AN INTERVIEW WITH ARMAND HAMMER
This is an edited transcript of an interview with rap duo Armand Hammer, who Teresa, Sam, and I hosted on Two Virgins. The full podcast episode can be found on Spotify here.
Armand Hammer is comprised of underground rappers billy woods and E L U C I D. Armand Hammer's recent album, Shrines, was released in June and was met with widespread acclaim for its fresh sound and lyrics. Shrines is the first album from Armand Hammer since their 2018 release, Paraffin. Armand Hammer talk to Sam, Teresa, and Malachi about choosing an album cover, the process of making Shrines, and collaborating with different artists.
Sam: Y’all have been working together for a long time now. You’ve released four albums together, and each of the albums is very different and does its own thing. But I was just wondering—
billy woods: Four albums? Hold on, hold on. Is it four albums?
Sam: The four full-lengths and then there’s the EP, right?
E L U C I D: Yup.
billy woods: Oh yeah! It is four, it is four! Carry on, sir.
Sam: I was wondering how has your working relationship with each other changed? Do you know each other better now or is it pretty much the same as it was in the beginning?
billy woods: It’s definitely not the same. We didn’t know each other until we started working together.
E L U C I D: Right.
billy woods: And from that, we’ve become very good friends. At least speaking from my perspective, it’s very different.
E L U C I D: Yeah, I agree.
billy woods: But then at the same time a lot of things are the same but it’s different in the familiarity. I don’t know, it’ll be like if you asked Joe Montana and Jerry Rice if it’s the same playing together after ten years. It’d be different even though they probably had some type of vibe in the beginning. I definitely now operate with complete trust and a sense of, we can talk about something and I feel like we’re on the same page.
E L U C I D: True. I agree. I work off instinct and trust. That only strengthens as you keep working together at something with someone. So this being our fourth full length, I kinda know what to expect from woods. Not to put him in a box, but I kinda know which way he’s gonna go. And then he often surprises me because there’s the other side of that where we’re challenging ourselves each time we do this thing. It’s like sparring with someone for years and years and years: ‘I know you gonna lead with this left, but you still might pop me with the right.’ And that’s what happened.
Teresa: So going back to talking about Shrines, I’ve always appreciated the way that you guys tie really cool album covers into the themes of your albums. I think it’s really powerful that you’ve chosen the photo of the NYPD outside of the Yate’s apartment for Shrines. At what point during the creative process did you know that you wanted to use this photo and story for the album cover? And were there any other concepts or covers that you were thinking of using?
E L U C I D: That was the one!
billy woods: Yeah, that was the idea and there was an extended period of different problems where it seemed like that [cover] might not work out. Every time I had to try to think of another cover it made me really upset so we worked the problem out. That was the one. Once I had the idea, it was very difficult to move to another idea.
Teresa: Would you say that the cover inspired the theme of your album or vice versa?
E L U C I D: We made the decision to go with that image for the cover while we were still recording. We were midway through?
billy woods: More than midway, three quarters probably.
E L U C I D: We were almost done with the record but when the idea came—for me it struck so many chords that resonated with the themes that we were already established on the album. It just made the most sense to me. It was an immediate yes as soon as he proposed the idea to me. Immediate yes.
Teresa: That’s awesome. How much do you prioritize an album cover going into your complete concept of an album? I feel like you guys have a lot of different elements going into your songs, so what part of the artistic process do you see an album cover fitting into that?
billy woods: This is a more fortuitously timed question then you probably even realize… I think every project has its own sort of way that it unravels. For example, the Paraffin cover had just been something I remember discussing, ‘Oh, it’d be cool at some point if we did some sort of family portrait.’ I remember that being discussed earlier. I don’t even remember if it was for [Paraffin] or a different record. We were getting to a certain point and were like ‘let’s do this photoshoot,’ take these with photographer Alexander Richter. I had my ideas to go take pictures in the neighborhood. E L U C I D had ideas and we went out and did it. At that point in the album, conceptually, everything was set. We were putting the finishing touches on it. Race Music also had an idea but it was more so that we went and did a photoshoot then saw what worked. Then you have something like Rome where we commissioned a painting that took a long time, so that wasn’t spur of the moment. Shrines’s [cover] was literally just an idea that I had. I always remember seeing that photo from living in New York at the time.
To answer your question, the record plays a role in how the album art is or the album art sometimes might feed back into what the record is but there’s no set way that it happens.
*Speaking on Paraffin’s cover and alternative covers*
billy woods: As soon as we saw, that was just the obvious cover. Maybe still the best cover. I’m still proud of the Shrines artwork. It is really dope, but that one is definitely—I told you this E L U C I D, I got the vinyl and I got on the bus going somewhere and there was this dude sitting on the bus and then he’s just staring at me and I’m like ‘alright.’ And then he’s just like, “Yo! What is that record? What is this?” [He] starts talking to me and was going off about the record and the meaning of this stuff. An old black man and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s really wild.’ I feel like I called you. I was on my way from the bar.
E L U C I D: Yup, I remember that.
billy woods: This dude was near tears over the album cover.
E L U C I D: A total complete stranger on the bus. Equally as lit, probably.
billy woods: I’m sure there are a lot of other photos from that would be interesting to see now that you mentioned it. But [Paraffin] may be the best one. I really like the Shrines cover a lot, and Rome is obviously great but that photograph definitely has a lot of power.
Malachi: One of my favorite songs off of Shrines is “Charms” and the ending was an Audre Lorde quote about leaving something bigger than yourself and survival. It resonated with me and I’m curious who are your respective influences, not just musical but thinkers.
E L U C I D: This quarantine I’ve been reading a lot of Etheridge Knight, Ted Jones, Alice Walker. woods, I still have Marlon James but this quarantine is when I actually started to pick it up to read.
billy woods: Which one?
E L U C I D: A Brief History of Seven Killings. I know he’s got a new one out. The sci-fi joint.
billy woods: No, The Book of Night Women is the best one. A Brief History of Seven Killings is the biggest and more epic.
E L U C I D: Yeah?
billy woods: My mother and I both agree The Book of Night Women is better.
E L U C I D: Yeah but that’s what I’ve been checking more recently.
billy woods: It’s interesting, I encountered Audre Lorde’s work when I was in college and through my mother, but I hadn’t read it for a while. Then E L U C I D had sampled, interpolated, and personally discussed her work with me. In previous years when I was thinking, ‘I want to find something,’ she was one of those people I knew I could find something from. Ater him bringing it back up, I reread Sister Outsider. It was fresh in my mind because he reminded me of her work. So I’ve been rereading some things and I hunted down that interview and there’s just something about that really resonated with me. Her work is really important and interesting.
E L U C I D: It’s such a strong point but also on a purely aesthetic level, she had the best speaking voice. I feel these older elders, pre-internet, we’ll catch their voice on a YouTube. You can get a bit more than just reading dry text. To hear their voice recite their work is really powerful.
billy woods: I also recently was rereading bell hooks’ [All About Love: New Visions?] That is a great great great book! That is the book—
E L U C I D: Is that the one she’s talking about parents? And how parents can be tyrants to their children?
billy woods: All about how we approach love. A really good book that’s also just useful in your life.
E L U C I D: Yes, that’s excellent.
Sam: I feel like I got a lot of reading suggestions to go through! Something that really grabbed me on Shrines was how y’all we’re talking even more about the concept of time than normal like on songs like “Frida” but especially on “Flavor Flav,” one of my favorite songs on the project. And how y’all were jumping back and forth between protest movements, so how has this modern protest movement that’s been going on the past three or four months affected you guys? And what are your thoughts especially because on this album you express so many thoughts about protests in the past?
E L U C I D: Obviously, it’s really powerful to see and these protests are for civilians and citizens to draw power from. We’re in a time where it seems like the people want some sort of sweeping change and want the 21st century to resemble the 21st century and not the 17th, 18th, 19th...We want it to be a new day. Personally, I was not at any of the protests but I think in this time there’s new ways for people to actually show support and show up for people financially and also seeing resources being spread out, more than money [but] people giving up time. I saw something really cool going on in many cities like free food refrigerators. Just drop off food at a post and their refrigerator stays stocked for whoever wants to come and pick it up. People trying to build a sense of community, for as complicated as that actually is, that idea being closer to grasp for people has been really cool to see.
billy woods: I thought it was one of the biggest things in this country in my lifetime as far as mass movements. It was very interesting and powerful. I always have my innate nature to always wonder where and how things spread and dissipate or gather force and the reactions that gather against them and it’s interesting to me. In some ways, it feels like the 1970s again in that weird way where it seems you have all of these movements you have at the same time this growing thunder cloud of status quo, law and order, although it’s interesting because that’s happening without the actual violence of the 70s. Crimes rates have jumped a little bit but nothing’s really happened. And we’re at a time when information is disseminated so differently. What I’m saying is that anytime there’s moments of seismic change, part of me wonders if instead it’ll go all the other ways things usually go, or a backlash that unravels it. I’m curious to see. Obviously we’re coming up on what’s going to be one of the most interesting elections in American history.
E L U C I D: Ever!
billy woods: I like to avoid saying this is the end of everything people watched Nixon get on a helicopter on tv and fly away. I mean I couldn’t imagine what would happen if the president just said ‘I’m outta here” and got on a helicopter and flew away. A lot of things have happened. I’m waiting to see what happens...what a year.
Malachi: With each album you’ve seen this rising fanfare and the response to Shrines seemed immediately positive and probably stronger since. What’s it like to see that reaction?
billy woods: Oh no, you also see people saying Paraffin is—
E L U C I D: Better? *Laughs*
billy woods: That [Shrines] is the third best. People say crazy stuff man. But I also understand that once you make the art and you put it out into the world, it doesn’t belong only to you anymore. So people can have their opinions. I might have a personal perspective where I disagree with you but once it’s in the public that it also belongs to the public to some extent.
E L U C I D: But it does feel great. It does feel great to sell out a project in this climate. In this time period when people are just hungry and thirsty for shit that affirms them, they’ve been drawn to us for whatever reason. That’s incredible.
Teresa: I saw you that you guys tweeted recently that you didn’t like your lyrics to be printed!
E L U C I D: That’s more me than woods, woods loves lyrics books and things. But that was more me and I think my ideas are evolving because I don’t like being misquoted so I think the only way to correct that is to have the official lyrics being printed, you know?
Teresa: That’s true. So you don’t think you’ll ever print them?
E L U C I D: For me, I think so. The next time there’s like a lyrical, I think will be for this next record. Yeah, the lyrics will be printed so I’m not misquoted and then people have to rely on Genius, not-so-genius.
Teresa: Hate to see it.
E L U C I D: Yeah it’s just a thing. I think it’s just how I was raised on rap and, of course, that doesn’t apply to younger listeners but the way I was raised on it, rap is made to be listened to, it’s not something to read. And the cool part about rap and just music in general sometimes is people have their own interpretations of music, and you build up a story in your head as you’re absorbing a work and that’s what it is! It’s cool and sometimes it’s cool to meet people, y’all have totally different interpretations of the same exact thing. I think that’s really cool but you know it doesn’t really apply anymore when things are spelled out on sites like Genius or whatever. So yeah to not be misquoted I would have the official lyrics.
Teresa: That’s a lot of pressure honestly, to feel like all the lyrics you’re writing will be in stone somewhere.
E L U C I D: Mmhm. Yeah, woods is all about it I think for Hiding Places had really beautiful lyrics. Also, seeing what it could look like for people purchasing the record, it’s gorgeous. I would love to have my lyrics printed that way.
Sam: You were in the middle of your “SEERSHIP!” answer and I was just wondering your thoughts on that creative process too.
E L U C I D: Oh yeah, “SEERSHIP!” and then the record before that “Every Egg I Cracked Today Was Double Yolked.” I mean these were just sort of instrumental exercises that I would make in between records, on the road, during tour, late night in the studio, in the hotel room or whatever. Just sort of like, words fail and sometimes the emotion of instrumental music and those projects kind of gave me that outlet to say what I wanted to say without saying anything. I love doing those songs. Playing those interludes live in between the lyric-based songs is just a really ill vibe, and to feel those heavy frequencies is a very ambient approach. It just works very nice with our type of style, with my type of style. Just super heavy lyrics, dense beats and that stuff is more stretched-out release sort of feel. There will definitely be more. There will definitely be more.
Malachi: That’s honestly great to hear. Going from there, I think one of the aspects of this newest project, as far as under the Armand Hammer label, is the amount of new contributions on this project. Seeing KeiyaA and Akai Solo as features, and I checked Navy Blue and Andrew Broder did some production so I was just curious what motivated that move towards greater collaboration as a duo?
E L U C I D: Those just the homies. They just kinda be around. It just made sense. woods, is it true I connected most of those people to the record?
billy woods: Yeah, a bunch of those people are people you’re connected to. It was kind of the vibe of the record. At a certain point, we were like “Oh we’re going to put more [people]”, you know? Paraffin was pretty much of a solo dolo thing. We had Skech185 pop in. It just felt like we were making the record and there seemed like there were different places different people would make sense and so we just did it. But again, there were some people—and even those people is kinda random—Quelle was just at my house and playing some stuff and he was like “Yo, I fuck with that” but a lot of those people E L U C I D knew or had worked with.
E L U C I D: The first time I heard “Charms”, once we had our verses laid, we were just like ‘We definitely need a hook.’ KeiyaA was actually the first person that came to mind. She’s incredibly gifted. And she’s got this incredibly ill jazz-inspired style that just works. I knew it would work immediately with that kind of beat and that kind of swing and the colors of the beat. I just knew she would be a perfect fit, and she just was. She’s incredible.
Malachi: No, one hundred percent. I couldn’t disagree with that. Also, it’s funny, I’m hearing that answer more and more especially in hip-hop, people are just like ‘We we’re just vibing and it came out that way.’ It’s not really a calculated effort it’s just really organic—
E L U C I D: It’s one of those things. I’ve met all of those people, most of those people, 90% of those people just seeing them live and becoming fans of them live before hearing recorded records. Because that’s the real test: what are you doing in front of people?, to me, And when I saw KeiyaA live it was just crazy. And we sat down. Went through different plays, [?] some things, and on Shit Don't Rhyme No More—the vinyl—the first thing we ever did together made it on that record. SO yeah it’s just being in communication. Knowing peoples’ capabilities and talents and knowing where they could fit and knowing they’d be available and willing. It’s just the illest. I don’t like to calculate too much. Just going off the vibe and knowing what people could do. And having people who are just willing to be used that way. So important.
Sam: I know that some artists are more reluctant to revisit some of their older recordings, but I see you guys are very open to talk about your older music. I was wondering, does your older music still influence the music you make today? Do you go back to that music a lot and borrow ideas from that?
billy woods: I really have to say that I’m unlike some people and that I will listen to some of my older music depending on the situation but no. Anything that’s influencing me already happened on the page, or in the booth. Just the way I approach things. I can’t remember ever—If I went back and listened to something and I caught something in it, more often it would be that I did something that I don't do anymore or I don't even know what made me do that. Sometimes in a good way and sometimes I hear something and I’m like, “I would never do that now.’ I would say anything that I learned from working on my older music I learned while I was doing it and absorbed it then.
E L U C I D: Word.
billy woods: It’s different. It’s like looking into your own mind at a different point in time. Anything I learned from my old music was learned in the process of making it. When I go back and listen to sometimes it’s enlightening in terms of times I’ve forgotten about in my life or approaches to music that I don’t have anymore.
Teresa: Gotcha. Is there anything you guys are working on that we should be looking forward to, or if not soon, what has it been recording and making music and getting inspiration during this weird time?
billy woods: You gotta whole album coming out man.
E L U C I D: Oh yeah, I do. I do. I do. Thinking about inspiration during this time as this whole thing jumped off I wasn’t really sure what I had to say, how I’m going to say it, but I've pretty much been staying really productive. I do have another record coming out, solo record coming out with this producer from Detroit, we’re calling ourselves “Small BIlls.” that'll be out maybe October, November. May I mention a new Armand Hammer record…?
billy woods: Ahhh. I mean...I don’t know.
E L U C I D: To be determined!
billy woods: This is a new—we’re working on it—Armand Hammer album.
Sam: Wow, already.
billy woods: Kinda seems they happen in pairs.
Sam: Yeah, that makes sense.
billy woods: It’s hard to say because there’s only so many.
E L U C I D: That’s true though. Think about Rome and Paraffin.
billy woods: And Race Music and Furtive Movements, in a way.
E L U C I D: In a way, for sure.
billy woods: They even share two songs.
E L U C I D: Yeah they definitely come in pairs.
billy woods: And now these two.
Sam: We’re looking forward to it!