Photo Credit: Alexander Richter
Decoding Armand Hammer & The Alchemist's Stunning New Album 'Haram'
We spoke with hip-hop duo Armand Hammer about working with The Alchemist and recording their masterful new album Haram.
Armand Hammer's sixth studio album, Haram (out today, March 26th) is a visceral spiritual journey, entwined with brooding darkness that slowly crescendos to the surface. The album was produced entirely by mastermind The Alchemist— bringing a level of attention that is new to billy woods and Elucid. The two New York City vets are met with a production terrain that appears distant, yet there’s a familiarity that’s warmly inviting to their jagged-edged deliveries. The album artwork, shot by photographer Alexander Richter, features two brutally decapitated pigs on a butcher table, covered in dried, smeared blood marks and dirt. In Islamic law, pigs are considered Haram —which means forbidden—and the killing of an animal other than slitting its throat is forbidden.
Armand Hammer and the Alchemist first got in the lab to work on Haram in 2019. Deciding to put the work with Alchemist on hold due to other projects and a European tour, woods and Elucid would focus their sights on Shrines, a 14-track whirlwind of lightning and brimstone filled with double-dipped metaphors and production that challenged the status quo of what rap music should sound like. While Alchemist would continue his productive streak, cutting projects with Conway the Machine, Boldy James, and Freddie Gibbs.
Finally, the timing became right. And even though the pandemic shifted the recording process, Armand Hammer and Alchemist were able to craft Haram. Alchemist — fresh off a Grammy nomination for his work on Alfredo — creates a landscape that’s beautiful, foreboding, and eerie all at the same time. Samples are chopped up until they’re unrecognizable, cut, mangled, and looped with haunting vocals in the background. Throughout the album — which features verses from Earl Sweatshirt, Quelle Chris, and Fielded — his mastery of the boards is prominent, giving enough room for woods and Elucid to spread their wings and freely create.
We got the chance to speak with billy woods and Elucid, decoding some of the lines that seem cryptic, and open for interpretation. We also spoke on the concepts and themes that make up Haram, working with Alchemist, and plans for the rest of the year.
Why did you guys go with Haram as the title of the new project?
woods: I guess there were a bunch of reasons. It was a word and an idea that had kind of been kicking around in my mind, and once we actually were sitting down and started to work on it, I just felt like it was an interesting departure point, you know? And sometimes I feel like that's all I need. So I suggested it as a title and Elucid was like, “I like it, but what are we doing?” And so then we had a discussion kind of around exchanging ideas about what you know, I kind of kicked out some ideas of what I thought made a good record or a good starting point. That was really it.
The artwork showcases the decapitation of two pigs in a manner that doesn't align with Muslim customs. So what's the message that you're trying to convey just through the artwork alone?
woods: I don't think it was that literal, you know. Some photographer I really respect, I told him what we were doing. And when that picture came across, it just seemed to hit so many of the points that it made sense. I showed it to Al and I showed it to Elucid and was like, "What do you think?" I was kind of questioning if it would just be me, but everybody else was like, "Yeah, that's it." And I think that there are just so many levels to it. First of all, it's repulsive, to a certain extent, obviously. It is a really good photograph, and there's something almost painterly about it to me. It's grotesque. It's interesting, you know, the levels and different aspects to it was what intrigued me and then, the Islamic angle is one piece of it. It's the same way as if somebody was like, "Is this about police?" I'm like, "Of course, somebody could see that in there." But it's not literal.
In terms of the writing, do you write in hopes it’s dissected? Or do you like your work to be more taken at face value?
Elucid: I definitely want to leave it open to interpretation. Within the writing, there may be a flurry of images, and I think it kind of reflects how we receive information. I think Armand Hammer is the most modern rap group of our time in that way. This is a constant flow of information good, bad, indifferent, love that, hate it, turned off by it, turned on by it, it's all there and you do what you want with it. It’s coming from personal experience, drawing from things I've seen, been through, visioning, not even true. And I like to let the listener kind of determine what they're feeling out of it. There's always something there for you to pull out of it if you're listening.
woods: When I'm writing, I'm pretty focused on what's happening in the moment. either the idea and trying to get it out in a way that I feel like we'll do it justice... Or just the flow of what I'm trying to do. I'm caught up in the creative process and if I am stepping back in the moment at all, it's probably to think. Perhaps at certain points, I might step back and be like, "What would impress me?" It all depends what the song is about, but trying to do something true to the song, the idea that I'm following through sometimes, and trying to impress myself and write something I would want to hear I think is interesting. I'm pretty dialed [when I'm] trying to create. After I record the song and do all of that, maybe then I really start thinking about the different angles to it a little. But I guess my answer would be that in the moment, I'm really thinking about whatever I'm trying to achieve on the page.
How is your creative process working with a single producer like Alchemist different than working with a variety of different ones?
woods: Having both done it before, by ourselves, it was interesting to work with a single producer. I mean, Elucid was working with a single producer on a solo record at the same time, we both had experiences working. Elucid has done a lot of records with single producers.
Elucid: I love that format.
woods: But Armand hammer records typically have not been that way. So I think that it was interesting to do that together because it adds a third. There’s already an element, at least for me, where when you're working with a single producer, you're mining things that are outside of your norm a little bit because you can't just go find a beat that first hits your ear right. And sometimes you have to listen to a pack a couple more times because you got to find something in there, you can't just go looking for whatever other beats you might have in your inbox, or that somebody plays for you in the studio. So adding another person to that sort of mix really meant stretching even more. On a normal album that we were doing together, It might be like one or two beats where if the other person hadn't picked it, I might not have done it, but since they did, let's go. But it's easier to just find something that both of you are like, "Alright, that's the joint." When it's three people involved, I think there's more bending, which again, challenges your creativity and pulls everyone in different ways.
Due to Alchemist’s recent Grammy nomination, do you feel a door has been opened for increased exposure for independent artists in the mainstream?
Elucid: I mean the door's always kind of been open. Like people always kind of poached from the underground. People that have major eyes looking at the major machines behind them always kind of look for people who are bubbling or just getting hot in the underground. I think that crosses regions even and different eras and brands. But, this exposure, all this light, this attention that maybe we are gaining from working with Alchemist — like just in proximity to him — it’s tight. It's beneficial for us for sure. And I think maybe like the type of rap that we do. Maybe this shines a little more light on people who do similar things, or who approach the craft in a similar way that we do or have a similar outlook on pushing rap to different levels — other levels than what the mainstream is used to.
We on a new type of time. And I feel like Armand Hammer is right there, and has been right there at the forefront. But it's just like, "Yo, y'all just catching up." And it's not even to be all my own dick about it. But, I've been knew we was nice. I've been knew we was nasty. So it's like, when everybody kind of caught up. It's like, "Oh... welcome to the party."
woods: First of all, Alchemist has had two Grammys, they didn’t have his name on them. When you go to the studio, there's platinum plaques all over the wall. Some of the other people who come through there might be there or FaceTime calling him or whatever. And DJ Muggs is in there, you know how many Platinum records he has? Or other big artists might be there. Like Navy Blue might be over there just chilling. Some of these borders have already been crossed and died. And I think sometimes it really depends who the artist is, and what sort of things are going on. I guess what I think is most interesting, probably, for everyone involved, is The Alchemist hasn't worked recently with a lot of rappers like us.
I think that we have a pretty unique sound and approach. And so I think that I think that that's an interesting thing for Alchemist, a person who has already been making music with people on the underground and mainstream artists. That's the funny thing, one of the other albums nominated for a Grammy is JAY-Z and Jay Electronica's [A Written Testimony], and Alchemist gotta be on there. So he's everywhere.
It's hard for me to speculate on exactly where that would go but like Elucid said, it's obviously a positive thing for us because it's not like we have to compromise [to] work with Al. We're excited to work with Al and certainly brings your move up on in the level of visibility and exposure. And he has a huge fanbase, I'm sure some of those people will be like, "Yeah, I don't know, man," but some of them might be like, "Oh, I really fucked with it."
What I find really interesting about your dynamic with Alchemist is that I feel like the way he builds his beats — it's like he has an infrastructure that's elegant on the surface. But then when you guys start rapping, there's like a foreboding darkness that kind of creeps in within your lyrics.
Elucid: They all have cascading pianos, and all these muffled voices. Yeah, definitely. It was ill to build with Alchemist over the production palette that we wanted. I remember a phone call, and him saying he admired the production that Armand hammer was on. He was talking specifically about the Parrafin record. He was like, "I love that shit." And you know, I think I wanted a different type of Alchemist style, but he was like, “Nah, nah, I want to do something new. And I want to come into your world versus y’all coming into my world." And yeah, I think we really did that on these beats... He tailored to us, it was really fly.
On this project, I believe, Elucid, you wanted to experiment more with your voice.
Elucid: Yeah, I was kind of in that headspace for sure. Like doing a Small Bills record and definitely thinking about melody way more. And it transferred over into this record here.”
If I'm not mistaken, that’s you singing on “Roaches Don’t fly”? Can you help me break down that song itself? Because that's the one line I feel like there's more than what meets the eye.
Elucid: You know, there's some logic in the key lines in there to parse through. I'm just thinking, it's just how I kind of closed the record. And like thinking about how you don't have to be down with us. You don't have to join this, you don't have to believe this. You don't have to be here literally, physically. I'm just talking about autonomy, you know?
On “God’s Feet,” I feel the atmosphere is cold. There's a lot of talking about a blasting of a horn, raising the dead—
Elucid: You peeped the Revelations reference?
woods: On the reference, he was saying you're correct on the on the reference of Revelations and all that. And I was saying, when you said you felt like it was cold, I thought you were talking about sonically which I don't feel like and even lyrically, to a certain extent, that isn't what I think of but that doesn't make it an incorrect listen.
Elucid: I think it's one of the warmest records on there. This was why I said I was shocked when you said it's one of the warmest and most spooky records.”
woods: It’s definitely somber but I feel like it's warm — that the tones of the beat in the production and especially Elucid’s voice are warm.
Elucid: It feels like a wake, like or a homegoing. So it's definitely a Revelations reference.
The final track, “Stonefruit,” I felt was probably the warmest track personally. Because it seemed like reaching the finale of a long journey.
Elucid: I wanted it earlier in the tracklist. It wasn't really kind of set up as like a dramatic journey to end there. But, woods is pretty good with the album sequencing. He was like, "Why give up this trick so early?" It just sounds better at the end. And he was absolutely right. But yeah, that's one of my favorite songs. Talking about relationships and love and a new expression of love.
woods: That was the first great song we made on this project, but then we made others. If you look at something like “Barbarians/Overseas,” as you know, kind of “Barbarians” is the last song and “Overseas” [is] like a little epilogue. If you look at something like how I look at “Ramesses II” all the way through “The Eucharist” as a movement, then you really get to the point where after the last thing is done, what would you say after that, you know what I mean? Ever watched a movie where you think it's the end, and you're ready to stand up and clap, and then they have another scene happen. And It’s like what, what for? I mean, oftentimes, it's to plug the sequel where you see the guy really isn't dead or something.
You have to realize when there's nothing to do after that, even on some of the songs where they end up a solo track that’s sort of the same thing, you know, where it's like, do I have something to add on to here? Because if not, then just doing it just to make it longer, doesn't really make sense to me or to Elucid.
On “Indian Summer,” woods, you said in the seventh grade, you swore vengeance on the human race. What spurred those heavy emotions at the time?
woods: To put it very frankly, my father died right before that, and we left the country that I've been living in to move back to the United States and I was suddenly thrust into very different social milieu, just while dealing with a lot of things change in a very short period of time. And then it didn't seem as though they changed for the better. And yeah, difficult transition to living here and becoming a teenager at the same time and acclimating to the realities of being a Black American in a single mother home it was pretty jarring in a short period of time.
Compared to your previous projects together, what ideas and themes did you guys tackle more on this project than on other ones?
woods: I think there's more stories on this record. As I can already sort of think in my head, I can conjure up a bundle of relatively direct narratives. So although it wasn't something that was set out to be done, I definitely see that in there. Because a lot of times the ideas would not be new, but the ways in which things are approached or not. Because we talked about life and history and the future, race, class, and just being a human being in America — and that's it. That's the standard entity. All of these things get written about, but they may be exempt. You may be examining them in different ways.
Elucid: This is the most melodic Armand hammer record. We're both using our voice that way, saying more than any other record probably even combined. So yeah, like we've said we've touched on all those sorts of things on previous records that maybe you know, how it got flipped on this record. Yeah, I can definitely see the stories. I never thought about it like that. But yeah, there's more stories here.
Photo Credit: Alexander Richter
So with this project, what were you guys hoping to accomplish?
woods: Make a dope record, man.
Elucid: It's always that. I want to make a dope record. But also, it was Alchemist, man. It wasn't pressure, but it was just like, "Yo, I'm stepping into the Teenage Dream" sort of a situation. I've loved Alchemist’s music forever. So I had this opportunity. And yeah, I just wanted to make a dope-ass record that I loved and that he loved.
What is something you guys want to communicate with your fans with today?
woods: I guess for me, whether you end up liking it or not, I feel confident in saying that our music is really thoughtfully crafted and is different and original. And to me, that's what hip-hop music is about. And corny or not, I'm proud of that for real. We both say we made our own sound, we do this thing that we do. And if you don't like it, it's also cool, but it's not like other people can't do this and they aren't doing it.