps too often underappreciated for what she actually does best. Which is to say, to rap well and experiment with sounds, words and cadence in a fashion that welcomes excitement and danger back into hip-hop’s natural habitat.
It’s not uncommon for a cultural figure to have their persona and politics discussed as much as (if not more often than) their creativity. But Backxwash is a hip-hop talent, first and foremost.
Upon the release of a her third LP, His Happiness Shall Come First Even Though We Are Suffering, we asked Backxwash about her lyrical sensibilities, her hip-hop trajectory, and her personal favourite bars on the new project, dropping on Halloween.
Here’s what she had to say about her place in the rap game and her top five lyrical highlights from His Happiness.
As a fan of hip hop and a fan of music, where did you begin in terms of the elements of the music you make, and the way you make it? In the beginning, back in the day when I was 14 and 15, coming up with beats, the first people I tried to sound like (were) in that conscious hip-hop scene. I was really into that Common album, Be. My first tracks were trying to sound like that, with pianos and all of these lush instruments.
Then I really got into Cassidy, and Papoose, and Lloyd Banks. I only used to listen to rappers that had punchlines then, I was obsessed. From 2002 to 2005, that style of rapping was really popular. At the same time, I was into heavier stuff.
I really like Linkin Park because they had the marriage of what I like: industrial metal instrumentals and kind of an MC at the forefront. And there were also (artists) like Dälek. I like to say that the person who taught me how to write a hook was 50 Cent. Get Rich or Die Trying is kind of like a bible for how to write a hook. And the older I got, the more that I had one leg in hip-hop and another in heavy metal. And I gradually got more interested in experimental hip-hop.
(Death Grips album) The Money Store album came out in 2012. The way they were able to fuse industrial music and MC Ride’s delivery. Even though he’s a bit weird, he’s a rapper at heart. When you’re making music, you also want to try out new, different things. I guess the name ‘experimental hip hop’ rings true because you don’t know if these experiments are going to be successful or not.
Before doing God Has Nothing, I had the lyrics but I had nothing to pair it with. I used to rap over other people’s beats and I can’t really go on YouTube and look for my type of beat because I know best how it sounds. When I finally got the sound down, I was able to improve on it. So now you have I Lie Here, and now you have this album.
You’ve come a long way from being influenced by Papoose, and all of those people you named are really lyrical artists. And that’s a good segue into talking about your favourite rhymes on the new album.
“As angel Gabriel holds me/And keeps me close to the heavens/Think “This moment is perfect”/Seek the lord for repentance/Creeks are opening and closing/I see the form of the temptress/Will Jehova respect this/Or clip my rosary necklace?”
The first verse of “Vibanda” talks about having an out-of-body experience and seeing your own death. And this part is essentially the ascension to heaven. What I like about it the most is the rhyming. There’s a lot of internal rhyming happening, which I really have fun doing. But I also love the imagery that it paints. Last year, I got really into imagery and this is an example of that. It’s one of my favourite bars because I like the structure and the rhymes and imagery that come together, and it says something. You find people on TikTok and it’s just like, ‘Yeah, I can rap 200 multi-syllables in five seconds!’ But what is it actually saying?
I’m just really happy I can bring so many different styles of people together. It’s really dope that we’re having this heavy hip-hop conversation and then tomorrow I’m going to have an interview with a metal publication.
“Put the bow on the casket/Decompose into blackness/Figaro/The trumpets and hymns below/The sycamores/All Begin to Grow in the winter snow/They shine and glisten gold/Osiris bring me home/Skin and bones”
This is on the same track, but it’s verse two. And it’s kind of painting the scene for me at my funeral. I like the imagery here, too. You can almost feel the point at which the life is leaving the body. Before people die, I guess they may call out to God. But I’m calling out to Osiris, the Egyptian god. It’s not even that Osiris is my ancestor, but I don’t really want to say ‘god,’ so I’m forced to say Osiris in this situation.
“How to explain every shame/With all that I felt when I dealt with Cain/How did the rain bring so much pain/When they coulda melted it the same/How did the angels fall from my grace/And mix with the devils/Leave with their halo/Sinister rebels, demons and melkor/Tip of the scales, wickedest sulfur/Picture of hell/Picture of heaven/You think of twelve/Think of the seven/I gave ‘em help/Just need them to pray in/Fix all their faces/See the arrangements (FUCK)/I gotta keep all the planets from shifting the spaces/Vindictive complaining when all decisions are flagrant/Then they need me to engage with”
This is from the track I did with Censored Dialogue and Sadistik. I like it a lot because it’s kind of in contrast. In my stories, Christian mythology is usually the antagonist but in this one, I’m kind of rapping from the perspective of a vengeful god. The whole track is about the concept of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
And in this, I represent the Holy Spirit. Putting myself in that frame of mind was really interesting. One of the things when writing it was, I could kind of let up and give myself time to breathe, but I just wanted to keep going because I like when MCs overload you with references and then move to the next topic.
“In the kitchen/Geeking out I was twitching/Teething out of my wisdoms/Peeking out for a witness/Even now I envision/PTSD, it’s crazy/Hitting like it’s the 80s/Seeking death is a strange thing/Young, impressionable/Starving, any methadone?/Cartilage Lexapro/Carving up any sense I’m on/Hardly got left to go/Swarmy from neck and bones/Parked in the arm/Reach any home in an episode”
This is from track nine on the album. What I like about that one is that the bars are really defined between when the next loop comes in. The rhymes are really exact in that one. It also takes you into the brain of someone who’s geeking out and everything they’re going through.
But you’re able to follow it because the rhymes are so exactly put together. ‘Young, impressionable/ Starving, any methadone? Cartilage Lexapro/Carving up any sense I’m on.’ It goes back and puts you in that area, and rhyming and the structure are there. It’s one of my favourites.
It’s a real experience of authenticity because I can see myself back in the day, on so many drugs and just geeking out in someone’s kitchen, with someone wondering, like, ‘Who the fuck is this person and why are they geeking out in my kitchen?’ But to get the point across, the imagery doesn’t need to be coddled. It needs to represent exactly what you were feeling at that moment and what was going down.
“I’ve been using so I’m losing all my motherfucking bearings/Snipped a couple of earrings, from the heiress/Fuck dealing with the people stairing, I’m about to nab a steering/Grab the tree, inhale then, till death then”
Most of my songs – all of them – are in four-four time. And I’ve always wanted to do something in three-four just because of the weird position it puts you in just from a written perspective. There aren’t a lot of hip-hop songs with people singing in that time signature.
It’s telling the story of someone I knew who was going through that desperation. The lines and the rhymes hit differently. And the uneasiness that you can feel from the rhymes is also from the uneasiness you can hear from the instrumental. The ear is used to that four-four time signature, so when that three-four comes, you expect a drum to hit but it doesn’t. I think it kind of illustrated what was happening to my friend at that time – the feeling of loneliness.
How do you feel you measure up, lyrically, to where you’d like to be? Do you compete with yourself and on the new project, what’s the bar? And do you feel you’ve met it?
I think I just want to experiment with hip-hop as an artform. I sometimes think I’m underrated and that would have bothered me three or four years ago because I had more to prove. But now I’m at a point where I just want to make stuff that I find dope and that’s the only thing that matters to me. Anybody else’s opinion, that’s okay. I think, you know—you come in, and you really want respect from everyone. But I find it dope, that’s all good to me. I’m just really happy I can bring so many different styles of people together. It’s really dope that we’re having this heavy hip-hop conversation and then tomorrow I’m going to have an interview with a metal publication.
It kind of illustrates that I’m exist in different spaces. Even seeing different people at the shows, some of them are headbanging while others are just listening to the bars. That’s really nice. It creates a space for everyone to come in and that’s beautiful.