With his Juneteenth release of a new album—The Black Tape—Woods’ voice reaches out during turbulent times.
Rob Woods became a musician because it “changes the narrative of anywhere that you’re at.”
Where was he? Woods was on the streets. The Sacramento native let street life cloud the idea he could be good at anything beyond what he was already doing, selling dope.
Roughly two years into a four-and-a-half-year bid at the Federal Correctional Institution, Terminal Island, a low-security prison in Southern California’s San Pedro area, Woods took what landed him there in the first place — acclimating to doing things on his own — and flipped it into a positive, expressing himself through music.
Woods walked out of Terminal Island more than six years ago. It was then he made the mantra of his life’s second chapter a simple one: plant good seeds for future generations to pick up. Hip-hop, the now 32-year-old reflected, is “a mood changer. It’s needed.” He needed it to survive his sentence, and he needed it to make sense of the world he was reentering. Through hip-hop’s organizing elements coupled with his personal growth, Woods is lending his lyrical mind to help others make sense of a world in turmoil.
Going south is the right direction
To leave behind lingering sounds heard in prison, Rob Woods lent his ears to the music everywhere in the outside world.
Upon leaving Terminal Island, Woods was placed in a halfway house in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. He spent an entire year there, where he found music seemingly every time he turned a corner. He knew he wanted to be a musical artist but he didn’t know how to be one, yet finding people singing in the streets or playing music on sidewalks started to clue him in.
He left behind San Francisco and ventured down to the Peninsula as he released his first music project with no money, no music studio: 2016’s “Double Shot Espresso.” Bouncing around Redwood City, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, Woods spent the bulk of his burgeoning music career on the Peninsula. The income inequality he saw motivated his music.
“On one side of the street you got your glass houses, a lot of things that people wish they do have,” Woods told The Six Fifty about his time on the Peninsula, “and on the other side, it’s a place where some people will drive around [that area] because they just want to see the nice side.”
Woods would busk with various musicians all around the Bay Area until music venues would give him a break to perform. Around his second music release, 2018’s “Time,” Woods was finding his stride in freedom and his footing on the mic.
Enter music producer Adlnte — a lifelong Redwood City resident — of Templo Music Group, a studio on Bay Road. They connected around a project for Black History Month 2019. Woods had just had his first “big” show not long before and was still reeling from getting his first paid gig making music at 30 years old. Adlnte was just getting set up at Templo, an upgrade from his home studio, carving out time for his music dream between being a husband and father and teaching at Garfield Community School in Redwood City. They had that in common: starting their music careers in earnest in their thirties, which is against the grain for the industry, and from two distinct circumstances. Adlnte mixed and mastered Woods’ “The Blue Tape” in 2019.
Two pivotal moments beyond that project happened for Woods that year. As a musician, he joined a select group of artists like Johnny Cash, Carlos Santana and Metallica, who have performed for inmates at San Quentin State Prison.
“That was a shock itself going through the gates and the bars and being able to come out freely, that was an amazing feeling,” he said, “but it was kinda scary because you never wanna see those things again. It was refreshing to know…I was going to leave something on the yard.”
And as a teaching artist, he was able to spend a day at Garfield Community Schoolperforming for the whole campus, teaching eighth graders poetry, and speaking to Adlnte’s — or as he was known there, Mr. Calderon’s — fifth grade students.
“A lot of those kids are dealing with stuff you’d think only adults are dealing with,” Woods recalled. “We had a moment where we let these kids write their own poems and the pain I heard in the poems with kids being pulled away from their parents, parents being deported, them having to leave school and go to work…the kids grow up at such a rapid pace, that did something to me.”
A real eye opener
Whether at a prison or at a school, Woods hinges his eye-opening time with people on one premise: “I would never tell anybody not to do anything, but I want to give them that full insight on what the reality of making these choices are.”
Rather than focus on how street life is presented as glitz and glamour in pop culture, Woods focuses on the aftermath. In prison, he understands recidivism rates are too high, and wants those incarcerated to never go back or lose sight of who they really are if they can never be free again. With students, he lets them know an appropriate place for their pain is in creative expression, not to morph into a destructive force.
The bridge between both worlds for Woods is his lesson that what’s inside someone can never truly be locked up.
“I wouldn’t be bringing someone to school I didn’t believe in,” said Adlnte. Woods added going to both prisons and schools is equally important because “we try to reach behind the gates as much as possible.”
Woods and Adlnte furthered their collaboration with Woods’ new project, “The Black Tape,” again mixed and mastered by Adlnte, who also produced a track called “The Light.”
“The Black Tape” was already percolating, yet recent events around police brutality — the project’s final act was completed after the murder of George Floyd — and the Black Lives Matters movement activating in response, again launched Woods into action behind the mic. Adlnte brought him the beat for “The Light” and said he heard Woods on this. “What can you do? What can we do?”
“It spoke to my heart,” said Woods, “so I was able to put my all into that one. If I had to pick one song from the album, it would be ‘The Light.’”
Woods grew up in a family that taught the importance of Juneteenth, America’s anniversary of Black freedom from slavery, and he was adamant they turn around the project quick to release on Juneteenth to punctuate the day with freedom of expression, and some uplift during these turbulent times.
“I want people to understand it’s okay,” Woods said about the current moment and his musical response to it. “Anger is a feeling, is a feeling that comes from your heart. It’s something you’re going through that makes you feel this way. You didn’t just wake up angry. Something happened.”
As much as Woods considers positivity central to his life and message, he knows it would be disingenuous to be all joy and smiles during this time.
Still, he focuses on the fact that, “I’m so happy to know we have people around us that are helping us go about it the correct way, which is just to open up your mouth, voice your opinion and stand up for your rights.”
Even though “The Black Tape” came together seemingly overnight, it’s an expansive listen.
“It really hurt me that I had so much fuel to write the album,” Woods said. “For about a week or two, I couldn’t write anything else. I couldn’t think about making a song, anything that didn’t have something to do with what my people are going through. It could not come out of my mind. It could not go from that pen to paper.”
The through-line Woods had for this project in this historical moment is one that has echoed and should continue to echo for generations: “Looking at your scars, but also knowing you’re still worthy to be anybody that you want; you’re worthy of being respected.”
Adlnte no longer teaches at Garfield, and is focused on teaching music to students from Templo Music Group in addition to his career as a music producer, but Woods was looking forward to returning to Garfield this year as a teaching artist for the day before COVID hit. Woods, now based in Inglewood, CA, still plans to cultivate his roots on the Peninsula through being a teaching artist and in continued collaboration with Adlnte.
“What you can do is connect with [music] from your heart,” Woods concluded. “You make a choice whether you like it or not, and it’s pretty cool I’m gonna get to do it this year and back my people.”
Get the new album by Rob Woods—“The Black Tape—on Soundcloud, Apple Music, Spotify, and more.
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