“We Actually Mean What We Say When We Say It:” An Interview With Armand Hammer

Will Schube dig deep with Elucid and Billy Woods about what makes their collaborative efforts so fruitful and the possibility of falling off one day.
By    August 26, 2020

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Because life too often imitates art in crudely drawn brush strokes, I had a helluva time trying to get Billy Woods on the phone for our Armand Hammer interview. The dude who masks his face at every opportunity and moves like a thief in the night was not picking up my calls. I’ve interviewed Woods before. He’s not as mysterious as his persona suggests. He’s generous with biography details, kind-spirited and willing to digress into any tangent of your choosing, and offers cunning analysis of his own rap music and his place within the industry. But for some reason, with the superlative Elucid chilling on the line, we couldn’t find Woods. Part of this has to do with our plan being doomed from the start. Woods doesn’t use an iPhone. He doesn’t want to be tracked, which actually checks out and makes a lot of sense.

But because of this, Elucid and I spoke about Armand Hammer from his perspective, while Woods and I chopped it up a few days later circling many of the same topics but moving off-script when the moment called for it.

An example: Woods hates Da 5 Bloods. Heartbreaking to me: a Woods devotee and someone that found the last hour of that film to be brilliant. But the way Woods bodies, ethers, and spits out Spike’s latest with the ease and clarity of Pauline Kael leaves little room for my argument, which (reminder I’m a professional critic) relies heavily on words like ‘powerful’ and ‘cathartic.’ Woods has me cornered. Though I spoke with both Elucid and Woods shortly after that movie came out in mid-June, our conversations are as poignant now as when they occurred. Armand Hammer’s latest, Shrines, is still one of the best albums of the year, and the duo’s run is still absolutely unimpeachable. The two remain vital thinkers and MCs, quick to move compliments away from themselves and towards each other. Though I spoke with the members of Armand Hammer individually, the cohesion yet varied approaches to their philosophies and thoughts betrays a duo working on a level that moves past the rational and into the uncanny. — Will Schube

Have y’all taken time to step back and realize the magnitude of what you two have accomplished in the past decade or so?

ELUCID: No. Even now, we finished this record and there’s not a lot of time to look back on what we did; I’m already doing the next thing – solo, and another thing with Woods. I guess if I were not actually busy, then I would have time to do these things, but I’ve been sitting with Shrines for 3 or 4 months just waiting for everyone else to get it. Honestly, I didn’t even think about Shrines, Paraffin, Rome, Furtive Movements or Race Music until I read something on Twitter, and someone will put it into that particular context. I don’t really like sitting around thinking about these things.

Billy Woods: It’s hard to say, because to feel like “you’re on a run,” you have to string together three or four things. Two things isn’t a run, that’s just two things.

But for you personally, Woods?

Billy Woods: Now, maybe that’s something you can start to be like, “It’s a run.” Otherwise, I feel like you could be calling it too early, and that’s like when you win two titles and then you’re like, “It’s a dynasty.” You need to get three or four years and then the discussion starts. In 2018, you couldn’t have said that we’re on a run, but now, yeah.

If you include your solo work with what you’re doing with Armand Hammer, it’s been almost a decade of this.

Billy Woods: I do think about it. Me and Hammer are probably different in that way. I do think about that aspect of things because I’m cognizant of the fact that it took hard work to get here. There’s a lot of hard work that went into it, and I recognize that I’ll always feel like, to make great art, you need to be pushing yourself. I need to be pushing myself, I need to be doing certain things and demanding of myself that I try to do something new or try to approach things differently, not only to keep things interesting for me, but because I feel like stagnation is terrible. Sometimes, it might not feel like stagnation because if you’re at the top and you keep delivering, it can seem from the outside that it isn’t. But as time passes, I feel like a lot of times, that’s revealed.

In the moment, people say lots of things, but then 10 years later, people will be like, “It was really once that they did this one thing, and after that, the rest isn’t that central.” I just saw somebody talking about Spike Lee’s new movie, Da 5 Bloods, and they were like, “This might be Spike Lee’s best film.” That’s what they were saying. First of all, it’s one of the worst movies anyone has ever made, and it’s definitely the worst movie that he’s made. In the moment, people will say certain things, but there’s no way anyone involved could be like, when they’re burying Spike Lee, “This was an important moment.” A lot of factors affect how people approach and talk about your work.

In the beginning, when I was doing lots of things that I thought were really interesting and noteworthy, nobody talked about them. Later, you’ll see the same reviewer who said that an album was a six, then be like, “The seminal classic!” The moment and perspective can do a lot. That’s why I strive to make things that are resistant to time and will be able to stand in different perspectives, and not just something where you’re like, “Now that I listen to it, it sounds kind of…”

The odds are stacked against you until they’re not, at which point people like to critically reevaluate their own opinions of you.

ELUCID: There’s always something to prove. I’m on social media and people say things like, “MIKE don’t sleep,” or, “These guys are doing great music. These guys are dope. You guys are the best. They should have this. They should have that.” I feel like everyone’s late. There’s a handful of people that have been here from the jump, but I feel like everyone’s late. Whatever good is coming, whatever accolades, whatever cosigns, it’s like, “Yeah, we should’ve been here.” We’re just catching up, really. Everyone should be on top of what we’ve been offering out here. We haven’t switched up on style. We’ve been here; even when we’re looking at the context of social climate. Everyone wants to do this “woke” thing, these current-events-type rappers. We’ve been here, we’ve seen this, we’ve talked about it, we’ve talked around it, we’ve talked through it. Let’s build; let’s move forward.

Billy Woods: They might critically reevaluate later too. There is no moment where I’m like, “Okay, now I have arrived at this or that.” In some ways, that’s probably negative. I was thinking about it the other day like, It’s interesting because one of the critiques I would have of modern life and the consumerist, capitalist world is the idea that any business, no matter how successful it is, needs to become more efficient – any profit margin needs to get higher. I think that that’s an insane aspect of late-stage capitalism, where it’s a feature of how it works, that becomes a bug. In some ways, that’s the same way that I approach my art. To some extent, I do approach it like, “Everything should get better. Improve. Find something new.” On one hand, I think it’s an important and a meaningful approach for me, and on the other hand, I see how eventually all things need to reach their impacts and start to fall. I hope that I can continue to get better forever, but I assume that one day I’ll be like Spike Lee and I won’t know that my movie sucks. But hopefully not though, who knows?

Would you keep rapping at that point, or do you think you’d have the foresight to just hang it up and do something else?

Billy Woods: It’s hard to say because you haven’t been there, so you don’t know what you’ll be thinking in your head. Did Spike Lee think that Da 5 Bloods sucked while he was editing it? Probably not. I assume that he thinks it’s pretty good – people put a lot of work and money into these things. Was there some point into Scent of a Woman where Al Pacino is trying to save that movie by overacting? Did he realize that after that point, he would never be able to stop overacting for the rest of his career? I don’t know. I would like to think the case would be yes.

The other thing I’d like to say is that there’s nothing wrong – there are artists that have plateaued, but it’s not that their work sucks, it just doesn’t interest me anymore. They still are making a living, providing for themselves, hopefully enjoying themselves, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. If it sucks, then you’re embarrassing yourself, but that’s a bit different. At this point, Martin Scorsese doesn’t suck, but I don’t think he has another great film left in him. I think they might possibly turn out some good things. I would rather not do that, but it really depends on what happens in life, and if I can attempt to see the future.

Because you and ELUCID have such different writing styles, how do you two go about making an album like this as seamless, in its lyricism and themes, as it ends up being?

Billy Woods: This is going to seem like a glib answer, but in reality, it’s the truthful one. I’m not a person who’s good at saying something like this lightly, but there’s some type of magic that’s there. It isn’t going to happen all the time, and I had the good fortune that it has happened, where I work with somebody that is extremely talented, whom I get along with, is a cool person, and we’re friends.

I would say there’s an element to the work sometimes where I’d say, “I don’t know exactly how that worked,” which is a rare thing for me because, of the two of us, I’m more directly analytical of what we’re doing. I think ELUCID produces art in a naturalistic way – he just finds a vibe and goes with it. I tend to produce art in a way that’s natural for me but thinking about the thing a lot and executing. I don’t just “pour it out.” Sometimes it does just “pour out,” but there’s something ticking in there.

There are lots of great songs that have that extra magic to them, where we’re like, “I don’t even know how all of that came together” — there’d be shared meanings and illusions that were never discussed. It’s interesting because you’re talking about two people who aren’t the same age – we didn’t grow up in anywhere near the same type of way, our families are very different. ELUCID’s not the type of person to sit next to you and you talk about the rap the whole time. We’ll discuss an idea and sometimes you’ll discuss more as you’re writing it, and sometimes you’ll discuss nothing, just a title. That aspect is some type of magic.

I’ve worked with lots of people and I’ve rhymed with lots of people, lots of them are great artists in their own right, but I’ve never worked with someone where we can build a thing together, even so much we can do it separately, and it will be more than the sum of its parts when we’re finished. It’s hard enough to build something with somebody and be able to make it the sum of its parts, where you’re like, “We built this thing and it exactly reflects all the things we put into it.”

ELUCID: Woods is probably more the process, analytical guy, thinking about things before he does it. I don’t really make music that way; I don’t really respond to music that way. It’s more of an instinctual sort-of-thing. I like to let the songs talk to themselves. When you make a bunch of things in a particular amount of time, when you say that you’re finished and you want to put it together and compile it, sometimes you start to see songs that speak to each other.

There are themes that intertwine, ideas that relate to each other, and I kind of take it from there. No, we don’t really talk about themes. Sometimes we’ll get a pack of beats from someone. Let’s say I take the lead on it — I take the lead and I’ll be like, “Yo, this beat is dope. Here’s a verse,” and then we might talk about it from there, as far as a theme or a concept, and then he’ll spin it off into his own world. That’s pretty much how we’ve been doing it since the jump.

Do y’all bring your entire selves to Armand Hammer? Is the way that you rap the same way that you’d rap on a solo album, or are you meeting each other somewhere in-between your two styles conscientiously?

Billy Woods: Definitely not the latter, and the former seems like a reasonable idea, but I think that it’s the wrong question. It’s like asking, “Do you approach walking somewhere the same way you approach swimming there?” In one sense, yes, I’m going somewhere, and I try to think of the most efficient or enjoyable way to get there. If you’re swimming, you might not just swim straight there – straight there involves swimming over some coral reef, so you might swim around. Likewise, when walking, you might walk in a straight line, or you might walk the scenic route. I think by the very nature of the medium and collaboration, there’s no way I couldn’t approach them differently, but I do feel that it’s the entirety of myself.

I don’t feel like, “I’m not going to say this or do that because it’s an Armand Hammer record.” You can listen to an Armand Hammer record and hear divergences in an approach to an idea, or look at aspects of society or human life, and you should not be surprised. There’s nothing arguably so far apart where I’d notice not to do that. To be honest, I mostly try and focus on making sure that I am both building the thing that I’m trying to build and making sure that I don’t get washed on the track. It occupies a decent amount of my cognitive power. I’m definitely not sitting there holding back; I’m trying to get everything.

There’s a song on there, “Parables” for example, where the verse is very personal to me and could easily be on a Billy Woods record instead of an Armand Hammer record, but that’s where it belonged. I didn’t feel like I had a strong impact with my first verse on “Parables,” which was less personal, and then hearing the other verses that were more personal, I felt that I had to write something better than what I’d written. Although I liked the other verse, I went back (the only song where I went back) and wrote something stronger and more compelling in some way, shape, or form. These other people are too good at rapping to be sitting there. I went back and tried to write something that would be really, really compelling and really good, and that’s what came out. It didn’t need to be personal, and the fact that it was personal didn’t determine the style, because again, I am trying to stay on the boat. Whatever works.

ELUCID: We actually say what we mean when we say it. Sometimes when people collaborate, it gets diluted in the attempt to be like, “It’s for the group.” It all has to be this simple way of presenting a unified vision, but I think that me and Woods do it a little differently. We can rap about the same concept in two different ways, or more if we extend the verses. I’m not sure how that came about or why it works, but it is what it is. I love it. I love making music with Woods; it’s a challenge.

In this trick, we were recording with Willie Green, and we did maybe three to four sessions with Green, so that whole album is three to four sessions. We’d come in there doing three and four songs at a time. Sometimes, I may not have had a verse to a particular song yet because I hadn’t written it. Then, Woods would come in there and kill it, and I’d just leave so fired up. I’ve got to return that volley someway. Sometimes, in the case of a record like “Eucharist,” it was just like, “This record is done. I’m not matching this. There’s nothing for me to add here; you’ve said everything that needs to be said.” It’s a challenge; I’ve said it before, and it’s been said by other people, “steel sharpens steel.” When you’re rocking with Woods, it’s very important. He’ll make you look stupid; he’ll make you embarrassed.

Can you talk about some of the collaborators who appear throughout the record? You guys have been at this for a long time, and now there’s this new crop of rappers in New York, I know [Pink] Siifu’s in L.A., but are you guys part of a community in this? Can you talk about your relationship to some of the younger rappers in New York and L.A. and various spaces?

ELUCID: I think when you look at the track list of Shrines, we got all of those people involved because we saw the light in all of those cats. It’s like, “We want y’all involved in what we’re doing.” Everyone on the record is doing shit that we can get with; vibrating on that wave that we love. I don’t think we’re the loners out here, especially in New York. There’s a whole grip of artists that are really locking in. Pink Siifu’s not from New York, but when I met him and when he was doing the shit for us, he was still living in New York. KeiyaA, AKAI SOLO, MIKE – there’s a lot of cats out here in New York that are really holding it down. I really don’t think we’re alone at all. I think our style is an inimitable style, and I don’t think anyone is making records the way we do; I don’t think anyone has really held it down as long, for the span of 4 albums and an EP. I think speaking even larger, it also reflects the time of this sort-of-tribal thing. We’re not alone; we’ve got allies, we’ve got family, we’ve got folks. We out here. We’re trying to live and we’re trying to thrive.

Billy Woods: There are layers to that situation. One of them is that ELUCID is much more plugged into all sorts of things. It’s interesting because I think I’m probably the more outgoing person, in person, but he’s definitely more outgoing in discovering new music and being a part of communities. In some ways, because of aspects of how I grew up, I am wary of joining things. I’m a little bit off to the side a lot of the time, but I really like people and meeting people.

A lot of times, ELUCID will introduce me to people or scenes or other things like that. I had no idea who Pink Siifu was before we even did this, before he was on Terror Management. ELUCID was just like, “I’m inviting this cat Siifu here to come to a session.” He came to Green’s Studio and hung out. Great kid. I ended up doing a show with him, and I think that was the thing. We ended up doing a show with him at a venue, Hollow, through this guy, Gang — another person who I actually probably knew before ELUCID.

>ELUCID is more involved in these things, so he booked us a show and Siifu was there. We played with AKAI SOLO, he was like, “You should meet this kid. He’s super talented. He knows all of your work.” I met him and all of those things were true. Great guy, I know him, we’ve collaborated a couple of times now, and I’m hoping to do more stuff with him. I feel like Curly Castro might have been the same way, although Curly Castro and I are probably better friends at this point. I’m just saying, a lot of times, he’s the person who brings people in.

KeiyaA was that way – ELUCID was like, “There’s this amazing singer/producer. I met her way back and have seen her shows.” If we’re on the road, he’s the type of person to start playing more records and things by people I don’t know or haven’t heard of. I don’t personally feel like I’m tapped in, but other people around me are, and I definitely feel like there’s a moment happening. I did this show with Siifu and AKAI SOLO, and I was like, “Wow. This younger generation of artists have built really cool spaces for themselves.”

In some ways, they’re reminiscent of things that I never truly got to be a part of as an artist but was as a fan. It’s more inclusive and seems cooler and more accepting. How old are you?

I’m 27.

Billy Woods: For people like you, if you like music, you could just like whatever music you want. It’s cool, people are accepting. I’m from the era where it’d be like, “You like this music? You better dress like it; you better know all of these acts.” You don’t try to be a fan of the music just because you heard it and you liked it. Now, it’s comical to go and think back on, but all scenes were constantly being policed for anyone who might be a poser, and there was this draconian sense of, if you want to be a fan of this thing, “Oh, this is the first album you heard?”

It even comes down to how masculine and male a lot of the scenes were; now there seem to be open, creative spaces for people to create. There’s a lot less of a hierarchical sense of, “This artist is big and I’m small.” I’m not saying whether this is good or bad, and I’m not giving any judgement, but I definitely came up in the era of headliners, “Biggest artist goes last, least important artist goes first shows.”

These shows, the DIY shows that Siifu and other people are doing for themselves doesn’t feel like that at all. It feels like everybody is free forming. I have to admit, I don’t feel like a part of that scene in that way – I can visit and be involved, but these are kids; they’re 27 years old or younger. MIKE is 21. We did a show with him, and I was like, “Their whole world is different.”

I was 24 before I even recorded a verse and heard myself. These are people that have been making beats and recording their albums and hearing their own voices, probably since they were kids. I remember the first time I went to a studio and recorded something, or not even a studio, and somebody gives you a CD. You’re rapping over a beat, and it was like, “Wow.” MIKE is a whole-ass star, and he’s 21 years old in a scene that’s self-built.

These are polished artists at a young age – I’m not saying that didn’t exist then, like when Vordul [Megilah] recorded Cannibal Ox stuff, he was 17 years old. Even with him, I remember before he recorded it, Vordul had all of the rhymes written down, and was talking about how once El-P was done with Little Johnny from the Hospitul, they were going to work on Cannibal Ox. Now, people would just be like, “We already recorded it.” They have Bandcamp and it’s a whole different world, so all I can say is that I’ve had the pleasure to see and be involved with a lot of these people. I like to make common cause with any dope artist out there, and I have a lot of respect for what a lot of these young kids are doing and building.

At the same time, art has no age, so I hope my work appeals to anyone it appeals to. I don’t care how old you are. I have a lot of respect for the scene that a lot of these artists are putting together. I feel like it would be presumptuous of me to place myself in it, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen, and a lot of these artists are exciting to work with. They’re people that are young and have that much talent and that much command of their own voices – not just the voices that they’re speaking with, but their ideas and what they’re trying to get across.

ELUCID, how does your approach with Woods differ from a collaboration with an MC like milo, if it does at all?

ELUCID: I feel like I’m a pretty good team player. When I’m making records with people, the songs and the ideas behind the songs always come out of the conversations that I’m going to have with these people. The conversation that I’m going to have with milo may or may not be the conversation that I’ve had with Woods, and even if they are, there’s a different angle to them. I play within those kinds of boundaries, but when it’s just me, there isn’t a boundary. I’m presenting whatever I feel, right there, as many different degrees as that might take to show on a song. I think when I’m working with other people, I’m trying to play along and make the best song and the best crystallization of an idea.

I think that just comes with dedication to the practice and continuing to hear yourself and continuing to record yourself. You’re finding your own pockets, you’re conscious of what you’re doing, and you want to be better. You don’t want to be doing the same thing you were doing last year. You’re hearing yourself in new pockets all of the time. I think of that record on Shrines called “Charms;” Woods was like, “Whatever,” but I heard us there and that, “This is a whole new thing for us. It would work for this record.” He listened to it with that in mind, and was like, “Absolutely.” It’s just dedication to the craft.

If you’re really about this thing, you’ll definitely forge new ways in this musicality. For myself, I definitely want to do more in terms of musicality and exercising my voice. If Armand Hammer is a group thing, then I’m presenting myself in this particular way that Woods digs and it complements what he’s doing. But for a solo record, it’s a little different – there are more flavors of myself. I’m sure that’ll show more on this next record; stretching my voice into places that maybe people have seen or heard and just didn’t pay any mind, or maybe they did, and they want to hear more. It’s coming.

Woods, do you feel that Backwoodz [Studioz] can be a haven for up-and-coming rappers, or do you intend to stick with it as you and your crew’s home base?

Billy Woods: I just want to put out stuff that I think is dope and interesting, and I think we’ve done that. Curly Castro and PremRock were friends of mine and are cool guys, but they have their own crew. We had never put out any of their music, but they came with this idea, and it was dope. When ELUCID was doing the beats, I felt that. We had done stuff with Henry Canyons; I’m hoping to put out a FIELDED record later this year, and her music is great. If people bring good music, and we can agree on how we’re going to do things, and it seems like a good working relationship where we can give people what they want, and it’s stuff that I want to get behind, and it makes sense for everybody, then that’s what I think about more.

It’s been a very great group of people – we put out Blockhead instrumental records, and if he comes to us again, I’d put out another one. I would hope we could keep putting out, and people keep coming to us with new, up-and-coming artists, but I also don’t mind if somebody brings me an established artist that wants to do something. There are tons of people out there that I respect, and if the situation is what they want, I’d love to work with them.

Obviously, you guys are thriving in a particular ecosystem of independent music in general. Do you have aspirations to have this project be embraced by the mainstream in any way?

ELUCID: Underground shit is a real funny style. I get why it exists, I get why people feel the need to categorize shit, but I never call myself underground, even though I recognize that I am underground. When you say that, you have to be like, “What’s the mainstream?” Lil Uzi Vert, Young Thug, or whoever. That shit exists, that shit is cool for people, and let it rock. I never said that I was anti-that and I never said that I was underground. There’s a shadow of myself that thinks that mainstream music, mainstream movies, and mainstream culture in general exists to uphold status-quo. Running with that, that might comfort me in being like, “This is why my music hasn’t been accepted by the mainstream.” I don’t know if that’s actually true. Maybe — it sounds good, it feels good. No one’s actually approached us from the mainstream.

I make music because I want to, I make music how I want to. I wouldn’t be into being restricted in a particular way on a mainstream label, but I’m not opposed to having that machine behind me. I didn’t have that loop, in any way. If I could put it out exactly as I’ve been putting it out, that would be ill, to have the machine behind me, so I’m not anti-that. I’m just not interested in changing my show.

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