Haram Is Intricately Crafted New York Rap at the “Highest Level of Art”
Making Haram was complicated — the juggling of projects like rushing a brood of kids off to school, the record itself assembled from scattered sessions like Frankenstein’s monster, according to Alchemist, the celebrated and remarkably prolific producer. Work on the album––a full-length collaboration with Armand Hammer, the duo comprised of New York-based rappers billy woods and Elucid––was interrupted by Covid restrictions, European tours, and sessions for other LPs, including Alchemist and Freddie Gibbs’ Grammy-nominated Alfredo. That stop-and-start provenance is not apparent. “Sometimes you make a rhyme or a beat and you’re not sure exactly how you made it,” the producer says, “but you can appreciate it in its full form. This album, when I hear it now, sounds real deliberate.”
Though born and raised in Los Angeles, Alchemist cut his teeth with Mobb Deep and acts of equivalent Eastern griminess; the fit is obvious. Many of Haram’s songs unfold slowly, allowing woods to twist his voice around couplets like “Your crew fragile as the Caucasus / as the Balkans is” or for Elucid to recall learning to swim in a pool where a child had drowned (“I heard voices I couldn’t make out in the deep end when I dipped my head under / Come again?”). Despite the physical separation, the trio has an easy rapport––like when Elucid ribs Alchemist for falling in love with a demo where the rapper’s vocals were a near-whisper, a concession to a sleeping baby. Haram is available to stream or purchase tomorrow.
GQ: Before we get into anything, we’ve gotta talk about PETA tweeting at you over the cover [which features two severed pigs’ heads].
billy woods: I didn’t think that the average person in America would take that as an endorsement to eat pork. When I was growing up, PETA used to show horrific pictures of animals being mistreated to encourage people not to eat it. And the album is called Haram, which means forbidden. So it wasn’t too well thought-out on their part. It’s funny fucking with somebody like Alchemist, because in normal situations, I do what I want. The NYPD Patrolmen’s Association didn’t email us about the Shrines cover. To suddenly be in a space where PETA is commenting on things I do is funny.
Al, how long have these guys been on your radar, and how did the collaboration come together?
Alchemist: It was pretty much Thebe [Kgositsile, better known as Earl Sweatshirt]. He’s always putting me onto new stuff. I actually felt stupid, like I was under a rock for not knowing about them. I’d heard a verse from woods on an Evidence[-produced] joint with Mach-Hommy one time. So that’s what started my interest. Then I started digging into each of their catalogs individually, and as Armand Hammer. Their videos… anyone I put onto them, they have the same experience [I did]: they hit me up later like, ‘Damn.’ To me, at this point in my career, it’s fun to have that feeling of finding something I didn’t know about, and being able to put other people onto it, like, ‘Check this shit out, this is the highest level of art.’ It started with me and woods talking; I reached out to him first, and was just like, Yo, I’m a fan,’ and we started building little by little.
woods: It was right after [the solo album] Terror Management. For me, it was like, A. I had just done some solo stuff, and B. Alchemist and Armand Hammer already sounds good. I wanna hear it! I hit up Elucid, and he was like, ‘Of course.’ It’s interesting how it all started. Al sent a pack of beats, and we picked a couple of them and recorded. We had a whole plan of how to do this record: Willie Green was going to engineer it top to bottom, Elucid and I were going to be in the studio together. Real official; we were going to get halfway through, then we would go out to L.A. and finish it in Alchemist’s studio, like with [Raekwon’s Only Built 4] Cuban Linx, how they went to––well, they change the story every time, sometimes they were in Africa, sometimes they were wherever they were. We mapped out dates. The first session, we went in with Willie Green, prepared. And that plan literally went off the rails from that point forward [laughs]. We did three songs: one was incredible, one was good, one was OK. And then we were like, ‘Alright, cool, this is a good start.’ We were waiting for Al to send more beats.
Elucid: I went on a solo tour, then we went to Europe a couple months later.
woods: We went to Europe and didn’t have any more beats. We had some downtime and felt like working. Earl had never sent me any beats, but Elucid had a whole folder of Earl beats––
Elucid: That’s a lie! [all laugh] Two, maybe!
woods: No, it was three! Kenny Segal was making beats live at this Airbnb where we were staying in Europe during some down days on tour. I was like, ‘We should just write.’ So Kenny started working on a beat, then Elucid went in his room and didn’t come out for hours! I’m there writing to Kenny’s beat, and Kenny is like, ‘Where did Elucid go?’ And I’m like, ‘This is what the guy does.’
Alchemist: You gotta be careful when Elucid goes in his room.
Elucid: I’ve gotta breathe new air, man!
woods: And then he came out, and had written a verse to an Earl beat. I was like, that beat sounds crazy, let me write to it.
Is that the [Earl beat] that ended up on Shrines?
woods: That’s “Bitter Cassava,” the first song on Shrines. We did that, then there were other beats coming at us. At first we were like, ‘Maybe we should ask Al––he hadn’t sent any beats in a while––if, in case he didn’t have the energy to do a full group project, we could take some of the ones he did. He was like, ‘Nah, I wanna do our thing.’ But by that point we’d already started [another album]. So we made the whole album Shrines before we had a second session for Haram.
Alchemist: I was taking a little more time than usual. I told them in the beginning, I was really inspired by their music, so I wanted to push myself. I wasn’t just going to go in my iTunes and grab any beats that I had. I was kind of slow-cooking the batches, so I was dragging for a while.
The beats make the album feel, to me, like a summer record; the vocal samples really breathe, there’s a lot of air in the tracks.
Elucid: It’s very light. We kind of set off that kind of Armand Hammer thing with “Charms” on Shrines. Shrines had a lot of brighter sounding moments, and this continues that in the Alchemist chamber. Songs like “Black Sunlight,” “Stonefruit,” we’re doing things with our own vocals and melodies that brighten it up.
Right. And I’m thinking specifically about the Earl joint [“Falling Out the Sky”]: it really feels like one of those still summer songs, a little bit wistful.
woods: It’s really interesting in how it came to be: Earl started that song, and it was all built from Thebe and Al being together.
Elucid: Al, did Earl throw that Little Richard clip in there?
Alchemist: Nah, I threw that in there because of the “star” line [in Earl’s verse]. But he laid that verse and it was so personal, you know, talking about his father behind his eyes, the stars, black supernovas––
Elucid: He ends the verse saying “sly.”
Alchemist: He does. I just feel like everybody’s verse on there was so incredible––it’s like, that temporary escape from what’s going on. When Elucid and I were talking recently about his verse, about where he grew up at and his proximity to the Catskills, he talked about how the sound of silence out there is deafening. That shit, to me, is what makes them such great writers, and makes this album and their music unique.
One of the things I find texturally interesting is the decision to have the three songs with guest rappers — Earl, Curly Castro, and Quelle Chris– all in a row; I think it works because each of those beats sounds like the guest’s voice, so it’s like you’re bringing one new sound into the album at a time, not just tacking on 16s.
Elucid: That’s woods on the sequencing. We talked about who we wanted on those; they were perfect complements. Curly Castro is nasty on “Wishing Bad.” “Chicharonnes” is just… We had that song half-done for a while, and I was kind of dragging my feet on it. I was looking for another production thing. I was doing the Small Bills record at the time [a collaboration with the Michigan producer the Lasso], so maybe I was in a more melodic zone. I remember I was just about to leave for Detroit, and I was like, ‘I can’t do it.’ But once I heard Chris, I was like, ‘I should have been on there.’ He turned that thing inside out.
Courtesy of Alexander Richter for Armand Hammer
The other sequencing thing I want to talk about comes at the end. The last three Armand Hammer records finish on quieter notes: [Paraffin’s] “Root Farm” is gentle, and Rome and Shrines each end with one-verse woods pieces––“Eucharist” literally fades out. But “Stonefruit” is this bigger, wider, more emotive song. Was it simply the most obvious closer to come out of the sessions, or did you guys go in thinking you wanted to pull another lever at the end?
woods: “Stonefruit” was in that first session we did. We were like, ‘This is one of the best songs we’ve ever made.’ We had that same feeling as after “Charms.”
Elucid: As soon as I heard that beat… it looked like, if I could see the beat, fireworks over a river. I had the chorus and the melody in like two minutes. Then one day the words came. I knew that was the one.
Alchemist: I was real excited when we got that record. With me, I’m already thinking as we’re collecting records: ‘I could potentially place this here or there.’ I never would have put that at the end. That was woods. Me and him had a talk about that. I was like, ‘How could we put this at the end?’ But he presented a good argument: ‘If we could make a record that’s entertaining, and this is the last song, we win.’ You know what I mean? Pulling that off, having that restraint, having that ace in your hand… I feel like that was the right call. That was all woods.
woods: But also: What are you gonna do after that? [all laugh] Are we gonna have another song? If you write it, then cool, but don’t make it my job to come up with another song after it.
Being physically separated, was it hard to get on the same page in terms of topic, theme, mood?
woods: I’d say it’s the same as always, man. It runs the gamut. Sometimes there’s been no conversation; sometimes there’s a conversation that the other person seems to have ignored [laughs]. And then other times it’s just a title: with “Sir Benni Miles,” Elucid just said the name.
Elucid: Then something like “Black Sunlight”: we had that Terror Management release show, and MIKE played. I saw MIKE on stage and was like, ‘MIKE is a star.’ The way he moves, his pocket when he rhymes… and he smiled a lot. He smiled a lot. I remembered that. Like, ‘Damn, he has the best smile out here!’ That’s originally how “Black Sunlight” came to be. [Elucid raps the opening bar of his verse: an impassioned “Smile, niggas”] I was talking about MIKE. That was the inspiration.
And then, Al, when you’re getting these demos back, are you talking to them to get at the root of what they’re saying, or are you taking them in more impressionistically?
Alchemist: I think it’s both. Sometimes I’ll ask ‘em questions, or sometimes I’ll talk to Thebe, who’s my translator because he’s as lyrically inclined as they are. These guys are incredible writers, but don’t get it twisted, because they make it bounce on the beat. Elucid’s rhythms is like…
Elucid: That shit is so important, man.
Alchemist: I describe him to people as dangerous all the time. He’s just dangerous. He’s cutting and slicing in ways, rhythmically and melodically, that are so different.
Elucid: It’s gotta be funky. I grew up in that era of, you know, late-90s, early-2000s type of rap, where I love wordy, knotty, dense rap. But a lot of times you listen to that and go, ‘Oh, it’s just too much: y’all not as funky as you could be, with the delivery and how you’re landing on the beat and how you’ll stop and start.’ I’m really into that. I think loving both sides is getting at what Al’s talking about.
Yeah, speaking of that sense of danger: on “Indian Summer,” woods opens with a verse that alludes to this mounting dread, then Elucid comes on like that dread manifested.
Elucid: I was summoned.
woods: That’s one of my favorite songs on there. I remember when we got that beat I was like––
Alchemist: Qadry Ismail?! I’d never heard a Qadry Ismail reference before.
Elucid: Oh man, that’s one of my favorite wide receivers as a kid!
All three of you have catalogs going back years, but it seems like the pace of work is accelerating [this is the fourth Armand Hammer album in 40 months], and you’re on such runs––
woods: Al’s on his own run. Al is Marlon Brando in the flower garden. It’s all done! It’s all in the books! [all laugh] From here on out it doesn’t matter. He already won it all. All the enemies are vanquished.
Elucid: They’re drafting apology emails right now.
Alchemist: I’m excited for this album to come out, I can’t front. I’ve been telling them for weeks. It was ready toward the end of last year, we were just getting it mastered and mixed, and I was like, ‘Damn, we’re sitting on something great.’ For me, I want to fuck people up. This is exciting to me.
Originally Appeared on GQ