Armand Hammer is a hippo: graceful but with the ability to kill. Armand Hammer is also a rap duo made up of Backwoodz Studioz label head billy woods and Elucid, two cerebral underground New York bulwark rappers that have consistently released top-tier rap records that thrive beneath the dirt and grime of hip-hop, politics, esoteric fear, and the weight of the enigmatic “us.” Armand Hammer are the rappers people refer to when calling another artist a rapper’s rapper.
Yet, for all of their density and praise, the duo still banter and smirk, still discuss literature and push each other to think critically in all matters of playful thought. They are a match on wax and in the cosmic sense, releasing music that jars you to attention since 2013’s Half Measures. In the five years since their first collaborative release, woods and Elucid have gone on to release a grip of material that defines the other side of that New New York everyone is fiending to curate. Their latest album, Paraffin, is the ultimate grimy and sewer-like synthesis of their strengths.
“I think the name very much speaks to the function of how it was made, and I think of it as a slow-burning, oily, not-safe compound,” woods tells me over the phone. “This is a dark accelerant.” While Armand Hammer records do not necessarily dwell on aesthetics, the duo still find a sense of wholeness and human balance within the chaos and rancor of it all. Namely, billy woods is sly and hilarious on the mic.
“For as heavy as people say, or maybe it is, for as heavy as it is, the humor is a really good counterbalance to that,” Elucid points out. “That just kinda comes naturally. woods literally makes me crack up in person. It’s a natural shift from real life into the records.”
“I think it’s always surprising to people because things are dark, but everything, a lot of times, is pretty funny,” woods seconds.
Along with his subtle hilarity, woods also rightfully regards himself as an emotional writer, and that viscera extends to his delivery. Across Paraffin, he treats us to raps from his gut and bars that are as of-the-earth as a stew of boiled bones. There is a dark and haptic tone to his presence that Elucid cuts through in his own surgical approach to all forms of social commentary. As with all kinetic and kindred duos, billy woods and Elucid feed off of each other as much as they fend off the other's weaknesses.
Paraffin is Armand Hammer’s most limber record to date, but in speaking with both artists, we quickly realize they are far from their peak. The record is, as woods calls it, a slow burn, and their career, too, is proving to be incendiary.
DJBooth’s full interview with Armand Hammer, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: From Half Measures to Paraffin, what’s the biggest change you’ve seen in each other in terms of writing style?
woods: I would say… That’s a long time!
Elucid: In rap years that’s a long time, but it’s only been about five years.
woods: From my standpoint, I would say the way that Elucid writes now is sharper, and more… Still very concerned with headspaces and energy and ideas, but very grounded in the physical reality of various things.
Elucid: I feel like woods has always been a funny writer, but I feel like he’s gotten funnier. Just being more familiar and just being there while he’s recording, I definitely see that. You been on fire, really, man!
Humor is such an understated aspect of Armand Hammer.
Elucid: I like that angle. For as heavy as people say, or maybe it is, for as heavy as it is, the humor is a really good counterbalance to that. That just kinda comes naturally. woods literally makes me crack up in person. It’s a natural shift from real life into the records.
woods: I also just think that a lot of terrible things, in general, are funny. In general, we like to laugh. I think it’s always surprising to people because things are dark, but everything, a lot of times, is pretty funny.
Talk to me about the decision to release on vinyl first, then go to digital.
woods: That was more me in the sense of, Elucid is always experimenting on his own. He’s done BandCamp releases, he’s done tapes, he’s done other stuff with milo. We’ve been experimenting with different mediums of releasing stuff, and the idea initially started as I wanted to do the record as a white label. I thought, let’s experiment with vinyl-only. Initially, maybe not even make it digital at all, and make people engage with the music in a different way. And also seeing what the economics are, because running a label, our margins are very tight and you’re always thinking of ways that you can do better by the artist as well as do better by the consumers.
I wanted to make sure that if you got the vinyl, that you would get to chill with it and enjoy an exclusivity or that listening experience. It’s a different record on vinyl, and shorter, and physically listening to it that way is different. I wanted people to have time to approach it that way. How was it different? If you bought the vinyl, how did you engage with it and how did that change upon having it digitally where you can engage with it in more venues and at your leisure?
As opposed to people that had to come home and say, “Today, I’m going to listen to Armand Hammer. I’m gonna sit in this spot, and turn the record in 29 minutes.” I was interested in all of that: the idea of making things in an era where everything is so accessible, where everything being so accessible isn’t necessarily or fundamentally better.
Elucid: It was woods’ idea, but when he said it, I was totally down with it. I like the idea of exclusivity. I like the idea of feeding our real fans first. Let’s do that, and they can live with this and they can live with this as an Armand Hammer hive of sorts, and when everyone else gets it, they get it. But it’s special for the true fan, I think.
woods: You also see a lot of artists right now experimenting with different ways of getting things out there. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong way… In a lot of ways, I didn’t even want it to be streaming, but you have to acknowledge the realities of the real world.
Elucid: Real silly.
woods: It is something that I… I kinda wanna do something at some point in my life where you can’t stream it, and that’s okay… If it was up to Elucid, all of his records would not even be divided by tracks [laughs].
Elucid: I’m really into that format. Like, don’t skip it. I think it’s a reflection of how we came up even before CDs. You can always fast forward [tapes], but just sit back and rock with it.
So much of the music and approach here is a buck to consumerism and the serialization of art.
woods: As a creative, it’s been interesting to put this record out, because it was also an unorthodox product from its creation and inception, and it’s been interesting to put it out in an unorthodox way and then see the reaction. In that way, I think it’s been successful for us on a lot of levels—not that we’re gonna do every record vinyl-first from now on. You always have to do different things, because it keeps interest as an artist and when running a label, you gotta be trying to think of new ideas and methods of getting your product out there. It’s a very challenging environment business-wise.
That makes me think of how the Armand Hammer wisdom is Socratic: you are as wise as you are aware of your ignorance. Is that present on your minds when you’re writing?
woods: Those things build very organically in Armand Hammer records in a way that’s difficult for me to explain. I’m definitely a wordy person, but I will say I have almost never discussed a theme of an Armand Hammer record with someone until it was almost done and we were starting to figure out what’s staying and what’s going. Like, “No Days Off” is bizarrely everyone’s favorite song off Paraffin, and that’s one of the first songs we recorded in the sessions of what would become Rome [released in 2017].
I’m really taken by the name of the album and a track on woods’ last album called “Keloid,” as they both have to do with burning. What’s the draw to that imagery?
woods: For me, I always liked the term paraffin. In Zimbabwe, it’s a common term used for kerosene. In Jamaica, it’s in skin care products. I’ve always liked the word and when we were doing this album, I thought of Rome as the product and this as something that you’re making out of a byproduct. You draw the prime oil, and then you got all this crude gasoline. A cheap cooking oil, or whatever. That’s how I thought about it. I also thought, once we were working on it, there was a slow-burn process to it.
The cover of Rome is burning.
woods: I think the name very much speaks to the function of how it was made, and I think of it as a slow-burning, oily, not-safe compound. Rome is clean, linear, tight, anxious… This is a dark accelerant.
Does the consistent lambasting of the free press scare you, or scare you into action?
woods: That person is crazy, so their existence is scary. It’s funny, because as long as America has been around, there have been a lot of terrible men in control of this country, but I don’t think Americans have really experienced having a lunatic [laughs], which is always scary. When someone starts talking about magical belief systems? Oh man. Everything this person does is very frightening to me. The free press is the least of my worries.
Elucid: It probably reflects a greater trend of anti-intellectuals in this country, straight out denying proven facts. I think of anti-vaxxers in this country. This past summer, I had four people who knew me personally ask me if I was going to vaccinate my son and they were on the fence. So it’s like denialism and anti-intellectualism, and attacks on the free press… Everyone is in this stage where they’re questioning everything they were taught to be true. I feel like that’s a good thing, but then somewhere along the lines, it can get really perverse.
woods: A loss of critical thinking ability! You can ask a question and then investigate. It doesn’t have to be a mystery that no one can answer! People think they’re being smart just because they’re like, “I questioned this big truth!” Then they just stop there. It’s just annoying to me when that passes as radical thought.
Elucid: I’m a free thinker, bro!
Really, what I am asking is where do you get your urgency to write such a haptic record?
woods: I don’t know what I would do without some form of artistic expression. I would probably fall down and die. Usually, the urgency comes to me, man. I am scared of the day when life is so boring that I don’t know what I’m gonna write about, but when those times come they fortunately or unfortunately will not last long.
Does Armand Hammer speak the truth?
Elucid: When Armand Hammer makes records, or when I make records, I don’t think that I have the truth. It’s true to me, and maybe other people can jive with that, but it’s more like a personal statement when I make music.
woods: I would second what he’s saying, but I would say that every time that I’m really proud of myself in rapping is when I said something that I think is essentially true. Like the last verse on “Root Farm,” Elucid sent that to me fully cooked, done. My creative involvement in that song is eight bars, but honestly, I did [those bars] because I didn’t like that he attributed that lone wolf quote to me. Then I was doing it, and I thought about there was something essentially true to me about the way that I ended that verse. Hopefully, somebody would feel and understand it sometime. In terms of things that are true like that, I would hope to get a couple of those out a record.
How would you define the ethos of Armand Hammer?
Elucid: For me, it’s really the same. As far as where I come from, I think the only difference is that when making Armand Hammer music, I just have to leave space for woods’ contribution. So you said “Root Farm,” for example, I knew woods would get on this song so when I wrote that line [“Billy Woods wrote that line first though”], it’s like: this is where you come in. Otherwise, a solo record and an Armand Hammer record, I approach it the same way. What spills out is what spills out.
woods: I’ll take his example. He did that song and sent it to me like, "This is where you’re gonna come in." I hear that song, and obviously, the emotions and ideas in this are great, but my brain told me first that this song was done. That little piece just bothered me at the end, where he had thought of it as an introduction to me. So, I did my little piece and far less than what I think he expected me to do, but it ended up being perfect. I think that’s a statement about why it works.
I work from a very emotional place and a very visceral place, but I am always very intellectual in how I decide to go about it, so working with somebody like Elucid, where he’s just a fount of expression that is constantly gushing out. He can just direct it somewhere if it flows, and I can do my thinking on my feet, and it all just works out. It’s a meeting in the middle of two things that I think are really dope, that is different. I think you could be a fan of billy woods or Elucid, and still listen to Armand Hammer, and it’s a totally different animal.
What animal would Armand Hammer be?
Elucid: [Laughs], I feel like we’d be a land animal.
woods: I’m tempted to say we’d be a chimera.
woods: I’d probably go for something like an octopus. Octopus are smart.
Elucid: I think a rhino, but I like the octopus idea.
woods: Maybe I’d go for a hippo. It’s graceful in the water, but on the ground they’re fast. They can kill a lot of people.
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