For a hip-hop duo known for getting high, AKTHESAVIOR and Issa Gold haven’t forgotten how to stay grounded. At least that’s how they described Renaissance, the third full-length release from The Underachievers in as many years. A significant departure from AK and Gold’s trippy and highly-acclaimed 2013 debut, Indigoism, the poster children of East Coast psychedelic hip-hop have traded spiritual musings for a more matter-of-fact outlook on life in their lyrics.
Many of the new agey references to third eyes and astral planes that were sprinkled liberally throughout Indigoism are nowhere to be found, but this isn’t for want of some good bud. Or as AK puts it in “Super Potent,” “High as fuck, I light it up, got pre-rolls for the whole month.” Longtime fans of The Underachievers’ take on Beast Coast style will feel right at home among Issa’s machine-gun delivery over beats so dank they’ll leave you with a contact high.
Overall, Renaissance is a testament to The Underachievers’ growth musically and thematically, but still retains enough of their distinctive Flatbush mysticism and stoner mentality not to alienate fans who were rockin’ with AK and Gold back when they were still doing shows in Brooklyn backyards. PRØHBTD caught up with the duo to talk cannabis and their first time on shrooms before they head out on a national tour in support of Renaissance, which kicks off October 6 in Milwaukee.
How did you guys come together to make music?
AK: I created Underachievers in high school, then I met Issa around the neighborhood. I was always doing music, he managed me for a bit, and then he got on board. We dropped a music video, that shit went viral, and we continued to make music.
How did you come up with the name The Underachievers?
AK: It was just me being in high school and being called "class clown," or told "you'll never do anything in life." So I just tried to use a negative name and bring a positive spin with it. Like you might think we're underachievers, but we're actually achieving our dreams. It was just like a flip on the word.
Your music is often described as "psychedelic hip hop." Do you think that’s a good term for your music?
AK: The psychedelics don't really influence our music, [but] they helped us grow as people. So that term, I get it 'cause we've used a lot psychedelic words or drugs in our songs. We do psychedelic drugs, but it has nothing to do with the music we create, in a sense. We never set out to make psychedelic hip-hop or to be psychedelic rappers. Nothing like, "Let's make hip hop psychedelic," or anything like that. We make music about ourselves, and it just so happens that psychedelics are a part of our journey so it comes out in our music. Like I don't know if Wiz Khalifa set out to make "weed rap," but he likes to smoke weed so it comes out in his music.
Issa: Yeah, we never set out to make psychedelic hip-hop or trip hop.
AK: We don't even take psychedelics to get inspired to write.
What was your first trip like?
Issa: The first time I tripped I was like 15 years old. I was really interested in psychedelics at a young age from shit that I heard in school. When I was in fifth grade, the D.A.R.E. program came to my school and told us about LSD and were like, "Yeah, it’s a patch you put on your fucking arm, and it'll make you see shit that's not there." From that moment I was like, "Yeah, I'm trying to do that." Then when I got to high school, there were actually kids doing that shit so I was like, "Yo, I'm tryin' to do this shit." It was crazy. I ate an eighth of shrooms. The first song I heard was Kanye West with Adam Levine, “Heard 'em Say.” During the trip I cried a lot, just hours upon hours crying about everything. The second thing I got from it was like, "Wow, nothing really matters in the bigger picture." That was the revelation at the time: I'm so small in the grand scheme of things. How could I ever worry about the minor things when I could worry about grand things? I have to be remembered. That was the theme of the trip.
AK: Issa turned me onto psychedelics. The first time I met him, he introduced me to the psychedelic world, basically. How it is when you take psychedelics. Then later on, when I was 16 or 17 probably, I experienced shrooms with a couple of my friends, but it was a bad trip. Everyone split apart and shit, but I learned a lot about myself.
Hip-hop doesn't seem to incorporate psychedelics into the culture much. Why do you think people are so scared of these substances?
Issa: Propaganda, of course. The government put all the things like that into a bad light. Look at the old anti-marijuana ads,where the guy cracks an egg into the pan and is like, "If you smoke weed, that's your brain." It's extreme propaganda. It's created a hysteria around psychedelics. There’s the abuse of psychedelics as well. It's not like people have been using it in a totally scientific way. Psychedelics take you all over the place in your brain. You just start going down some of the holes that you might not want to. There's a stigma for psychedelics where people think they have knowledge of who that person is without any prior knowledge: some hippie, with long dreads, tie-dye, that type of world. But that’s not all a hallucinogen is. Through the internet and the age of information, I think more people are getting into it.
So you guys were recently living out in California, right? Do you miss the bud?
AK: We have friends out here in New York that have California weed so it's not too bad. But I definitely miss going into dispensaries, the whole lifestyle and culture of weed on the west coast.
How has your musical style shifted from Indigoism to Renaissance? What differentiates this album?
AK: Every album we try to bring something new. This whole process is just like a learning process. With Indigoism we were on a spiritual trip. When we first came out with Indigoism, we had a certain topic we were talking about and rapping about in every song. But each album we try to grow and introduce a new topic in a sense. We bring something new to the table every single album we drop. First album was spiritual, the second album was more about ourselves and our personal experiences growing up.
Issa: I think from Indigoism to now, we’re more grounded in who we are and in our beliefs. In Indigoism, we were more abstract, it was more spiritual shit and New Age-y topics. But I think over time, we've gradually gotten more grounded in terms of our topics. We never want anyone to compare one project to another project because every project is different. With Indigoism, that was us pretty much laying out all the things that we were learning from our entire lives at that time. Renaissance has a variety of different songs. The best thing about us is our versatility and ability to rap on different types of songs. So Renaissance displays all our different styles. It’s more of a mixtape, a compilation of songs, rather than an album. I think moving forward we're way more grounded. We're more worried with things that are happening here, things that are rational, more things that you can hold in your hands and see with your eyes. Things that are more relatable. So no astral projection, but more like there's a fucking war over there in the Middle East. Things that are going on in real life. How can we make people better people here and not in a spiritual world. Moving forward I think we're going to focus more on health-conscious topics, mental wellbeing and how to find peace of mind. Instead of worrying about the fifth dimension in our music, we have to worry about things going on here. People are struggling with addiction and all sorts of different things.
What's your dynamic like with the creative process?
AK: We're always talking about concepts for albums while working on other albums. It's very collaborative in terms of the ideas and the approaches. We might write verses separately, but [it's a collaboration] in terms of concepts and ideas. The next album we've been talking about for like a year now. Before we did Renaissance, we had another album we want to do and already have an idea where we want to go with it. Once the beats start coming in and we start picking beats, that’s when we start figuring out composition. We source beats, share ideas, write verses. That's virtually the entire dynamic.
Issa: All the concepts and ideas, we do that together. We're not on the spot writers at all. It takes us like two weeks to write a verse and fine tune it. Gotta say it out loud like 300 times to make sure it’s right. I don't think we've ever written a verse in the studio.
Your music is a lot different than what’s coming out of Brooklyn in general. Who are your influences, or who are you listening to within the New York scene?
Issa: No one.
AK: Everyone gets aggravated when we say that. But no influences in music. Not even the music we listen to influences us.
Issa: We listen to other music obviously, but that music isn't rap music. It's some alternative shit. If I'm out partying or feeling kind of ignorant, I might listen to something. Like if we told you the music we listen to, you'd not be able to find the influences and just be like, "What the fuck?" When I do listen to some rap, it’s old-school rap.
AK: Super ignorant shit you wouldn't think we'd be listening to.
Issa: If there's music I think I'll get influence from, I think I shy away from it unconsciously. Our music is solely based on ourselves. Not in a selfish way, but everything we write about is very self-based. From the very beginning, we had an idea of exactly what we wanted to do. When we're compared to other people, we're like, "What the fuck? We listen to none of these guys." The reason we became the Underachievers was to deliver that message. There was no influence because we've never even heard this kind of rap before in a sense. It came out of us.
AK: Kanye West. You know what, I think secretly Kanye West might've influenced us.
Issa: Oh, of course.
AK: Who we are, more than our music.
Issa: Everyone is influenced by that dude.
AK: Pharrell [Williams].
Issa: For sure.
So what's next for the Underachievers now that your new album is out?
Issa: Music, music, music, merch, merch, merch.
AK: Videos. Everything. Just doing shit. We're talking about starting a website. We want to do something for people to go and look at like every day. Based on our opinions and shit. Like a blog. Besides that, music, a new album probably next year.
Photo credit: Keaton Brownlow/@KCB_LA.