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

In addition to “Freedman’s Bureau,” other early songs between you guys are “Sour Grapes,” “Omega3” off For Madmen Only, and “Bank of America” off The Cost of Living. Were these all recorded in the same time? What’s the chronology there?

BW: “Bank of America” is the first one, but then I was like, “Wow, I really got destroyed on that song… that’s unfortunate.”

E: I had to come out swinging though. That was probably the first time we even linked up. We just met in the studio.

BW: Yeah, so I learned a valuable lesson and then they asked me to do “Omega3.” I had a friend who was in jail in California at the time and was mailing me letters, and anytime somebody’s writing you from jail, the amount of responsibility you feel to reply [is tremendous], and sometimes you’ll get two letters before you finish your reply to the first one.

E: They got nothing but time.

BW: And then you feel terrible because she’s in there just waiting for your shit. But I was dealing with that, and then for a little while she had some violation where she had sent me two letters and I had sent her one letter and then they send it back to you. If the person is in administrative segregation, instead of keeping the letter to give to them when they get out, they just send the shit back, so you have no idea what happened. Did the person get stabbed in the infirmary? I don’t know what’s going on.

Every day you’re in there is another win for the pigs.”
[-woods on “Omega3”]

BW: Yeah, so I just sat and worked really hard on doing that verse, but I was not trying to get fried again and luckily I had what I thought was some good material to work with that would complement the story that they were telling even though it’s a little bit different. And so I acquitted myself better on that one. After that it was “Freedman’s Bureau.” After that it was “Sour Grapes.”

E: I feel like “Freedman’s Bureau” was the first though.

BW: No, no, “Bank of America” is the first — 100 percent. There’s not a lot of songs I do where I’m like, “Wow, I really got out-rapped,” especially when I think I had a decent showing, and so there’s no question in my mind that was the first. It’s possible that “Freedman’s Bureau” was [recorded] at the same time or right around the same time as “Omega3,” but I really think the “Omega3” was next, then it was “Freedman’s Bureau,” and “Sour Grapes” was definitely the last … Isn’t there another one, or am I just imagining that?

From that period?

BW: Yeah, I feel like there’s some other song where I got fried again.

I had to dig to remind myself about “Bank of America.”

BW: I think that’s pretty much it unless we did something for somebody else, but we haven’t really done a lot of Armand Hammer guest verses. We’ve got one due for this [upcoming] Willie Green album.

E: Yeah, he told me about that today.

BW: People have tried to make it happen, but usually I’ve fucked it up, I think. Curly Castro had a track … did it come out yet?

E: No, I got my verse on it though.

BW: Curly Castro’s next record has an incredible song with him and Elucid on it, and so he wanted me to jump on it, but I failed to write anything good enough.

While you both have long solo catalogs, you [woods] have been in a lot of duos: aside from Armand Hammer, you’ve got Super Chron Flight Brothers with Privilege, you could call yourself and Vordul a duo of sorts, and you’ve got M.A.D., short-lived but also a duo; and you [Elucid] were down with Lessondary and sort of down with Wrecking Crew, and they’re both represented on this record also, via Von Pea and Curly Castro. So how does writing in a collective or in a duo differ from writing solo material, or is it the same process?

E: For me, it’s never really changed. I’m just trying to do it the best that I can do it. I mean, working with woods though, I’m still trying to have the most fiery verse. Either way, it never changes at all.

BW: For me the big difference, obviously it depends, but each group has its own dynamic. I’ve been in groups where the other person’s commitment is not the same as yours and so that is a whole different experience. I think each has its own unique qualities. In this one, you definitely have to work hard and I think it’s also one where, like the best collaborations I’ve had, usually I feel there’s a level of trust with the other person to where you can say, “Dude, just try to do this.” I’m not going to say that every time, because obviously that would be bullshit, but there have to be some times. With “Soft Places,” I was like, “This one, just try to do it; whatever else happens, this one I know will be good.” And also the ability to know that if you have an idea or if somebody else has an idea, that you’re going to have some trust in other people. I wasn’t exactly sure about the “Affection” beat, a pretty strange beat, although I’m into shit like that — I’ve made a lot of songs with BOND, who made a lot of weird beats — but that shit was a little off. I remember writing to it when somebody was there and they were like, “Weird,” and you know, I trust that this is going to work out and what [Elucid] is going to do is going to be good. I think that’s an important part.

I also think that it’s different for me than working on solo [material] because sometimes with solo stuff, inspiration and ideas all have to come from you. Occasionally you’ll get someone to do a guest verse in the hopes that they’ll come up with the idea first, but [that’s] one song.

E: I hate when cats ask for features and they expect me to come up with the concept for the song. It’s your song, you’ve got to approach it with the idea fleshed out.

BW: Sometimes, it’s nice. Well, regardless, when you’re in a group I think one of the nice things is that somebody else can bring ideas to you. I can be at home with no idea of what I’m going to do next, and if you’re working on a solo album that’s scary because you think, “Will I have another idea?”

Total non-sequiter: was there a KMD influence on Race Music? Specifically their album Black Bastards?

E: [Laughs] I mean I’m a fan of KMD.

BW: Yeah, I don’t necessarily know if I’d call it an influence.

E: I feel like the thing that you take in — the things that you listen to, the things that you watch, things that you read — it always comes out in the art. So if you see that, I am a fan.

BW: Yeah, we’re both fans.

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

People have compared Race Music to Cannibal Ox, and I guess the connection’s there also, but for me, for some reason I thought, “Nah, it’s more like KMD.”

BW: That’s a fascinating interpretation, and I could see a strong argument [for it] in terms of saying what you think is — not what we thought about when we were making it, but what you think they should be compared to on an artistic basis — their place in the culture. I think that you could make a compelling and very interesting argument that was the case. That would be a fun argument to make.

But it wasn’t intentional at all? I know you’ve spoken to the DOOM influence.

BW: Well, I’m definitely a big fan of his work and that goes for KMD too, but no, I didn’t have that in mind at all really. But my mother writes literary criticism [so I know] what we thought when we were making it is really irrelevant to placing it in the canon. Deconstructing the works has nothing to do with what we thought about it.

E: I was listening to a lot of Organized Konfusion and Goodie Mob during the making of furtive movements.

BW: I have not listened to an Organized Konfusion album in years.

E: Man, you should.

I haven’t really explored Goodie Mob beyond the first two albums.

E: Yeah, that’s all you really need. One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show, Cee-Lo’s not there.

BW: It’s pretty good, it’s better than World Party by 1,000 leagues.

E: You’re good with Soul Food and Still Standing. That’s your Goodie Mob experience.

BW: You could argue that you’re good with Soul Food. Still Standing’s a great album.

The Outkast guest verses on those are insane.

E: Absolutely, absolutely.

BW: “Black Ice,” yeah, I’m a big fan. It’s funny: I always thought that one day the homophobia on that record would come back to bite Cee-Lo on the ass… I mean it wasn’t from him.

It definitely didn’t.

E: Because he started dressing up like a fat Liberace.

On “B.E.T.” you say, “I’m a sour brocc puffer snuggy hazard orange skully shopping for a stocking stuffer.

BW: Hey, I want to know what this means.

Is “orange skully” a Nasa shout-out?

E: Nah, I was thinking about terror alerts.

But that’s his famous product that may be a good stocking stuffer.

E: I might have re-upped on the skully at the time when I wrote that verse; I might’ve gotten a fresh one.

BW: It’s funny that you’d say, “I see colors when I touch the track” after that.

An Edan reference?

E: You know, I didn’t hear of Edan’s music until the past three or four years.

BW: I like “Most young kings get they head chopped.” This part didn’t come to me until later; the Basquiat reference and all of that.

It’s flying over my head.

BW: [“Most Young Kings Get Their Head Cut Off”] is a Basquiat painting or drawing or whatever you want to call those things. It’s pretty cool and you should look it up, but I recognized that and I remember texting him, “That’s Basquiat’s thing, right?” And he was like, “Yeah,” but then later it came to me the subliminal connection with the next line “Lumpy flat-top…” talking about your haircut.

Right, that was the part I understood.

BW: That’s something MF DOOM would do is to have self-contained verse with an addendum that may or may not be connected if you didn’t understand. That didn’t come to me until way later.

Speaking of DOOM, I remember now that I asked about the KMD influence specifically because the phrase “What a niggy know” appeared on “Willie Bosket” and again (sort of) on “Hand Over Fist.” I remember catching this the first or second time I listened to Race Music, and that definitely informed how I listened to the album from there onward. (Not really a question, just another observation.)

BW: Well, for that matter, you could go to the mixtape track “Marooned,” where two different rap titles are re-purposed to also make a comment about slavery: “Who needs New Slaves when you’ve got Black Bastards?”

While we are making observations, there are precious few rap albums that start stronger than Black Bastards. That intro and the first few tracks are so compelling, it’s ALMOST like the rest of the album couldn’t possibly keep that up.

Alright, so I did my James Lipton; this is my Dr. Phil. Each of you, ask the other about a line of his in which you have no idea what he’s saying.

BW: Actually, I know this because [I heard it] just today … What’s the first line in “B.E.T.?”

E: “Threw on Archie Shepp then watched the room clear.” He was a jazz musician.

A free-jazz musician. People aren’t trying to hear that.

E: Yeah, it’s pretty much unlistenable to most people.

BW: What’s the next line?

E: “Philistines, who are they?/ Dropped crotch junior Watanabe sweats,” so the Philistines [line is saying] “Who are you people who don’t f[uck with Archie Shepp?]”

BW: “Sipping mango lassi on lobby steps” is actually one of those lines that gets stuck in my head. Do you remember the old Raekwon [line], “It’s just a hobby that I picked up in the lobby?”

E: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

What about a woods line that you have no idea about?

E: He’s full of random references that I’ve never heard before in a rap context.

BW: Another one is on “F.U.B.U.” On the “F.U.B.U” verse, the first line is?

E: I was matching you because you said “Nigga Narcissus,” and I thought that’s ill because of the Latin thing, so I was like, “Black Dada Nihilismus.” That’s a famous poem that Amiri Baraka wrote. He had just passed when we were writing “F.U.B.U.,” and they’re definitely both Latin-influenced.

BW: “I had to breeze through the read-through.”

E: “Copping cow tongue at the Key Food.”

BW: That was kind of high- and low-brow. That’s a good one. It’s funny because that song was the last we did, so it’s full of stuff I didn’t really have time to marinate on until we stopped working on music. Normally, there are questions [about lines like these] coming up if you come to the studio, and that was definitely one for me. We need to put the lyrics online, because people keep thinking it’s “Nigga narcissist,” but it’s not; it’s Joseph Conrad’s “The Nigger of Narcissus.” That was the reference, not ‘narcissist’ but ‘Narcissus,’ which is impossible to tell in the middle of a rap song.

E: Woods has obvious obscure references, but then there was one from “Dust Jackets” — “Blindfold and a rolled cigarette” — and it sounds harmless enough, but when he explained it to me…

BW: A blindfold and a rolled cigarette is what you get, traditionally, when you face a firing squad.

E: Yeah, that’s fucking insane. It sounds so pedestrian, but no.

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.”

That’s an insane bit of knowledge to have.

BW: I grew up on 70s movies — Westerns, WWII, and whatever, just photography from the Spanish Civil War. When they’re getting ready to execute you, you get a cigarette! Can you imagine how you smoke that cigarette?

E: Real slow.

BW: That’s one of those things I always thought was so crazy, like [at the end of the] “CRWNS” video, this dude is just laughing at some cosmic joke in the last moment before he’s about to have his brains blown out somewhere in the forest. It’s a Ukrainian or Polish partisan who’s been captured somewhere and is about to be executed ad hoc by a Nazi soldier. He has his hands up and he’s laughing his ass off.

What was the joke that he thought? Maybe he knows that all of these Germans who are shooting him to death are going to freeze to death in these woods, retreating from Stalingrad six months from now, like starving dogs. Who knows? Maybe he just saw some cosmic joke that you don’t know. So “a blindfold and a rolled cigarette” — I always thought that would be the best and the worst cigarette of all time. I would want one last Backwoods. Fill it up with the best tree, and just let me smoke it.

On Race Music and on previous works, you guys used a lot of movie samples. On this one, there’s just a sports sample on “CRWNS.”

E: I definitely made a conscious decision to lay off of that.

BW: We didn’t put many samples in at all. Some of the ambient things you [Elucid] did were reminiscent of the way we decided to do the mixtape.

E: Yeah, just less obvious movie samples. There are a couple of transitions, other sounds I added in, but no movie dialogue.

BW: I like that one where it sounds like people getting buzzed into a building.

E: It’s at the end of “Soft Places.”

If you could go back and put film dialogue into this album, what movies do you think would fit the themes?

BW: It’s weird because I don’t think of [furtive movements] in terms of movies at all. I could see doing more of the little ambient things that we did do. There’s that whole part at the end of “Affection.”

E: With Ninja Man going off.

BW: I’d probably lean toward more of that. The same way in the Half Measures mixtape there’s all the stuff that we talked about, and then he collected ambient samples, which is the vast majority of it, like the train and people doing stuff in the city…

E: Playing saxophones in the park and shit. Yeah, I’m definitely more into that than movie samples at this point.

BW: Well you don’t want to just do the same shit every time.

I suppose it becomes formulaic a little bit when a song opens and closes with it. That being said, the dialogue at the end of “Duppy” [on Race Music] is some of the illest shit: “You’re gonna get a little job.”

BW: You know what movie that is? That’s Jon Voight in the 80s before he became a terrible right-wing monster. It’s called Runaway Train; these guys were escaping from a prison in Alaska and stowaway on this train only to discover that the train is moving by accident — the conductor isn’t in it — and they’re going way too fast. That whole monologue is so ill, it’s not even just that part, and it’s funny because he’s talking in this sort of racially ambiguous New York accent from back then, when everyone from New Yawk was somewhere in there, and it’s like, “Is that a black guy, a Dominican guy, an Italian guy?”

Speaking of backgrounds, you’ve mentioned in previous interviews how your upbringing tells you that the luxury of separating one’s everyday existence from one’s politics is a Western phenomenon. You’ve also discussed how you grew up idolizing and interacting with various revolutionary figures of the 20th century. In light of this, I’d like to hear your thoughts on New York’s current mayor, a former Sandinista supporter, especially your reactions to his campaign promises for policing reform and his response to Eric Garner’s murder.

BW: Well, it’s really a phenomenon of security. You could be somewhere outside the West but living in the sort of security — imagined or otherwise — that has been commonplace in the West for a long time, and you have the luxury of not caring about politics. If you are living in a country where YOUR physical security is in question, you might take a lot more notice of your nation’s political maneuverings. 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.”

As far as De Blasio goes, I am alright with him but obviously he just started. I certainly hope that he is going to keep his promise for creating affordable housing in NYC, which may actually be more important than his theoretical policing reforms. If poor and working class New Yorkers continue to be forced out of the city, we (I am one of them) are most likely going to find ourselves living in new ghettoized exurbs, which naturally will be dangerous and further alienate us from job sources and cultural opportunities that emanate from the city center.

As for Eric Garner, the police obviously fucked up and should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law. There is a reason that chokeholds are illegal here. Fact is, a lot of cops are fucking bullies. If you have ever been at the mercy of a gang of cops spoiling for a fight, you know what I am talking about. On another front, if I ever have a son I am going to make sure he understands that Big Gipp line from “Thought Process” on Soul Food: “Got me on the curb letting traffic pass me by/ No questions, I said nothing/ Looking for the mutant to be buckin the law/ Naw man Gipp show him my shit, close my mouth then I dip/ See to me G is a person who understands the plan/ CAN’T MAKE NO MOVES WHEN YOU IN THE HANDS OF THE MAN.”

That shit is real. Once the cops is rolling on you like that you need to just be worried about not saying anything incriminating and establishing your refusal to consent to their searches or whatever verbally, while remaining fully compliant because they are going to fuck you either which way. It’s just reality. Same way when you in a hood you don’t know and folks roll on you talking about, “Give it up,” you probably should, because either way they taking it. The only question is what sort of injuries you may or may not have afterwards. Or if you will be dead.

Indeed. Lastly, what’s next for you guys as Armand Hammer and individually?

BW: We haven’t discussed any Armand Hammer stuff, but obviously I hope to do another record, another full-length or EP. He’s got a solo [album in the works].

E: Yeah, I’m doing a solo record right now on Backwoodz.


E: Some self-produced, some other people — I don’t want to fall into that trap, thinking I’m a producer and then doing a whole self-produced solo record. Let’s stick with what I know first. I was just kind of fucking around on furtive movements and it stuck. Woods gave me confidence in the beats that I make, but I’m not a producer; I’m an MC.

BW: He’s got some great beats for this shit. Jeff Markey is always hitting me up, like, “Have you heard these Elucid beats?” I’m like, “No, what the hell!? I’m in the group!” But the beats I’ve heard are really good. As far as what’s next for me, I have some ideas and I’ve started unpacking some things.

Weren’t you supposed to do a whole album with BOND?

BW: Dude, I was. I’m going to say it probably won’t ever happen. There are two songs recorded that I think about just putting out. I have another project, which I picked a bunch of samples for and have been sending them to producers, and I’ve gotten a few beats back so far, but other than that, I’m not ready to say, “Oh, well this is what it is.” Willie Green and I have done a lot of talk about doing an EP, which I want to do. He also has an album on the way, and obviously I’m going to play a little bit of a role there.

What about a “series of short stories” or something like that?

BW: Oh, “ya know,” that’s my alter-ego.

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