Clear In Sight
“So I asked myself, ‘Why don’t you try something completely out of the box? Why don’t you try and save your fucking generation?”
- Issa Gold, The Underachievers
Photographs by Jessica Lehrman
Interview & Introduction by Lee Nentwig
Our imaginations are infinitely limitless, but caged by the ego. We are free to unchain ourselves at any moment we choose. Issa Gold, member of the Brooklyn rap duo The Underachievers, has exemplified these convictions. Just over a year ago Gold was in a very dark place, overwhelmed by the burdens of time, mortality and the constraints of his surroundings, his mind and spirit were lost and he had hit a crossroad for contemplation. It was at this point in his young life when he was forced to ask himself an essential question: Will I allow this world to break me or will I trust in myself to live free? He chose the latter.
Gold left college, abandoned conventional blueprints for his life and teamed up with his close friend and rapper AK to form The Underachievers. After that decision all else fell in line. In the brief period of time since, the duo has emerged from a booming New York rap scene, been signed to Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder record label, released two widely acclaimed mixtapes, toured the U.S. and made a remarkable imprint on the hip-hop world. The rappers fuse spiritual sentiments and psychedelic outlooks into hip-hop by way of bold lyrics and experimentation with unexplored soundscapes.
I could continue to feed you the accolades and monotonous bullshit that many music blogs have already boasted about regarding this group, but whether or not you vibe with the music of The Underachievers is not really relevant to the point I’d like to emphasize in this story. What I’d rather be recognized is the empowering notion that within each of our imaginations exist real thoughts, ideas and beliefs that can be constructed and expressed through the steps that we choose to take in life. The blink of time that we have been offered to consciously experience and interact with this astounding universe is the most extraordinary gift that we could possibly receive. Most people pass through this life bound by tradition, fearful of what they see outside and concerned only to fulfill the demands of others. Abandon the ego, do not apologize for your life and do not be intimidated. If you dare to follow the light of your intuition, then you will come to find what you already know, your potential is limitless.
How do you believe morals can be maintained in this world without traditional religions?
Well, I just feel like that’s the direction we’re moving towards in the future, where we’re no longer looking at God as this singular entity that judges you for everything. I feel like that character, that belief, was more prevalent back in the day because people needed a myth to be afraid of because we didn’t have the rational understandings that we have now. Moving into the future, I feel as though it will become an understood consensus that God is probably not this singular entity, it is something that exists an another way.
So now, in a time where we’re shifting away from that traditional view of God, I believe that we’ll come to realize that we have to function collectively as one in order to maintain our place in the universe. It really comes down to the golden rule which is universal across on doctrines and all religions and that is to do onto others as you would have them do on to you. Once we can all grasp that one simple concept, which I believe is very simple to understand, then I believe it is very possible for us to live along just fine. I feel as though we’re evolving into that right now, but it’s just a matter of people learning more and understanding that the separations that we see in each other are so insignificant in the larger scheme of this universe, we are really all connected.
I’ve just looked at religious institutions for a while now as systematic traps; you have to obey these laws or you will be eternally punished, that’s kind of fucking wild to tell people! When I think about heaven and afterlife it actually irritates me because people are living towards attainment. What if this life is Heaven? Or at least the only reality you’ll have the opportunity to consciously experience. So why are you caught up in what could be better in a next life? It’s almost like choosing not to live this one out.
Agreed! One thousand percent agreed.
So you’ve developed a huge following of fans, but the concept of “fandom” is very strange because fans initially attach with you because they’re attracted to your ideas and philosophies regarding independent thought, but at the end of the day being a fan isn’t really being an independent thinker, it’s being a follower. So what would you encourage your fans to do in order to help foster in this new world of liberated, mind expansive thought and expression that you write about in your music?
Well with the kids, something that I’ve generally tried to do is not to lead them, in a sense, or not to present myself as some sort of prophet. You know my music, I guess you do hear that word (prophet) thrown around a couple times, but that’s only the exaggeration that comes with rap. Some rappers rap about killing thousands of people, some rap about being Gods or Prophets or Czars…
I try to lead kids in a way where I’m not telling them what to do, but placing them in a position to start thinking for themselves. I don’t feel like I’m a person that’s geared to teach these kids ‘cause I’m still learning this shit myself. I just know that it’s time we steer ourselves away from the conventional ways of life.
Growing up where I grew up, in a Christian family, anyone who was not Christian was considered to be the Devil pretty much. That’s the only connection that people feel that they have to God, religion. I just want to be that intervention that comes in the middle and wakes kids up to the idea that you don’t need to go through religion to find God, you can find him yourself. I mean that’s just how it worked for me, I was atheist for a long time after I stopped believing in Christianity around 13 or 14, but I went and found spirituality by myself. When I was atheist I thought to myself that if I don’t believe in religion then I probably believe in nothing. That’s where a lot of people fall, that thought that if you don’t believe in religion that you don’t believe in anything at all.
Falling back on your question, I just want the fans to go on their own quest, as my friends and I were able to do. I just want to shoot that spark into them. Once that spark is there in the brain, that realization that there is more out there for you, then everything will begin to fall into line. I’ve met thousands of kids around the world that have gone through a very similar process as me, in terms of finding enlightenment. It just seems that when you decide not to believe what they believe in and start searching for something else, then everyone starts finding the truth. So yeah, our music is weird and shit, but I don’t really make music for the rap fans as much as I make music to spark people like me.
I’ve only recommended two books in my life, I’ve read thousands, but I only recommend two most often and those two are The Celestine Prophecy and The Alchemist. They’re two very simple reads, but so inspiring. I want to be like those books in a way, just from reading them, so many people go out and start searching for shit on their own. I just want people to understand that you don’t need me, you don’t need a pastor, you don’t need a priest, you don’t need a preacher to find the truth, if you want to find it then go look and it will pull you in like a magnet.
Yeah, people can be so consumed by answers that whenever someone claims to have one people flock in that direction in a heartbeat. People will go to certain books, music, or religion for answers, but I agree with you in that we can find a lot of the answers within ourselves.
That’s one thing that I do believe, man! It’s a matter of remembering that, we have all the knowledge in the universe and we just have to look inward. Most of what I learn now, and I’m not enlightened, but just through meditation and through fucking thinking and piecing things that I’ve learned together is how I figure out a lot of stuff. Sometimes I’ll read a book and feel like it was everything I had already thought of in my head, it’s sick how that works! That’s the universal consciousness, it’s the belief that the everything is connected, that there is a force somewhere in this fucking universe, a spiritual force that we can all pull from and I think it’s just a matter of connecting back to the universe and becoming more natural, respecting life. Once you get that far, then you’re alive. Look into universal consciousness and Carl Jung, he’s like my idol in life and we have the same birthday – how sick is that? But yeah, look into him, he’s was Freud’s understudy and did mad other shit, he was one of the first scientists to build the gap between social sciences and spirituality.
Specifically in a sense that transcends beyond hip-hop, what defines creative ‘genius’ to you?
Genius to me is found in someone that maybe hasn’t found out who they are, but is at least in the process of finding out who they are and is able to express the peak of that. ‘Cause you are a creative person, I am a creative person, AK is a creative person, all of the people that we’re around are creative, but to become a genius is rising up and aiming towards the pinnacle of who you could be and fully expressing yourself throughout that process. The creative aspect is based on the person, there’s no one definition to it for me, I believe everyone can be creative in their own way. If you write a song or you paint a picture or if you build a business, that was the expression in which you tested your maximum potential, and that’s creative genius. It’s about giving the most that you have, giving your life to something that represents, not only you, but even something beyond yourself.
With all of the rapid strides we’re making in modern communication technology, the influence of popular culture now dominates the conscious psyche of our generation. How do you believe that the power of our modern media systems should be used to develop and strengthen the minds of our youth?
I feel like it kind of already is in a sense, I mean there remains a lot of work to be done ’cause there’s a lot of shit out there, but the Internet is the greatest invention ever because we are now able to connect with people all around the world and I feel like that’s what’s leading our generation’s enlightenment. We are now able to see people from different places and to interact with people from different places and to realize that even though this guy may rap, or this guy may wear a beard, or this guy might have super dark skin, or this guy has differently shaped eyes, there still exists this common denominator: we are all one. The internet is helping by converging cultural diversities, people are looking out, people in China are sharing music with people in America, that’s a positive thing.
There is so much information available on the internet which is a good thing, it’s just that there is a lot of garbage out there. So I guess it’s just a matter of evolving and starting to take advantage of it. For people in power, I don’t really consider myself in a real position of power yet, but the right people in power can make their mark on the internet because the Internet is not censored yet, I mean once it does get censored we’re fucked. So say I’m a famous rapper wants to raise social consciousness, he can create his own social media platform to speak, connect and raise awareness and his followers can join and share in the conversation as well.
There are a lot of forums out there right now that are really good and people are interacting, so I guess it’s a matter of bringing those conversations to the forefront. It’s there, it’s just a matter of digging it out from under the gravel. We’ve got to allow the things that we know are shitty to slide back, Facebook and Twitter and Myspace are all great things, but there’s also a lot of shit that they come along with that’s so unnecessary. So I guess it’s key to find ways to utilize the Internet to raise social awareness. ‘Cause I mean I don’t want to censor it, if they censor it then it’s over…
Yeah, I mean it’s just that when you go onto Facebook or Twitter and you consider these empowering technologies and the monumental achievements that they are, there is so much is going to waste! Yeah, you do need the funny shit to pick you up with a laugh once in a while, but when I log in and see my newsfeed blowing up with shit about Miley Cyrus twerking…damn, who the fuck really cares? Meanwhile, people are suffering across the world, or even more so, people are doing much more accomplishing things in this world than Miley Cyrus that I’d like to check out….
People are dying in this world and we’re going to sit here and watch Miley Cyrus?
We have these incredible tools, let’s start making some constructive use of them!
Yeah, but I guess their job, and I don’t know exactly who they are yet – I don’t call them the Illuminati or nothing, but there is an anti-conscious group out there, whether it’s the government or personally I just think it’s just capitalism…
I think it’s more so capitalism than anything else. Easy money for advertisers.
I mean we are living in a capitalist society and you can’t blame people for trying to make their money, I guess. But there are definitely some mother-fuckers out there that are cutting off of the spread of consciousness. I feel it, I know it, they’re trying to stop something from happening. Even though I’m not one to believe in conspiracies, there are plenty of agendas…
So you guys are pretty open about your experimentation with psychedelics. Is there any one specific moment of clarity or insight that you can recall experiencing on your trips? If possible could you describe where your thoughts were at in that moment?
I’ve had some fucking wild times, but the most wild was probably the first trip. I always knew I was going to do them since I was a kid because back in 5th grade they put us through that D.A.R.E. Program and we talked about this drug called acid that you could take and you’d start to trip out and see things that were not there and I was like ,”What?!? Let’s do that!” (Laughs) I thought it had to be made up. Anyway, I got to high school a couple years later and tried it.
The first time I tripped I remember looking up at the sky and thinking, “Wow! I am so small compared to this whole universe!” That was my whole perspective on that trip, just realizing that we are so small as human beings and we are focusing on such minuscule things when we should be trying to build ourselves up as big as this universe and before we die. I just remember thinking that every single day there are so many people that die. Then, I remember considering people that died, but were remember forever like Dr. Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, those figures that left a mark on the world and that became my whole thing from that first trip: I have to figure out a way to not die irrelevant, to leave your mark on the Earth because that is what every person came here to do. I was staring at the sky talking to myself like, “I can’t believe you have an ego. I can’t believe you think about your sneakers. I can’t believe you worry about your clothes.” All those things just started to come up and I was asking myself why I even cared. I looked at my red shirt and asked myself why the color even mattered.
Of course, when you come down you realize your thinking was a bit extreme, but seeing that in-depth is what made me come to terms. Even though you wake back up and rationalize, it’s crazy to think like that on psychedelics because you really start to look at yourself and question things. Another thing about psychedelics too is that when I was younger I used to think the psychedelics were what was teaching me, but then I realized that the psychedelics just place a person in the state of mind in which they are able to think for themselves for the first time. The level of the trip depends on the level of the subject, it is really all about the mind. It can just put an introspective thinker in a state of mind where he is able to think with no boundaries, no societal pressures, no boundaries on the brain. But yeah, that was my first trip. I realized there’s a whole universe out there and there I was thinking about my sneakers…
(Laughs) Yeah, it’s like leaving the boundaries of our skull for a bit, it allows you to see things in perspective. So do you think it’s a necessity that all people experiment with psychedelics?
Oh no, no, no not at all! I think psychedelics could be really good for kids from the inner-city, kids that are surrounded by consumerism and advertising and all that shit. If you’re in Tibet, or you’re in some natural place then you can connect in other ways, but it really does something for someone who is trapped by their surroundings. A trip on psychedelics can really open someone’s mind up to start thinking outside the box. I don’t think it’s necessary at all though, not for enlightenment. I would even prefer that someone set on the path towards enlightenment prior to doing it, think about some shit first and then do it and you’ll have a much more fulfilling time.
There does seem to exist a certain duality behind the characters that you create for yourselves within your lyrics. On one hand, you’re very progressive and philosophically minded individuals, but on the other, you do still celebrate the fame, money, women, ‘trillness’ and the other vices that come in hand with hip-hop culture. Do you believe that these ills dilute the messages of your music and do you think that they will live on forever synonymously with hip-hop culture?
I feel like that’s just what hip-hop was established on, I mean there’s always been harder stuff in the mix too, but this kind of stuff has always been prevalent in hip-hop and it will most likely always be there, it is what the consumer wants. The difference is that we do it to bridge the gap. I don’t ever want to get boxed into the category of a conscious rapper because I personally do not know my position as a musician yet, I just started making music last year. So I want to be able to lay down an early discography of music that doesn’t really have a one-track vibe. Take Joey Bada$$ as an example, he’s my favorite rapper on the planet right now, but he makes boom-bap 90′s rap and blogs try to box him in as a one-track artist because that’s all that they’ve seen him put out and they’re unaware that he can do other work. As an artist, I want to be able to make music across the board, all different types, I don’t want to be boxed in as the spiritualist or conscious rapper frame.
Also, I want to try to build the bridge between conscious rap and trap music because I feel like that’s never been done before. I feel like a lot of conscious rap doesn’t transfer over to the consumer as well because they don’t want to hear that shit, or at least they don’t want to hear it in that way. So I think if I can present people music that they can listen to and enjoy, but also allow them to recognize what we represent, then we can still be an influence. Even though we make trap music also, no one is going to consider us trap artists, they’re just going to recognize that we know how to make trap music.
The new age conscious personality is not that introverted guy anymore, he can be the extroverted, out there guy that loves life and loves enjoying himself. So I want to reach out to those people and that’s why we try to make a wide array of music. I never want to get boxed in.
It is tough, because at the end of the day you are part of a rap business. You do have to approach customers in that respect and people can be easily turned off…
Yes, exactly. Even though we are artists and we want to create for ourselves, you do have to remember that part of our job is to make music for the consumer and that’s why I try to make our music as universal as I can with songs like The Proclamation. Those songs are made with our listeners in mind. I know that my fans, even though they like conscious shit, don’t want to listen to that all of the time…or maybe they do? I don’t know, I mean a lot of my fans listen to Chief Keef, so if I can provide something for them to fill that Chief Keef void, and not make it lame, then we have a good thing going. I feel like we do have a good thing going, even though we’re not perfect at it yet, I feel like it’s better for us to do it this way than to go into a one-track minded direction. I’ll never be boxed in.
So you’re just finding that balance and becoming that gateway too.
Yes. The bridge. I think that that was my reason for becoming a rapper, to be that bridge.