This is the third installment in a trilogy of features that began with my interview of Armand Hammer (billy woods & Elucid), following the 2014 release of their Furtive Movements EP, and continued with my interview of billy woods, following the release of 2015 LP Today, I Wrote Nothing. Elucid’s new album, Save Yourself, is out now on Backwoodz Studioz.
After a few back and forths via email, I’m finally driving the Jackie Robinson Parkway to Chaz “Elucid” Hall’s house in East New York. I get off at the last exit and find myself in what he’s called “the final frontier of gentrification.” There are no upscale whiskey bars or glossy high rises in this Brooklyn. Not yet.
My phone tells me I’ve arrived at Elucid’s place, and sure enough there’s an empty parking spot out front. The building is old, falling into disrepair. I wonder if Elucid is actually “squatting at the final frontier…” as that line goes. I try to buzz my way up — nothing. I knock, trying my best to make myself heard without sounding like the police — nothing. I try calling — number not in service.
Somebody walks over from across the street. “You looking for Chaz?” he asks. Yea, is he home? The guy looks up. “Yea, he’s probably making dinner.” He lets me in and leads me upstairs. Chaz’s roommate? “His brother.” The Brother Hall? He laughs. “The one and only.” Elucid’s in the kitchen frying plantains. He shows me the adjoined room where Save Yourself was recorded, four walls containing only an old electronic keyboard propped on its side. I hang out, drink a glass of Brita-filtered water.
We relocate to Elucid’s living area, two rooms: one containing a bed, a laptop, and music equipment; the other containing a couch, a heaping pile of neatly laid out clothes, and a stack of books. The space is massive but minimalist, almost cavernous. In just an hour-and-a-half, we exchange well over 10,000 words: about religion and spirituality, ghettos and gentrification, cults and conspiracies, free jazz and noise, Tragedy Khadafi and Future. Here are most of them.
Save Yourself is your Backwoodz solo debut, but you’ve been putting out solo material for the better part of the century. What sets this album apart from your past work? What makes it your “first miracle at 33,” to borrow a phrase from “A 1000 Faces?”
Ha! It’s the first official record with a bar code, just on that business shit. I’ve been putting out self-released mixtapes for the past — wow — over 10 years, and the Armand Hammer shit of course, which was official with the bar code, but I guess that’s really the only difference with this record versus the mixtapes. I make all my mixtapes the same way I made this album — mmm, that’s kind of a lie. With the mixtapes, I was [sometimes] taking other people’s beats and chopping them up a little bit, extending certain sections, but it wasn’t my beat originally. With Save Yourself, it was my production. I had people come in and be like, “I like this beat, let’s re-tweak it this way, that way,” but it’s all original production.
And it is the first miracle at 33. That’s the age I started working on this record, and uh, the life of Jesus [laughs]. You know, you have Jesus as a child then there’s blank years. You don’t know what happened from 12 until he was 30, the first miracle and then that last year, 33.
Going back to the early days of your career, I read that you were able to move 2,000 copies of an album called The Bible and the Gun and tour the East Coast on the strength of that all the way back in 2002. What can you tell me about that experience?
I was just rapping. Somebody had put me in contact with a little independent label in Flat Bush, DramaBoy Records, which is no longer. This guy was a teacher but loved rap music and was like, “I want to start an independent label.” He liked what I was doing and basically had the connects to make it happen. The producers had people that were doing shows, and it just kind of stacked up. We would meet people on the road, and they’d be like, “Yo, we like what you’re doing. Can you perform at the Spring Fling at Trinity College? Can you do Greek Fest?” And it just happened that way. This was a time when people were still buying CDs. The internet was popping, but it obviously wasn’t like what it is now. That was my first time actually hitting the road, doing shows and touring outside of New York state.
How long were you guys on tour?
It wasn’t even a real tour. It would be: this weekend we’re doing two colleges; next weekend we’re doing two more colleges. It was just weekend-warrior shit. Also, at the time, Stitches [Elucid’s uncle, a DJ/producer based in North Amityville] had some connects through his baby mother. Her brother was a promoter, and he would be booking shows for guys like The Lox, Fat Joe, Black Rob. [The promoter] liked Stitches, and I was working with Stitches, so they put me on and we just hit the road. We’d be doing like a fucking coliseum in Delaware, and it’d be this big-ass coliseum with all this sound, all this space, and maybe 100 [or] 125 people in a 5,000 [or] 10,000-seat arena.
That sounds odd.
It was dope, though. Some cities were better than others, but that specific one in Delaware, I remember Styles P in the corner, drinking Henny, just muttering, “Nobody’s fucking here, the promoter didn’t do his job, they better pay me.”
Were you getting paid for these shows?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no, that night no. All I got was a free ride and a free hotel room for the night.
Well, that ain’t bad.
That’s not so bad.
You mentioned Stitches. What do you remember about The One in Man sessions? And is the similarity between that title and Save Yourself coincidental or intentional?
Totally coincidental, but it makes a lot of sense. I was talking to somebody the other day about how you can’t really run from your past. You can’t run from how you were raised. Those experiences are with you forever. Being how I was raised with parents who were involved in the Church, and just knowing that language, that’s where it came from. [When I made] The One in Man, I was 16 [or] 17 years old. It was my first time recording outside of my bedroom. I used to do little bullshit tapes or whatever, but [this] was in Stitches’ studio and, “We’re going to record these seven songs, and this is going to be an EP, and that’s that.” But still living in my parents’ home, still receiving all that Church shit, I was in it. Literally at the time, Sundays would be wake up at 6 a.m., first service at 8 a.m., second service at 11 a.m., go to dinner at Carle Place Diner or Harvest Diner or Old Country Buffet, fucking 5:30 p.m. service, and that was a routine for four or five years, so I was constantly in that world, and that’s where the title The One in Man comes from.
Did you have an irreverent attitude about that?
Yeah, because I wasn’t into it! I was more forced to be there. My parents were just on some like, “Well, if you don’t come to church, you can’t live here,” so I was like, “Alright, I’ll do that,” but the first chance I get to get out of here — when I graduated high school — I was gone, and I have not been back since. I didn’t enjoy my place there, but I found my place there. Church is where I learned how to record myself. The church had a soundboard, microphones, and I got involved with that, so after service, y’all would be out stuffing your faces at Old Country Buffet, and I brought instrumentals on cassette tape, and I’d record these raps that I wrote that week. In the back of the church, it was like, “No one is here. This is my personal studio.”
Nobody knew you were doing that?
Nobody knew, and that’s how The One in Man got duplicated. They had CD burners, they had cassette burners, and I’d buy the blank tapes wholesale and just burn them in the back of the church. That’s how it got out. I actually did a weird little search for myself [recently]. [In] ‘97 or ‘98, [I was on] old message boards with The One in Man, like, “Yo I got tapes,” selling them online. It was also my first time getting internet, using [it] in the church and seeing music being sold online.
Your relatives are musicians, right?
Yeah, my mom sang in the church, my dad played bass in the church. They had lives before they got into the church. My mom sang with Grace Jones. My dad played with funk bands, Afro-rock bands, a bluegrass band.
So what was your parents’ attitude toward your music at that time, knowing that you were working with your uncle?
Pretty indifferent and to this day, it’s whatever. I don’t know why. I’ve never actually discussed it with them. At that age, they were more concerned that I was not using profanity. They would listen to it and be like, “You rap so fast, I don’t understand what you’re saying, but you’re not cursing so it must be OK.” That was their whole thing. I guess people are indifferent to things until it starts to make sense, like actual cents and dollars, so that’s their attitude I think.
I’ve never read The Hero with a Thousand Faces but you reference it here, as well as on “Then He Rose.” What’s the significance of that book in your music and your life?
More Jesus talk, man. What I thought was ill about this book was that [author Joseph Campbell] talks about the myth of Jesus, how we attribute it to Christian culture, and that’s it, but no, the story of Jesus has been told by every culture on the planet by different names; but it’s always the same symbols, it’s always the same process, and that’s where “a thousand faces” comes from. It’s the same story over and over again, just with a new name.
How’d you get put onto that?
It was Professor Osei at Pace University, who taught black literature but was super-cosmic and super into spirituality and religion. She was like the dopest person there, a real fucking black weirdo in the midst of this business school. Everyone that goes to Pace was majoring in finance and business and computer science, and you have to take her course to graduate. I wasn’t majoring in any of that. I don’t know what the fuck I was doing there as an English major, but I’m there, and she just liked me probably because I showed a lot of interest in the class. Most people were apathetic about it.
Joseph Campbell is fucking legendary, man. Without him, there would be no Star Wars.
On “No Grand Agenda,” you say “They tried to box me out position while my spirit was broken/ Language was coded, I found they motive was soulless/ Freedom a neon delusion, it’s more than the music/ I’m a student tipping scales between agnostic and Buddhist.” Would you say your music is spiritually concerned at all, and do you see there being any spirituality to the act of making music?
Only in the sense that I’m interested in it. I’m not out here trying to preach or convert anyone to any kind of spirituality. It just happens that if you’re into those sorts of things, you may pick up on it or are drawn to certain things in the music. I don’t really align myself with any kind of particular system, but if there would be, I don’t know, Buddhism seems kind of cool. I like those ideas. I can fool with those. And the agnostic part just comes from growing up in that Christian system. There were always questions, and I kind of go back and forth if there is an existence of God or not.
What’s your attitude in general toward organized religion?
I don’t believe it’s real. It’s totally manufactured, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real to the people that follow it. People will get good things out of it, absolutely, but for me, I just think it’s a tool of control.
One of the things I’ve always admired about your writing is this ability you have to abruptly turn a phrase from physical everyday life to something that’s almost metaphysical. You usually just do it with a slip of a word here and there, so I wonder what inspires that, or if it’s something you’re even aware you’re doing as you’re writing?
That’s dope, because I’m not really aware of that. Sometimes I hear things in the playback and I’m like, “Oh, that was kind of cool,” but really I don’t know.
In “Blame the Devil” for example, it’s a pretty straightforward critique of organized religion along the lines of what you’re talking about now and then all of a sudden you say, “at war with heathen bones.”
There’s so much biblical language in that song in particular, like in all of my music, but definitely in that song.
On “If You Say So,” you said, “Tiramisu-like layers of chaos and control,” and again it’s in a spot in the song where you wouldn’t necessarily predict something like that would come.
Right, the tiramisu thing was weird, but thinking about structures of inequality, racism, gender issues, sexuality, all that shit. You stack it up like tiramisu. I was working at a restaurant, so the food thing came through. It’s kind of random, but sometimes I’m aware of it. That one I was aware of and when I thought about it, it’s serious in a way, talking about structures of chaos and control, but it’s funny to me to compare it to things like a tiramisu, which is cute and delicious. The contrast is definitely interesting. That one made me laugh and, usually if it makes me laugh, I’m going to keep it.
What about “My chariot wheels within wheels within wheels” in “NY Blanks”?
That’s another Bible reference, Ezekiel’s Wheel, and it goes out even more, like further cosmic weird things before Jesus, but basically the wheel’s within a wheeled vehicle that comes down and sweeps away the oppressed people from the planet and takes you away into some far-away galaxy of liberation. The Babylonians were talking about it. The idea of a chariot or a train is a constantly recurring theme within black music, especially in this country, living under this system of racism, like get me the fuck out of here. Sun Ra’s music was all about that, a very cosmic idea of leaving here. It’s also dealing with Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, all of that.
There’s an ill dichotomy there, too. The album is called Save Yourself. It’s got this irreverent stance like much of your music has had toward organized religion, but then, like you said, your religious upbringing is totally infused into the lyrics.
Yeah, I can’t escape from it no matter what I do. I read some things about “Jealous God” being like a heretic poem. I thought that was really interesting. It is. I’m in it and I don’t fucking like this shit at all, but I can’t escape where I’m from. This is the language I know.
Changing gears a little bit, on “If You Say So,” you mention a “U-Haul parked under cover of night/ Marked for life on that reverse white flight.” You’ve seen gentrification and New York’s class divisions through a number of different lenses, having moved with your family from Jamaica, Queens, out to Deer Park, Long Island, and more recently from Fort Greene out to East New York. What can you tell me about these moves and how they’ve informed your perspective?
Well, the first one, moving from Jamaica to Deer Park, I was a kid, 12 years old, but what I remember most about it was being like, “Wow, Long Island’s really segregated.” In my previous school, there were only two white kids — Kelly Sullivan and Michael Schulte — in the entire school of 500 kids. I go to Deer Park and now I’m in the minority. It’s like 80/20.
There was a move before Fort Greene that was the first time I became aware of the idea of gentrification. I moved to Crown Heights. This was like 2003 [or] 2004, yeah, super fucking hood, cop raids every night, shooting, all typical narrative ghetto shit, but within about three, four or five years, oh, we have a command tower over here, the convenience store starts selling really good beer. Organic? What’s organic? Now it’s in the neighborhood. White folks move in, and slowly but surely, now looking at it, it’s completely gentrified.