“We’re culture workers. Right now, especially, we’re at war.”
I’m talking to Rory Allen Phillip Ferreira on May 20, five days before George Floyd is murdered by the Minneapolis police, an event that leads to worldwide Black Lives Matter protests and closely mirrors the issues Ferreira talks about in his art. Ferreira, 28, is a Chicago-born and Nashville-living rapper who now performs under a version of his given name, R.A.P. Ferreira, after years of releasing music as Milo (“The whole rap name thing just kind of seemed silly to me at this point,” he explains).
Ferreira and a small but dedicated group of compatriots are forming a new and vibrant strand in hip-hop culture. They work together and apart in various combinations, and sound wildly different. But what they have in common, more than a sound or a location, is a determination to be original and exist outside of the mainstream. This means these artists—rappers like Ferreira, New York City spitters billy woods and Elucid, and Detroit native Quelle Chris—are usually described by terms like “experimental” and “arty.” In fact, it was Open Mike Eagle, a childhood mentor of Ferreira’s, who first adopted the term “art rap” in the early 2000s.
“I was listening to rock music, and it struck me that a lot of the rock I liked was called ‘art rock,’” Mike told LA Weekly in 2010. “I started wondering why they had a genre where they can do whatever the fuck they want to do, and rappers are scorned if they don’t have enough machismo.”
But this generation of art rap artists is scorned no more. Their emphasis on originality, poetry, and a focus on Blackness in all of its variety is meeting a new audience of listeners, critics, and fellow artists who are hungry for what they’re providing. woods’ 2019 masterpiece Hiding Places, with producer Kenny Segal, ended up on TIME’s list of “the Best Albums of 2019.” And a new generation of artists, most notably Earl Sweatshirt, are praising, working with, and making music in the same vein as these art rap pioneers. It’s a movement that has become one of the most vital things happening in hip-hop today. Boundaries are stretched constantly, in a way that recalls the innovation that took place in rap’s Golden Age, without aping that era’s sonics.
Nate LeBlanc is a podcaster and writer who is a co-host of the Dad Bod Rap Pod podcast, a show that regularly features interviews with members of this camp. “These are the smartest, most well-informed, best orators of their generation,” he says. “When they come together, there's a poetic sensibility with a political backbone and a distinctly artistic chaotic, messy energy.”
They all came together most recently on Shrines, the new record by Armand Hammer, which is the group name for the duo of Elucid and billy woods. Ferreira, Quelle, Earl, and several other young artists in this lineage are featured on the record. It marks a culmination of decades of art-making, movement building, and an ever-present search for honest expression, prevailing trends be damned. The lyrics are so dense that you could spend hours deciphering all the implications of each track, but Elucid and woods sound so vivid and engaged that it’s the furthest thing from a manifesto or a poetry reading. The music veers from beautiful to scary, sometimes within seconds.
The record, while recorded before lockdown, fits this scary but infinitely repetitive time to a tee: “We’re bored of the apocalypse,” Elucid spits on “Slewfoot,” and it sounds like nothing less than the tagline for our new socially distanced lives. Shrines is a representation of this movement, not only because it brings together most of its top practitioners and leading lights; but also because it uses the idea of “art rap”—of being layered and experimental, of filtering political observations through personal experiences, and vice-versa: of reaching for new ways of saying things—not just for its own sake, but in the service of making the art itself great.
“I demurred with an African accent/Even his message raps got the malware attachment” - billy woods, “Rehearse With Ornette”
I thought it might be intimidating to speak to billy woods. The rapper goes out of his way to hide his face in photos, and he has a stentorian voice of God when on the microphone. Even his boasts of violence make him sound much tougher and much smarter than you: “I shoot you in the street, be home for breakfast/Yes it's sick, but banalities might as well be death threats.” But when I actually reach him, he’s kind, self-effacing, and more than willing to talk about how he landed in his current vanguard position.
He grew up a bit of a nomad: born in Washington, D.C. to parents from two different countries (he’s cagey about which two), his family moved to Zimbabwe when he was young, though he also spent time in Jamaica and frequently traveled to New York City. After settling back in New York, he met the rapper Vordul Mega in 1996. Vordul was not yet a member of the legendary group Cannibal Ox. At that time, he was still a young member of the Atoms Family crew.
“[Vordul] was younger than me, but was part of a whole zeitgeist in the New York underground that was happening at that time,” woods remembers. “He was just a prodigy. And he was also somebody who by his very nature always wants people to participate.”
Encouraged by his new friend, woods began writing his own rhymes. It was a practice he began taking more seriously once he started attending Howard University in D.C. And watching Cannibal Ox form, get signed to Def Jux, and release their classic album The Cold Vein served as inspiration. But from the beginning, woods was focused on finding his own voice.
“I kind of early on said, ‘Well, the best thing to do is just to have your own thing that you're doing, because then you don't have to worry about anybody else,’” he tells me. “If you do your thing, and if your thing has any merit, you can get better and develop that. I wanted to do what I was doing. I know that nobody else is going to write like I write, or look at the world how I look at the world. That's just not possible.”
After some early-aughts solo work, woods ended up working in groups and crews, most notably the Reavers and Super Chron Flight Brothers. But in 2012, he went solo again with History Will Absolve Me, a record that sparked his current renaissance. It was only a few months before that record’s release, at a Christmas-themed hip-hop show in 2011, that woods first met Elucid. woods recalls asking Elucid to collaborate that same night, and then going back into the catalog: “I went home and listened to his music that night and was like, this is genius.”
“I know that nobody else is going to write like I write, or look at the world how I look at the world.” - billy woods
It didn’t take long after that for Armand Hammer to begin. And it turned out that woods’ deep, booming pronouncements paired very well with Elucid, whose dynamic delivery was inspired by a childhood spent in a Pentecostal church.
“Growing up in the church, that definitely influenced my performance,” Elucid explains. “That's when I picked up on things I'm still uncovering to this day. You can do this thing with your voice, kind of like dynamics, going from loud to soft, to excited to hushed. That is what a preacher does, that riding the wave of an audience's emotion.”
The two were a perfect match. Elucid, who had spent his whole career feeling like “the oddball in the group,” finally met someone even more eccentric than he was. And as a duo, they create what the rapper describes as “weaving narratives” that imbue each song with layers of meaning. woods compares the group’s lyrical layers to the complexities of interpersonal relationships. “Sometimes there might be something that only one or two people would know under the other three things. Sometimes your relationship with somebody isn't one thing,” he explains. “Are you and this person friends? That can be a simple yes or no, and also upon investigation it could be a lot of things.”
A lot of those complexities come out in the historical, literary, musical, and pop-cultural references the duo employs. woods may name-drop a favorite David Mamet monologue (as he does in his solo track “Steak Knives”) or David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech, but he’s equally likely to big-up King Tubby or mention a Farraday cage. For woods, all of it is a way of “engaging in dialogue with one’s predecessor.”
His groupmate is all about that as well. Elucid is quick to praise poets like Sonia Sanchez and Gwendolyn Brooks, and expound on the connections between jazz and the Black Power movement. So it makes sense that he and Ferreira teamed up in another duo, Nostrum Grocers.
“Toss a homie a beat like, ‘Hold this’/Art-rap globalist” - R.A.P. Ferreira, “An Idea Is a Work of Art”
Elucid and R.A.P. Ferreira met when they were both booked for an internet radio show, and noticed they had an instant rapport. They also shared, Elucid says, “a love of underground rap, and a love of this particular kind of Blackness.” By which he means the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, but also “agency among Black people in this country, in this time, right now.” And when both of their partners became pregnant around the same time, they bonded over discussions on how to raise a Black child.
That they ended up meeting at all was a longshot. As much as woods, Ferreira is a nomad (“a brother of the wind,” he jokes). Chicago-raised, he moved to L.A. at 22, with the expectation that he’d set the rap world on fire. While that didn’t exactly happen, he did hook up with the rapper Nocando and his label Hellfyre Club. Ferreira also met one of his closest artistic progenitors, the L.A. rap collective Freestyle Fellowship. Their dense, poetic, frequently improvised style, and the scene that birthed it, provided a sort of ’90s West Coast counterpart to NYC’s Nuyorican crew. (For more about that period, you can check out Ava DuVernay’s 2008 doc This Is the Life—DuVernay herself rapped at the time in a group called Figures of Speech.)
“That's my Mount Rushmore, man,” Ferreira says of Freestyle Fellowship. “In this art rap, weird rap, indie rap shit, if you're not fucking with Freestyle Fellowship, you have not studied your history, you don't know what you're talking about, and you're kind of a buster. So to me it was extremely important to go to the source: to go to Leimert Park to meet those dudes, get to know those dudes, write songs with those dudes, get their blessing, perform in front of them, eat with them, kick it with them for real, because I'm not a tourist. This is my culture and this is my life, and it exists outside of industry, outside of business, outside of an audience. It's artist to artist.”
“I’m going to be a connector from Myka 9 to these f*cking 13-year-olds who think NBA YoungBoy’s the sh*t.’” - R.A.P. Ferreira
Ferreira, two decades-plus younger than the Freestyle Fellowship members, wasn’t aware of them in their heyday. He discovered them through the documentary Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme, which, as a freshman in high school circa 2007, he watched with his dad. He saw something in Fellowship member Myka 9 that struck him deeply (“I was like, ‘Oh wow. That’s me, man. That's me’”) and he began an intense digging process that he compares to archaeology.
“I was like, ‘Yo, I got to get all this shit. It can’t die. It can’t die,’” he says. “That's always been the battery in my back. It's just like, ‘Yo, I'm going to connect this shit. I'm going to be a connector from Myka 9 to these fucking 13-year-olds who think NBA YoungBoy’s the shit.’”
An adolescence spent digging into Freestyle Fellowship and other members of the Project Blowed scene shows up in Ferreira’s music today. His most recent solo album, Purple Moonlight Pages, is full of joyful, boastful, abstract poetic flights. “Need my own island to transmit from,” he says on “U.D.I.G. (United Defenders of International Goodwill).” It’s as good a summary as any of his singular approach to rapping.
When Ferriera connected with Elucid, he not only found a friend and another Freestyle Fellowship acolyte—they both reference the same FF song on recent tracks—he also gained a new way of looking at his career. Prior, he had been discouraged that his mainstream dreams hadn’t come true, seeing firsthand how “only the most boo-boo vapid thin bullshit rises to the top.”
“Before I met Elucid I was like, ‘Damn. My shit is kind of small-time, bro. I'm just out here on this indefinite grind.’ And when I met Elucid, he kind of put that in perspective, like, ‘Bro, you have an indefinite grind. What a gift. You could be a rapper forever if you wanted to.’ It really put a feather in my cap. I felt I could poke my chest out a little bit more.”
Ferreira treasures that independence. He now lives in Nashville and started an artistic collective of childhood friends called Ruby Yacht, doing what he views as his job of being “a link in the Black music chain.” Ferreira’s approach brings out a lighter side in Elucid than his often-world-weary collaborations with woods.
“With woods, it's darker, it's more dread-filled, it's more cutting to the bone,” Elucid says. “It's very heavy, but it's reflected back on where we're at as a people in this world.” With Ferreira, on the other hand: “It's about, ‘Yes, this fucked up shit is happening, but you know what? We're going to be alright. This is how we're going to do it.’ And you're going to make it fly. It’s two different sides of myself. Some days I feel like woods, some days I feel like Milo.”
Whoever he feels like, Elucid is wholly himself. He’ll drop religious language in a way that jokingly nods to his Pentecostal roots (“Show me your commandments, I’ll show you mine,” he raps on 2018’s “Bad Credit Is Better Than No Credit”); but he’s also deadly serious about his art. “The well I draw from scalding/Living waters; a pursuit is not quite the same thing as a calling,” he raps on another song, letting you know full well which side of that divide he stands on.
“I be knuckle down, ape, and 'bout my business, back straight/I was never weirdo, they just had to acclimate” - Quelle Chris, “Obamacare”
Quelle Chris, who has billy woods on his most recent album Innocent Country 2 (made in partnership with producer Chris Keys) and in turn appears on Armand Hammer’s Shrines, is another artist who doesn’t view humor as in any way antithetical to being a creative, original, serious artist. He and his peers, he says, are pushing for originality in the same way his 1990s hip-hop influences did, while not sounding like simple updates of the boom-bap pioneers. And, appropriately for someone who titled a recent album Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often, he’s concerned with the need to be yourself.
“I think what connects us is that we're artists that are sticking true to what hip-hop always was to me,” he explains when I catch him on the phone, just weeks before he’s about to leave a pandemic-ridden New York City for North Carolina. “Back in the nineties, it was more about sounding like you have something different. It was all great hip hop. The connection was that everything was different, and being different was the norm. Being you was what made you dope. And now, being you is more of an outlier thing. It’s become far more of a corporate machine.”
Quelle’s last several projects (2017’s Being You…; the following year’s collaborative Everything’s Fine with his wife, the rap legend and polymath Jean Grae; 2019’s Guns; and Innocent Country 2) have brought the rapper to a new level of acclaim. But, he points out, he’s always received great reviews. What’s happening now is simply a numbers game.
“The more you come around, it's almost like the chitlin' circuit idea. Every time you popped back up, the people that heard you the first time are going to show back up with more people. With every album, the numbers have grown and the reception got bigger.”
But Quelle has been around long enough (he’s been releasing solo albums since 2011, and had a long history on the Detroit scene prior) that he’s seen the perceptions of him change in ways that have nothing to do with the music. He goes through the list with me:
“It was ‘Detroit rap.’ Then it was ‘weed rap.’ Then it was ‘boom bap.’ And then it was ‘conscious rap.’ And then ‘weird’ or ‘quirky’ was the go-to. Then I was ‘art rap.’ Then I was ‘abstract.’ And now I'm ‘experimental.’ None of those things are the same. And it's still the same person.”
"Back in the ’90s, being you was what made you dope. Now, being you is more of an outlier thing.” - Quelle Chris
The classifications always fall short. Quelle is a one-man factory, writing and producing songs, conceptualizing and co-directing ambitious and hysterical videos, and even doing his own animation. Innocent Country 2 goes from an examination of Black Twitter to a ritual for elders to a fervent hope for change to a stark look at death. He’s funny, pointed, angry, sad, and all the feelings are right up against each other. And he’s aware that his peers like Elucid and billy woods, while wildly different from him, are creating room for him to thrive as well. He remembers a recent encounter with Elucid.
“We were talking, and I was thanking him for continuing to do what he does. Because while aesthetic-wise, we don't make the same stuff, I think us sticking to our guns has provided an opening to be like, ‘Things that aren't what we always hear are acceptable.’ Having people like woods out there championing for keeping things fresh helped cultivate what we've all been cultivating, which is an escape from what's mass-marketed, mass shoved down your throat.”
With that need to provide an escape from mass culture central to all their work, it’s no surprise that younger artists like Earl Sweatshirt have expressed admiration for this crew. Not coincidentally, Earl shows up on both Innocent Country 2 and Shrines. Quelle, who has known Earl for years via a connection with the Odd Future Records band Trash Talk, views the Odd Future spitter as someone who has stopped being concerned with what his audience wants.
“That's freedom. That's power,” Quelle says. “That's what art is supposed to be. It's supposed to be exploration and growth and creation. I think once you get to the point of re-creation, then it's not as much art as it is manufacturing. He got tired of manufacturing.”
“Earl is mining from a similar place that we all are,” agrees Elucid. “It's dope, because it's a recognized kinship. You see mostly similar things in each other, and you're drawn to each other.”
“I’m no fatalist/Real Black, like save the bacon grease” - Elucid, “Circumsion Is the First Betrayal”
In the end, more than anything aesthetic, what binds artists like billy woods, Elucid, Ferreira, and Quelle Chris together is a sense that they’re on the same team. They all may sound different, but, as Elucid puts it when I talk to him, “I feel like we share similar ideas surrounding humanity and consciousness.” They are fighting to expand artistic boundaries; to continue the canon of radical Black art; to be original; and to be the best version of themselves that they possibly can, as opposed to the most commercial or acceptable. They are, as Ferreira told me, at war. But it’s a war that, in some important ways, they’re finally beginning to win.