In Conversation: Armand Hammer Discuss the Magic Behind “Haram”
billy woods and ELUCID tell us how their recent record with The Alchemist came together, and share a few of their favorite Alc records.
To try and quantify what ELUCID and billy woods have done both individually and together as Armand Hammer in the past five to 10 years is like trying to measure a yard with a foot-long ruler—you’re gonna come up short. Without coming across as hyperbolic, it’s fair to say that these two have changed the rules of underground rap thanks to their work together and through woods’ micro-label turned indie figurehead Backwoodz Studioz.
It’s not as if Armand Hammer are blurring the lines between the underground and the mainstream, because let’s get one thing clear: there’s quite simply nothing mainstream about the way ELUCID and woods rap. They make psychedelic, unflinching music that is both deeply informed by the history of the culture and staunchly bent on re-writing every rule in the book. The duo have created a new ecosystem in which the avant-garde not only survives, it thrives.
When they announced their album-length collaboration with The Alchemist, Haram, the Backwoodz website crashed due to demand. Alchemist, coming off a Grammy nomination thanks to his work with Freddie Gibbs on Alfredo, was attracted to the duo’s sound and made it a mission to meld his own with their vision, not the other way around. “I was maybe even limiting myself, trying to get beats like Westside Gunn or whoever,” explains ELUCID. “He was like, ‘No, we’re going to do it our own way.’”
We tracked down the electric duo to discuss over Zoom how, exactly, Haram came into existence, the world of underground rap, and making rap music propelled by magic.
I don’t want to say The Alchemist’s on a different level than you two, but maybe more popular is the right way of putting it. Did you guys feel like this may have validated something you’ve been doing, to get someone like Alc into Armand Hammer?
woods: Well, let’s be realistic. The guy actually has two Grammys, so you could say “a different level.” At least certainly in terms of visibility and commercial viability, that’s just facts. He has Anderson .Paak and Cardi records. Anybody’s appreciation is always welcomed and appreciated when you’re doing stuff without a lot of people. We’ve played rooms with five people. If five people came, I appreciated that. But to have somebody you really respect and who you’ve grown up looking at their work and being like, “Wow, that’s really cool,” it’s an honor. Every time things like that happen it feels great, of course.
Did you guys record the entire thing in LA in person?
ELUCID: No, I wish we could have. Coronavirus happened. That sort of interrupted things, but no, I think woods was out there for a little while.
woods: Yeah. I went out there not to record, but as part of just vibing and hanging out. I went over to his studio a couple of times. I was in LA to do a show with Kenny Segal, and Kenny and I went over there and hung out with him and Earl [Sweatshirt] and whoever else came through the spot.
We had a whole plan of how we were going to do it. But coronavirus started. We actually started recording at Willie Green’s, the Green House, which is pretty much a hub for a lot of what we do. We started recording there, had a big session, and then coronavirus hit. ELUCID was also finishing his record.
“There definitely have been songs we talked about and worked together that had magic. And then there were songs we didn’t discuss at all beyond a title or something that came out that way.” — billy woods
So it was kind of a hiatus of him finishing his record out and Al doing stuff he was doing. Then we started working on Shrines, and by the time Shrines was wrapping up and we were coming back to work on Haram, coronavirus hit. For the vast majority of it, not only did we record separately from The Alchemist, but we recorded separately from each other. We were in touch on the phone but we only had one studio session together because Green was only taking one person at a time. So I started not even going to that studio.
ELUCID, what was the biggest discernible difference of not being able to be in the studio with woods?
ELUCID: Well, it’s not an unfamiliar thing. We’ve often recorded without each other, but having him in that room, there’s something different. It’s the push and the pull in the live setting, like in real time.
woods: For Shrines, we had a good amount of sessions together in the studio, whereas for a record like Paraffin, a lot of that was done separately or had been done a while before. I don’t even know how it was done. But with Shrines, we actually were in the studio. A good amount of things we did at Green’s studio together.
ELUCID: Yeah, there are so many different other voices that would just do their thing.
woods, I remember when we were talking for Shrines, you mentioned magic. You can’t quite describe what it is about you and ELUCID, but there’s something very powerful about your connection. How did you maintain that when you didn’t have that in-person relationship like you did have on Shrines?
woods: I can’t really tell you why, the songs just work out that way. There definitely have been songs we talked about and worked together that had magic. And then there were songs we didn’t discuss at all beyond a title or something that came out that way. So it really runs the gamut. Sometimes you haven’t even heard each other’s verses or really discussed it at all and it works out. So yeah, it had no effect on that portion whatsoever. It must depend on something, but clearly it’s not being in the same room.
And so E, you were in the middle of three projects at the same time then?
ELUCID: It kind of works out that way.
I think the themes of this record are so much different than Shrines. How do you manage to keep these three different balls in the air at the same time?
ELUCID: It was like I had to work in shifts. Like sometimes working in a shift I miss out on being a part of a cool record because I was searching for something else at the time. For example on this record, “Chicharrones” with Quelle Chris is an amazing record that I wish I was in the zone to actually create with him and do it. But I was in the Small Bills zone. I’m thinking, “Oh, I want something more dynamic musically.”
I wanted to find my own melody with my voice in this beat. I was looking for more color. But when I heard that finished version of “Chicharonnes,” I was like, ‘“Fuck. Idiot,” you know. I think it’s just about managing different vibes in shifts. I feel like in that time period of “Chicharonnes,” from May to July, it was all Small Bills because I was going to go out to Detroit at the end of July. I just wanted to wrap everything and have it finished.
woods, were you mostly picking the beats when you were out in Alc’s studio, or did he send you guys a bunch of different options?
Woods: He did play me some beats in the studio, but sent almost none of them. You know how producers do. And you’re like, “Are you taking any notes or whatever?” And they’re like, “Oh, I put it in a folder.” Always a lie [laughs]. So I don’t know, I heard a bunch of beats there. He might’ve sent some of them, but most of the stuff was sent and then picked and it was over a period of time.
ELUCID: We started recording this record in 2019. That’s how long I’ve held this secret about working with Al [laughs].
The Backwoodz website literally crashed when y’all announced this record.
woods: I mean, it also had happened with Shrines, and so we thought we had taken steps. But there was sort of a clerical error made between me and some other people involved where, I mean…does anyone care how the sausage got made?
“The Alchemist told me that he wanted to move into our world. There were elements in our music that he had heard that he really dug. I wanted some classic Alchemist beats at first, and he was like, ‘Naw, I want to come and see y’all world. And I want to make something new. I want to make something fresh.’” — ELUCID
No, it’s all good.
woods: Alchemist sent the tweet out before we had sent the blast, and the incoming traffic hit the outgoing traffic. We fucked up, not Alchemist. We should’ve told him like, “Wait until you see it send,” but he’s on his game. Like he’s awake at whatever time. So when we were like, “Send it at 9:00 a.m.,” he sent his tweet at 9:00 a.m. and we were late and the result was a massive traffic jam that overwhelmed the site.
Do each of you have a favorite Alchemist project? Is that too hard to answer?
woods: His instrumental records are good, but I’m always probably going to go toward something with lyrics on it. If we’re not counting the EPs, then I might have to go with the Freddie Gibbs record to be honest. That or the Boldy James. The one with Prodigy, Albert Einstein, and Return of the Mac. Those were really good records.
ELUCID: He did “Keep It Thoro,” didn’t he? I feel like that was what really put Alchemist on my radar. That song cracked the shell right there. And then I feel like a couple of years later, there’s some bangin’ beats on 1st Infantry, their soul album.
[Woods brings weed on top of a CD case in view of the camera]
Woods: You see that? I roll my weed on top of a Durag Dynasty CD I liberated from the Nature Sounds offices 10 years ago. I would say one of my favorite beats of his is probably…it’s crazy because he has so many, but I definitely do think “Floor Seats” with Mach-Hommy is up there.
ELUCID: He changes counts so many times, man, which is a testament to his wizardry. He just mutates. Even the stuff he did with Curren$y. That shit was raw.
One of my favorite parts about Haram is that he lets you guys dance. It’s Alc doing Armand Hammer. It’s not an Alc project on its own.
Woods: If he was on here, he would like to hear you say that.
Do you think he was trying to move toward your guys’ sound? Was that something you guys talked about?
ELUCID: Oh yeah, he told me that. He told me that he wanted to move into our world. There were elements in our music that he had heard that he really dug. I wanted some classic Alchemist beats at first, and he was like, “Naw, I want to come and see y’all world. And I want to make something new. I want to make something fresh.” He sent a lot of beats, man. A lot of Alchemist beats back and forth. He was very much open to me adding on or [Willie] Green adding on with the production regarding the transitions and the way things sound. We were able to mess with the way things feel, texture-wise. He was really digging Armand Hammer, our production style. He had been into it for a while. That was an honor, when he told me that. To think we’ve made shit that Alchemist admires… FL