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."
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.
Not long after, Gale married an older man named Willy Fields, who moved her and the kids to St. Paul. But things only got worse as Gale started an affair with a jealous and abusive man named Otis. One time, while the family were driving around in Willy's van, they crossed paths with Otis, who proceeded to punch Willy. "I was six years old and watching my stepdad get his ass beat by my mom's boyfriend," Carnage remembers, shaking his head. "And then my mom jumped out of the car — and she defended Otis! Like, on Willy's back being like, 'Stop it!'" He swings his arms back and forth, his hands in fists, in imitation of his mother. "Like, what the fuck's happening here?"
But Gale wasn't the only one being abused. Before the family left Chicago, Carnage was molested by one of his uncles. "If I remember correctly, there was no penetration. It was just like, 'Come and sit on Uncle Bobby's lap,' and he's rubbing you and kissing you and stuff," he says. The sexual abuse didn't end there, though. His step-sister, who often babysat the kids, began to coerce Carnage into performing sexual acts, including oral sex, when he was as young as seven years old.
"The way it was kind of disguised was we were playing house," he says. "And when you play house, I'm the daddy and you're the mama, and this is what Daddy and Mama do." His voice is flat, very matter-of-fact. "So we had toy babies and shit and we were like, 'All right, it's time.'"
Those experiences had a profound effect on Carnage, who was too young to understand how inappropriate they were, but old enough to be scarred by them. It wasn't until he was an adult that he told anyone else what had happened, much less started to process it all. "When you're 18 and girls you're messing with are like, 'Oh my god, I've never met anybody who does what you do. How did you learn that?' You're like, 'Yeah, I know a couple of things,'" he says. "Later on, you don't want to tell anybody you learned that shit when you were seven."
After a few years, Willy drifted back out of the picture, and it was around that time that Gale turned to alcohol. Before long, it was crack cocaine. As she sank into her addictions, her already-short temper became even more irritable, her ability to provide for her children virtually non-existent. The family was so poor that they all slept in the same bed — usually just a mattress without even a box spring. "She never had a job, never had a driver's license, never owned anything. And [with] people having to call the police because someone is getting thrown through the walls and shit, your apartment isn't going to last long."
As a result, Carnage began finding ways to provide for himself, scrounging up jobs raking leaves and shoveling sidewalks. And while he did also steal (he insists that it was usually only things he needed, like food), there was something — an internal mechanism, perhaps — that kept him from going too far down that path. "I think it was just part of my personality," he speculates. He pauses to think, once again at a loss to explain things fully. "All I know is I had it — and I'm glad I did, because there were a lot of people I knew who didn't have it."
When Carnage was about 12 years old, he and his sisters were taken from their mother and placed at St. Joseph's Home for Children, a shelter tucked away on a shady hillside near Lake Nokomis. "I remember when they first brought me here, I thought it looked like an institution," he recalls. "You're thinking, 'Do they think I'm crazy? Man, I don't want to get put in a straightjacket and shit.' But then you get inside and you realize, it ain't that bad."
It took three years before he found a foster family that stuck, a couple in Bloomington who basically raised him. On his 16th birthday, Carnage told them he considered them his real parents, and his foster mother started crying. "It was like, 'Why the fuck am I holding on to this dream of having my mom come back to me for?'" he asks. "Your parents don't have to be the people who gave birth to you."
When he was living at St. Joe's, Carnage had a small tape player. It was little more than a lone speaker with an AM/FM radio and a tape deck, but every Saturday afternoon, he would tune the radio to KMOJ and listen to Travitron's Hip Hop Shop. If he was lucky, and he could afford it, he would spend his money on cassette tapes — and sometimes, if he couldn't, he would just steal them. Regardless of what exactly he had at his disposal, Carnage would listen to the tape player for hours on end, absorbing the music of his favorite rappers — guys like Chuck D, Rakim, and KRS-One.
Growing up, he'd been exposed to records by Herbie Hancock and Patti LaBelle, but by the time he was a teenager, Carnage had immersed himself in hip hop, right down to doing graffiti and breakdancing. And, inspired by the Fat Boys member Buff Love, he'd also started beatboxing. "I would listen to those sounds that people did, and I would stop the tape, and I would actually try to imitate them," he recalls. But, he adds, "It was a hobby. You don't think you're going to be on TV or doing shit when you're nine years old."
In fact, it was to be a long time before Carnage looked at hip hop as anything more than a hobby. Part of that was because the local scene in the mid-'90s, when Carnage first started performing, was worlds apart from the one we know today. Venues were afraid that fights would break out, and refused to book rappers, which relegated them to shows at houses and at and small cafes with lousy sound systems. It was difficult to be taken seriously, much less get noticed.
Carnage had other priorities, too, though. After graduating high school — where, in spite of his troubled home life, he was an A and B student — he studied psychology at Hamline University. That led to a career in social work and a job at Minneapolis-based agency Family Alternatives, where his foster mother once worked. There, he helped develop curricula, place kids in foster care, and train foster parents to deal with emotionally disturbed children. The rapping was almost bound to take a backseat.
Yet, if anything ultimately held Carnage back over the years, it was Carnage himself. After all, he often kept an exhausting schedule of live shows, yet for more than a decade, there were only sporadic recordings to show for it. It wasn't until 2007 that he finally put out a proper full-length album of his own, Sense of Sound. It took four whole years to finish, and, tellingly, he shared the billing with his producer, Booka B. Simply put, he was too much of a perfectionist, and too hard on himself.
That all started to change a few years ago when, feeling that he was spreading himself too thin, Carnage decided to resign from his full-time duties at Family Alternatives and focus instead on his music. It was a gamble because he had a daughter of his own by then, but he knew he'd regret not taking it. He recalls the advice given by close friend and fellow rapper, Eyedea: "He [would be] like, 'Dude, I know what I want to say. Write the shit, go and say it, be done with it, then move on to the next thing.'"
As a result, Carnage also began seeking out new inspiration in his songwriting. With roots in the anything-goes world of rap battles, he could spin a devastating (and often obscenity-laced) series of put-downs off the top of his head — "Things that even made me say, 'Damn, how did I think of that?'" Witness his guest spot on Eyedea's "Coaches," for instance, where he freestyles so fast that it seems impossible he doesn't run out of breath, and you begin to get the picture. But he wanted to delve into his past and his identity, and that meant being more than just the swaggering shit-talker who could kill it on the mic.
The first glimpse of Carnage's new approach came with Worth the Wait, released early in 2011 — just a few months, sadly enough, after Eyedea's death. One song in particular, "Hunger," stands out. Over a slow, grinding beat, he uses the title as a metaphor for his outsized ambitions: "Music won't be the one area that I see failure in." But "Hunger" has an alternate meaning, one which hits even closer to home: For years, Carnage struggled with obesity, to the extent that he faced serious health problems. To his credit, he took it upon himself to live healthier, and he has lost about 100 pounds.
On "Hunger," he not only doesn't shy away from that fact, he even makes light of it — just the sort of honest, self-deprecating humor that adds real heft to his work.
Respect the Name — Carnage's newest album, due out this month — crystallizes all the different ingredients that he's been putting together in recent years. Appropriately enough, though, it starts at the beginning, with Carnage's hip-hop awakening.
"T-Swift Was Here" takes its title from Terrell Woods's first alter-ego, T-Swift, and even includes lines from the first rap he ever wrote. It's straight-up old school, nothing but a breakbeat and an MC, like the songs he listened to all those years ago on his tape player.
For the first half-dozen songs, you get Carnage at his shit-talking, battle-rap-seasoned best, but he's also playful, funny, and inventive. He has as many characters as a Swiss Army knife has blades, jumping from street-wise defender of the peace on "Respect the Name" to unhinged sociopath on "The Executioner" and nightmare-inducing grim reaper on "Soul Snatcher." He riffs on Star Wars, pokes fun at Sean "Diddy" Combs, and quotes Korn — yes, Korn — but they all fit.
The album's crucial turn is the sharp satire of hip hop's hyper-masculine culture, "God's Gift to the World." After a delusional rapper spits self-aggrandizing, sexist game to a female audience member, the woman turns it around, belittling his mic skills and his sexual prowess. "Why would I want a man who I don't want to see with his shirt off?" she mocks. "Leave with you? I'll regret it later." In one fell swoop, Carnage undercuts the facade he's spent half an album building up.
From there, Respect the Name heads inward, and demonstrates how self-aware his writing's become. He doesn't pull any punches, either, particularly on "Nigger-tivity" — its curiously carefree, borderline-self-help chorus admittedly a little out of place — and "My People," a pair of songs that unleash withering critiques of his fellow African-Americans and, in particular, the "hood mentality." The true heart of the album, however, is the bare-bones "Addict." In it, Carnage explains his lack of interest in alcohol and drugs, laying it squarely at his estranged mother Gale's doorstep. But in so doing, he realizes that if drugs were an escape for her, then over-eating was his vice.
Hate to feel like I'm not having something I really want.
Whatever the cause, I'm paying for it; tragic.
There's no excuse for my weight,
But I hope you have compassion for an addict.
Carnage's relationship with Gale remained a difficult one right up until her death. On "MTW," the funky, horn-laden song that closes Respect the Name, he says, "Mama died and I wonder why it barely hurt a bit." But his feelings toward her aren't as simple as that. "[Maybe] you start to think that physical abuse is the way that somebody shows you they love you," he suggests. "But you can love somebody even though shit is fucked-up about someone. We do that all the time."
It's late evening on a hot August night, and the sun is just barely in view outside the Cabooze. Off in the distance, downtown Minneapolis is in shadows, illuminated only by the wash of orange and purple colors smeared along the western horizon.
Inside the Cabooze, the house lights are up, casting a harsh, fluorescent light on the room. Carnage is onstage, trying to run through his sound check, but everything has been turned on its ear by the headliner, the Wu Tang Clan's RZA, who showed up late and then did an hour-long sound check.
After only a few minutes, the sound engineer cuts the PA, and Carnage looks bemused. "I got what I need from you," says the engineer, briskly, pacing in front of the stage. "Well, I need to make sure the sound's right on a couple other parts," Carnage replies. The engineer throws his hands up in the air. "We got to open doors," he says.
"Damn," Carnage deadpans into the mic, the feed suddenly kicking back in as he does so. "I can't wait till I don't have to open for people anymore." The small crowd of people in the room breaks out laughing — even the engineer.
When he reappears an hour later, shortly before his set starts, Carnage is jovial, laughing and stopping to shake hands with fans and old friends. With plans to go on tour with Atmosphere right as Respect the Name gets released, for Carnage the night feels a bit like a victory lap. "It's funny," he says, stopping for a moment alongside the bar. "Everyone wants a favor the day I'm playing a big show. When it's just a regular-ass show around town, my phone's quiet." He makes a cutting motion with his hand. "On a day like today, I'm annoyed when I get a call that's not about the show."
Then he hops onstage, and it's like he's flipped a switch: There's swagger in his walk, a sense of purpose, and there's plenty of attitude, too. When someone in the audience asks him for a "fast rap," Carnage shoots back, "Nah, I don't do fast raps anymore. Slow raps are fresh."
It's just Carnage onstage, alone with his loop pedals and a microphone cord slung around his neck. Many in the crowd, not familiar with his music, don't seem to know what to think, but as he starts laying down his first bass line, they're taken aback: It's a deep, reverberating sound; it shakes the walls. He kicks on the distortion pedal and suddenly his voice rips and snarls. And without any word of explanation, he proceeds to build up the layers — he's building a groove, and the crowd, beginning to understand, starts dancing.
It's not until the second song that Carnage starts rapping, but already he's in full control of the room. In fact, it's like a one-man variety show; one minute he beatboxes "Billie Jean," the next he does an a capella rap, and then it's right back to laying down a fat groove. Maximum carnage, he intones, rhythmically, emphasizing every other syllable. His face, dripping with sweat, wrinkles into a grin — sinister, grinch-like, downright ugly. We erect hell, doom is coming. Swallowing your area, useless running.
He plays "Star Destroyer," not only reciting his collaborator Eyedea's raps, but doing a perfect imitation of his voice and cadence. He stops, the song apparently over, then feigns surprise, as though just remembering something. "Oh shit!" he exclaims. "I got a verse on that song too" — then he stomps his pedal once more and launches into his own verse.
"A live performance with him is ideal for me," says Bill Mike, who plays with Carnage in the improv group Saltee. "It's one part church and one part football game. [It] can be intimate and spiritual, and then it can be raw and just super rock 'n' roll, where you're physically and mentally exhausted even after a small set."
Afterward, though, Carnage is anything but exhausted. He's almost beaming. "I've spent a lot of time helping other people," he says. "But now it's time I focus on me. I got to let people know who Carnage really is."
CARNAGE THE EXECUTIONER plays a CD-release show for Respect the Name on Friday, September 7, at Triple Rock Social Club; 612.333.7399