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February 20, 2018Feature

Eric Davidson speaks with Issa from The Underachievers for the Guide to Dublin City about the penitentiary system, preventing suicide and the role of the artist in the community, all ahead of their show on The Academy on February 24.

“We live in a society where it’s not cool to say, ‘I have a problem’, ‘I’m depressed’ or ‘I’m sad’…”


The early 2010s were a watershed time for hip hop in New York. In 2011, A$AP Rocky nailed his colours to the mast with his debut single ‘Peso’, the following year Flatbush Zombies released their seminal mixtape ‘D.R.U.G.S.’ and the same year Joey Bada$$ released his debut solo project ‘1999’.

This was the dawn of the so-called ‘Beast Coast’, perhaps the most significant rap movement New York City had seen since its heyday in the 90s. Around this time another significant cog in the East Coast engine started turning.

AKTHESAVIOR and Issa Gold formed The Underachievers in Flatbush, Brooklyn in 2011 and soon after were signed to Brainfeeder, Flying Lotus’ esteemed imprint. Their brand of conscious-heavy raps and punk attitude toward beat production meant the pair became beacons for the forward-thinking music hip hop sorely needed at the time.

“everyone’s looking for an escape because they’re all dealing with mental issues that haven’t been addressed or looked at as normal. People say ‘oh you should just get over that’ or ‘you can get through that’, but that’s not the solution.”

The Underachievers utilised the power of the internet to spread their esoteric message to a wider audience. But speaking with Issa over the phone after a shoot for this feature on Lexington Avenue, New York, he’s well aware of the pitfalls that the World Wide Web possesses.

“As a musician in today’s music world, it’s almost impossible for me to tune myself out the way that I would want to,” the Flatbush-native explains. “I have to be involved with the internet because of my career, that’s where it was born and that’s where it’s driven. So I have to be engaging with the fans at all times. At one point I actually didn’t use social media for like seven months and like it wasn’t good for my career, I’ll put it that way. People started to unfollow me by the thousands, so for me it’s kind of harder, but for a person who’s career doesn’t centre around the internet I think it’s about creating good online habits, you know what I mean? In terms of what you view and what you subscribe to, but even then it’s hard to not see all the bullshit that they want you to see.”

In an extended interview with Canadian hip hop site Montreality, Issa went into detail about using different forms of meditation to block out the noise that is technology and the internet. I remember relating to that feeling to the feeling of constantly needing to be online because of your work. He has some sage advice for anyone who feels like they’re overdosing on cyberspace.

“If you’re finding that you’re being consumed by the bullshit online, people should and try find other avenues to use the internet for. Fill that time with things of substance. I mean, even though there’s a lot of bullshit on the internet and a lot of trash news, I don’t think I would have been able to reach the point I’m at mentally without the internet, because it’s such a vast place for information. There are millions of documentaries out there. There are millions of videos all over YouTube on different topics, besides just the bullshit. I don’t think the answer is just to completely not use the internet. Then you become an outcast to the world.

“If you only associate the computer with the bullshit, fucking porn, YouTube and whatever, then that’s what you’re gonna get out of it.”

A couple of years ago The Underachievers began sewing the seeds for a new media project called Creation, which has since mutated into a number of different forms. For Issa it’s all to amplify the voices of the silenced. He says it’s the power mainstream media possesses that is most damaging. Essentially, free speech doesn’t work if you can’t afford to be heard.

“For instance with the presidency, we all look at only the two candidates in America – the Republican and the Democratic parties. But there are like 30 parties that run, it’s just they don’t have as much money or power as those two parties to be able to get as much press. I feel like as a collective we all have perspectives and we should all be able to express them. For me it’s not about destroying corporate media; let’s add another conversation to the story, another perspective.”

The role of the artist in shifting public opinion and benefiting those whose voices are being suppressed is a constant in our conversation. The Underachievers produce records that are relatable on the surface; utilising comic books and film references. But it’s the layers of depth beneath what’s being presented by the New York pair that make them a force for good in the art world. They’re not afraid to discuss complex matters like depression and suicide. For Issa, most of his wishes for society are about breaking stigmas around these problems, as well as looking to remove institutionalised racism. It’s easy for a rapper, or any musician, to make simply ‘good music’, but that’s not Issa’s sole intention.

“Artists need to do more work for their communities. I’m passionate about things like education reform, changing the penitentiary systems… Playing my part and doing what I can to influence the people that follow us. It’s the same with you guys [District Magazine], as you get bigger you’ll be a harbinger for good for the people around you. For me it’s just about doing as much as I can as a musician, whether that’s writing a book, which I’m doing right now, or creating a better world online, or whatever it is.

“It’s important to highlight things like depression in our music. When it comes to matters like that we need to look at the root of the problem. We have to do a better job in the community. That’s why I spoke about educational reform before, it’s something I’m very passionate about. I think that the education system right now is outdated and it’s not dealing with the problems kids have. The same with the penitentiary system. I think that we need to look for more psychological help for these people instead of just imprisonment. Because they go and they come out and they’re still criminals. It’s the same with drug abuse. Many people are on prescription pills, it’s a real big problem in America. Everyone’s looking for an escape because they’re all dealing with mental issues that haven’t been addressed or are looked at as normal. People say ‘oh you should just get over that’ or ‘you can get through that’ but that’s not the solution.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to deal with people more individually. Like in school, you all take a standardised test and it’s not treating people as individuals. I know it’s hard to do, how can you really deal with each person individually? But that’s the only way I think we’re going to be able to help the problem. Because people are killing themselves from depression that vents from problems they had when they were younger. Whether that was fucking bad parenting or whatever, we are all dealing with these things and we are told that we shouldn’t take it as a problem and we get ridiculed.

“We live in a society where it’s not cool to say, ‘I have a problem’, ‘I’m depressed’ or ‘I’m sad’ and it’s hard for people if they’re not feeling good or if something’s wrong because we’re told ‘you feel depressed? Take a pill.’ We’re not told to deal with the problem, but we’re told to add remedies for it. I think we need to start dealing with people in terms of individuals. Anyone from kids who are killing themselves to adults who feel like killing themselves. I think the problem is that we’re all pretty fucked up in the head, and we all need help.”

Something must be in the water in Brooklyn, as I mention to Issa that the last time I had a conversation like this with an artist was with Erick the Architect from Flatbush Zombies, a group that The Underachievers have worked very closely with in the past. As the old saying goes, if you want to know a person, look a his or her friends.

But for Issa this isn’t a coincidence, it’s music itself that holds the most power

“For me, being a musician came late in my life. I never wanted to be a musician growing up. I wanted to write books, I wanted to be more like a scientist, I wanted to become a philosopher or anthropologist. But music literally saved my life. I was a drug addict at one point in my life, very deep into drugs and just very depressed and sad. It was music that was a very important part of me getting out of that. So, when I was building a movement in my head, I realised that the best way to get the message out there was through music because music is a universal language and it had done so much for me.

“It’s funny to look back now and see how far it actually seemed to get us as a group, because I don’t think I’d have ever gotten that far if I’d had written a book at the time. Through music, I feel like I was able to affect more people on a large scale. Because as musicians and as fans of music we find music that relates to us, we find music that can help us when we’re sad, music that directly deals with the emotions that we’re feeling ‘cause I know there are kids around the world just like me who have been depressed, have been on drugs, have been suicidal. I want to directly affect those kids.”

The Underachievers play The Academy on February 24.

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