This Unlikely Hip-hop Duo Sounds Like the American Dream on Acid
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because they’re an East Coast–Middle East mash-up.
By Keith Murphy
Amar “Baghdaddy” Ibrahim had his doubts. In late 2011, the Iraqi-born music producer was introduced to Samuel “Ne$$” Murrain at a Christmas party in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood. Ne$$, a veteran emcee and Brooklyn transplant from north Philadelphia, had an idea for an ambitious, dystopian rap concept titled EYE2025. The charismatic wordsmith wanted to break free from his past as one-half of the A-Alikes, a bruising, boom-bap tandem, and members of the militant rhyme crew People’s Army, led by the black nationalist hip-hop act Dead Prez.
Ne$$, 39, was intrigued by Baghdaddy’s strutting mix of keyboard-driven pop and seedy funk, as heard on Hot Sugar’s decadent 2011 jam “Fuckable.” “I was listening to Boys Noize and a lot of other artists in that electro-music scene,” the lyricist recalls. “And in my head, I could hear my voice over Bagh’s production.”
Yet Baghdaddy didn’t know what to make of Ne$$’ grandiose idea. “I was not at all what you would call a rap head,” laughs the 30-year-old Bantam recording studio rat. “In retrospect, I was shocked that we meshed so well.”
Following the release of Ne$$’ EYE2025 solo EP in January 2012, the pair formed Weekend Money. The alternative rap act can best be described this way: if “Ether”-era Nas had French electro-dance tandem Justice as his backing band. That same year, Weekend Money appeared on their debut album, Naked City, standing in front of a Brooklyn bodega: Ne$$ rocking a ’hood-stamped camouflage jacket, pants and a baseball cap; Baghdaddy wearing a traditional Islamic robe, beads and plain sandals.
But beneath the shock value was a smart, adventurous mix that jumped from four-on-the-floor club bangers to sci-fi soundtracks and paranoid trap-music excursions — led by Ne$$’ swaggering yet grounded lyricism.
Studio engineer Daniel Lynas says the group is no gimmick. “Ne$$ and Amar both naturally embody these opposing aesthetics,” testifies the Brooklyn-based soundman who has manned the boards for Weekend Money and worked with superstar artists like A$AP Rocky and Kanye West. “Everything about them sounds like they should be in opposition to each other, like the socially conscious messaging of Dead Prez versus the trap shit that Weekend Money does at times. But they somehow blend very well, which is a New York thing.”
The unlikely story of Weekend Money begins in the Middle East and America’s so-called City of Brotherly Love.
Another New York thing? The emergence of underground cult heroes, which is what Naked City made of Ne$$ and Bagh. Their 2014 follow-up, Freddie Merkury, extended their commercial reach — beyond either’s expectations. “We did a New Year’s Eve show in Australia at Brisbane’s The Big Chill Festival in 2015,” Ne$$ recalls. “I just remember looking at Bagh thinking, ‘Wow, we are on the other side of the world, literally. I’m a kid from north Philly onstage with a brother from Iraq, and we are out here rocking!’”
The unlikely story of Weekend Money begins in the Middle East and America’s so-called City of Brotherly Love. As a child, Amar endured the bombs and bloodshed of the first Iraq conflict. “My parents did a very good job of turning living through war into a game,” he says. “It became, ‘Saddam [Hussein’s] army patrol is coming. Let’s play hide-and-seek behind the fridge.’” His family fled to the States in 1991, settling in Princeton, New Jersey, where he began to chafe against his conservative Muslim household. Later, he would pick up a guitar, become a Nirvana fanatic and enroll at New York’s City College — while teaching himself music production on the computer.
Ne$$ was the product of a dysfunctional home and the violent, drug-fueled turmoil of north Philly. Hip-hop became his refuge. “I remember there was a school talent show in sixth grade, and someone did Boogie Down Production’s ‘Illegal Business,’” says Ne$$, referring to the 1988 song about drugs ruling America. “Just seeing the principals and teachers looking intimidated was exciting,” he laughs. “That’s what I wanted to do.” At Florida A&M University, he met up with the Dead Prez duo, stic.man and M-1.
For now, Weekend Money is finishing up their next studio album, due out later this summer. Aptly titled You Don’t Know Who I Am, Do You?, it continues to flip the idea of hip-hop — and hip-hop artists — on its head. And they recently dropped their two-fisted single “Keys 2 the Gates,” a track that mercilessly strips away at New York’s glamorous veneer: “This ain’t Friends, this ain’t Seinfeld / It’s more like a minefield. There’s a war going on … Get on yo’ knees, let us pray / Lord pretty, pretty please, naw nigga wait.”
It’s a miracle that the very idea of Weekend Money manages to keep from buckling under the weight of the duo’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mantra. “When I first heard Ne$$ working with [Baghdaddy], I was like, ‘This sounds weird,’” recalls Edward Sunez Rodriguez, executive editor of PremiereHipHop.com. Rodriguez, who has followed the career of Ne$$ since his A-Alikes days, was not ready for WM’s left-field slant. “But when you sit down and listen to [Freddie Merkury], you hear a lot of interesting lyrical techniques that would not fit an A-Alikes song. Ne$$ is experimenting with ideas he could never have done in the past, but he’s still the same guy who gives you that realness.”
Weekend Money is definitely keeping it real. “It’s hilarious,” Baghdaddy muses. “We were working on another song called ‘Guatemala,’ and as soon as Ne$$ laid down his verse, you can hear me in the background cracking up, because I knew at that moment we had a great song. This is too much fun.”
“Fun” that comes from weaving together complex, serious-minded dissections of the drug trade, corruption and racial strife. A pair of polar opposites merging ideas and influences that more often than not creates riveting, and at times, absurd art. In other words: the American dream on acid.
- Keith MurphyContact Keith Murphy