“Fire Represents Power”: Armand Hammer Are the Foundational Myth

We speak with New York duo Armand Hammer, comprised of billy woods and ELUCID, about their latest album, ‘Shrines.’
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Two years ago, I wrote the sentence of my career: “Armand Hammer is a hippo: graceful but with the ability to kill.” These fanciful words came from an interview with New York’s finest, billy woods and ELUCID, discussing their then-latest Armand Hammer record, Paraffin

“I think of it as a slow-burning, oily, not-safe compound,” woods said of Paraffin.

billly’s words could not be closer to the truth: Paraffin felt dangerous and unctuous. Its humor belied darkness and expected depth. The album—in a similar fashion to 2017’s burning Rome—was a searing display from two of the most consistently great rappers of the 2010s and beyond.

The decade has turned, we are in 2020 where uprisings and pandemics consume us whole. Systems are finally starting to come undone, and Armand Hammer meets these unfathomable times with their most lush record yet, Shrines

At 14 tracks and just under 45 minutes, Shrines feels closer to the intentionally spurious-springtime feel of woods’ 2017 effort with producer Blockhead, Known Unknowns.

With production from Earl Sweatshirt, Steel Tipped Dove, Kenny Segal, and many more heavy-hitters in the Armand Hammer tangential canon, Shrines feels like the most diverse and burgeoning record the pair have released—until next year, where they will undoubtedly outdo themselves once more.

“This release finds the duo treading fresh ground; swimming through rogue rhythms, rhymes skating over the abyss,” goes their press release, and not a detail is missed. 

Shrines finds woods and ELUCID staring into the abyss, of course, but the abyss is too taken to smile back. As the adage goes, neither woods nor ELUCID become the monsters they face across their joint and solo discographies—we have little to fear as they do battle with themselves, as on woods’ 2019 record Hiding Places or ELUCID’s chaotic production history, or 2016’s Save Yourself.

I could throw a hundred fresh superlatives at Shrines. It is the most this and the best that. Shrines is billy woods and ELUCID at the peak of their collective power. Deadly and graceful microphone killers. Their dedication to craft, and the ease with which they improve and grow, makes them one of the most important rap duos, period.

On a late night in June, I call up billy woods and ELUCID to discuss all things Shrines. That conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

DJBooth: Shrines might be better than Paraffin. It’s still new, but…

billy woods: It is better. You could just say it; it’s better. There’s definitely some great highs on Paraffin, but there are no lows on Shrines, and the highs are just as high.

ELUCID: And I feel like, when [Shrines] swings low, it stays up for a stretch of nine, 10 songs. It’s crazy.

When did you two realize you were making Shrines?

ELUCID: woods, we were in Scotland, right? With Kenny Segal, we got started with “Bitter Cassava,” the first joint. 

woods: It would be important to say, before we started on this album, we were working around the edges of a different project. We had [to] pause it, and the energy was still flowing, like, “We should do something.” People are always sending ELUCID beats, ‘cause he’s great. People were sending me beats because Hiding Places and Terror Management had made some noise. Beats are coming in, and we’re like, “We got these things!” but no outlet. That started to become more of a thing once we went to Europe. We’re hanging out, talking about music, wanting to do stuff. We should do something.

ELUCID: Gotta do something.

woods: [ELUCID] had a beat Earl [Sweatshirt] had given him. We were on tour, and Kenny was with us; we were in Edinburgh. That was a song that ended up being “Bitter Cassava.” We worked on it that night in Edinburgh and dropped demos. When we came back to New York, we recorded it. After we did one or two things, it became obvious we were going to do this project.

After the acclaim Paraffin and Rome received, was there any pressure to perform?

woods: For me, it always is. That’s just the way I am. I always feel like people are just waiting to be like, “Nah, you suck now.” Outside of that, it would be hard to say. It felt like we hadn’t done anything for a while. Even a lot of Paraffin had been recorded in 2017. It was kind of relieving—it always is relieving—to work on Armand Hammer stuff. Being in a different zone, the pressure is kind of cut in half.

ELUCID: No! I got a lot of other shit going on, so music is fun. While standing next to woods, out here, dueling with the pen… It’s an incredible experience. Especially when we get out on the road and do it in front of people, that shit is fun to me. Music is no pressure. I’m working on a record right now I was doing at the same time as Shrines. A lot of shit coming in 2020, 2021. Two other projects.

How have you been handling the lack of touring with COVID-19?

woods: We had tours set up this summer that are all canceled, which is a significant amount of money lost. I can’t talk about how I’m handling it, ‘til those bills roll in... It’s a bummer in the sense that it would be exciting to get out there. People are hype; I like these songs. Secondarily, I can honestly say, after spending four, five months cooped up in my apartment… The idea of traveling the country, doing what I feel like doing sounds pretty amazing. If you said, “You’re about to play 30 dates!” I’d be running to the airport! I’d be running, man.

ELUCID: I was reading [something], and it said the way the air is circulated in airplanes… If you’re gonna be in an enclosed space, it’s as good as it’s gonna get. That was encouraging. I’m trying to finish this [new] record and fly to Detroit come July. It’s been on the brain.

In the press release for Shrines, you have the line “Fire is stolen, not given.” Can you elaborate? I assume we’re talking about Prometheus.

woods: On one hand, there’s a lot of stuff on the record dealing with the natural world. Obviously, there’s Prometheus... A lot of times, when we talk about African civilizations, sometimes people in the West don’t realize all African people didn’t start in the land where they now are the dominant group. They moved.

I was just reading about another group that had lived in the area [my family is from] that is much smaller. It was interesting to see how the foundational myths of my people involved the idea that they came to that area and taught everybody how to use fire. It made me think about how people relate to those ideas and how technology and any type of advancements often have to be wrested from the hands of other people. Power is what it’s really about. Fire represents power. That’s part of creativity, too. You have to reach into the fire and take things out of there. You gotta take that risk. You gotta reach in there and potentially be burned to do something meaningful or powerful.

Shrines is your least insular album, featuring Earl Sweatshirt on the production and the raps, KeiyaA, FIELDED, Quelle Chris, and more. Why the decision to look so far outward?

ELUCID: The people I introduced to this record, it just worked stylistically. I didn’t make any beats on this record, but… I’m putting people in a place to make [Shrines] happen. That was another way me and woods got involved because he would bring people to the table as well.

woods: ELUCID tends to know more stuff that’s going on, and I tend to be more active in taking steps to get the people in. I met [Pink] Siifu before this project because he was on Terror Management, but it was ELUCID who introduced me to him. He brought [Siifu] to [Willie] Green’s studio. This kid is cool, smart, different. Same way with Akai Solo. Great kid, very original artist. Nosaj was out of left-field. Moor Mother was somebody I knew ELUCID knew; they’d been friends for a while. Great person, we did a show together. Earl had already provided a beat, so I was like, let me find something for him to do on here.

Some of those people brought other people to both of us. I first was introduced to Navy Blue through Earl. I knew his music because he’d done some beats for Mach-Hommy. Then you have FIELDED, who just works hard and is really talented. I guess we did something for a British radio station, and she heard it and contacted us. She has a crazy work ethic. KeiyaA I met doing a show.

There was a period where [Quelle] lived close to my neighborhood, and he would hit me up like, “I’m on your block, what are you doing?” Then he would come over—I’m a big fan of all of his work, he’s a great human being. Same thing with Curly Castro, we collaborated with him a lot. He’s a rapper. If you give him a beat, he’s gonna attack it. It was always a sense of where would people fit, and the last album only had one guest with Sketch185. It’s nice to do things differently.

This is also your most “lush” album to date. You’ve been praised for being disorienting and, at times, apocalyptic. So, why change up if you were getting so far with the other formula?

woods: I don’t know if it was a formula. [Rome and Paraffin] were created together. Race Music isn’t like either of them.

ELUCID: Race Music had verses from here and there and a lot of different producers, but we executed it better on this record.

woods: For sure. Part of it is that two of our “signature” records were two sides of a different moment. Rome is the fire; Paraffin is the ashes. It’s understandable why people would come away with that impression, but that was just one thought we had that happened to stretch out over the course of two albums recorded almost simultaneously. I don’t know if ELUCID has ever even made an apocalyptic sounding album on his own.

ELUCID: Nah…

woods: That was a good moment, but I never felt like this is the defining aspect of what we’re doing.

ELUCID: It just reflects current sensibilities. I didn’t produce a single record on here, but I feel like the way we put this thing together, there was some thought into it. Even the way we were receiving beats from people…

woods: Probably, the only beat I twisted—well, not twisted—your arm, but was like, “We should do it,” was “Flavor Flav.” Everybody loved that song! The funny thing is after we did it, Steel Tipped Dove changed the beat to the way you like it, anyway! There was a plucky guitar, and he switched it.

ELUCID: Let’s calm it down…

Well… Shrines is packed with critical details, from the skits to clever jabs in the bars. What was the one detail you each agonized over while making this album?

woods: Good question! Let him answer first. Not that ELUCID has ever agonized over a detail…

ELUCID: Right!

woods: The reality is, anything ELUCID was agonizing over didn’t make the album.

ELUCID: That’s not true! “Leopards,” I went over back and forth.

woods: I didn’t know that. You kept your agonizing to yourself there.

ELUCID: It was trepidation for a couple weeks. Should I, should I not?

woods: It’s tough. There’s some other songs we recorded that I liked that didn’t make the record. I wouldn’t say I agonized over them. You sit down and listen to things and [ask], “Is this honestly better than that?” And the end result on some of these joints was, “No.” I’m sure some of them will find homes in some way, shape, or form. “Parables” is the only song where I re-recorded my verse. I had a less serious verse, then I saw what everyone else did and [said], “I’m gonna do that again.” I’m happy I changed it.

The sequencing here is superb. It’s like dunking your head under a waterfall, how it flows seamlessly, and with urgency. How much time was spent getting the order of Shrines down?

ELUCID: woods, I feel like that was all you.

woods: A good amount of time. It’s always about trying to find the narrative balances, the voices, and find a flow and the connecting ideas. If there’s places where you’re trying to figure out how to connect things, that’s where you might look for pieces of dialogue or reach out to a producer for something to sonically transition. By the time it got to the end, I was pretty dialed in on what I thought the playlist was gonna be like. Overall, I’m looking for threads you can follow, and how beats go into one another. An album, to me, should be a journey.

The album ends with just woods, which I find funny because two years ago, woods told me he only added on to Paraffin closer “Root Farm” because he didn’t like the way ELUCID attributed the “lone wolf quote” to him. So, why let woods have the final word?

woods: That goes back into the sequencing. “The Eucharist” was one of the earliest songs we did, and immediately, I thought this was probably gonna go near the end or the beginning. We hadn’t done the themes yet. When we were in the process of recording, it was ELUCID who was like, “That’s done, I’m not rapping on that.” Looking at the album, it was clear to me that “Solarium” needed to be early and “The Eucharist” late. Going back to “Root Farm,” although I’m the last voice on that song, I just came and put the icing. ELUCID had already done the song. This time, once “Solarium” was [put] close to the beginning, “The Eucharist” was so clearly an album closer. Ah, man, I like that one.

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