Armand Hammer “There are these dudes with powers where if they hit you in the head, after a little bit, your head just explodes.”

Armand Hammer is billy woods and Elucid, a two-man rap renaissance whose purview covers everything from the psychosocial legacy of colonialism to the metaphysical implications of gentrification. But here’s the thing… they’re also two funny guys whose undying passion for their craft can be heard and felt through every one of their lyrics. Erudite yet engaging, these lines provide much of the framework for the following conversation, which took place at a Thai restaurant in Carroll Gardens just one day after the release of the furtive movements EP, which is rightfully being promoted as both follow-up to and departure from Race Music (TMT Review), Armand Hammer’s 2013 debut/opus.

Both works are discussed, along with a host of other topics including flea-market shopping, Wahhabi Islam, Goodie Mob, and death by firing squad, to name a few. Our conversation began before we took our seats and was initiated by billy woods recounting a recent discussion between himself and producer Jeff Markey regarding Elucid’s beat selection.


BW: He was like, “[Elucid’s] voice is so raspy that you’re kind of thinking it’s all going to be in that lane, but knowing him, he’s a really soulful dude,” so he went on this whole thing about how he thought that was interesting—

E: I like how I’m being described as a “soulful dude.”

Well, you are singing all over it.

BW: No, he was talking about from personally meeting you.

E: Some Dave Hollister shit, in an applejack hat.

BW: I was like, “Man, Elucid is into all of the glitchy weird shit,” which I am too, so it was just funny in conversing. Not faulting people on the outside or whatever, but I mean, you did that one record which was so glitchy I appreciated it intellectually and liked some songs but I never listen to it.

E: Super Chocolate Black Simian.

BW: But if somebody was to say, “That’s my favorite one,” I got no problem with that.

You have bugged-out taste in beats as well though.

BW: Sure, but it’s not because of the beats. I guess what I was saying is, if somebody comes to me and says their favorite Edan record, for example, is Beauty and the Beat, I got no problem with that, but Primitive Plus is so different, and that was the first record where I was like, “What the fuck is this dude doing?” And so Super Chocolate Black Simian is a record which I listened to and was impressed by, but it didn’t stay in my rotation in the way that I listened to The Sub Bass Diet.

E: [Or] Police & Thieves.

BW: Police & Thieves, I actually liked better than Sub Bass Diet maybe. Smash & Grab, I didn’t hear until the beginning of this year.

One of them has almost all rock beats on it.

E: That’s Smash & Grab. [It sampled] Black Lips and Johnny Cash.

BW: And it was funny because I did Yule Prog with him two times in a row before we really started working together, so the first time I saw him do the stuff—

Would you describe Yule Prog for those readers who’ve never been?

BW: It’s an annual one-night indie hip-hop festival-slash-year end wrap up show that traditionally has been put on by a couple local labels and music collectives, spearheaded by Nasa from Uncommon Music. He came up with the idea and for the last seven years maybe, Yule Prog has consistently been a memorable night of rap right in the middle of December. Off the top of my head, all of these acts have rocked it at one point or another: Breeze Brewin (of Juggaknots), Elucid (before we even knew each other), Homeboy Sandman, KA, Masai Bey, Rob Sonic, Megalon a.k.a. Tommy Gunn, Despot, Willie Green, Cavalier, Nasa, Warren Britt, Meyhem Lauren, Vast Aire, Zesto, Open Mike Eagle, MarQ Spekt, LoDeck, Creature, Karniege, Junclassic, A.M. Breakups, Brown Bag Allstars, Super Chron Flight Brothers, Beans (of Antipop Consortium), PremRock, Concrete Sound System, AKIR, Tomorrow Kings, Armand Hammer.

First time I saw Elucid at Yule Prog, the sound was insane. It was you and some producer.

BW: That was the second time [he performed].

That set was the first time I ever saw or heard of you [Elucid].

E: At the Yule Prog?

Yeah, your second one I guess it was. It was you and a Japanese producer and I think there were some sound difficulties or it was just bugged.

E: Nah, that was totally intentional. PF Cuttin was cursing us out, because he was doing some kind of live webcast of the show for Meyhem Lauren and he didn’t understand that it was intentional. He was like, “Yall are fucking up! The whole world’s hearing yall fuck up right now!” He didn’t understand this is what it was supposed to be. This is the music.

At that time, I honestly thought you were fucking up too.

BW: The first [Elucid Yule Prog set], I saw him perform stuff from Police & Thieves and Sub Bass Diet and I thought, “This dude is incredible.” I was doing Super Chron Flight Brothers at the time and both [Privilege and I] were blow away, and then the next year I was all psyched up, and you just did something totally different. It was that whole Concrete Sound System, several different producers, Japanese dudes, knobs turning, mad feedback…

What my friends and I would call the table with shit…

E: Gotta dip in that chamber… acid baths.

BW: I enjoyed the first one a lot more than the second one, but it was still indicative of, “Alright, well you’re dealing with an artist who is going lots of different places,” and I can appreciate that.

You could say that about yourself as well, because if you look at Indonesia vs. Cape Verde or History Will Absolve Me vs. Dour Candy, there’s a similar reverse in direction, specifically about the beats but generally about the lyrics and the thematic content.

BW: And that’s one reason I think we work well together is that I have appreciation for a lot of different types of production and there isn’t a lot of stuff where I say, “Oh, I could never rap over a beat like that.” I think one difference is that I might bring a producer a sample, or there are situations where I know this is what I want [a beat] to sound like, whereas he is much more involved and has grown as he’s continued to do stuff on the other end of putting his input in. My input is more likely to come in at the beginning — the sample choice, or the ideas and themes, what type of production. Once I add the beat then I’m generally like “OK this is finished,” whereas for him, that’s a point to progress from.

Race Music was credited engineered by Willie Green and Elucid. Furtive movements is credited entirely to Elucid. How did the recording process differ?

E: We recorded it all at my place as opposed to…

BW: On the last record, there was a mix of stuff that was done at Willie Green’s and stuff that was done at [Elucid’s] house and some songs done half one place, half the other. This record came about very organically, without [us] having fully visualized what it was going to be until we were halfway into it. Willie Green is an incredible engineer, a great producer and a professional, so you don’t go to his house to noodle around. You go there and it’s “Make songs,” so if you don’t know what you’re doing—

E: You’re wasting his time.

BW: And the label’s money, so it doesn’t make sense. Early on, at one point we were just doing one or two songs to put as a bonus with these remixes we had. The means by which we started going about doing this, it seemed like it was going to be something much smaller.

E: Originally, I just wanted it to be a remix album. I just wanted to pick six songs from Race Music and have different producers remix them, and it didn’t pan out.

BW: That’s the VERY beginning. We didn’t even implement enough remixes. We had three or four producers, we hit up.

E: No one did anything. Everyone said the same thing: “I don’t know what to do.”

What time period is this?

BW: This is when we were still working on Race Music. We hit a few people up for remixes and they just didn’t do it and then other people did them really fast, and so what happened was we ended up with a few remixes, and with Race Music, we really had to pull a lot of things together quickly in order to have it come out when it did.

It doesn’t sound rushed at all.

BW: Rushed would be the wrong term, because we spent plenty of time working on it.

You can also hear a broader viewpoint, broader topics discussed on Race Music, whereas on furtive movements you guys seem more focused on your immediate reality.

E: Yeah, I felt like Race Music isolated people in that it [dealt with] very obscure topics. Some people can get into that, but then a lot of people were just like, “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” [woods laughs] “What’s going on?” And when we started working on furtive movements, that might have been in my mind.

Was it a conscious decision then to rein in the subject matter? Because you [Elucid] seemed especially focused. On other records, you’ll just bug out and talk about some crazy metaphysical shit, but the subject matter here seemed kind of honed in a little bit. Did you do that intentionally or was it just a result of where the beats were coming from?

BW: Let me ask you this, because I’m curious to see what your perspective would be, and it was not the same thought process behind the two: Would you apply that same comparison or juxtaposition with Dour Candy and History Will Absolve Me?

Yes.

BW: That was intentional. This was not intentional.

E: It wasn’t totally intentional, but I think maybe midway through the record I saw the contrast, and yeah, [our focus was more] immediate. I was like, “This is kind of cool,” and then eventually I [decided to] go in this way. “Touch and Agree” was probably the most immediate song to me. That was one of the later songs we did. It’s just limiting all the clouds, limiting the scope.

Conceptually, it’s just a great song — I mean who wouldn’t want to go back and advise their younger self?

BW: It was his idea.

I’m surprised by that because on “The Wake,” which is possibly my favorite billy woods song, you say — let me get the quote. I’m going to do my “Inside the Actor’s Studio” shit right now.

BW: James Lipton?

Yeah, yeah, that’s me.

BW: [laughs] He’s the man.

Just goes to show, I could go back tell myself everything I know/ But me at 23 would probably shrug his shoulders/ Put stoge to fire like you’re preaching to the choir.” And then the chorus of “Touch and Agree” goes “You already know.”

BW: I never thought of that, believe it or not.

E: The “You already know” shit was just filler. It sounded good when he said it and I was just like, “Well, that’s going to be the hook.”

BW: You had done the other part already, the shout thing, and then I was in the studio — that’s one cool thing about this record. It certainly [contains] ideas that I’ve touched on, and it’s funny because Elucid and I were talking about this the other day, but sometimes I’m more the one that’s like, “Hey let’s do a song with a really strict concept,” but this was a time he was like, “Here’s the idea I have, and this is the beat.”

E: I heard the beat and I knew exactly where I wanted to go with it. That’s not usually how I work.

You took a production credit on that one.

E: Yeah, that’s Messiah Musik and myself. He came through with the original thing and I just kind of tweaked it.

The combination of you two guys is all over the EP and it’s really phenomenal.

E: Yeah, I really fuck with his sound.

BW: I’ve been really into his stuff. I had never worked with him before Race Music and he did a great job. I didn’t know him and then he hit me up and I have become a real fan. Even “Soft Places,” I had to twist his [Eluicid’s] arm to do that song.

Why’s that?

E: I didn’t think it would work. We had the idea and then I would sit down to write to the song and nothing ill would stick until three or four times. I’m more freewheeling with it. I run on instinct when it comes to music. I’m going to sit down, I’m going to write something, and if it’s dope it stays and if it’s not I’m going to throw it away.

Did you guys write any songs together in the studio?

BW: The only one I’d say is “Soft Places.” It was definitely fully old-school: “This is what I’ve written… your turn.” That’s one of my favorite songs.

E: It turned out to be one of my favorite songs on the record as well.

BW: That’s the funny thing about it.

E: Because I hated it at first, and it turned out to be, for me, between Race Music and furtive movements, one of the best Armand Hammer songs.

BW: I agree. I really enjoy listening to that song and I’m really proud of it. I think there are some times when you do certain things as an artist where you’re like…

E: Shit, I could go back to this one.

BW: No — that’s true — but something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Every time I listen to that song, I’m actually surprised it’ll be about and touching on more things than even I had planned. That’s the songs where I listen to it and I’m like, “This is greater than the sum of its parts, this is a really cool thing with a lot of layers and meaning,” and that’s one of the songs I’m proudest to have made in terms of also. I think sometimes it’s very hard to capture a feeling in a song while also getting all the lyrics and the poetry of things right, especially when defining what that song is about is difficult.

Growing up in Zimbabwe, we were well off, but the nation was so young, the conflicts within and without its borders so intense, that there was no such thing as, “I don’t pay attention to politics.”

Would you care to define what that song’s about to you?

BW: On a certain level it’s about the space between when you’ve woken up and you’ve had a dream. You ever have a dream where it takes a few seconds for you to realize whether it’s real or not? And on another level it’s about New York City and gentrification and neighborhoods changing. So those were the things that we were aiming for, and then when I listen to it there are other ideas and feelings that pop out at me. It’s interesting how those two things even become one. The dream-space and the gentrification kind of become one idea. There is also something vaguely purgatorial about it. It’s cool to me because I’m still unpacking it as a person who participated in creating it.

E: Going back to the immediacy of the record, the gentrification [concept], that’s [what comes to mind] when I think about the house I lived in, the brownstone my family owns, and the progression of the neighborhood in the past seven to eight years. I’m telling that story. Race Music, though, is very out there, outside of myself. I [thought] let me just bring it in a little bit and people will be attracted to it, so it seems.

BW: It’s funny because you were always like, “I think this record’s more accessible,” and I saw somebody tweeted that.

E: I do. I feel like Race Music, especially with the production — that’s the first thing people hear when they listen to music. They’re not paying attention to what you said. The production on Race Music was crazy chaotic, harsh, and if it turns you on or not, whatever, but [furtive movements’ production] is stripped back so much that you have no choice but to listen to what we’re saying.

It’s straightforward.

E: Yeah, it’s an ill contrast for Race Music, night and day.

Elucid, on “Renaissance Garments,” you spit, “2 for $20 denims at the Busy Bee Massapequa/ This was 93…” You’re known as a Brooklyn MC, but what’s your connection to Long Island?

E: My family moved to Long Island in the early 90s from Queens. We stayed with my aunts and their children (12 of us under one roof in a three-bedroom house!) for a few months in Copiague before we moved to Deer Park. My family worked hard, but money was tight. When we would go back-to-school shopping, my dad would always let us know, “We only have X amount to spend today on your clothes.” So it’s like, for maximum freshness, that $100 has to stretch. At the time, you had basic mall stores like JC Penneys, Macys, Eddie Bauer, and Structure, where $100 might get you a pair of pants and a shirt. At Busy Bee, which reminded me of a less cool version of the Coliseum on Jamaica Ave. in Queens, I could walk out with a week’s worth of brightly colored denims and bootleg Guess shirts. All the sneaker vendors had the display shelves stocked with the latest shrink-wrapped models. There was a guy airbrushing T-shirts. There was a guy making gold-plated jewelry. Just a real modest flea market/bazaar-type establishment.

Yeah I have vague memories of Busy Bee too, kind of like a combination Tri-County Flea Market/Marshalls. Would you discuss your relationship to DJ Stiches a bit?

E: DJ Stitches is my uncle on my mom’s side. He’s an amazing DJ and producer who lived in North Amityville and had a really interesting history in the rap industry. He [was a founding member of De La Soul] and was in [Class A Felony], a group that had a deal on Mercury Records. As a kid, I’d watch him engineer recording sessions or make beats from scratch or build DJ routines on the turntables. In the late 90s, during the indie-rap 12-inch boom, I saw him release his own records. My mother came across a tape of me rapping and let him know, so he invited me in to record some freestyle rhymes to cassette as he cut up instrumentals for me live in his living room. He just encouraged me and put me on-game regarding MC technique. I wasn’t the best, but I always had my own viewpoint and voice as a writer. Within a couple of months I recorded my first real song over a DJ Stitches-produced cut at a studio in Wyandanch. He introduced me to people who let me rap on the Greekfest stage at Jones Beach and had me opening up for groups like The Lox in the early 2000s. So yeah, DJ Stitches was an ultra important influence on my development as an MC.

When you and I were talking earlier, you mentioned seeing De La Soul as a small child and not realizing it at the time. Care to speak on that?

E: So the story goes that the earliest incarnation of De La Soul’s demo tape, pre-Prince Paul, which eventually got them their Tommy Boy deal, was recorded in my grandmother’s basement. I was obviously too young to know who they were or what exact situation surrounded me, but I have heard this story repeated by my uncle for as long as I can remember.

Going back to the production side of furtive movements, you [woods] used the word soulful when we first sat down. For me, with the filters on it, it sounds more like dub, that roots-reggae vibe.

E: Absolutely, that’s definitely an influence on me.

BW: “Affection” certainly.

E: I’m a huge dub fan.

The walls knockin’ Mad Professor.”
[-Elucid on “B.E.T.”]

E: Yeah, man, that’s a huge live sound. Sometimes it can feel as light as air when really it’s so, so heavy. Even when it doesn’t sound like there’s much going on, that bottom, that low end…

BW: That’s an interesting observation that I think carries some weight. There’s a lot of space on the record.

E: Cavernous.

BW: But let’s also not forget about “Cloisters,” the most overlooked Armand Hammer song of all time.

E: It is my favorite from [our two albums], by far.

BW: That could easily be on [furtive movements] and “B.E.T.” could easily be on Race Music.

E: I don’t know about that. Really?

BW: Yeah, come on, even when I went to decide which one we were going to leak first, Green said, “‘B.E.T.’ sounds the most like an Armand Hammer song.”

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