"Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory." - Matthew 4:8
Armand Hammer is the name of one man (Armand Hammer, 1898 – 1990) and a hip-hop duo from New York, consisting of rappers billy woods and ELUCID. From debute Race Music to most recent record Shrines billy woods simply refuses to show himself completely. On the Race Music record cover, woods is the man-with-newspaper and continues to fade into the background. ELUCID is the more visible half, although he keeps thriving in the underground.
Written by: Roelof Schipper
With his face stubbornly out of the picture - even on WhatsApp it remains audio only - billy woods comes across as someone who constantly feels that he's being watched. Eighteen years ago, during George W. Bush's first term, he debuted with Camouflage, followed by records like Known Unknowns and Hiding Places - his career is a slow, receding move.
Enter the historic Armand Hammer (1898 - 1990): With the eyes of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover behind him, he shuttles between the United States and the Soviet Union. Those who search the internet for 'Armand Hammer' are still the first to come across the American industrialist and former head of Occidental Petroleum: a man with square glasses, a gray-blue suit and ties with the then Soviet Union that were slightly too familiar.
Met zijn gezicht koppig buiten beeld – ook op WhatsApp blijft het bij audio only – komt billy woods over als iemand die ook te veel ogen in zijn rug voelt. Achttien jaar geleden, tijdens de eerste termijn van George W. Bush, debuteert hij met Camouflage, gevolgd door platen als Known Unknowns en Hiding Places – zijn carrière is een langzame, terugtrekkende beweging.
City without people
In Dordrecht it is half past seven and in New York it is half past two; woods is at home doing the dishes. Sound of plates, cutlery, traffic ahead, kittens.
“Life here is pretty boring. New York is a city without people, without social life, without activities, without public transport. Yes, public transport is still there, but you really don't want to use it. Every reason you could have for living in a city, the urban lifestyle, it's gone. What I did today? Just working. I have somewhere to go in the afternoon. I'm doing the dishes now, during this interview. This morning I did some administration.”
"The Netherlands fascinated me. It was old, very different from London. It felt more Byzantine, mysterious."
“I don't really notice that the whole corona situation is doing something to my creativity. Even now you will find your way. As an artist or creative person, the world does not stop outside your own living situation. In the beginning it was really difficult. At the same time, there are people who are much worse off. At least I still have my work, my music, my projects.”
woods sounds a bit hoarse, but speaks clearly. He speaks easily, like a man who reads a lot, has seen a lot, someone who associates quickly back and forth. He is not always easy to follow, follows a question with a paragraph, and sometimes ends up right at the beginning of his answer
I remember the Netherlands
woods: “I remember the Netherlands; I know Amsterdam, Rotterdam. I was eight. We flew regularly between the United States and Zimbabwe - my father is from Zimbabwe - and my mother liked to stop in the Netherlands. The Netherlands fascinated me. It was old, very different from London. It felt more byzantine, mysterious. I remember a hotel; in the lobby I played on an arcade machine - a combination of Space Invaders and Pacman. I remember that. Sometimes we went to London; I hated London, Heathrow and Gatwick. But I still remember Schiphol. That was very organized and small - how old are you?”
“So you don't remember 1988; I remember the period just after the Cold War: 1990 (the year of German reunification, ed.), I remember Frankfurt. As a child, Germany felt cold. The people were cold and distant. And hard. That's part of being a black person. Sometimes I have to remind myself: Some peoples are assholes. And sometimes the concentration of assholes is high.”
I remember Zimbabwe
In 2015, billy woods speaks to the now-defunct Tiny Mix Tapes: “I looked at my birth certificate and the countries where my parents were born. It read: 'Mother from British West Indies, father from Rhodesia.' Those countries no longer exist.”
Rhodesia is the birthplace of Woods' father - predecessor of present-day Zimbabwe and successor to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia. As a political refugee, Woods' father moves to New York, where he meets Woods' mother, also from a British colony, now Jamaica.
Around the start of the Republic - in 1979 - the Woods family moved to Zimbabwe. I recall a short stay in 2003 or 2004. Zimbabwe: no money in the ATMs, little bread in the shop, people on the street, asphalt and dust, the sun.
Woods: “2003, 2004 - Mugabe (President of Zimbabwe from 1987 to 2017 and coverstar of Billy Woods' History Will Absolve Me, ed.) was still in power at the time. This must have been during the regime's first or second financial crisis - inflations. I was long gone by then - I left in the late 1990s. I haven't been back since."
"The United States will never truly disappear, there is too much power and wealth at stake for that."
“What do I remember? I was excited to go back to New York from Harare. And I was sad (woods' father passed away in the late 90s, ed.). I grew up there and had to leave a nice home behind. I had to say goodbye to my friends. This was for Facebook, so I just had to hope to keep in touch with my friends there. I was about to turn thirteen. On the other hand, I felt American inside. I was born there.”
I remember America I: the fallen city
A little earlier, in 1776, the Thirteen Colonies inscribed into the past for good to make way for what is still called the United States of America, with its first president, Commander-in-Chief George Washington. woods takes another look at his passport and finds his parents' origins only in history: history will absolve me. Formosa, Basutoland, Czechoslovakia, the Third Catalan Republic, The United States - how much longer?
woods: “Good question. The end of America may already be underway. Or it has already happened - hard to say anything about it. The Russian Empire no longer exists in its original form, but in its place there is something that operates in a different way but at the same time has many similarities with what was there before. Vladimir Putin will still be in power as president in 2024 and will continue to use his influence in Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, just like way before the time of the Soviet Union.”
“In a way, the end of the United States has already started; or takes a different form. About the Roman Empire: that disintegrated and that form has completely disappeared. The British Empire has also disappeared, but not in the same way as the Roman Empire. In time it pulled itself to the bottom of the sea, but never completely disappeared: it took on a different shape. The United States will never disappear completely, there is too much power and wealth at stake for that.”
I remember America II: the end of the apartheid state
Are there any indications that the US is taking on a different shape? "Clues? you never know. Thirty-five years ago you couldn't tell me that South Africa as an apartheid state would be over by 1990. Or take, for example, all the protests in China's Tiananmen Square (quoted on Shrines' second track, 'Solarium': “I'm all in the sun, I'm all in the sun / Tiananmen Square, I'm all in the sun” .) Finally something would change. And things have changed, but perhaps not in the way people envisioned during the protests.”
“If we had a Marxist society here, Trump would be head of the CCCP.”
“Is the United States now taking on a different shape? Trump is at least showing something of this time: showing something of this time: the constant back and forth between progressive and conservative. Ebb and flow. Trump, a snake oil salesman, has caught the latest conservative, nationalist wave. And good too, with a sense of timing. He addresses his own group sufficiently and plays the other group against it. That's all it is”
I Remember America III: Trump, Head of CCCP
One of the many recurring themes on Shrines is the Bible. The record begins with the opening lines “Lord, help me” and ends fourteen tracks later with “The Eucharist”. And Trump also identifies as a Christian - the man posed with a Bible held upside down - then Woods breaks in: “TRUMP IS NOT A CHRISTIAN. The Bible is full of people who talk like Trump, who use religion for their own ends. Some of those people were Jesus' sworn enemies. Even the devil quotes the Bible. Is Trump a Christian? It's an opportunist. He doesn't care. If we had a Marxist society here, Trump would be head of the CCCP. If America were a theological society, Trump would nominate himself as Pope. He has no ideology - except the suction of power.”
One of the passages in the Bible where the devil quotes the Bible is the New Testament, Matthew 4:8: "Again the devil took him up into a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and their glory." The same passage is quoted in closing track The Eucharist: "Followed the devil to the high place, the pinnacle."
When I ask woods about his favorite Bible story - "Oh man" - he also refers to this passage: "I remember it from scripture class. I think the story was called The Devil Takes Jesus To A High Place And Tempts Him With Everything. Why has it stuck like this? I don't know - I imagined it so eloquently: a high place from which you can see everything and you can have everything. And I think the devil took another physical form later on—I thought a lion.” “Other than that, I wouldn't know. I see and understand that the Bible is an extremely fundamental document for so many people, I see how it addresses the human condition… I'm not a practitioner. Both my parents grew up in very religious homes. It played a huge role in their lives. But my mother didn't necessarily want to pass it on. She was free in that, wanted me to figure it out for myself. My father was quite anti-religious – because of the politics of it.”
And all the kingdoms
Where does the devil appear as a lion? Billy may be referring to (half a reminder of) Peter 5:8 Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil walketh about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.
The devil's extra role as a persistent opponent does not stop there: he appears as a liar on ‘Kanun’ (Race Music), as a diary keeper on ‘Sudden Death’ (Paraffin) and as a flying scythe over the de Gevallen Stad (on the cover of Rome). Where does the devil reside today? The Eucharist hints at a house of worship: “Burst out that house of worship, that thing flamin', no amen.”
If the devil pretends to be an introverted diary-keeper-with-bible one time, and enters the house of worship with great violence in the next, then the danger is really creeping in. And somewhere in the process, it has to go wrong.
Shrines, Armand Hammer's new album, can be heard and purchased on Bandcamp. .
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.