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The Underachievers
The UnderachieversPhotography by Ben Grieme, Courtesy of Gestalten

Erykah Badu vs The Underachievers

The Grammy-winning singer and the Brooklyn-based rap duo discuss making music in the age of Aquarius

The following is an excerpt taken from Gestalten’s For The Record: Conversations with People Who Have Shaped the Way We Listen to Music, published in celebration of Red Bull Music Academy’s 15th anniversary—featuring curated conversations on some of the most relevant topics in music today.

How do you get to a point where it’s something that people listen to and take whatever interpretation you get from it?

Erykah Badu: You just hope.

Issa Dash: Yeah, that’s the scariest part about it.

Erykah Badu: You have faith. You just hope they do. And then, at the same time, you don’t underestimate their ability to feel it. There’s somebody who feels like me.

Issa Dash: Did you always know that you’d be Erykah Badu?

Erykah Badu: (laughs) Did I? Yeah, I think so. Not by name or force, but I knew that I wanted to do art. I didn’t think I would be a celebrity. I thought I would be a great entertainer, because I’m more of an exhibitionist than a celebrity. You can see it, but then I wanna fade into the back. I don’t wanna answer no questions. But I kinda always felt like this. I believed it. I didn’t know not to believe it. What about you?

Ak: I always felt like I was gonna be a rapper, I guess.

Issa Dash: He’s been a rapper forever.

Ak: Yeah, it just happened.

Issa Dash: Yeah it’s like we created our reality. 'Cause he was making music forever, and I knew that I wanted to, like, enlighten my generation by any means. We just shazamed it together, and boom, it worked. We’re just together in this. I learned music from him and he learns other shit from me.

Erykah Badu: As a kid, did you know? Don’t lie.

Ak: We always knew we’d be something.

Issa Dash: I always knew I’d be good. Not good in terms of financially, but I always knew I would pull it together and figure it out.

Erykah Badu: So you believed in your abilities?

Issa Dash: Forever. Looking back, everything makes more and more sense. It’s like, 'Was I being set up to be sitting right here?' I don’t mean sitting right here in front of Erykah Badu. I mean, like, where I’m at right now.

Erykah Badu: You know what? Don’t lose it. Because it’s easy to. As life happens, procrastination happens, love happens, you become some kind of personality that you create for yourself. And if you try to live up to it, it gets kinda difficult. And you don’t know why you’re having difficulty. But don’t lose the “believe in your abilities” part. Because I lose that from time to time. “Can I do that?” It should be no question.

"We always knew we’d be something" – Ak of The Underachievers

Issa Dash: That’s the one thing I always keep. I always lose faith in my music. But the one thing I never lose faith in is what I’m trying to do. As long as I stay in line with my goal of enlightening my generation, then everything flows with it. As long as I keep that in front of everything, I think I’ll be fine.

Erykah Badu: What if you have the desire to change that goal? What if you feel like you just wanna wild out and say whatever you wanna say? A situation where you know who you are in your heart, but you know this is what you wanna say. Would you go with it or would you fight that part of you?

Ak: I don’t really think like that. I don’t want to be that type of person.

Issa Dash: Yeah, because the whole reason I started making music was for that one reason, you know what I mean? We’re a year in, so we’re still babies. We haven’t even seen anything. I can’t really say anything yet.

Erykah Badu: Too soon to say. That’s a good answer.

Issa Dash: I feel like if I ever turn my back on the light, it will all be taken away. As long as I stay on point with that, everything will flow. Everything I need will come. That’s why in my head I’m like, 'Oh shit. I can’t get caught up in this.'

Erykah Badu: There’s this little pamphlet I’m reading called At the Feet of the Masters. It’s a boy’s tale of what he learned from his master. And it suggests that denial is the opposite of love. Like you were saying, 'If you deny the light, that’s not love.' That’s a problem for all of us, you know? Everything we do, we deny doing the right thing. And that’s where –

Issa Dash: Denial just messes everything up. Denial is fear, you know? Fear is definitely the opposite of love. All falls in line with that.

Erykah Badu: Fear could be the opposite of love, but then fear... It suggests that you are some kind of victim. And we’re not. We’re just denying a reality of what’s happening. Fear could be a part of the process of denial.

Issa Dash: Of course. If you’re a conscious person, fear is a different type of thing. Fear is a driving force in a sense. There’s a quote from John Mayer: 'Fear is a friend that’s misunderstood.' I feel like you just need to know how to use these things to your advantage. Even the ego. A lot of people are trying to defeat the ego. But I feel like source didn’t give us anything we’re not supposed to use. It’s just about aligning it in the proper way. If you’re not of a conscious mindset, then fear will take you over. Then you’ll be in hell, you’ll be living a fearful life.

How has the industry changed?

Erykah Badu: When I got signed to a label, my album was like platinum in less than a year or something. I didn’t even know the thing was happening. They were working me so hard. I had to be at radio stations early in the morning, this or that TV show. It’s called “the machine.” It was overwhelming. And I didn’t know what had really happened until maybe a year later. That was the old record industry. How is it for you now?

Issa Dash: Now it’s like... the internet. It makes it so much easier. I feel like the internet is like a gift from God to connect to the universe.

Erykah Badu: Age of Aquarius.

Issa Dashi: Yeah, the age of Aquarius. My whole philosophy before making music was that the fans would be able to help us do anything we have to do, because of the internet. I feel like rappers that now enter the game, they try and interact with the business side first. The labels. I want this feature. I want to work with this and that person. All of this instead of building a fan base. That was the main thing I wanted to do.

Erykah Badu: It’s powerful when you come with a network.

Issa Dash: I knew that if something was good, the internet would show it was good. If it’s bad, the internet is going to reject it. Because if something’s good, people are going to want show someone else automatically. No one’s going to want to show anyone something shitty. So that’s how I play the game, basically

How did you figure that out, Dash? Like you said, a lot of artists don’t get it.

Issa Dash: It’s just watching the industry. I studied the industry. I’d just watch something and think, 'Oh shit, those are some very good visuals.' And I was like, 'No one’s listening to music unless they know you.' Rappers are dropping audio, but no one’s listening to it. So the first thing I did was the visual side. I was like, 'We got to make a super dope video.' So that people are like, 'Whoa! This is some shit!' I knew we had to draw people in before we start releasing any music. The first thing I told Ak was, 'I’m not dropping a mixtape until they fucking beg for it. There’s no way I’m going to go out and make 16 fucking songs and release it and have no one listen to it.'

Erykah Badu: I’m also involved in all the aspects. Because it’s all a part of the story. The visual, the music, the frequency, the interview, the outfit, the love, the hate. Everything involved is a part of the story. This is my life. There’s nothing freaky about controlling it.

Issa Dash: I know. Everyone wants me to stop.

Erykah Badu: Don’t do it. There’s nothing freaky about controlling it. Just don’t put too much on yourself. It’s gotta be done that way, if that’s what you do.

"The first thing I told Ak was, 'I’m not dropping a mixtape until they fucking beg for it'" – Issa Dash of The Underachievers

An interesting one was the Lil Wayne collaboration 'Jump Up in the Air and Stay There'. To the layperson you guys would seem so different, but on that song you fit together.

Erykah Badu: That’s my people. He’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met, period. There were like ten MCs on that song. It was done during the Worldwide Underground era, where I was traveling on a bus. Whenever I would come to a city, I just had MCs get on it. We just put out that version on the internet, strictly for the internet, so I could play around digitally with this new thing I’ve got to make these images. Basically, like he was saying, imagery is everything. People aren’t listening, they’re looking. They don’t want a savior, they want someone who looks like one. It’s beautiful to be a part of the give and take of that. Every piece of art I put out, I feel like I’m three years old putting it on the refrigerator for my mom to say, 'This is great.' As an artist, that’s how we feel. We don’t ever put out anything for somebody to say, 'Well, this doesn’t sound anything like 1998.' Or, 'These notes are not the right –' How do you know what note I was trying to hit? We don’t put out music or art or love with the idea of being hurt in return. But that is one of the taxes that we have to pay for the brilliant life that we receive in return. My children are in schools that I would never think they’d be in. I’m affording things that my parents need and want. My community – we thrive together, we do things together. I came from a community. If they didn’t teach me music in the community center,I would have never known that I could do anything. And it’s a cycle. You have to take that shit for the team. It’s never easy to do that as a human being, with everything else that you have, but we have to.

Lil Wayne is a very sharp guy, but you wouldn’t necessarily be able to say what books he’s read. It’s part of him, preserving that mystery. I’m assuming it’s not a conscious thing, but obviously mystery is a big part of what artists do, right?

Erykah Badu: Magic would be a better word, because sometimes you have to be exposed in order to complete the loop, but it’s more magical than anything and the magic is that they believe you. To me, there are three levels of artist. One is the artist that bleeds and sweats and burns and documents those experiences. The second level is the artist that emulates that first level. The third is the artist that is fed what to do. The artist that’s in the middle is usually the most successful.


Moderator Mosi Reeves