Carnage the Executioner comes into his own

The best rapper from Minnesota you've never heard

The dark clouds overhead are just beginning to spit rain as Carnage the Executioner arrives at the Plymouth Youth Christian Center, an alternative high school in north Minneapolis. He's on the short side and heavy-set, with a peppering of gray in his beard, and there's a loose bounce in his step. As he walks through the front door, he stops to shake the water from his spiky black hair.

It's a Thursday afternoon in May and the rapper has arrived to teach a beatboxing and poetry class with his cohort in rhyme, Desdamona. Beatboxing — vocally replicating drum beats, record scratches, and other sounds to rap along to — was popular in the early days of hip hop, but has become something of a lost art over the years. For Carnage, it's an opportunity for inner-city minority kids, like the ones in his class. "I want to create a little army of beatboxers," he says, somewhere between joking and boasting. "These kids are going to learn to make music from the most stripped-down standpoint, which is doing it with your body."

As he waits in the lobby, one of his students comes down a nearby stairwell, swinging from step to step with both hands on the railings. From a distance, you can hear him singing quietly to himself. "See that?" Carnage grins broadly, giving a nudge with his elbow, his hands tucked in the pockets of his black jacket. "He's already beatboxing."

Carnage the Executioner, aka Terrell Woods, at the Cabooze, August 2012
Sean Smuda
Carnage the Executioner, aka Terrell Woods, at the Cabooze, August 2012
Carnage opening for the WuTang Clan's RZA at the Cabooze
Sean Smuda
Carnage opening for the WuTang Clan's RZA at the Cabooze

The class meets in the auditorium, where a roomful of empty red seats face the students, who circle up under the white-hot stage lights. Carnage starts them off simply, just clapping a rhythm at first. Then, every few beats, he stomps his foot, snaps his fingers, or pats his chest, until it all takes on the shape of Queen's "We Will Rock You." Once they've warmed up, different students take the lead and create their own beats, while others try out raps they've been working on at home.

Desdamona, who performs with Carnage in the hip-hop duo Ill Chemistry, says the kids love the class. "His personality, usually kids open up to him pretty easily. And they're kind of impressed by it, so it usually is a good situation," she says. "Even if they're hesitant, they still try it and they learn something from it."

But when he cuts loose, Carnage's beatboxing is another beast altogether. It's more than simply imitating sounds, or showing off how fast he can spit. He builds entire songs, piece by piece, with his mouth: gut-punching bass sounds, ricocheting snare shots, and rich, precise guitar tones. If you didn't see him in person, you'd think it was a full band playing. Carnage can even imitate other people's voices, remix them, and work them into a song like a DJ switching records. Human voices aren't supposed to do what his does.

"I can beatbox without a microphone and motherfuckers can hear that down the block because I got a big-ass mouth," Carnage says. He isn't shy about his skills, but that fact shouldn't be mistaken for arrogance; it's just that he knows how good he is. "I beatbox like my mouth is bigger than my head. And that's how you're supposed to do it."

More importantly, Carnage doesn't spend his time working with kids out of vanity. It's a major part of his life's work. "Basically," he says, "I started working with this population because I was these kids."

There's a lot to be gleaned from the name that Terrell Woods has given himself as a rapper. In the beginning, it was simple enough: short, memorable, and everything you needed to know about his chaotic style in a nutshell. But over the years, "Carnage" has grown to take on a more complicated meaning, one that is deeply entwined with the past, and with his own childhood. "You think these battle rappers can talk some shit?" he asks rhetorically. "Gale Woods was the original Carnage."

Gale Woods was his mother, and hers was a hard life, to say the least — one that led, almost inevitably, to an early death from heart failure five years ago. She grew up on the west side of Chicago, one of several children of a single mother, who often forced her to run errands to the store late at night. On one such night, Gale was assaulted and raped at knife point. Thus, at age 16, she became a single mother herself, as well as a high school dropout. "We're all products of where we came from," Carnage says. "If whoever raises us went through some shit that they can't break the chain of —" He trails off, searching for the right words. Then he gives a shrug. "She couldn't break the cycle."

Two more children followed — first Terrell, born in 1974, then his younger sister, Tasha — and they, too, were nearly pulled into that same cycle. In fact, one of his earliest memories involves a fight between his mother and her older brother. As a four-year-old, he attempted to break up the fight, but wound up getting knocked down a flight of stairs. It was no minor fall, either; one of his teeth got broken.

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