’The Underachievers – Chasing Faith’

In today’s fast-paced society, emcees have the power to play the role of modern-day philosophers, imparting beliefs and morals to followers through their own life experiences. While that connection proves little more than an afterthought in most cases, Brooklyn hip-hop duo The Underachievers approach their music with a distinct awareness for the message behind it–one that reflects their soul-searching and marked spirituality. Hitting the scene in 2013 with their debut mixtape, Indigoism, AK and Issa Gold impressed hip-hop heads with their quick-hitting lyricism all the while coating their rhymes in every facet of psychedelia, both lyrically and sonically.

Since that first project, The Underachievers have only gotten more ambitious displaying an ability to convey their musings equally effectively over head-banging and laid-back soundscapes. Their latest album, Evermore: The Art of Duality, sees them bringing both sides together for a culmination of the sounds explored in their catalogue thus far. As its name suggests, the project explores themes of dualism and inner-turmoil featuring some of The Underachievers’ most philosophically poignant lyricism yet. Aside from being split into two distinct parts, a chilled-out, thoughtful A-side and a more intense, mischievous B-side, feelings of contrast are deeply embedded within each song allowing the duo to explore duality on a multitude of levels.

We had a chance to catch up with Issa Gold about putting together a hip-hop concept album, the philosophy behind their music and the duo’s broader aspirations. Check the interview below and grab a copy of Evermore: The Art of Duality here.

TMN: How did you first get into rapping, and did you guys get into it together, or separately?

Issa: Well, AK started rapping at the age of 12 or 13, so he’d been in it for like 11 years and I started rapping around late 2011. He was the influence for me becoming a rapper. Originally, he was rapping and I was studying the Internet and figuring out ways you can blow up instantaneously using it. So I went to AK and I was like “Yo, I’ll be your manager, because I have this whole vision for how you can become famous.” At the same time, I was working on a clothing line to push this whole Indigo message that I had. After “managing” him for a week, I was in the studio with him just sitting there one day and I was like, “I’ll write a rap”–it was almost a joke at the time. It’s a song that ended up on Indigoism. It’s funny because that’s the reason that song has two verses from AK because I wasn’t even supposed to be on it. So, people started to motivate me like, “You should just rap. You should keep doing it.”

The next song we made was “The Mahdi” which is probably one of our biggest songs. AK was working with a producer at the time too, and the producer who made that beat was really big on us making more music together. So, I pretty much took my Indigo dream and the whole plan I had for attacking the Internet into it. AK was “AK The Underachiever” at the time and he was like yeah you can fucking join The Underachievers, and he took me under his wing. We pretty much blended the two movements of his being a musician and me having my own vision–and we were already on the same wavelength in terms of the message in the music. That’s how it really started–it was experiment-that-worked type shit.

TMN: How did you and AK first meet? 

Issa: With AK, it’s kind of funny how we met.

When I was younger, psychedelics weren’t as cool, especially in the inner city. Being black in the hood, doing psychedelics was pretty much the equivalent of doing heroine. Back then, me and my friend Juice (of Flatbush Zombies) were super outcasts in a sense because we did psychedelics and people didn’t understand.
So, one day I meet this kid named Jacob, random kid, we’re buying weed from the same drug dealer. We started talking, it turns out this kid does psychedelics. That’s the problem when you find someone who does psychedelics it’s like, “Oh, we’re family.” So he takes me to AK’s crib the next day, and AK is some rapper dude from the hood. Juice, Jacob and I are talking about psychedelics and AK just walks in the room and he’s like, “Yo I wanna try ’em.” We look at him like, “What the fuck, no way does this dude from the hood want to try psychedelics” and our friendship started from there. 

TMN: Philosophy and spirituality play such an important role in your music. Growing up was there a certain moment when you realized that organized religion wasn’t for you, but that you still believe in something?

Issa: For me, I stopped with religion when I was around 13-14. Before that, I was fucking demonic as hell because my whole family was religious. We would all go to church and I thought the whole thing was garbage. I was thinking, “Alright, well, if I’m going to church and I think this shit is garbage, maybe I’m like the devil’s son.” That’s literally how my perspective was growing up. So, I would steal, cheat, lie, break all the “commandments” or whatever. Eventually, I started having crazy nightmares. I know now it was just myself making the nightmares, but at the time I thought it was the devil coming to show me I was wrong. So at 13 years old I decided to get re-baptized. I joined a baptism class, went through the whole class, it’s fucking 4 weeks long, and then they take me to Coney Island, a beach in New York, to get baptized. I’m like “Alright good, I’m about to cross over.” They baptize me, I came out the water after three dunks and nothing changed. I was expecting a crazy change, I thought God was about to come and engulf my body. From that moment, I became atheist. I just stopped believing in everything that could exist, period.

Later on that year, I found out about the Indigo shit, that’s another story. Around the same time, though, I read a book about Buddhism and it changed my perspective on my relationship with God from the way the Christians look at it to more of a personal, philosophical view of God. My father is a third Chinese (my grandfather is Asian) and he still follows a lot of the culture. So, my father had a bunch of Buddhist books inside of my house and, from there, I just went on to mad different types of walks trying to find God because I knew that the Christians had it wrong. That’s how I got to where I am now.

TMN: Moving on to the new project, it felt like this was a concept album in a lot of ways–particularly how it was split into two parts. Were there any challenges or differences in the way you approached this compared to the last two projects?

Issa: The first two songs I wrote on it were “Rain Dance”  and “Generation Z”–each was from a different side of the album. Pretty much what I noticed is that one of our strong points is that we’re able to do uptempo, hyper music for the shows and then we’re also able to do the melodic, instrumental music. We split the project because I really wanted to place emphasis on the fact that we can do both things well.

Pretty much everything that we do is really premeditated in terms of the projects. So it’s like there’s beats on this album that I have from Indigoism that I just never used because I was saving them for another time. Indigoism got us a lot of fans that liked us for rapping but we wanted to make sure that we didn’t get boxed into just some conscious rap, or 90’s boom-bap shit. Lords of Flatbush was just to combat Indigoism with uptempo music so people don’t box us in. Some people got mad with Lords of Flatbush but we also gained a lot of fans with it. Then, Cellar Door was just to remind all the fans from Indigoism that we still know how to rap. So, now we got everyone back to the table. With Indigoism we have people at the table, with Lords of Flatbush we got the banger kids at the table, Cellar Door got the lyrical kids at the table, and then Evermore is just the display of everything together for both sides to look at at the same time.

TMN: Yeah, it’s interesting how there’s a clear duality within your style, but also duality on a grander scale as a general theme through out the album. Was that something conscious in your mind when you were writing lyrics? It feels like there’s so many facets of duality explored on the album. 

Issa: There is, 100%. I’m a firm believer that life itself is clearly based on duality. Well, first off, based on balance, including karma, which works on a balance scale. If you look at almost anything, there’s always duality to it. I always say we wouldn’t really know what love was, or any positive emotions, without a negative counterpart to compare it to. I feel like it’s necessary for life. If you look through all philosophy, there’s always Heaven and Hell. A dualistic approach to breaking down the existence of the world is prevalent all over the things that I’ve studied. With duality, I just wanted to place a focus on that balance and the “two side to every coin” that really exist in the world.

I feel like a lot of people just got the conscious part, but I wanted to show that there are two sides to us. I feel like, our fans at least, have a very “godly” perspective of us, and a lot of people didn’t want to listen to our music because they felt like we thought we were very godly. I wanted to humanize us, which is another part of the dualism theme.

The whole album is pretty much just about finding the balance in one’s self, the two different paths that one can take, the up and the down and the constant battle within ourselves. With the bangers side it’s more us dealing with fucking bitches and drugs, on the lyrical side it’s more us dealing with inner demons.

’The Underachievers – Take Your Place’

TMN: A prevalent theme of the album, particularly in the first half, is the importance of life choices, but at the same time in the song “Illusion” you guys have a quote that seems to be downplaying the existence of free will. What was the thought process behind including that and how do you think it contributes the theme?

Issa: Ah, you caught that. Let’s use Buddhism as an example. Buddhists are not going to call it dualism, they call it karmic scale. And the whole way to get enlightenment is to remove yourself from that karmic scale. So even though we’re slaves to duality, including myself and all of us, full enlightenment is removing yourself from that circle of duality and cleansing yourself completely in the universal conscience.

What that guy is talking about is a person who is super enlightened because he no longer makes his own choices–he makes his own choices, but he’s making it through the divine source inside of himself. Once man gets to that point, he is enlightened. Before that we’re just slaves to dualism because we’re battling with ourselves.

TMN: Your message really extends beyond music. Do you guys have ambitions outside of music or things you think you would be doing if you weren’t making music?

Issa: AK is going to be a rapper for the rest of his life for sure. That was his dream when he was a kid, that’s his ambition. But for me, I always make the joke that I’m pretending to be a rapper because I really don’t give a fuck about being a rapper. I don’t care about rap music, not even a little bit. I don’t care about accolades–Grammys, fucking VMA’s, I don’t give a shit about any of that. This is just me pretending to be a rapper to spread a message, so you’re 100% right. I don’t see myself doing this forever. Literally my career is contingent to every step that we take.

So, if this album was to fail I probably wouldn’t make music after this, but I know the album is decent so it’s going to make me keep going. As long as they keep liking the music, I’ll keep going and pretending, but when it starts to falter I’m gone. But yeah, for sure, before I was a fucking rapper, I was in school studying social sciences. I wanted to be a professor and I wanted to write books. I’m still going to write books.

TMN: I get that sense from your guys’ music, that you guys would be able to write a book.

Issa: I got a really sick one–well I don’t know if it’s sick, but the concept is cool. It’s a book coming out in the next year hopefully. I want to do that and I’m also trying to make a media outlet like Vice magazine but through the Indigo perspective. I don’t think I’m going to be a rapper forever although I may eventually become an agent, PR guy or manager. For AK, he’s definitely going to be a rapper forever. But he might do other things too. He wants to make an anime also and do other endeavors, but that’s his passion, making music. If I was to make a folk album I’d keep going, but I can’t make folk music so it’s game over. (Laughs)

TMN: (Laughs) Yeah, I heard you’re a big Fleet Foxes fans.

Issa: WHAT!? That’s my favorite band, well not the best, but that’s my favorite. And Father John Misty is good too.

Special thanks to Issa for taking the time to chat with us! 

Related items::