“If you know Armand Hammer, they’re your favorite,” says Daniel Maman, the twice Grammy-nominated producer known as the Alchemist. He’s speaking via one of the Zoom-facilitated Hollywood Squares that almost all artists have taken to when doing interviews over the past year. The other two screen cubicles are taken by the rappers Billy Woods and Elucid, the duo known by hip-hop heads and anti-pop consorters worldwide as Armand Hammer. The three of them are here to talk about “Haram,” the new album that might bring Armand Hammer an audience that would start to match its critical acclaim. Not that any of the three musicians seem inclined to sweat fame at the expense of their vision. In fact, Alchemist calls the Armand Hammer catalogue, “the purest expression of art.” It doesn’t mean that billy woods would mind a change. “I’ve already mastered the art of laboring in obscurity,” he says. “I did that for a good long time. Don’t need to do it more.’
Armand Hammer is a New York City rap group informed by other locales. Elucid (Chaz Hall) is a native of South Jamaica in Queens who spent some time in South Africa for a bit before landing back in New York. As the part of the duo whose tastes skew more toward the experimental, and whose solo work has grown increasingly abstract and searching over the years (his 2018 solo album was wryly titled “S--- Don’t Rhyme No More”) Elucid’s catalogue has consistently tapped into whatever amorphous border separates noise music from free jazz.
A similar intercontinental back-and-forth applies to Woods, who was born in D.C., moved to Zimbabwe as a child and settled in New York as an adult. Both have released a steady stream of left-field rap for more than a decade. Meeting for the first time in 2011, Woods and Elucid quickly found a common sonic language, which resulted in a friendship and eventually Armand Hammer’s first official full-length album, the offhandedly and provocatively titled “Race Music.” From the duo’s start, the gravel-voiced Elucid and differently gravel-voiced Woods have shared a snaking lyricism that is capable of encompassing and communicating transnational mysticism, interior romanticism and erotic misadventure. They also share a seemingly boundless knowledge of every marginal, dream-dashed National Collegiate Athletic Association and National Basketball Association player of the past 40 years. Along with their lyrical prowess, the pair (usually with the production assistance of Willie Green, their longtime compatriot who also engineered and mixed “Haram”) have favored a style of beats that careens from snare-and-strings soulful to stuttering drone, often within a single song. At times, Armand Hammer’s fourth album (2020’s much-lauded “Shrines”) resembled a doom metal album, at least Black Sabbath’s brand of ’70s doom, when the dirge still had some swing to it.
A collaboration with the Alchemist, a deeply-respected veteran hip-hop producer who is also widely-known in pop spheres as Eminem’s “official” DJ and the man behind the 2001 Jadakiss chart-topper“We Gonna Make It,” makes perfect sense for a group trying to stay true to itself while also seeking something different.
There’s a palpable mutual admiration. The Alchemist makes clear he came into the project with the enthusiasm of a new fan eager to catch up. “I give a lot of credit to Earl. He put me onto Armand Hammer,” he says, referring to acclaimed rapper and major Armand Hammer supporter Earl Sweatshirt. “When I discovered it, I kind of felt stupid,” he continues. “I was late to the party, let’s just say that. I was like ‘Damn, what rock was I under?’ ”
In turn, even taking into account the Alchemist’s recent mini-renaissance (working with rising rap crew Griselda and receiving that second Grammy nomination for “Alfredo,” his collaboration with Freddie Gibbs), Armand Hammer are clearly fans of the Alchemist’s work, not just his success.
“Thinking back to your younger self,” Elucid says. “You know how many years I’ve rapped to Alchemist beats? It’s always been there. And now I’ve got [it] direct from the lab,” he laughs, “My 16-year-old self is bugging out.”
Instigated long before covid times, the process of making “Haram” was still a staggered one. Between Armand Hammer’s making of “Shrines,” the individual projects all three were working on separately, and the eventual pandemic that would require fully masked rapping in the studio, there were times when Woods was resigned to the idea that the final product, if it happened at all, would be in line with previous Hammer albums — a sprawling collaboration, with Alchemist as just one of many producers.
But eventually the trickle of beats he sent to the duo became a flow. Which brought its own pressures. “It had to be really good, man,” Woods says. “That’s the only way I ever got anywhere was like, ‘If it’s not better the next time, they’ll have me outta here.’ ”
he Alchemist says that his intention was to meet Armand Hammer where they were while also maintaining his signature sound, and it’s easy to hear “Haram” as a success on that front. The mood-drenched production of winnowing melodies and off-kilter organ swells is matched by Woods and Elucid’s incisively searing meditations on memory and the bodies politic; summer reveries flowing into existential dread flowing into class analysis, and then analysis of that analysis. But, within the context of song titles like “Robert Moses” (Armand Hammer is one of the few rap groups who could — or would try to — pull off a song referencing the New York builder with a murky legacy) and lines like “my new name colonizers can’t pronounce,” it’s a bracingly good time.
Both rappers in Armand Hammer are in their fifth decade of life (Elucid is 40, Woods 43). So, along with all the bad-memory lyrical inspiration that comes with not dying, a certain amount of perspective is a given. “Doom just left us,” Elucid says. “Doom was 50 years old. Jay is how old? Over 50. I think we’re in a new day, seeing rappers being able to be old and not gunned down at 22, 23. It’s ill to ride that wave. It’s a blessing to be old.”
Like Jay-Z, Woods started a record label to show he could do it on his own. His Backwoodz Studioz put out the previous Armand Hammer albums and, regardless of the Alchemist’s industry connections, is putting out “Haram” as well. While all who made “Haram” certainly hope that the Alchemist’s involvement will broaden the audience, Armand Hammer’s goals, while as open to vast fame and wealth as any pragmatically hungry hip-hop concern, can’t help but be informed by a lifetime in the trenches. “Dreams is dangerous / Ain’t no saving us / ain’t no slaving us,” Woods raps at the beginning of the album. Armand Hammer will take whatever comes to them, but always on their own terms.