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?


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.”

When I hear “B.E.T.,” I think of “Mozambique” from Half Measures, but also the rock-type beats that were on Smash & Grab. To me, “B.E.T.” has a punk bass line.

BW: I have people who say, “‘F.U.B.U.’ was the craziest track,” and that’s a funny one because the way it was put together — that was probably the first time I can remember us sitting and doing a chorus together, kind of on some trial-and-error shit. And the whole song came together in a way in that’s interesting in terms of its crazy chorus.

E: “Clarence Thomas off the bench/ High-tech Willie Lynch/ High-def when he snitch/ The bitch set me up.

I would say that on a record that could already be argued is more accessible, [that song] may be the most accessible… and ironically it’s called “F.U.B.U.”

BW: I would think that record would be the least accessible.

It’s jumpy, you know what I mean?

E: It’s got a really nice jump to it, sure. It’s in-and-out, two verses.

BW: I thought “CRWNS” would be it. The verses are short.

E: “CRWNS” is for the heads, though.

BW: I played the “CRWNS” beat for someone and they were like, “Oh, this is like the Premier shit.”

E: Really? In my head, when I made the beat I was thinking prime-era 50 Cent.

BW: That’s funny, he’d be hilarious on that.

I think he’d probably be hilarious on any Armand Hammer beat.

On “Frog and Toad are Friends,” there’s the line, “This year, unify the belts, end all dissension.” I’m a boxing fan myself, so I interpreted that as saying Elucid put out a record that year, woods put out a record that year, you guys put out a collaborative record that year; there can be no doubt as to who’s the best doing it

BW: That’s what it was, yeah. “End all dissension.” I was trying to get that Wladimir Klitschko, you know what I mean? Where everyone’s mad but there’s nothing they can do.

That being said, you guys have definitely been getting more of a critical response in recent years, but I still don’t think that Race Music got the credit it deserved. For me, that’s the album of 2013, but it’s not just the album of the year. Like History Will Absolve Me, it’s the type of record that I’ll listen to for years. So is “CRWNS” on some level addressing that or am I reading into it too far?

BW: Not on my [verse]. I’m sure there’s a line or something but…

E: There may be lines. We’re always asserting our dominance, but it wasn’t [pointed] in that direction.

BW: It’s more the idea of people getting away with things, ripping people off, and domination, power in all its forms.

I wanted to ask you about one line on “CRWNS,” your [woods’] last line, “Fist of the North Star cranium, manicured/ Saudi Arabian Aerys Targaryan.”

BW: That’s funny because that’s the song that so far when I see people talk about it, I’m not sure that they’ve really “gotten it.”

E: Yeah, no one knows who Aerys Targaryan is.

BW: My girlfriend’s favorite line is “GMO corn rows…”

E: “Foreclosed in Patmos/ GMO corn rows and lab coats.”

BW: “Crack smoke, hustlin’ backwards in a high castle/ Belly laughs, snide cackles.

Is that a Philip K. Dick reference?

E: Absolutely, The Man in the High Castle.

BW: Actually, there are ton of lines I love on that song. As far as the end of that song, those specific lines are kind of talking about, I mean … “Fist of the North Star cranium” is, if you’re familiar with the movie, there are these dudes with powers where if they hit you in the head, after a little bit your head just explodes…

[Everybody at the table laughs]

E: After a little bit?

BW: Have you seen it?

E: No.

BW: This was college viewing for me, and then living in Harlem, I must have watched this a bunch of times with Vordul back when I was young. Anyway, main point is when the dudes hit you in the head, it will just be like a tap but their martial arts skill is so great that — it’s this dystopian future world and there are these people who have these abilities — even with a little tap or a glancing blow, after a few seconds the person’s head just explodes. And so this one guy gets hit in the head, and he manages to put a brace around his head that prevents it from exploding. It’s very bizarre. That reference, to me, is just “the brain is on fire” or “the brain is crazy.” “Fist of the North Star cranium” is like your shit is just ready to explode.

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.

And that’s where it ties in with Aerys Targaryan, the mad king?

BW: Well, the “manicured Saudi Arabian Aerys Targaryan” links to an earlier part of the verse that’s talking about the Middle East and North Africa. In the Gulf States, obviously, there are a lot of people putting a lot of money into insane Wahhabi causes that do nothing but sow death across the world… You’re just imagining these Saudi dudes, hands so soft, can you imagine? They have never done anything. I doubt if they’ve even counted cash. Hands so soft even the Rockefellers swoon when they touch them; those sorts of dudes just sitting away with their mad kings.

You know, even today, I was reading about ISIS going into Mosul; it’s just weird because super-militant Wahhabi Islam, especially the latest versions, they don’t even have a constituency. It’s like Pol Pot writ large, so no sooner than they’ve taken over that region of Iraq that they just start murdering all the people. Who is ever going to support this? You know? They blew up all of the relics in Mosul. The citizens were happy you came. Literally, they alienate people even 100 times faster than the Americans can and they’re not even Muslims. There was this tomb that was supposed to be where biblical Jonah was, and it’s like these motherfuckers are just so devoted to the purity of their ideology that nothing else even matters.

[Suddenly, Brooklyn rapper Ka appears]

E: What’s good?


Ka: What’s up, cousin? Good to see you, family.

BW: I forget that you live around here. You want to sit down?

Ka: No, I’m actually going to order something to go and give my lady a call, man.

BW: Is that going in your interview?

Yeah, it’s in there.

Ka: Oh, you’re interviewing? You’re interviewing my man right now.

BW: Yo, I owe you a vinyl, man.

Ka: I owe you like three vinyls.

BW: Yeah, we gotta get together. That “To Hull and Back,” like I told you…

Ka: Thank you.

E: Sick song, man.

BW: That isn’t necessarily my favorite Ka song, but that might be the best. In terms of execution, man, that shit is incredible.

Ka: Thank you. Listen, that compliment [from a prior conversation] was amazing — the James Baldwin shit, I showed my lady that. I was like, “This is my man right here…

BW: Oh, he could’ve written that chorus, [“You named them hustlers, killers, fiends, ex-cons/ I call them cousins, aunts, pops, moms/ To you, hoodlum, crackhead, gunmens/ To me, just neighbors, classmates, young friends.”]

Ka: “Woods is the man right now.” But I don’t want to interfere.

BW: Nah, nah, do your thing, man.

[Ka leaves momentarily]

That was weird.

BW: See, I kind of knew that he lived in this area but I never seen him here before. But yeah, all that was basically tying back into the beginning of that verse, you know like—

Ka: The spot is closing, so… What’s your name, brother?

That’s the song that so far when I see people talk about it, I’m not sure that they’ve really “gotten it.”


Ka: Nice to meet you, Sam.

BW: Oh, they’re not taking anymore orders?

Ka: Nah, no more orders. I just wanted to get some greens but it’s all good. Listen, I can’t wait to read this right here.

BW: [Laughs] I’ll send it to you, man. You’ll be in it. You know that.

Ka: Man, I was never here.

This all happened. It’s all documented.

[Ka leaves; woods returns to his “CRWNS” closer]

BW: I think it has more to do with tying it back to mid-way through the verse, drawing a parallel between how international terrorist organizations are taking on this sort of… iconography or behaviors, the same way that the Mexican cartels started making their videos like Al Qaeda videos, and now I watch these ISIS things and it reminded me of WorldstarHipHop, with rappers talking a bunch of crazy shit: “Who’s got the guns/ Smoke 10 blunts/ Issue threats to everyone,” talking all crazy…

E: “Yall know what it is.”

BW: Go stand on a particular corner and be like, “Yeah, you know, we out here.”

E: “Yall know what it is. You already. You already.”

BW: It’s very specific, so it’s interesting to watch it and see this reflected back at you, when these dudes all assemble, put guns in the camera, wile out, Boko Haram shit.

Let me get back to the immediate reality again, not that this isn’t real, but the EP title furtive movements previously appeared in [Elucid’s] verse in “Freedman’s Bureau” on History Will Absolve Me and it’s a phrase in the chorus as well. And as I’ve written before, “furtive movements” is the popular justification that police officers use for a stop and frisk.

E: The nonsensical justification.

BW: I knew this, but he was the one who used it in “Freedman’s Bureau,” and then it always stuck in my head as a great line.

E: He was the one that said, “We should name the record that.”

Off of that line?

BW: Well, I knew what it was before, but to hear it in a rhyme is just one of those things where you think, “Why didn’t I do that? That’s really dope,” and so when it came time to do this record, for whatever reason, that was just stuck in my head.

What’s kind of bizarre… I guess not bizarre but… fucked is—

BW: I can’t believe Ka just walked in here. And [Elucid] you were so cool, you were so relaxed with it, I was like, “Did you tell dude to come through?” because I honestly thought that’s what it was, because you were just like, “Oh, hey, there’s Ka.”

E: Nah, man.

BW: You’re an unflappable sort in general.

The lyrics I was referring to: “Death squads answer to who/ Furtive movements make you nervous, man they grabbing they tool/ Bet that’s murder bloody murder, which weasel you fitting to hide behind/ Stay the point and pervert the story, it’s all design/ Vulture time crooked dicks and deep pockets/ Lifetime desk job offers with full coverage/ One hand wash the other, loyalty is given/ Who you calling a victim?” When I hear that right now, the most immediate thing that I would think of is the Garner case.

E: Right, right, right.

BW: I haven’t listened to that song in a little while.

So does a song take on new meaning in that sense?

E: Maybe just a refreshing of the old meaning, you know what I mean? How much has really changed? We’ll speak on that same exact topic and it renews again and again and again. Even the cover of furtive movements, it wasn’t a police officer, it was the Jordan Davis murder scene, [but] it’s just rehashing an old point that always seems to be current.

[Indeed, it does. Three days after this interview, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri.]

BW: I think all good titles have multiple meanings, and so I also like the fact that the album in itself is a kind of furtive movement, because it was never explicitly planned. People were expecting it because it took so long to go from having finished it to getting it onto the label’s calendar and pressed as vinyl, but we actually had it done in the spring. It was ready to come out then and we just had a hold on it, and then the label wanted to do vinyl, etc.

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.

You could call the fan base a furtive movement too, the way it sprang up.

BW: Yeah, I didn’t even think of that but sure.

E: It popped out of nowhere for some people.

BW: Nobody has really asked me about the cover-title connection until now.

There are numerous other examples of reoccurring phrases in Armand Hammer’s combined catalog: “Then He Rose,” “Renaissance Garments,” “Crocodile Tears” and “triple-low remedial” all come to mind. My colleague C Monster might call this “world building.” Another term for it would be “Easter eggs.” Either way, it’s an interactive form of songwriting, as it specifically rewards longtime fans and those who listen closely. What are some of your favorite Easter eggs of your own and by other artists?

BW: Great question… On [furtive movements], I am fond of “It aint over till he mollywhopped,” which is a double entendre of sorts in reference to the Cult Favorite song that ends their album, For Madmen Only. Elucid also used to perform it as a set-closer here and there, something I strongly approve of as a fan of Cult Favorite.

I just like multiple meanings to things, but it has to mean something on the first level and actually work in context, in my opinion. I don’t really sit down to do that stuff. It comes naturally when working on a song, and then I might be like, “Oh cool, this could work on multiple levels.” Like the “100 feet of cold dirt” reference on the song “Black Ark.” Sometimes it’s Willie Green who will notice during the mixing process, and occasionally one of them is one I didn’t even do on a conscious level or have forgotten about.

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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