Elucid and billy woods were performing at The Old Hairdressers – an old rustic venue located down the dark, grimy cobbled street of Renfield Lane in the heart of Glasgow. A perfect location for the equally dark, grimy duo that is Armand Hammer.
“Man, fuck Rap Genius!” is met with agreeable laughter from the group as billy woods responds to one of my questions.
We were invited to meet Elucid and woods as they performed soundcheck. woods and I spoke briefly about our shared past occupational experiences, although he was not willing to divulge specifics in case the trail of breadcrumbs led back to his true identity – as is the allure of this enigmatic underground figure.
As we sat in the venue discussing his choice of tea and falafel, I asked woods about Robert Mugabe’s passing that same day, “Yeah, I couldn’t have missed that.” Being a former resident of Zimbabwe, woods has a nuanced stance on the late dictator. During the show he played a song with Mugabe in mind, maintaining that he: “Doesn’t want this to come across as R.I.P. Robert…” and that Mugabe did in fact “…attend my father’s funeral.”
The show itself was a thunderous performance from the duo, with songs performed across their discography including Rome, Paraffin, Save Yourself and Hiding Places. The intimate venue was at capacity with the stage back-lit with striking black and white imagery documenting the African American experience.
When the remaining fans had left, the SOUTHSIDERS crew and Armand Hammer huddled around a table in the now empty venue. We began by asking Elucid about his parents.
I’m aware you were raised in the church and it was your first experience recording music, but am I correct in saying you weren’t into the whole church vibe?
Elucid – Nah, never was. My parents were into it and I had to be there but it didn’t really do anything for me.
There’s a lot of religious iconography within your lyricism though. Is this something you picked up in later-life?
Elucid – It’s very difficult to get away from how you were raised, how you were programmed… There’s a really conscious effort to separate yourself from those seeds that were planted 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 years old, you know? So it’s that, it’s trying to get away from it and not being able and it’s just how the art comes out during the process. It’s an immediate response, and even as an adult, I’m not a Christian but the bible is a beautiful book, it’s a beautifully-written book, there’s some incredible stories in there and if you remove the spirituality, it’s still great literature.
Elucid – For sure. We know the bible itself right, but there’s also similar stories told in Judaism, similar stories told in Islam, similar stories told in older religions. Many of the world’s religions have the same centre. If you look at the Egyptian Book of the Dead, those are the original stories, different characters but the same message.
woods – My parents grew up in very religious homes, but my exposure to religion was having to take scripture class in school. Or if you would stay at someone’s house on a Saturday night and they would be like “We’ll drop you off at your house after church”, and I’d be like “But my house is right there! Please just drop me off!” [laughs]
One thing that I found interesting, that I hadn’t realised when we first spoke, is that your mother is also a very reclusive person.
woods – I’ll tell you a funny story. She actually made me take her name out of a ‘thank you’ on the linear notes to one of my records because she thought it would too much identify a member of our family… The person had passed away too, but yeah, she’s a very reclusive person. Her name in the phone book is not her real name, so she knows when somebody calls her if they got her name from a public source.
“That beat switch when woods comes on and it was like, “damn”, it felt like dropping on a roller coaster, you’re supposed to feel a queasiness.”
I wondered what the writing process is like for both of you. Hiding Places and Save Yourself, there’s lots of personal introspection on those records but there’s also a lot of ideas that are quite clearly conceptual. Is it important for you to strike a nuance between putting a little bit of yourself into an album but also going off the page a little?
Elucid – I feel like for me, it’s not that conscious of an effort until the songs are recorded and you’re left trying to put things into a sequence and trying to tell stories with an album. But the initial process is just get it out – and if it sticks, it sticks, and if it’s dope, it’s dope. Save Yourself was made during a time for me when I was going through a crazy breakup, I had recently moved and I think it shows on that record. I wasn’t thinking about that as I was creating it and consulting woods, he was like “This song should go with this song and it should flow like this.”
woods – We work together a lot and we are very different and I think that’s why it’s good. We have very different processes that are complementary when we work together, I think. For me, I would say I definitely think about the conceptual framework of the album before I’m working on it. But the other things you’re asking are like life happening you know what I mean? That’s the funny thing, sometimes people think it’s personal and other times it’s not as obvious as people might think. There’s elements that are real to me but the actual structure of the story might not necessarily be. If you took a song like ‘Zulu Tolstoy’, it’s not a personal song but it’s very conceptual, the one about a rapper writing a rap, writing about a rapper writing a rap, and the characters take on their own lives.
That babushka effect.
woods – Yes, the babushka effect. I thought about that conceptually but then there’s something in there personal about being a writer which was what that album [Today, I Wrote Nothing] was about in lots of ways. It was about death and about writing. But that’s an album that’s personal, but only as a writer. Like the characters too, where do they go when you’re done writing? Those kind of elements. But I don’t intend for things to come out personally, that’s just life happening, but I do approach a record conceptually.
Sometimes it can be creepy though because when I started Hiding Places, I knew what I thought the record was about and then various things happened in my life that were connected to the theme without realising exactly how deep it would go. And some of these things I couldn’t possibly have foreseen happening, some of them terrible, some of them fraught or interesting or whatever. But they unfolded as I was making the record and I couldn’t have possibly pre-planned that connection you know? Also, I think sometimes you do things and then afterwards there’s elements in there you didn’t intentionally think about. Like on Rome there’s a lot of stuff about, we had a theme and had ideas of things we were going to talk about, but there’s a lot of stuff about technology, hybridisation of humanity, cyborgs.
Elucid – So much talk about singularity.
woods – It wasn’t like we sat down to talk about it. We were doing it and then these things popped out over and over and over again which is a cool thing.
The artwork to your latest collaborative LP, Paraffin, I wanted to know if there’s a story behind that, what’s the reason you choose that certain piece of photography? I personally find it very striking, the woman with child and the spray-painted word ‘God’ on the wall behind. I’ve recently been listening to Rapsody’s album Eve and it probably brought a lot of ideas forward as well surrounding the African-American woman and the situations they face.
woods – Well I think there are two different levels to it, one that involves me and one that came later. [addressing Elucid] Remember? I wanted to do that cover, it wasn’t for Paraffin, it was for something totally different and I was like we should take a picture of your family at your house, because he had recently had a child and I can’t remember why but I just thought it’d be a good idea. I was really into this idea for some reason.
Elucid – I wasn’t allowed those photos at the end of the shoot. [laughs]
woods – Because I know the photographer and we had worked with him before and I said we’re going to do this but I wasn’t involved in the actual photoshoot.
Elucid – It was on my block, Alex Richter came by and had shot a lot of woods’ covers.
woods – A personal friend of mine and a very talented photographer.
Elucid – He came by and we tried a bunch of different things. It just so happened the weekend before, there was a vacant lot across the street so they had put up fences to stop people from going into the work site or whatever. It was spray painted, it was half a block long, real big and it said “Give God all thanks.” That’s what someone had thrown up. We were out there taking photos and were like “You know what, you stand right here”, and when I saw that I was like “That is the one!” and he had my kid out there and it was freezing fucking cold, but that was the one, knocked it out in like five minutes.
woods – Did you keep the one of the child facing forward?
Elucid – Nah, well, I mean we do have it.
woods – That was a beautiful picture, you should frame that… Maybe that’s my next cover. [laughs]
Elucid – And then the thing on the back was at the same site. So that vacant lot was next to an apartment complex and it was garbage day and they hadn’t picked it up and the garbage was overflowing and someone had thrown out that teddy bear with the long arms and legs and I was like, “Just take a shot of that…” and it worked out really well!
How does that relate to the visuals you were playing on the stage tonight because a lot of them were older but still striking imagery. A lot of harrowing stuff.
Elucid – We didn’t really have any say in that. Shout out to my man Ricardo for that! It’s really cool to see what people connect to. Someone asked me what I’m reading, Black Pow Wow since I’ve been on this run, and he starts going into things he’s reading and I’m like oh, he’s familiar with that. Then in another city we get to this guys’ house and he’s got Claude McCabe books, black artists, writers and poets and he was drawn to it through this. He sees what we were doing and Ricardo was the same, he could see what we were doing as well. That’s why you see the Khalik Allah photos, or like the Charles Burnett films as well, he gets where we’re coming from, like a golden thread from the foundation to here, so that’s been cool to see.
“I think the Jay Z stuff in his verse is actually more interesting. The whole millionaire rapper giving a lecture – that’s pretty funny.”
The sound of your music, especially the stuff on Backwoodz, the mixing and mastering of it, it’s ridiculously crisp and clear.
Elucid – Shout out to Willie Green. Willie mixes and masters all Backwoodz releases. Any Armand Hammer record right, I produce. So Paraffin was recorded mostly in my house and Rome, like 70% of it, no? [addressing woods]
woods – It’s tough to say, that record had so many lives. Rome was recorded primarily in your house. Paraffin might’ve been 50/ 50.
Elucid – I never recorded a Paraffin verse at Willie Green’s place.
woods – I’m pretty sure that’s false… [laughs]
Elucid – Even so. With every Armand Hammer record, I’ve always taken every stem and tweaked them to be what I think they should be. I’m adding effects, balancing things in the stereo field, I’ve always taken like a co-producer on all these records because I hear them how I hear them. Especially with a record like Paraffin, we sat with Willie Green and he came through with his own ideas with all kinds of crazy circuit equipment.
woods – An absolute essential person to a lot of the stuff we’re doing. I think when we were conceiving it and when we started sitting down and putting it together, I sat down and was like “Willie Green, I want you to go crazy and do this stuff and that stuff, really differentiate it from Rome… and [Elucid], when it gets to a certain point, I want you to go in and do all the stuff you do”, because I’m not a producer. So both of them at different times brought different elements that came together and really differentiated it from Rome and to give it its own vibe.
I think that worked really well because I listened to both today. I drove into work listening to Paraffin and drove home and listening to Rome and the soundscapes were really stark, so the fact that was deliberate is crazy.
woods – That was one, [Willie Green] tends to work very intuitively and I was like, “But this is my plan!” We had done a bunch of work and Elucid was working on Nostrum Grocers.
Elucid – Yeah, there was a lot happening then.
woods – So I got to take all of this stuff and come up with my plan so it sounded different. Take a song like ‘Furhman Tapes’. There were thoughts of chopping up and redoing things and then we were like “[Willie Green], here’s the record as it is now, take it and do your things to it.”
Elucid – That’s my favourite Willie Green contribution. That beat switch when woods comes on and it was like, “damn”, it felt like dropping on a roller coaster, you’re supposed to feel a queasiness. I would talk to Willie about different feelings I wanted to translate to audio and he really gets that shit and ‘Furhman Tapes’ is really spot on.
We were saying that today; that it was a stand out moment for us on the album. I wanted to go a little bit ‘Rap Genius’ on you with ‘Furhman Tapes’, if that’s cool?
woods – Man, fuck Rap Genius! [loud laughs all round] I have no problem with it, if people had better reading comprehension but not even figuring out what it is? I was telling you earlier, on Hiding Places somebody posted it on social media, the last verse, and it was this whole thing about wanting to kill someone. It literally talks about stalking and following them and then it’s like “Transfer to the C.. You were so close I could see a nick from shaving on your neck, whatever – your throat would open like a hose…” and the whole thing is, the person had written “Transfer to the sea…” and it’s just like what is happening man? If there was just a second of pausing to think ‘what is the context that this is taking place in?’ – literally what I think of as seventh grade reading comprehension. Of course, you could never fully know and I certainly have songs throughout my whole life, like Wu-Tang songs [I’ve listened to] 10 years later and I’m like “Oh, that’s what the word is!” You know what I mean? And you realise you’ve been rapping them wrong for so long [laughs]. But just simple things, it’s obviously “Transfer to the C (train).” Anyway, what was your question?
Because you had brought up ‘Furhman Tapes’, what was it about Ras Kass’ ‘Nature of the Threat’ that you felt should be the new black national anthem?
Elucid – [laughs] Listen man, I first heard ‘Nature of the Threat’ as a teenager and there was just a feeling in it for people who love to look at rap as a lesser art form, like people who don’t call rappers writers, or poets, but here was a dude attempting to give a breakdown of the history of global white supremacy in a 10-minute song. And as a 14-year-old, I had never heard anything like that, it just knocked me on my ass. It was so impressive to me. Even looking at it as a grown person now, historically and factually it may have been ‘off’ in some places but still, to me, it’s a very impressive record.
I think Thomas is the one to try and quote this, he’s the ‘lyrics guy’. I think the jab at Nas – “No, no, no idea is original…”
woods – He has a jab at Jay-Z too…
We noticed [laughs].
Elucid – It wasn’t a jab at Nas! I didn’t think of it as a jab at Nas – but I see the connection. It’s one of his better songs, ‘No Idea is Original.’
woods – People keep coming up to me like “Yeah, Nas’ new work sucks!”
woods – I wasn’t really trying to say that though. Like that sort of retrofit, “selling weed out of the hole in the wall”, taking these things and someone tries to create their aesthetic. I can just see the day when the hole-in-the-wall drug spot that you used to go to in Harlem, and people will wear fake rasta hats, you used to go to weed spots and they would pretend to be Jamaican, like a variety store, and it’s only a matter of time before somebody does this, you know? So the same way, I was thinking with Nas. I really was invited to go see him perform at Carnegie Hall and it’s something I have no problem with – I don’t think hip-hop shouldn’t go to spaces like that. I just wasn’t interested in it personally, going to see it that is. It’s so bizarre, I have never seen Nas perform.
woods – Yeah, I was going to see him at Hoodshock in ‘95 and somebody started shooting on 125th Street, so I ran and I didn’t go back but I heard he came out. Anyway, I just didn’t have any real interest in experiencing it in that environment. By all means do it! But, that’s really what I was trying to convey there, not that I hate Nas.
What I was going to say about the ‘Furham Tapes’ bar was that I actually really enjoyed it. I liked the personality and the element of controversy; having an opinion of someone who’s been in the game for so long…
woods – I think the Jay-Z stuff in his verse is actually more interesting. The whole millionaire rapper giving a lecture – that’s pretty funny. I get what you’re saying though.
woods, the visualisation of the bar “I watch the cats watch the mice…” To me, it resonates the same way as a “Who watches the watchmen?” sentiment to some extent, but I wanted to know your thoughts behind this bar?
woods – Yeah for sure. Well I’ve always had cats since I was a child, with a brief break in my life.
Elucid – So gross…
woods – Don’t say a thing like that. My cats are important to me… Gross is unnecessary, say you don’t like them. They clean themselves all day! It’s the opposite of gross. [laughs] So anyway, which song is that on..?
woods – So I moved into a new apartment, which is a story unto itself and is a Hiding Places skit. It was a fascinating situation for a variety of reasons. It was this building the landlords were trying to gentrify and force all of the people out of and I ended up in there, but the building was mostly empty by the time I moved in. I suspected there was a good amount of vermin in the building but I had two cats and it’s a very old brownstone type building. It had an electric fireplace which is really weird, underneath the fireplace it’s up on these bricks and on either side where the gas pipes go back into the structure of the building there’s holes where the pipes go through. Sometimes the cat would sit there staring into the hole with no mouse. I think a mouse got into the house once and it got killed and then they all know. But I watched the cat sit there, sometimes for a long ass time, and he’s looking in there and I’m watching him like “Is something coming?!” and I guess that was the mental picture. And yeah, there’s that “Who watches the watchmen,” that was the idea behind it. But it literally comes from me watching my cat. That’s why there’s a cat in that video.
I wanted to ask about your influences outside of hip-hop. I know Kenny Segal handled the production on Hiding Places and a lot of it had a rock aesthetic, and on Save Yourself, there’s Lou Reed samples on there and then Talking Heads “Same as it ever was…” as well in the hook. Public Image Limited etc.
woods – His influences are probably a lot more interesting, so take it away.
Elucid – Yeah, I was talking to someone today, the band Comfort [Glasgow band and the evening’s opening act], that is something I would sample. I like a lot of post-punk noise elements, mixed with with free jazz and gospel and heavy boom bap breakbeats. I love the combination of all those things. But there’s something about post punk, especially the guitars, shit sounds like razors to me, sharp, angular and if you listen to the way they play it, it reminds me of master guitar players from Mali or afrobeat like Fela Kuti, they play it in a very angular way. Less open strum like a lot of American guitarists would play, it’s more percussive and I really fuck with that.
You recently spent time in South Africa and you believe that’s the main inspiration behind Valley of Grace?
Elucid – That was just like, a lived-in experience, it was a really great time. I was there for like three months in Johannesburg, just hanging out, learning new and old histories and I was blessed enough to work on my music everyday. All of Valley of Grace was written there and when I got back to America I recorded it in like two days and just put it out. I was recording video when I was out there too.
I know you recently released stuff that you programmed when you were on tour as well – Every Egg I Cracked Today was Double Yolked.
Elucid – Oh yeah. I played that opening and closing in tonight’s set. I have spare things that I’ve been making, some of them last time I was here in April and I was just making it quick in the hotel room or whatever and didn’t listen back to it. But I was listening to things I made in this past year and I thought “I’d really like people to hear this.” and that’s what that tape was.
Have you ever had that day though I remember when I cracked two eggs and…
Elucid – [laughs] The whole, entire, dozen! And I made about six eggs that day and I was like “Holy shit!” I smoked some really good weed that morning and I was really productive with music and I was like “Holy shit – every single egg is double yolked.”
Is there anything else on the horizon with you guys? Anything new with Nostrum Grocers or Armand Hammer any solo work coming soon? I know you have an LP, Terror Management, due to be released soon [woods].
Elucid – I’m making a lot of solo stuff and we’re kind of making a new Armand Hammer thing. We’re writing and recording things, some things are just ideas in ether. But very exciting things. I’m sure I’ll be back in Europe within the year playing and promoting those things too. I want to get the collaborative things off first though.
woods – We’re putting out Shit Don’t Rhyme No More on a limited edition coloured vinyl with two new songs with JPEGMAFIA, and a collaboration with a woman called Kia. It’s going to be coming out on vinyl in 6 weeks or something, so I’m looking forward to that and Willie Green remastered it so it’ll knock even harder! But it already knocked.
I forgot to ask earlier, but something I read, on a previous song, forgive me, I can’t remember the title at this moment in time, which had a very interesting set up that had both of you facing each other as you recorded the song.
woods – ‘U-boats’ off of Today, I Wrote Nothing. That was probably the last thing we recorded at Willie Green’s old place and he had set up two mics opposite each other. I wonder if he taped that? [addressing Elucid]
Elucid – I believe Joseph was there so it was documented, that’s why we have those photos and things.
Do you feel you managed to obtain a more visceral back-and-forth with that set up?
Elucid – I thought so.
woods – It was definitely cool.
Elucid – It was so old school.
woods – And that was an interesting project, it was just like doing things. That was the fastest I’ve made a record and it was very intentionally, cut it, do it, go. So that was a cool thing, who knows what things we’re going to try and do. But to answer your earlier question, I have this album, Terror Management, coming out probably in a month.
Can you name any producers…?
woods – Yeah, sure. DJ Preservation who did that record with KA and worked with Mos Def and Mach Hommy recently, so he’s a great guy, great producer, so we collaborated on a couple of things. Elucid did a beat, Willie Green did several things, Uncommon Nasa did something… Small Pro, Messiah Music, who has done a lot of Armand Hammer stuff, Blockhead, I’m probably forgetting one or two people. What I tried to do was, often I like beat switches, but I tried to get the producers to put their heads together, not only on making songs together but also being able to come back to people and being like “Your song goes into this song,” and I wanted to give them an opportunity to blend it and really work in a way that it’s a fragmented album but in a very different way from Today, I Wrote Nothing, so I’m pretty excited about that. Jeff Markey…
Elucid – I didn’t know he did ‘Western Education’.
woods – Yeah he did that beat. This kid, Jeff Markey he worked on it too. Steel Tip Dove… But yeah, I’ve tried to take a different approach in putting it together.
I don’t want to keep you guys all night, and I know I’ve asked you our Liquid Swords vs Cuban Linx question previously, woods. We’ve came up with a new question to close our interviews – if you had to choose your favourite album between these two choices, what would it be and why… Outkast’s ATLiens or Aquemini?
woods – This is how I live my life… The issue, and I like this, but as a person who practices these sort of questions, the issue with ATLiens or Aquemini is that there isn’t a wrong answer… People say that a lot but it’s kinda like Ironman/ Supreme Clientele, like depending on the day of the week and I wouldn’t feel strongly if you felt the other way. For me, I’m probably going to go for ATLiens.
Elucid – Yeah, I play ATLiens a lot more than I play Aquemini but Aquemini is a fantastic album.
woods – And I feel like if I put Aquemini on I might possibly change my mind depending on the day.