From the living-room of his apartment in the heart of Toronto, Roy Woods virtually welcomes Numéro, a cup of tea in his hand. From the very start of his career, the Canadian rapper was hugely acclaimed. After getting noticed by Drake’s manager Oliver El-Khatib, he then signed for OVO Sound, the Canadian rapper’s music label. The track Jealousy from his first EP Exis released in 2015, was a turning point in his career and sealed his position on the international hip-hop scene. Besides, the musician is a real talent hunter. Through his collective Unlock The Underground, he digs up new artists and professional and gives them a platform to showcase their gift. After a two-year absence following the release of his phenomenal album Say Less (2017), Drake’s protégé comes back with Dem Times (2020), a second EP of 6 intimate tracks cradled in a melancholic and trippy rap.
Numéro: How is lockdown going for you?
Roy Woods: I am currently back home in Toronto, Canada. The circumstances of what is going on are really crazy, but I am kind of used to the quarantine lifestyle, so it has been a smooth cell for me. Over here in Canada, the rules have been loosened up a bit and people can meet in groups of 10 now, so it hasn’t been too bad.
Did you develop some new talent during this time?
No, I didn’t! [Laughs.] It would have been nice though, but just did what I am used to do, like cooking for instance.
“One artist I definitely want to collaborate with for a long time is Frank Ocean. If I can get to Frankie, I will be the happiest man!”
You started playing and producing your music at a very young age. How did it all start?
I was born in Toronto, Canada, North General Hospital… 6:36 am… no, actually I have no idea! [Laughs.] I am 24… hair is grey! I just love to make music. I started when I was 15 years old and I took it pretty seriously. I always knew I wanted to do music, so when I was in grade 9, I went to a public school called Terner Fenton Secondary School and attended a couple of music classes. One of them was instrument, and as singing classes didn’t exist, I picked the drums. It was perhaps the only instrument I have ever played, aside from the recorder in middle school! [Laughs.] Everything really started with the local music scene here in Toronto.
Roy Woods – “Jealousy” (2015)
Which kind of artists and musical genres influenced you at the time?
I was still dabbling between different genres at that time. I got into house music and started to listen to a lot of rock… Then hip-hop and R'n'B came in, and I felt like starting teaching myself how to write music and sing more original songs, among which a lot of R'n'B ones. There was definitely a lot of creative artists at that time – The Weeknd, PartyNextDoor, Jay-Z were doing an incredible job.
Your real name is Denzel Spencer, what does Roy Woods stand for?
There is a little story behind that name. Before being Roy Woods, I used to call myself Pression – short and impactful. Like a pression, right! When I started dropping some music around 2013, a friend of mine from school who used to listen to my music came up to me and said, “hey man, you’re a rapper, right?” and asked for my stage name. I answered Pression and explained “short for the pression”. He then said that the song I had just released didn’t go with the name. He was the first and only person to tell me that, so I asked him about his opinion on the question. He immediately replied “Roy Woods, I think it should be Roy Woods!”, without even thinking twice and taking a moment to have a lap around the school to think about it! [Laughs.] So, I ended up picking up that name.
Last May, you released a new EP titled Dem Times that reminds me about your first album Say Less (2017) in many aspects. In it, you are exposing your feelings in six progressive tracks. What story do you want to tell with this EP?
I wanted to show another side of my life, that I have been dealing with before in my music. I feel like I gave a little bit of the old Roy and what he has been going through with the potential of the new Roy. I haven’t dropped any music since Say Less, therefore this EP is a kind of time capsule of the last two years – I would say of my “absence”. Not fully or completely, but in a partial way with the ups and downs I have undergone over those two years. First, coming out on the international music scene with my first album, now releasing this EP during quarantine, and then preparing a second studio album will help finish expending those two years.
Roy Woods – “2 Me” (2020)
When will we be able to discover this second album?
I definitely want to drop it this year. Fingers crossed! This new album will serve concluding the cycle from my two-year absence after Say Less to the story I am telling in Dem Times. There are many heavy songs in it, going deep into different topics, mostly about my personal and love life. It will go into a deeper hole…
Can we expect some new collaborations on it?
I don’t want to spoil to much, but one artist I definitely want to collaborate with for a long time is Frank Ocean. If I can get to Frankie, I will be the happiest man!
How do you usually write your music?
For the most part, I write everything on my own, either from Toronto or Los Angeles – two cities with two different atmospheres. I also like having my team around, they bring me a vibe and lots of ideas. I love being in a room full of different people giving their opinion on things.
Wasn't it impressive to receive Drake’s opinion and to work along with him right from the beginning?
I was very nervous when it all started, because I knew I was young. I wasn’t the youngest in the industry, but I was the youngest on the label. Besides, I didn’t know at the age of 20 what I know now at 24. I was just a lost little kid! [Laughs.] I was looking around me like “this is a beautiful place, I don’t know those people, I just want to do my job”. I feel extremely impressed with the way I managed dealing with it when I arrived, especially with all the information I was lacking at the time. I was a sponge socking up everything around me, the environment and the people.
“Musicians definitely have a big role in this, because it is deeper than just music: it is something that we live through. We have gone through those experiences in our lives, not just as artists, but as persons.”
How did you come to work with OVO Sound, the music label created by Drake, his manager Oliver El-Khatib and Noah 40 Shebib?
Olivier reached out to me through Instagram in 2014. I would share my songs with him through the platform, going back and forth chopping them up a couple of times, before he asked me to sign with OVO Sound, where I am right now. It is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. 100% to Olivier, stay big homie! [Laughs.]
What has changed for you since you met Oliver?
The only thing that has really changed is the lifestyle. You will probably be surprised to know that I actually clean a lot – I hate the mess, it just frustrates me! [Laughs.] I also cook a lot more, I am a huge dog person – I have two dogs and a cat as well. I have a whole little family here at home. I am just trying to live my life, to enjoy what I have and to have experiences I can talk about, even it they are normal ones. I don’t feel like that I have changed, I feel like I have just adjusted to everything that is going on. I still feel I am same guy, which I’m happy about as long as I can make my music.
Roy Woods – “I Feel It” (2020)
You also are committed to find out about new talents. Tell us more about your collective Unlock The Underground...
We came up with that name through conversation with my friends. After that, it just skyrocketed. The collective is a big thing for us, it is our identity as a team. In everything I do, I try to let people know what Unlock The Underground is about. You don’t necessarily have to be a musician to be “successful”, some people need somebody around that star. You can like music, without realizing that you have a hidden talent within the very fact of loving music – you are never too young to do anything, you never do too much and nothing ever is the end of the world. That is what I stand for and what UTU stands for.
How do you unearth those talents?
It is all natural. We either look for a specific profile, or someone just comes in to offer his talent to us. Depends on who the universe wants us to work with. [Laughs.]
“I am not much of a big talker. I just put everything in my music.”
About the current political and social situation regarding police brutality against black people, black screens have taken over social media with the hashtag #BlackOutTuesday and many artists – among them The Weeknd – have taken a stand compelling the music industry to donate and to include more non-white people on an economical level. Do you think that the music industry has a role to play in this social issue?
Yes, for sure. You just have to take a look at what you see on TV, on Instagram or on Twitter. Musicians definitely have a big role in this, because it is deeper than just music: it is something that we live through. We have gone through those experiences in our lives, not just as artists, but as persons in general. When it comes to the color of my skin, I want to be treated as good as the guy who is doing the same job as me. I don’t want any of my kids to go through these things because of their skin color. I think that equality is a thing our generation has seen as a possibility, but has never had the chance to break this cycle. People coming from music, sports or any other industry, do have a platform they can use to bring some positive change, to raise awareness and to get people to really care. I feel more and more like our job as musicians is to inform people about the things they don’t know and let them choose whether or not they want to join the fight. I just don’t want to do nothing.
In that sense, social media may help people communicate with a larger audience some ideas that would be less audible on a TV show for example. Where do you find your space to express yourself the freest?
Through my music, because I am not much of a big talker. I just put everything in my music and I have always been doing that even before having Instagram or Twitter. I still do express myself on social media from time to time, but I choose how to and when to. I also think that you have to carefully watch what you say on social media, because it can easily be misunderstood or deconstructed, when you actually felt like giving your opinion.
The beginning of this year has been turned upside down in many aspects, what will be your next step?
Hopefully, I will be on tour next year. I am going to wait for everything to die down, before going back to work regularly on my next album in the US. I wish I will be able to tour in Europe. Paris is the city I miss the most, I went there twice for concerts, it is so beautiful – the city of love, right!
Dem Times (2020) by Roy Woods is available [OVO Sound].