REVIEW: The Underachievers Live At Howler, Melbourne

The Underachievers are a crucial pillar in the magical movement currently growing in New York City known as “Beast Coast.” “I put it down for my city that new, New York is with me / they say its like the 90’s because we bringing back the gritty/ rep that conscious flow committee” raps Issa Gold on Cold Crush, articulating the fundamental tenets of the movement. Although no one can quite determine an exact definition, if “Beast Coast” means a return to boom bap lyricism, but with progressive psychedelic beats – then please sign me up. The Underachievers take the nostalgic orange of the golden era and spray paint it purple.

For unsigned laptop rappers pushing a new form of hippy hip-hop, The Underachievers have a polished live show. Forming in 2011, but remaining fiercely underground, Issa Gold and AK have had an opportunity to perfect their stagecraft. They perform with the boundless energy that might be expected of their young age. The Beast Coast movement is famous for putting lyricism back in the foreground, and AK and Issa are amongst the best spitting right now. AK shows he is a master of assonance on Take Your Place with “fuck what the peasants say / just let the resume resonate heavily /enemies hope for the end of this energy.”

There’s really nothing like hearing supersonic bars delivered effortlessly in the flesh. The Underachievers have real gills, zigzagging across stage, screaming and spitting double-time. They also have a fluid partnership that makes them greater than the sum of their parts. This is no more evident than when they’re bouncing off of each other on T.A.D.E.D, trading escalating bars. The duo engineered about eight encores, repeatedly threatening to end the show, until deafening cheers brought them back on stage.

The Underachievers tweaked their music for live performance, substituting trippy tracks for thumping trap bangers. This was more Travi$ Scott than Pro Era. There’s no doubt that their music does have a trap basis, and if you crank it up to 11 it has the potential to make a room wobble. However, the overwhelming feel of The Underachievers’ music is light, with cosmic piano keys overlaying the bass. The Gregorian chants that feature in both Generation Z and Take Your Place were either consciously removed or just failed to make it out of the speakers. Stripped of that melody, these songs become twirling trap bangers of the hardest kind, not to mention the inclusion of the already-brutal production of Lex Luger on tracks like Flexin and Cold Crush. This pragmatic decision was surprising, but no doubt sensible. It was a far cry from a Vince Staples set that put slower songs centre stage, and suffered for it. There was no opportunity for the crowd to sway gently to trippy tunes as the marijuana took hold.

Banger after banger kept the cadre of die-hard fans performing athletics front and centre, reflecting the lyrics of this meaner Generation Z “I’m always high as a fucking kite, but my mosh pits they get violent.” Crowd favourite Golden Soul Theory almost felt out of place amidst the hard-core onslaught. You could be forgiven for thinking that their most popular track was a cover version. The lightest moment of the concert came with The Mahdi, the twinkling piano and soulful saxophone providing some much needed melody and respite.

Despite the slight change in tone there was still plenty of the “third eye” rhetoric that distinguishes UA and the Flatbush Zombies from anyone else in hip-hop. 20 years ago people would have said that hippies and hip-hop were incompatible. The Beast Coast compellingly blends the New Age with boom bap, in a way that is a credit to both philosophies. For The Underachievers, drug use is a crucial ingredient in opening the third eye and reaching a higher consciousness. “I’m smoking up on my herb shuttles, elevated, n*gga that’s the motto” raps Issa Gold. Issa completely failed to see the irony when he shouted “how many of you n*ggas like to smoke weed?” to an entirely white audience. Nonetheless, he received a resounding reply. The audience had clearly embraced the groups message, with one reveller spending the entire show steadying himself against a wall, with eyes #1 and #2 rolling back in his skull, but eye #3 well and truly open. However, he had failed to heed Issa’s warning on Take Your Place, “I do the drugs, the drugs, they never do me.”

The Underachievers are aware of the benefit that comes with their association with their slightly more famous contemporaries, the Flatbush Zombies. “Who here likes the Flatbush Zombies?” they yell before launching into a cover. The groups have been close friends, and as they have risen in tandem, the Zombies have become more prominent, mainly due to their use of fuller, more punchy beats, often concocted by Erick Ark Elliot. Still, there are times when the Underachievers show themselves to be the better group, with consistently excellent lyrics and solid production.

As a result of their youth and their underground status, The Underachievers perform with a refreshing sense of humility. In an age where touring is meaning more and more for a musician’s livelihood, artists are becoming more appreciative of the obscure fan bases that they are able to create. That people in Brunswick, Melbourne had bothered to fork out $50 to see an independent act from Flatbush, Brooklyn, a group of people that had no discernible connection with the performers, is something to be grateful for. Both performers continued to touch and high five fans throughout the show; probably marvelling that anyone would be that desperate to make physical contact with them. At the shows end, Issa Gold repeatedly thanked his fans and expressed his love. You could hear the sincerity. With a world tour, this duo of misfits had achieved more than they could have imagined.

Check out our full photo gallery of The Underachievers in Melbourne here.

Image: Lady Drewniak / Howl & Echoes