Leave it to a couple of Underachievers to flip the script. The Brooklyn rap duo of Issa Gold and AK do that on their psychedelic hip-hop debut, Cellar Door: Terminus Ut Exordium, banking on their talent over glitzy names.
"The industry wants to convince people that you need labels, co-signs, features, or somebody to tell you who you want to listen to," says Underachievers emcee Issa Gold. "I still feel if the product is good it will work itself. That's been our philosophy from the beginning."
That bet has begun to pay off. The album — whose Latin component means "end of the beginning" — reached No. 86 on Billboard's album charts earlier this year, as well as the Top 20 on the Rap, R&B and Independent charts. It's a loosely groove-driven disc with an attitude that evokes De La Soul and other members of the influential Native Tongues collective, as well as the layered soundscapes of Kid Cudi.
The name, meanwhile, belies the duo's ambitions. "It's an oxymoron," Gold says. "We're not really underachievers, but people might say we are because we smoke so much weed and shit."
Their anti-marketing ambitions found appropriate sponsorship in iconoclastic producer/rapper Flying Lotus. Lotus' skill blending hip-hop and acid-jazz has reaped its own accelerating word-of-mouth buzz. The Los Angeles impresario can apparently also spot kindred spirits a coast away.
Lotus flew them out two years ago upon hearing 90 seconds of one song. He signed them to his Brainfeeder label and they premiered the Underachievers' Indigoism mixtape early last year. It showcased their third-eye-opening spirituality and an orientation toward self-empowerment. The heady lyrical forays slunk over trippy off-beat beds that were fashioned by the label's experimental producers.
With Cellar Door, Gold dialed back Underachievers' more conspicuous literary elements. "I really tried to focus on flow and not choruses," he says. "I felt like people really enjoy flows and don't even care what we're saying, so I just figured it'd be better to drill harder on flows."
So this time, the words are more impressionistic to fit each song's atmosphere, from the "knock 'em" refrain on "Cipher" to the regimented rhyming patter of "Nebulous" to the echoing lines on the appropriately titled "Sonorous."
Although AK has been rapping since his tweens, Gold is a latecomer who didn't gravitate toward hip-hop until college. Prior to that, he'd expected to engage in more literary or academic pursuits.
"I thought I was going to write books, but you know, music is the universal language, and it seemed the fastest way for me to spread my shit. I chose this medium and it worked."
While his ambition is to create a culture that will go on forever, Gold understands that the Underachievers' vision is too all-encompassing to fully achieve. That's sort of the idea.
"You've got to give yourself an impossible goal and go after it. Spend your life chasing it," he says. "So if you fail, at least you fucking tried."