Real Neighbors: A Conversation with Armand Hammer

Interviews, KEXP 50
Martin Douglas
photo by Carlos Cruz

You’ve probably noticed we’re celebrating 50 years of KEXP all throughout 2022. This week, we celebrate all things 2012. In an instance of divine timing, KEXP features writer and producer Martin Douglas recently spoke with hip-hop firebrands Armand Hammer, who first collaborated in 2012, in a sprawling conversation touching on multiple topics. Listen and read below.

After meeting veritable rap superduo Armand Hammer in KEXP’s Gathering Space and spending a few minutes struggling to properly sort out our recording setup in the studio, I brought up to billy woods — world-traveled, literary/weapons-grade storyteller and fellow skeptic — a humorous moment from Armand Hammer’s September set at Chop Suey. He noted at the show that his verse on “Falling Out of the Sky,” the Earl Sweatshirt-assisted collaboration from their critically exalted, Alchemist-produced 2021 full-length Haram, was about coming to Seattle, where he lived for a spell. While introducing the reggae-tinged pastoral rumination, woods shouted out the Taco Time on 12th and Madison, a fast food staple of Capitol Hill’s booming nightlife scene for a certain generation of Seattleites. 

“I cheered, almost reflexively,” I told woods. “I looked around and I was the only one cheering! I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m the only non-transplant, non-Toledo-ass motherfucker in here!’” [Writer’s Note: I’ve lived here for almost a quarter-century, surely long enough to say I’m “from” here.] woods, a natural storyteller to say the very least, replied with an anecdote of the neighbors in his Capitol Hill apartment building — describing its geography using long-shuttered landmarks like Piecora’s Pizza — being “weed-smoking Christian hippies from Michigan; Grand Rapids or something” being blissfully unaware of the culture of the neighborhood they migrated to and as a result, afraid to leave their apartment during Pride Weekend. 

It was a story sketched vividly with detail and subtle cultural irony; wholly unsurprising if you’ve followed the individual careers of woods and Elucid, as well as their collective output as Armand Hammer, for as long as I have. Beginning with a collaborative track on woods’ 2012 breakthrough History Will Absolve Me, Armand Hammer was christened on their 2013 full-length debut Race Music. It was the spark that would ignite one of the most blistering, formally daring, musically and intellectually challenging bodies of work hip-hop has arguably seen in decades. 

woods noted he was the one who pursued the Armand Hammer partnership, which went from a mutual appreciation between two members of New York’s rap scene to working on their opening salvo as a group, watching Real Housewives of Atlanta, and eating meals prepared by Elucid. “We were just getting to know each other as men, but also as artists,” Elucid added. “Just finding our particular sounds and meeting in the middle.”

Working with hip-hop’s most sought-after producers on last year’s Haram has brought Armand Hammer into a new level of recognition, one that affords them the ability to regularly tour overseas and visit the West Coast often, stopping by KEXP hours before they were slotted to eviscerate The Crocodile’s main room for the Freakout Weekender festival. 

Once our interview began in earnest — after I gave up on completely finding the root of the technical difficulties and just let the conversation roll — I made another observation about their September show: they both edited the n-word out of their lyrics as they were rapping on stage. After about the third time it happened, I looked around and saw a majority white audience. I asked woods and Elucid if that instance of self-editing is different when they’re in front of a mostly-Black crowd, like they would be in, say, Chicago or Brooklyn. 

“I don’t think so, because it’s generally a similar type of crowd,” Elucid said. “I feel like Atlanta was the one city where Black people really showed out and might have been the majority, at least 50-50 with non-Black people there.” woods offered his opinion, saying, “For me, the self-editing is uniform and sometimes it really doesn’t have to do as much with the crowd. And there are definitely some times where I’m like, ‘Oh, well, this is a totally white audience.’”

“It kinda changes [depending on] how I feel in the moment,” added Elucid. “I have a song where it’s clearly in the hook, where I’m saying ‘nigga.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, I’m just gonna say it.’ Sometimes I feel it and sometimes I don’t.” woods noted that he often replaces the n-word with the word “negro” or “neighbor” when he’s rhyming, just out of personal preference.

Elucid raps with a jazz drummer’s precision and virtuosity, combining his penchant for an array of images both still and moving, steely-eyed insight with the timeless rap art of colorful boasts (with bonus points for the occasional pro wrestling bars), and a truly impressive melange of rhyming syllables. woods flits between memoir and historical fiction, aphorism and threat, characters, locales, human beings in various states of psychic damage. Sometimes his words rush like a river breaking through a cracked dam, sometimes as measured as a commencement address. Both are masters of the fine art of fractured narrative, fusing mosaics out of stained glass shards.

That doesn’t mean there’s no room for humor in their music, which often gets lost in critical evaluation. In their individual and collective music, the writing of both Elucid and woods is erudite and intellectual, and thus misinterpreted as overly serious. As an example, I brought up a woods lyric from “Alternate Side Parking” (Paraffin, 2018): “All jokes aside, my man had a Nigerian accountant.” woods talked about the joke and the harrowing personal experience which nearly undercut it entirely, about cancer metastasizing in his friend and the process of getting his financial affairs in order. 

But he and his friend grew up together in Africa and his accountant turned out to be Nigerian American. The too-funny-to-be-made-up observation is there, highlighting the inherent absurdity of life, as Elucid noted. “At some point I had said something about apartheid and the guy had no idea what that was,” woods added, inspiring a round of laughter.

woods said, “I’m a very serious guy, I’m all for turning the conversation more serious than it needs to be.” “I think woods is a funny guy,” Elucid explained beforehand. “I enjoy laughing. [Laughter] should be there.”

“I think duality is a lot of times difficult for people,” said woods.

Related News & Reviews


Blvck Hippie on Utilizing Music through Adversity, Putting other Black Bands On, and their Everlasting Love for Kid Cudi

Josh Shaw of the Memphis-based rising band Blvck Hippie spoke with KEXP while at Treefort Music Festival this past March

Read More

Fred again… Breaks Down Every Song on Actual Life (April 14 - December 17 2020)

The superproducer reflects on choosing joy, the power of the Instagram scroll, and the voices that make up his deeply moving instant classic album.

Read More
For Your Consideration

For Your Consideration: On Mach-Hommy’s Pray for Haiti and the Spiritual Reward of the Classic Rap Album

Martin Douglas explores the enigmatic Haitian-American rapper’s opus and its entry into the pantheon of the genre’s hallmark works.

Read More