ABOVE: OLD MONEY. PHOTO COURTESY OF KING TEXAS
Old Money is a rap/production duo who prove that hip-hop can be thought-provoking, fun, and original in a seamless and simultaneous fashion. Made up of Jamaican-born Ahmad Julian and Andre Oswald, who maintain Guyanese roots (both grew up in New York), the group has a voice and a swagger that introduces a fresh international element to the game, best exhibited in Old Money’s newest effort, Fire in The Dark. Songs like the sleek, slithering “Black Pepper” and the global bass banger “Swahili and Dough” may bring listeners back to the more ominous records off M.I.A.’s Kala, whereas “Doctor Doctor,” a matter-of-fact track that speaks on the pitfalls and harsh realities of healthcare (or lack thereof), incites minimal dancehall sounds with a futuristic edge. We spoke to the group about FITD, their musical beginnings, and how they nearly got rejected from their label Dutty Artz.
ALEX CHAPMAN: Tell me about your upbringing and how it has affected you musically.
AHMAD JULIAN: My earliest years were in Jamaica, and then, for the most part, straight Brooklyn. I heard a lot of roots reggae, and ’80s R&B. Dancehall and rap crept in a bit later, but Beres Hammond’s “Putting Up A Resistance” and Anita Baker’s Rapture album are among the first pieces of music that I recall making an impression, just hearing it around the house. After that, I got introduced to Wu-Tang, Mobb Deep, and Lost Boyz at around the same time and that just blew my whole shit wide open. Before that, rap never really appealed to me at all. I just remember being really young and annoyed and perplexed at this “they” that rappers kept referring to. “They” that I now know to be haters, enemies, punk police, or just opposing forces blocking wherever it is they’re trying to go. I just remember feeling like, “Why are these people putting so much energy into talking about ‘them’?” Now that I’m a little older and more nuanced, I get it. But at the time, it was a serious block for me in terms of getting into the music. And I was like, seven years old or some shit. Ha!
CHAPMAN: How’d you guys get into music?
ANDRE OSWALD: My parents used to wake me up, put me in a red leather jacket, and make me go in the living room and do the Michael Jackson dance for company.
JULIAN: I think it was hearing shit on the radio and simply feeling like “Yo, I could do that.” When I was just starting, I was writing shit that I thought my friends would think was funny or cool or whatever the fuck. Just outlandish, vulgar, unnecessary-to-the-world type shit. Whatever I thought would get a reaction, I would say that shit, and it kinda just evolved from there. Eventually started messing around at a friend’s crib in high school, recording into tape decks. And then we stepped it up and started using Cool Edit Pro and that shit was like the illest game changer, because when we were doing tape decks, we had to all lay it in one take. If somebody fucked up, you had to do the whole joint over again. But with Cool Edit, you could punch in, have ad-lib tracks, the whole nine. That shit was a quantum leap for real. So yeah, Dre [Oswald] started coming through, and working on shit there, and then at a couple other spots, and we built from there.
CHAPMAN: Where’d you guy originally meet?
JULIAN: At school pretty much. We had the same kicks, and to hear Dre tell it, I was all like, “Nice sneakers, fam” to him or whatever, but the truth is I had more than one pair of those particular joints—I think they were the Dan O’Briens or some other Air Max running shoes that was fly to me at the time—and he was all like, “Yo, how many pairs of those you got?” And we kinda just kicked it from there. We would battle each other on instant messenger and over email, sending verses back and forth and then showing to our friends at the lunch table to see who won. Some 21st-century rap shit. What would the contemporary version of that be? Sending Vines back and forth? “Yo, you got six seconds to body that dude!”
CHAPMAN: How did it grow from something playful like that to a more serious collaboration?
JULIAN: After a while I think we were just like, maybe we should try making shit together? And from the jump, Dre in particular was always into us making “songs,” not just “freestyles” on other people’s beats. And yeah, it wasn’t too long after that where we started playing small shows in the city. This is over 10 years ago.
CHAPMAN: What do you think made it or makes you guys a good fit musically?
JULIAN: I’d say just the fact that we’re such old friends, and the fact that even though we’ve each evolved multiple times, we’ve always managed to grow in the same direction when it comes to the important things.
CHAPMAN: When did it become something you wanted to pursue as a career?
JULIAN: It was pretty early on, I think, not that long after we started making music together. Youthful arrogance, perhaps, but we dead-ass felt like our shit was just as good as the shit we were hearing from the so-called professionals. If not, better! And you know what, come to think of it, we still kinda feel that way now. Just saying. It’s also always been a matter of us thinking that we have a voice worth tuning into as well. A lot of people are moderately talented, I guess, but are adding absolutely nothing to any kind of conversation anywhere in any regard. And I’m for people following their dreams and shit, but a part of me also wants some of them to shut the fuck up and clear out.
CHAPMAN: How did you guys develop into the identity you have now as Old Money?
JULIAN : It’s definitely been a process, both in terms of production and content. A lot of trial and error, a lot of just having fun and trying shit out, in terms of production style and different concepts. But as a result, I can say with full confidence and no ego that between Dre and I, I feel like we can pretty much make any kind of song that we want to. And that’s really because we had so much time to develop. I think just one day, several years back, it just all clicked. A bunch of previously unconnected dots just started lighting up in the brain like, “This would sound dope with this and would be dope and connects to this because of this,” and boom boom. And content-wise, just thinking about everything we saw growing up, everything happening around us at the time, and not really seeing too many folks out there addressing it in interesting ways gave us the push that we needed to commit to the sound/approach that we were starting to shape.
CHAPMAN: How did your guys’ relationship with Dutty Artz happen?
JULIAN: Well, it’s funny. First, they rejected and/or ignored, our No. 1 Champion Sound EP. I don’t expect them to remember, but we had a mutual friend reach out on our behalf because we had peeped what they were doing and thought they would be a great fit, and one of the heads who I’ll spare calling out by—I was either copied on the email or forwarded—where he was basically like “Yo, tell them muhfuckas to submit through Soundcloud like everybody else” and we did, and then crickets. He probably won’t even remember until he reads this. But then the connection happened more organically the second time around. We heard Boima was moving to NY, and I was a fan of his music, and Dre and I had an event series going at the time, so I reached out to him to guest DJ, and then we kind of just kept in touch from there. Started linking up, hanging out with him and the fam, kicked it at South By together, ended up working on some tunes with Lamin, and pretty proud to now have our shit be a part of their catalog. A.L.I.E.N., a very likeminded brand, albeit in a different medium, co-presented the project. It’s been really dope being a connector between these two super influential brands who I think were doing very similar things, just in different spaces.
CHAPMAN: How did Fire in the Dark come together?
JULIAN: It’s been a few years in the making, because we were very intent on being completely happy with it when it came out. And really, for me, it started with a phone conversation I had with Dre where, again, we said that thing earlier for the first time—”We’re too smart to be playing dumb.” That’s really the spark right there. We wanted to speak on practical day-to-day shit, like not having any health insurance, and then the spiritual, metaphysical shit that we’ve always been drawn to as well. The battle to evolve, to be better than this plane of existence encourages you to be, you know? Sonically, FITD is also meant to show how connected a lot of these sounds—kwaito, funky, funk carioca and others—are. Frankly, I haven’t heard another project that did all of what I think we accomplished with Fire In The Dark. Which is exactly what we wanted to do: Make the project that we wanted to hear. Anybody else fuckin’ with it is just extra gravy.
CHAPMAN: What’s it like playing the songs off the new tape live?
JULIAN: It’s dope, man, and “Mothership” definitely sets things off lovely. People have always reacted well to that one in particular, and it was made over 3 years ago, which is crazy. “Razor,” interestingly, has also gotten great reaction when we’ve done it. But we typically do a medley of older stuff like “Ackee & Saltfish,” as well as one-offs like “Dolla Van” and “Bodega,” and people really fuck with it, and often, they’ve never heard it before.
CHAPMAN: You guys worked with Kool A.D., formally of Das Racist, on a track we’re premiering with this interview called “Hot Soda.” How’d that happen?
OSWALD: Needed a rapper with a beard, couldn’t afford Rick Ross, so…
JULIAN: Well, Kool A.D. and Dre went to college together, so the connection starts there. And when Kool A.D. was with Das Racist, they were cool enough to invite us to rock a couple of their shows. So, we would see each other around and a little while back, we sent a couple beats over and he sent back some dope shit with the first Moesha reference I’ve ever heard in a verse, let alone in the same verse with a Five Percenter reference. I love that shit.
CHAPMAN: What’s next for you guys?
OSWALD: Some doubles from Ali’s.
JULIAN: “From Crown Fried to Roscoes, I’m spreading the gospel.” For some reason, that Jay Electronica lyric came to mind. But really, just progressing with the art and with life. Trying to be a better muhfucka all around, nawmean? Vibin’ out, elevating, and etcetera. But tangibly, look for The Mothership EP, landing early fall or thereabouts.