Interview: Issa Gold of the Underachievers Talks "Cellar Door," Indigo Lifestyle, & Bobby Shmurda

One half of the Underachievers talks about why they had to take a step back to take a step forward.

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Complex Original

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Brooklyn duo the Underachievers are best known for their Beast Coast affiliation, Flying LotusBrainfeeder cosign, and a string of successful videos. But they rose to critical acclaim when they dropped their Indigoism mixtape last February. In the past year, they've relentlessly toured the world since dropping the Lords of Flatbush EP last August. Though many supporters saw the booming project with Lex Luger as a departure from the Indigo lifestyle the duo personifies, the surprising move was a thoughtfully played pawn on the road to their debut album—more on that later.

Their long-awaited follow-up, Cellar Door: Terminus Ut Exordium, finally arrived this week through RPM/Caroline Records. Along the way both Issa Gold and Ak, who team up to form the Underachievers, released solo mixtapes just three weeks ago; Issa dropped Conversations With a Butterfly while Ak released Blessings in the GrayOver a year removed from answering the question “Who Are the Underachievers?,” we caught up with Issa Gold to discuss Bobby Shmurda, expecting fans’ backlash to Lords of Flatbush, Flying Lotus, and much more. 

Interview by Alex Siber (@Alex_Siber)

How has the past year treated you?

It’s been pretty enlightening because I see I’m an actual artist with real commitments to the fans. When I first began making music—I can’t believe it’s been two years now—I felt like success in the music industry could be mathematically equated, but I was still unsure. We’ve done five tours now. We’re more confident in knowing who we are and where we wanna take this.

Ak was making music for 10 years, so he really had a dream of being a musician. For me, the acceptance of this path is more recent. It’s also been really stressful. Touring is fun but hard. My fans get angry if I say I’m tired: “You can’t be tired! I wish I was doing what you’re doing!” [Laughs.]

In 2013, you said rap went downhill after 50 Cent’s reign. Has rap improved since?

Hell yeah. It’s changed so much. The underground is coming up with talented artists from Chicago to New York to L.A. Chance [the Rapper] is the best. [Laughs.] Vic Mensa, Mick Jenkins, the Pro Era gang. Joey Fatts and Curtis Williams of Two-9, a bunch of people really breaking down the barriers between radio music and tour music—the two paths of rap today. Kendrick Lamar and Chance can break those boundaries.

We’re going to try and contribute to breaking down those barriers with our next chapter because we want to reach as many people as possible. Kid Cudi is my role model because he accomplished building an organic fan base. He’ll do a popular song here and there, but that’s not his thing. Mac Miller is another role model; he doesn’t need a radio song. That kid is a fucking artist.

In a few weeks, you guys released Conversations With a Butterfly, Blessings in the Gray, and the album to stream. When did recording first begin?

I’m always plotting for the future, three projects ahead. There are four beats on Cellar Door from the Indigoism recordings. At that time, I wanted to establish early on a triple dynamic with the Underachievers.

We wrote a few solo songs here and there. Six, seven months ago I suggested we give the fans two other perspectives, two solo projects, so Cellar Door would be received even better. They’re like barriers against comparisons to our past work, so you can appreciate the album more.

Of all the tracks on Cellar Door, which do you gravitate toward most?

“Felicity” and “Amorphous.” Here’s a sort-of secret: The last two songs on every project foreshadow the next. “Play Your Part” and “Root of All Evil,” two ignorant songs on Indigoism, led into Lords of Flatbush, which is all bangers except for the last two melodic, fast-flow tracks. Lex Luger didn’t even produce those.

For this album’s last two songs, we worked with our favorite bands: Portugal. The Man and the Ruby Suns. We’re really trying to expand the genre of rap in our next chapter. “Felicity” was written as simple as possible; it’s a bit more radio. Ak also wants to slow down his lyrics a bit.

Has your interpretation of the album title changed overtime?

Not even slightly. About four years ago, I was working on symbolism for a children’s book idea, The Cellar Door. I didn’t even know about Donnie Darko, just that the phrase was phonetically beautiful. The cellar door was a symbolic portal that dealt with duality and balancing the world. I lost all that shit and never started again. [Laughs.] But that’s where the concept came from. People appreciate the aesthetics of the word; that alters how we appreciate an artist. The title also reflects that.

What’s the significance of the artwork?

I’m really big on duality and balance; the night-day split contrasts our actual self and conscious self. Each of those deities correlates to us in a certain way—I won’t tell you what; it might sound weird. [Laughs.] The tiger’s there because I’m a Leo. Ak has no cool animal because he’s a Gemini. [Laughs.]

A$AP is the most powerful, followed by Pro Era, then Zombies, then us. We’re the bottom of the top tier doing things for New York. You have that other guy I won’t mention, who thinks he’s the best New York rapper ever.

Last year, I went to a Beast Coast show, and you stuck around after the concert to meet everyone. Why?

I’ve been a fanatic of music long before making it. I’m a fan at heart, so I understand how crazy it is to talk to someone because you listen to their song a trillion times in a row. Touching hands and answering questions boosts realities. I know how far a hug goes.

I would love to meet some of my favorite artists; when I do, I be crying. Local Natives came to our show in Norway. I didn’t know what to say; they’re one of my favorite bands on the planet. Once, this group of kids put three cigarette burns in their arms. I’m like, “Guys, come on. Taking it a bit too far.” Fans always bring me drugs. I just throw them away though. [Laughs.]

You read very frequently. Did any books or characters inspire any tracks or song titles?

The song titles were us picking phonetically beautiful words, just like “cellar door.” There aren’t really subliminal influences on this project. I am going to do that in the future, though. If any character influenced me it would be Harry Potter; he kept me going and thinking about shit besides church. That motherfucker’s the best. [Laughs.]

How instrumental was Flying Lotus during the recording process of this LP? What advice did he give?

Flying Lotus is an amazing guy, but he’s an artist always touring. He probably hasn’t had a chance to hear the album. He hasn’t really done much for it; it’s not even coming out through Brainfeeder. He’s not tailoring our project. Everything that happens—video production, touring, whatever—has been me or my agent, and now my manager. Brainfeeder gave us a cosign, but there’s no top-secret, FlyLo/UA EP in the works.

How does Cellar Door embody the Indigo lifestyle?

With these first three projects, I was trying to establish the Underachiever culture and lifestyle. Whether you hate it or like it, you know this is what the Underachievers are. I wanted to own our culture. My biggest role model is A$AP Rocky because he owns his world. If you see Givenchy, even if you knew about it, you’ll correlate it to him.

I tried to give the album a darker feel; Indigoism showcased variety. I didn’t want to get boxed in. Cellar Door solidifies who we are; it’s more unified. That’s why on the cover it says in Latin, “The end of the beginning,” because that’s symbolic of us graduating from the early stages of creating music. Fans know we do bangers because of “Herb Shuttles” and Lords of Flatbush. We can do '90s boom bap because of songs like “The Madhi.” Seeds are being planted so we’re not boxed in. This project is the end of a trilogy.

You had a big impact on Ak when you showed him psychedelics. In what way has Ak impacted you?

I wouldn’t be a rapper if Ak wasn’t rapping. Ak is so genuine, he’s like an angel, no joke—the most positive, perfect human being ever created. He’s like my good luck charm. I know I won’t die when I’m with him. If I’m on a plane with him, I know it won’t crash. [Laughs.] He taught me how to be more pure. His loyalty is ridiculous. He’d kill someone for me.

Denzel Curry and Dillon Cooper are my favorite rappers.

Speaking for both yourself and Ak, what do you both wish to get across the most?

That we still know how to rap. That’s about it, swear to God. After Indigoism blew up, everyone was anxious to see what followed. We took a strategic step back to prevent fans from comparing our projects. People won’t believe me, but Ak will confirm it: We decided to drop something totally different that would allow us to rap our asses off on the next one. People would appreciate it more.

Cellar Door will be received the way it will be because it’s not coming after Indigoism. People heard Lords of Flatbush, and the core fan base was mad. And the singles [for Cellar Door] we dropped? All bangers! [Laughs.] But when they heard the album stream? Kids were amazed. They expected a Lords of Flatbush 2. This is premeditated. They can’t go back to Indigoism. We rap way better here. With Lords, I also wanted to establish that we like to make bangers we can perform. Don’t put me in the Common, Talib Kweli box—respectfully.

Are there any young artists you guys are working with?

Denzel Curry and Dillon Cooper are my favorite rappers. Once people get a hold of Denzel’s real character in interviews, the world’s gonna fall in love with him. I was talking about it with Ak. This kid is bursting with positive energy, wanting to have fun. Dillon Cooper is the only rapper to ever be put in Beast Coast. We never brought anybody else in. He’s Beast Coast to the maximum.

In 2014, where do you see the UA in the NYC rap scene ranks?

We’re top tier. You’ve got A$AP, [Flatbush] Zombies, Pro Era, the Underachievers…that’s about it in the touring world. A$AP is the most powerful, followed by Pro Era, then Zombies, then us. We’re the bottom of the top tier doing things for New York. [Laughs.] You have that other guy I won’t mention, who thinks he’s the best New York rapper ever. [Laughs.

How do you feel about Bobby Shmurda’s music, you all being from Brooklyn?

I love that shit! It’s so Brooklyn, even though it sounds like Chicago. I’m so happy for that kid. Everyone looks so Brooklyn in that shit. I definitely want to work with him. I was trying to link him up with Fredo Santana, but I was linking Fredo to the wrong Twitter page. I was shouting out the wrong account. [Laughs.] It’s ignorant and shit, like, “Oh yeah, it’s about gun clapping and selling drugs,” but just enjoy your music. Kids around the world probably think about doing that, but they grow out of it. It’s rational sense. I don’t give a fuck. I love it.

What is the state of the Beast Coast movement today?

It’s gotten stronger. We’re all doing our own shit to the maximum, but every time there’s a win for us, it’s a win for the entire movement. Every time Joey Bada$$ drops a song and it does good, I feel like I won. We’ve all progressed, because every step we each take forward is a step for Beast Coast. I don’t think anyone has taken any steps back.

Is self-enlightenment a first step to then reaching your full potential as a duo with Ak?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t know when enlightenment will come. That’s probably around 40, for me. [Laughs.] But nah, we’re just growing and learning. I’m at 10 percent right now in terms of musical skill. I never wanted to be a rapper.

As a kid that was like hitting the lottery. The fans excite me, but making rap music isn’t that exciting. I don’t think it takes that much talent. The growth we experience in the coming years as we discover where we want to take our music is more important than self-enlightenment; that’s a personal journey I don’t explicitly share with the world.

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