There were times where I have questioned myself about what the annals of music history would say of the gleaming contribution of the southern city of Atlanta. However, after meeting the creative duo behind EarthGang, my mind was immediately set at ease.
Putting out their work for over a decade – avant-garde MCs Johnny Venus and WowGr8 (previously known as Doctur Dot) – stand out from the crowd by cementing their place in the city’s sonic pantheon, without ever peddling the familiar tropes and sounds that have become globally associated with it.
Their weirdly sublime, anything-goes, surrealist-conceptual albums and EPs are antithetical to the current mainstream pulse, and their artistic contribution is one that shall never be contained within the boundaries of musical genres.
‘We’re hip-hop Pink Floyd’ – WowGr8 shares at the beginning of our conversation. His counterpart, Venus reverberate the sentiment. When asked how to describe what exactly EarthGang is, he quaintly answers – ‘We can be as gentle as a sprinkle of water, or as unnerving as a hurricane’.
Their EP trilogy – Rags, Robots, and Royalty – or their latest album ‘Mirrorland’ might be the starting point for many of you, yet the trailblazing duo started their joint voyage a long, long time ago. At Benjamin E. Mays High School in Southeast Atlanta, to be precise. Their creative affinity and unconventional chemistry is one that can only be achieved through years of collaboration; ‘Since the dawn of existence’ according to Wowgr8. Their relationship blossomed from casual conversations about rap and hip-hop, leading them forming a group of their own.
Leaving Atlanta together, the duo moved to Virginia to further their academic studies. Both attended Hampton University, with WowGr8 majoring in Psychology and Venus in Architecture. During this time, they spent endless nights recording in their dorm rooms, collaborating with local producers and singers. Their initial recordings materialised as their debut 2010’s ‘The Better Party’, closely followed by ‘Mad Men’ the year after. Their increased demand would soon attract others that vibrate at the same frequency.
Their paths first crossed with up-and-coming rapper, and now-close collaborator, J.I.D., while at Hampton – and it was around this time the trio birthed their underground collective, Spillage Village. As a collective, Spillage Village drew from the breadth and depth of their members’ musical knowledge to create innovative genre-defying musical landscapes. In its latest incarnation, Spillage Village is comprised of the founding fathers EarthGang, alongside hold-no-hostages rappers J.I.D and Lute, soul-stirring songstress Marian Mereba, producer brothers Hollywood JB and JordxnBryant, Alt-R&B pioneer 6LACK.
Their strength of conviction and devotion to their art could, to the outside world, at times, be associated with madness world. Over time it has opened doors for freewheeling and creative experimentation. Spillage Village became one of Atlanta’s most creative contemporary collectives, as well as one of its most prolific ones. There haven’t been any new releases from the collective since their latest release ‘Bears Like This Too Much’, but its members never ceased to release new material together; they just hopped and cross-pollinate on each other’s projects.
After making a name for themselves in the underground scene, EarthGang celebrated their first tour across the US with the release of their last album under Spillage Village’s imprint, ‘Strays with Rabies’ in 2015.
From melodies, ad-libs, alternating cadences and textures, EarthGang’s production and creative direction were and still are creatively dense. Their penmanship and the depth of their messages are unmatched. It will leave you with so much to unpack that, contrary to the current norm, all their projects become better after several spins. “We have a lot of assumptions and conspiracy theories on Reddit. I’ve read some.” – wowgr8 comments on their fanbase’s fertile imagination.
Based on the spectrum of interpretations of comments left on their Chad Tennies and Mac Grant directed music video for ‘Liquo Sto’ featuring Mariam Mereba, I can assure you that they do what every great piece of art does: they make people think.
“Essentially, it’s him and his inner child. What kind of man is he going to be? The kid ends up dying as a result of his own decisions. The message is about not letting your inner child die.“ – wowgr8 unearths the storyline for Liquo Sto’s music video.
While many focus on preaching, EarthGang provides you with the tools for you to think for yourself. Rhyme after rhyme, they’ll entice you into their stream of consciousness, welcoming you to listen to their passionate and educated opinion, and they do it with such humour and grace that might be difficult to pass on. The duo underwent a long stint independently. They showcased their versatility alongside the likes of OGs such as Mac Miller and coupled with successful tours opening for Ab-Soul, Jaden Smith, J.Cole and even, as of late, Billie Eilish.
“After Strays, we were just recording, not really in a straight direction, but there was a lot of life going on there. We were recording a lot in different cities and with different people. We got to a point where we were thinking, could this be an album?” – wowgr8 comments on the thought process that would lead to the EP trinity, Rags, Robots and Royalty.
After seven years bubbling underground, news broke in 2017 that they had penned a deal with J. Cole’s label, Dreamville. The recordings mentioned above materialised as a pre-‘Mirrorland’ EP trinity. In conversation the duo assured that they did not have the whole rollout completed before they released the first project – ‘Rags’ – but, that by the time they did ‘Robots’ they already knew ‘Royalty’ would be brought into existence. Sonically the three projects present their personal evolution and range of genres that they’re able to draw from, twisting and bending at their will to make something entirely new.
‘Rags’, the introductory EP, has a funky, smooth traditional southern sound. ‘Meditate’ featuring J.I.D. sees them trading some intensely disarming, incisive bars that comment on political issues like race, cultural appropriation and equality, narrating the current climate that is still lived in America. “I put colours on the spectrum, I let you assign them worth”. As creative black men, the song’s chorus, “Looking for peace in America / Looking for peace when I stare at you” still speaks volumes in 2019.
While ‘Rags’ urged you to muse, ‘Robots’, the second EP is all about the journey within. The project’s mesh of synth keys, catchy claps, hi-hats and 808’s bring their futuristic, genre-blurring sound come alive in your ears, while the messages imbued criticise internet fame and the cheap, superficial thrills that go with it: “Money, power, pussy, fame; it don’t mean nothing”.
A series of skits is hidden in the projects to help you navigate and decipher the message throughout the journey. Cruising around Atlanta, comedian Young DC Fly chronicles the livelihood of a Lyft driver and closes the loop of the EP trilogy.
“We knew that we wanted to do that. That’s really just a treat for the fans. We met up with DC, gave him like 2, 3 words and went on to create this whole scene in his head. On the spot, just impro-ing. I think it will be a real treat in like 10, 15 years.” – wowgr8 comments on how the skits were brought into existence.
Soon the subtle nuances of the stories and the continuity between projects seep in as they proceed to explain their autobiographic, ever-evolving journey and the lessons learned in the process. All things are possible on the road to ‘Mirrorland’ and closing the journey they have arrived on jazzy-smooth ‘Royalty’. In this project, they value of every mile travelled through Atlanta in pursuit of their dream, learning that the journey itself is the destination.
At its final destination, ‘Mirrorland’, EarthGang greets you to embrace the peripheral vision, and their infectiously galvanising attitude and life-affirming lines take us on a journey that is susceptible to all of the shifting tides of emotion.
“It’s a reflection of yourself and the world around you. Your body is like the city.” – Wowgr8 comments on ‘Mirrorland’. Venus further develops – “If Atlanta as Oz, from The Wizard of Oz, had a baby and we were listening to this baby cry, laugh, scream and giggle and walk and talk that’s basically it.” – he proceeds – “We want to bring people into our world of Atlanta which sometimes can be so out-verbalised because people only have one view of it and one type of music from the city. We want people to stretch reality and their imagination of what goes on in Atlanta, and of what goes on within themselves.”
Their magnetic presence and infectious joie de vivre proves what can be achieved if you allow yourself to put self-limitations aside and dare to imagine a future that ain’t here just yet. Something bigger. Something that you, dear reader, might have not even realised that you need just yet — the freedom to be yourself.
This feature was first published in Volume #31 – The Americana Issue.