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The evolving Tao of NYC psych-rap stars the Underachievers

The Underachievers

The Underachievers

Somewhere in the philosophical gulf between Timothy Leary and Deepak Chopra, you’ll find AK and Issa Gold.

The Brooklyn rappers — together known as the Underachievers — made their name in 2013 with Indigoism, a mystical, psychedelic mixtape that extolls their belief in third-eye spirituality, Jungian collective consciousness, and the existence of indigo children.

However, as the Underachievers set up to play First Ave on Wednesday night, there is a noticeable change in their aura. Their September album Evermore: The Art of Duality is far less metaphysical than Indigoism or their 2013 debut LP Cellar Door: Terminus ut Exordium, instead focusing on the pair’s origins in the desperate environment of Brooklyn's Flatbush neighborhood. 

“We’re separating from the indigo subject and the third-eye lyrics and showing more personal and emotional stuff, parts of our lives you’ve never seen before,” AK tells City Pages. “Evermore is growth from all of that. It’s a story that’s way more personal than Indigoism.”

It’s odd to be talking with AK, who is the more pensive, reserved Underachiever. While AK prefers to pontificate through his lyrics, Gold is the group’s pedagog and media mouthpiece. A childhood friend of AK, he first introduced the dreadlocked sophist to the idea of indigo children when the two were in high school.

In New Age teaching, indigo children are savant-like offspring born with heightened — often supernatural — consciousness. In some circles, they’re seen as evidence of reincarnation; in others, they’re believed to be an acceleration of human evolution. The Underachievers spent the first three years of their career advocating this concept in equally ambiguous, pseudo-scientific terms. But, at it’s heart, it’s less an epistemological statement and more an interpretation of how AK felt that his non-traditional intelligence was betrayed by the education system.

“There was this list of things that indigos do — they can’t stay still in class, whatever, ADHD — and they connected it to your spiritual side,” he says. “Issa reads all the books, and he knows that shit off the top of his head. It’s more of a feeling for me. There were various things that I felt dwell inside of me, so I have a very good connection to indigoism.”

AK and Gold were problem children — “my conduct, it was fucked up / I was a class clown since I started up,” Gold raps on “Shine All Gold” — but more than that, they were intellectually restless. Labeled underachievers and set up to fail by their respective schools, AK and Gold retreated to self-education. 

By high school, the curriculum they followed involved more psilocybin, MDMA, and LSD, than textbooks, expanding their minds and molding the hallucinogenic sound that made Indigoism such a standout tape. With a galaxy of vision-inducing substances in hand, AK and Gold began building their own dogma of self-actualization through exposure to drugs. As Craig Jenkins said in his review of the release for Pitchfork, Gold and AK “treat mind-altering substances like sacraments.”

But while Indigoism and Cellar Door openly espouse the “turn on, tune in, drop out” methodology, Evermore is deliberately less enthusiastic about mind alternation. Instead, the album deals with the dual realities of drug use as both liberating and debilitating.

“We were never really taking drugs like that, we were just rapping about the drugs we had experienced in our lives,” AK says, noting that Gold developed depression and a dependency on prescription pills during high school. “Now, we’re just telling you the story of where all that came from and how, now, we don’t need drugs to be enlightened or to be a psychedelic being. I mean, you can take psychedelics to become a psychedelic person, but you don’t need that in your life every day to become enlightened. That’s what we’re trying to say right now.”

It’s a sentiment AK incarnates in the chorus of “Illusions,” which ends on the uplifting bar “If it's looking cold, spark up that fire inside of your soul.”

AK and Gold no longer take psychedelic drugs — according to AK, he’s been totally sober for two weeks at the time of our interview — though they don’t disown the lessons they learned from experimentation. Though the Underachievers’ beliefs are about as scientific as phrenology, experimentation has been central to the growth that brought them to the calm existentialism of Evermore. “I’m not a rapper. I’m almost a scientist,” Gold told SPIN in 2013.

“Everything is an experiment,” AK says, adding that each of the Underachievers’ projects has been a test gauging how their audience responds to different modes. “I feel like more people can relate to the things we’re talking about now. This isn’t us just screaming out spiritual things that people have to Google.”

The idea of duality also manifests in the tracklist of Evermore. Whereas the first seven songs are blythe and inspirational, the second phase (beginning with “Reincarnation”) consists of menacing, gritty bangers that hearken back to AK and Gold’s childhood neighborhood. It’s a bend that’s been seen on the pair’s 2013 tangential mixtape Lords of Flatbush, but packaged alongside the inspirational first phase of Evermore, the dank club jams perfectly complement AK and Gold’s new, much more literal philosophical focus.

“We’re just trying to make the world a better place,” AK says. “When you grow up in a world where everyone judges you, that can distract you from your goal. I just want people to know, using our experience as an example, you can do anything you set your mind to. Literally.”

The Underachievers

With: Pouya and the Buffet Boys, Kirk Knight, Bodega Bamz.

When: 6 p.m. Wed., Oct. 14.

Where: First Avenue.

Tickets: $18; more info here.