Okay maybe that’s a bit harsh. Armand Hammer appreciate and value what you think! But, in order to care, you must first apply consideration to doing something correctly with the aim of mitigating damage or risk. And that’s something billy woods and ELUCID, the enigmatic two halves of the Brooklyn-based experimental rap duo Armand Hammer, just will not do...
Photography by Alexander Ritcher
Written by Brooks Alexander
Unapologetically unique and relentlessly innovative, the pair are forging their own path and have absolutely no intention of compromising anytime soon.
Over the past decade, billy woods and ELUCID have consistently defied conventions and carved out their own distinct niche in the underground hip-hop landscape. Their latest album 'WE BY DIABETIC TEST STRIPS', a poetic exploration of communication, community and connection in New York’s Brooklyn district, has been hailed as a masterpiece, and is yet another unparalleled showcase of the duo’s ability to blend avant-garde production with raw, unfiltered lyricism.
Deep in the Colorado mountains and fresh off the first night of their tour, I was lucky enough to sit down with both artists for a deep dive into the intricacies of their creative process and the inspirations behind their latest project.
Thanks for making the time to speak to me guys, I’m a huge fan. I just wanted to start off by asking about the inspiration behind this album art and the title: WE BUY DIABETIC TEST STRIPS. How did you decide upon such a unique title and cover art?
ELUCID: It all started with being at home in the city. Everyone in the city walks around a lot, but I REALLY walk around a lot. My kids don’t live that far away and I’m always walking back and forth to the studio. I’m always noticing these signs about diabetic test strips, and I’m like ‘What is this?’. There are also signs up like “WE BUY CARS FOR CASH” or “CASH FOR GOLD”, “HOUSES FOR CHEAP” “GIVE US YOUR JUNK CAR” etcetera. For those signs it’s obvious what the play is. People will buy your car for money, it’s not complicated.
But, as for buying diabetic test strips, I couldn’t understand what was going on.
Eventually I looked it up and realised there was an entire underground economy based around how medical insurance works in the US. People are not insured and diabetic test strips are very expensive for them, so you can find people who get them free through medicare, and then they sell people the ones they have. It’s now an underground economy which is making people money. So, I looked it up, saw what it was and then didn’t think about it that much. Then, shortly after that we started thinking about the album. The back cover of the album is a picture of a sign on a door. I used to walk past it when I was picking up my daughter from school, and there's just this sign with a picture of
eyes and it says, “THE POLICE ARE LOOKING FOR YOU”.
So just things like that would stick in my mind, and I thought “Oh ok that could be it!”. And luckily, when we told our photographer what we wanted, he went above and beyond finding stuff around the city. We all joined forced in finding stuff. So that’s the inspiration behind the title and cover art – the streets of Brooklyn, the streets of New York City. The detritus of it all.
What would you guys say are the key themes of the album? I saw a Reddit comment where someone asked that question and someone replied, “Informal economies, late-stage capitalism, black America – usual Armand Hammer stuff”. Does that sound about right?
WOODS: *laughs* Actually, no! This is definitely not a concept album. Outside of that, I do think some of those themes drifted in and out of the record. But it’s hard to say with something like late-stage capitalism. I didn’t do a lot of thinking about capitalism while I was writing, but we do live in a society!
Sometimes that was what I was sitting down and thinking about, but it wasn’t on the forefront of my mind in this record. If I had to name an overarching theme for this record specifically, it would be the idea of the vibe and energy and the freedom to take the inspiration that we have, which in certain ways is pretty domestic. But it branches all over the place, and we just followed the threads where they led us.
As for other themes, I would say there is a good amount of family in here.
ELUCID: *murmurs in agreement*
WOODS: I’d really have to sit down and listen to properly see if it’s more or less than in any of our other records. Another theme is definitely communities. Those that we create and those that we are a part of.
We took it track by track rather than holistically for this record. That being said though, there were themes that began to emerge as we recorded – the self, identity, loss, fatherhood, communication and lack thereof. And I think at certain parts there's a little bit of a magical realism feel to it. Sometimes things start in a grounded place before spinning off into somewhere very fantastical.
You worked with the largest assortment of producers on a single record so far. How did you decide who you wanted to work with on this record?
ELUCID: We just reached out to friends and people who we liked what they were doing. We started with JPEGMAFIA first, since we’ve worked with Peggy before – solo and group.
Would you say JPEG had more influence on the sound of the album over other producers or was it an equal split?
ELUCID: No, it wasn’t like that at all. One of the first things we did was go down a JPEG produced lane, and then we shifted and brought in other musicians. Our relationship with Shabaka Hutchings was very monumental, just having him come down to the studio, alongside Hisham Bharoocha, Adi Myerson and Max Heath, they all met as a band for the first time ever and just played for hours in the studio with minimal instruction or direction.
In the course of all that, sitting in and just trying to recognise when a certain chord was struck. We’d go “That's the song”. At 2 minutes 34 seconds or whatever, that’s where it kicked into high gear. Then Willie Green would isolate that part, chop that part and send it to more of our favorite producers and use that as sample material to make new beats. It just compounded on itself!
And even within that process, there were additional steps with certain songs like "THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY" with EL-P, the plan started to compound on itself. It again illustrated the idea of this network.
WOODS: Oppurtunity, timing, planning and chance all played a role in who ended up where.
How's the fan reception been to the album so far?
ELUCID: It’s been tight! It’s been a cool response. More than cool. It’s been a great response. Glad people are checking for it, glad people are checking for new things, glad new faces are at our shows and the reach is spreading.
WOODS: Well, the thing is, the album hasn’t been out very long and we haven't done many shows. So, all I’ve really seen is what people say online, and moreso what I've experienced as a response from my peers, friends and collaborators, which has been overwhelmingly positive.
That’s awesome to hear because I genuinely think this is your best album yet! How does it feel having this critical fan appreciation grow with seemingly every album? Is it stressful or does it feel well deserved after decades of grinding your craft?
WOODS: I guess I just think about the records themselves. And I think the records are dope. I feel like we’re doing stuff that isn’t terribly common. We haven't really repeated ourselves, so I do think things are well deserved. But, mostly I just think about each record as it goes along, and where we’re at and what to do next.
And just to jump off the back of that comment about you guys not necessarily doing what’s common. Do you have any intention of ever crafting a more mainstream sound?
ELUCID: I feel like that’s one of those things that you actually can’t really control. I think, for me, it's about making music as honest and as brave as I can make it in the moment, and then whatever happens happens.
Sometimes people do that and the world latches on to that creative feeling and sometimes it doesn’t. And that doesn’t make it worse, it just exists in a world of its own. But yeah, the intention for me would be to make the music. Be enamored with the music, be possessed by the music. And then, whoever digs it digs it. And that’s how its always been for me, so that’s what’s familiar.
Are you hoping people take any inspiration or specific messages from the lyrics off this album?
ELUCID: That’s always the goal. And people do. Since it’s still so new, it’s yet to be seen what exactly people will pull from this record that gives them joy or solace or understanding or some kind of like-mindedness, but I know it's happening. I think it's something to be explored.
The style of music we’re doing, the kind of reach that we’re now reaching, it’s gonna be interesting to see the feedback from fans. On the surface, I think most people consume themselves with the darkness of our music, and for sure it exists, because it does in this world, but that’s not the total makeup of it, I’m not even sure if it’s the majority of the makeup.
WOODS: Depends on the record as well. "Parafin" and "Roma" are very different sounding records.
ELUCID: "Shrines" felt a little brighter in its lyrical themes.
WOODS: "Rome" to me is angry. "Parafin" is mournful. And "Haram" is a rabbit hole. "Shrines" is open and colourful whereas "Haram" is pretty claustrophobic. And then this album feels like a curated piece of nature or space. A space with different areas and things in it. It feels like an environment of its own, I guess. I don’t feel like it has a mood.
ELUCID: Are you about to say immersive? Are we talking more corporate speak?
WOODS: *laughs* no no. I mean like you could walk over here and there’s a rainforest. Up over here there’s a mountain. You come over here and there’s something. You can move around a bit in it. It’s spacious and contains multitudes.
Last question for you guys, what comes next for Armand Hammer? Your record just came out so I’m sure you’re basking in that, are you just focusing on your tour at the moment?
ELUCID: Yeah the tour’s our focus. You know, it’s funny making records, you kinda live in the future in a sense. This record just came out but it’s already old to us. And I know for myself, I’ve already moved on to making the next thing. So, I’m just watching y’all receive it and how y’all receive it.
'We Buy Diabetic Test Strips' is Armand Hammer’s sixth studio album, and arrives two and a half years after their acclaimed collaboration with the Alchemist. The album features a diverse lineup of producers, including JPEGMAFIA, EL-P, Kenny Segal, DJ Haram,
Black Noi$e, Preservation, August Fanon, Steel Tipped Dove, Child Actor, and Sebb Bash.