How EarthGang Leveled Up to Make the Next Great Atlanta Rap Album

By | Posted August 10, 2017
More experimental, more daring, but somehow more engrossing, EarthGang's new music will fill you with OutKast nostalgia.
2017-08-10-earthgang-interview
Photo Credit: Joseph Nieves

The mid-morning was beginning to drift into the early afternoon when I arrived at the Spillage Village household and home studio. A year prior, in this very house, I was treated to a preview of J.I.D’s Dreamville debut, The Never Story, a project heralded by fans and critics as one of the most remarkable releases of 2017. The world reacted as I had: jaw hanging, eyes wide, utterly impressed.

Returning to the studio only heightened my expectations for EarthGang, the Southwest Atlanta duo amassing underground acclaim for their psychedelic philosophies, raw world observations, divergent style, and an uncanny ability to weave abstract concepts with their realities.

Their artistic expression is simultaneously Atlanta and yet alien compared to the sounds surrounding their home city. Records like “Liquor Sto',” “Voodoo,” “Missed Calls” and the Spillage Village collab “Willow Tree” show a natural difference in their artistry without their uniqueness feeling manufactured; outcasts without trying to be typecast as OutKast. Raps full of provoking thoughts and singing filled with soul. 

Two years have rushed by since the release of EarthGang's excellent Strays With Rabies album and the duo is ready to release new music, as evolved artists and mature men. 

Light laughter lifts into the cozy living room air as Doctur Dot and Johnny Venus chuckle through the details of their days as Grant Park camp counselors. Every Monday during the summer of 2011, a routine was followed: summer camp, home, change clothes, and then head to Bankhead for Club Crucial’s weekly open mic. Crucial is iconic in the city of Atlanta, co-owned by T.I., and one of the many lighthouses that attracted passionate moths who sought a spotlight to showcase their talents. Dot and Venus remember being moths—pursuing without a plan, running without a designated route, but none of that mattered; not when all you desired was a stage and a microphone and had something to say.

Six years later, they are no longer chasing the light without direction, but are aware of how important presentation is along with a message.

“This is the first time we have a concentrated effort for a roll out,” said Dot, who admitted that in the past, promotion outside of shows was mostly Twitter fingers and a few videos. “This will be our biggest content flood ever. We just been gearing up. Let’s hit these niggas with an organized plan for once and see how that works," he ended with a laugh. 

Johnny Venus continued the thought, “We seen how important it is to create moments. To help you understand the world that you’re coming into. We want to put these things along with our music. Sometimes our music can be so abstract and in-depth we wanted to give them the music, but also add the fixings. Let's add all the trinkets, bells and whistles.”

That flood of content will begin on September 1, with Rags, the first of a three-part series of EPs. There’s a connecting concept—one the group isn’t ready to disclose—but I’ll tell you that the projects modernize an iconic film from 1978 to fit 2017 Atlanta. All of this will lead up to their sophomore album, entitled Mirrorland

"Why did we like Prince? Why did we like Kast? Why did we like Usher? Why did we like Missy? It was more than them just having some cool songs, it was because of the universe they built. For us, we gotta create this universe, a world. We can’t keep showing people pictures of the universe and tease them coming there one day. We have to give them the ticket."—Doctur Dot 

Captivating is the first word that came to mind while listening to the Rag's intro. The production is slow and heavy as if you’re being pulled up an incline. Dot and Venus' raps are deeply meditative. With life and death on their minds, their animated voices draw you into every word. What truly grabbed me was the hook, “Are we born to live, or do we live to die?” is the question posed. Venus sings but it sounds as if spirits from the other side are inquiring, both ghostly and soothing.

EarthGang

It’s a darker, more existential opening record than Strays' "Momma Told Me" but the heaviness is cut through when the voice of comedian DC Young Fly suddenly arrives. He plays a role throughout the EP as a host of sorts. The introspective lyricism is the driving force of the album. Dot and Venus allow their minds to open up even more to listeners, the personal lyrics that make up their best records.

Expect quotables, but ears will also find the sonic direction of the EP to be a true treat:

"The process for the EPs has been such a learning experience. Working with so many artists and producers. For 'Strays With Rabies' we worked with DJ Khalil, DrewsThatDude, Syk Sense, Ducko [McFli] and J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League. A small group of producers we pretty much knew. For the new EPs—we made it here. We got the beats from other producers but we came here, sat down, and orchestrated the music ourselves. This allowed us to take what we know and add other professionals, a more collaborative process.

"We're working with all these different artists to bring these sounds. Just throwing ideas around. Making it grow. My favorite thing about these EPs is how we are able to take all these sounds and tie all this abstractness into a capsule people can relate to. We were up last night working with some young niggas putting more feeling into songs. We know what we want, but now it’s about finding people who can do it instead of doing it ourselves. Being open to their ideas, too—if they think something will be hard we want them to try it."—Johnny Venus 

"We got to point when we were making a bunch of stuff that was great, some was whatever, and some was just ideas. We were making a bunch of stuff. Barry called us saying we were just throwing paint at the wall, which is cool, but eventually [we] have to put it in a format like it’s a gallery, so people can see the shit. That’s how we got to the concept of these EPs. How can we take these sounds―we got a lot of sounds we’re playing with―and make them presentable, so people can want more of them, and so people can be excited about what more we can make? Each EP has its own kind of film but is still connected like a series to a full project."—Doctur Dot

EarthGang has always been open-minded and free with their sound, but their new music has a sense of concentrated experimentation. This isn't music made by randomly pouring chemicals into a beaker—they sat down to create a Frankenstein. The third song on the opening EP has the most infectious bounce I’ve heard the two rap over. DJ Khaled would set off a banger alert, but there are bars too; the kind of song that’s mused upon when alone but where minds will be lost when played during shows.

The songs are more than simply good lyrics and daring production, there's a focused attention to musicality. From a soul-touching saxophone solo on the EP's fourth song to addictive flows, melodies and instrumentation throughout, every song is taken to new heights with added musical elements.

The final record on the EP is by far the most pleasant surprise and is unlike anything I’ve ever heard from the duo. The cherry on top of the audacious curveball is a verse from Mick Jenkins that will make you slap the Virgin Mary and Three Wise Men. He begins in mellow spoken word and suddenly switches up the flow, its poetic imagery coming out in full effect. Mick didn't email the verse in, he pulled up to the Spillville House and laid it down. Everyone must come to the house, they say. It's where J. Cole was when he recorded "Jermaine's Interlude."

EarthGang

Jaw hanging, eyes wide, utterly impressed. No signs of creative stagnancy, repeating what they’ve already done or conforming to the music of today. My mind instantly compared what I heard from the new EP to a mobile phone application receiving a new update after two years of development. The bugs have been fixed and the overall performance has been improved. Earthgang updated their iOS.

They accepted my warm reception, but the two proudly stated, “Rags is the first and weakest of the EPs.” You could tell they were more serious than cocky. While each song played they reacted with rhyme-reciting and dancing, work they can be proud of, but far from the best in the can. Rags isn't meant to make you believe EarthGang will take over the world, but to show growth. Each project will showcase a step further into their progression.

It's so important for them to build a world because there's a lot they want people to hear and see. Besides the intro, there’s a performance quality to each record. Music you want people to hear live. Music to recite. When I asked about the performative merit to the music, Doc stated:

"[The] first time we ever traveled was the Ab-Soul tour a few years ago. One thing that it did immediately, and it’s kinda reflected in our next project, we came off Soul's tour and made 'Strays.' One thing we were on immediately, from the first show, it totally, completely changed the way we approach music. Before that, for us, music was internal. Me and my niggas gonna go to the crib, pass the blunt around, and rap until we done rapping. We didn’t realize how this approach disregarded the interactive aspect. Our first project, 'Shallow Grave For Toys,' I still love it, but a lot of those songs were internal-ass records. On 'Strays' we tried to expand a bit more. Having songs that you can hop in the crowd and people want to react.

"When you just making music and think niggas want to hear you bar up, you can go out there and niggas will dap you up after the show. But once you see an artist like Kendrick move niggas. An artist like Ab-Soul. An artist like Cole. Niggas that move niggas, you want that power. I don’t want to be the wine spritzer, I want to be the D'Ussé. I damn near want to be the Actavis. I need to get niggas drunk with my shit. Everything we been making is performance-ready. Music with some weight to it."

Dot and Venus both can recall the show that brought them the most attention in Atlanta while on the come up. When you don't have a song for the strip club or popping on the radio, people will always gravitate toward a great show. It was back in 2013, they were still fairly new, but hungry. The show was Spoil Music's Respect The Culture, a large showcase with a mountain of promising artists emerging from the city. Young Thug's name was at the top of the flier. Members of Two-9 are all across the bill, along with Sy Ari Da Kid, Money Makin' Nique and more. EarthGang and fellow SpillVille member J.I.D were right in the middle of the list. After that show, home started to root for them a bit louder. 

In a 2015 interview with Vibe, EarthGang talked about the group going on their first big tour as openers for Ab-Soul. They went on the road with no budget, performing for no pay, and even had to borrow money just to make it through 53 dates and two months of traveling. From there, they were able to consistently stay on the road for two years by supporting other artists. To see them in Atlanta was rare, they went from being mainstays in the scene to going completely ghost. With only minor breaks in-between and no equipment to record on the road, no music was made. They had to stop touring to make music, but valuable lessons were learned and even more so, irreplaceable fans were made. They went through a bit of hell but were able to grow both their wings and their following.

"That’s the only way to make real fans and build up your following. Niggas that saw us at the Ab show, it was the first time seeing us. But then they would see us again when we came back. From 2014-2016 we did 53 dates on the These Days Tour, 20 dates with Mac Miller on The GO:OD AM Tour, the whole US and European [runs for] Bas’ Too High To Riot Tour, and Fashawn’s The Ecology Tour. This created a direct connection. You see how we rock. You see how we present this music to you. And now you’re a part of us. We may be openers but we finna make the most of these 10 minutes. Each stop allowed us to win crowds over that never see us."—Johnny Venus

"One thing I can say no matter how much me and my niggas argue, fight and get pissed off at each other, everything we ever put on paper we accomplished. We hit that mark. We have really plotted and planned this whole shit from the beginning. Every little move we made maybe didn’t feel like the strongest, or felt like the biggest, but it was what we planned and said we would do. And we hit it, so it felt like we were doing something big. One of the biggest things we wanted was to be on tour. We buss a couple moves and made a few plays, boom: 52-city tour, we on the Ab shit."—Barry Johnson (Manager, EarthGang and J.I.D)

“Momma’s Calling” and “Momma Told Me” are the introductory records you hear on Shallow Graves For Toys and Strays With Rabies. Mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces―to listen to EarthGang is to hear about family in some capacity. Of course, your family is going to be affected when you're always on the road, pursuing a dream so passionately.

Doc expressed his mother's enthusiasm for her son that dates back to childhood, saying, “My mom wanted me to do this my whole life, she hype. My mom used to put me in talent shows and make me rap in elementary school. She love this shit. So bought an EarthGang shirt as soon as we made this shit. She can’t wait to be a rap mom.” His father, a former aspiring singer, would play vinyl albums, getting the young rapper and his brother to freestyle. Not over instrumentals, but entire albums. 

Venus grew up in a different household, with different parents. “I remember I had to sit down and write a letter to my dad about how he wasn’t taking this shit as seriously as I am. In handwriting! You not bout this shit like I am,” he said, laughing at the memory. “Since then, he slowly started to support from afar. My dad is 63, [Doc's] parents are younger, but my folks are far removed. My mom never wanted a nigga to do this shit, never. She wanted me to be either a doctor or an architect. I’m good as fuck with architectural work. Good as fuck. But I had to let her know this music shit was more spiritual. More fueling to my spirit.” He picked his path and now when he brings good news, she’s giddy over her son's rising success.

Deeper than wanting to make their parents proud, though, EarthGang gives off this sense of purpose and responsibility to their fans. They're driven by the belief people have in them.

"We had to figure out what we represent. It’s kinda like 'Lion King.' Initially, Simba didn’t want to represent. He didn’t want to be the king. He wanted to parlay in the jungle and eat bugs with Timon. Eventually, you gotta recognize what you’re suppose to be. It’s not about you. What we represent isn’t about us, it isn’t about our ego. It’s for the people listening. They need to hear this more than we need to make it sometimes."—Doctur Dot

Johnny Venus had to leave the interview early, but I stuck around to hear more music. I thought maybe they were bluffing about Rags being the weakest project, but my expectations were blown away by the next record, “Wings." A slow, soulful groove crawled into my skin as it poured from the speakers. Venus begins with a rap beautifully paying homage to the city of Atlanta. By the Southern soul dripping over the hook, it was clear "Wings" was an anthem for every Grady Baby and Magic City enthusiast. It sounds like Grandma’s fried chicken, Aunty’s cornbread, and the Falcons actually winning the Super Bowl. EarthGang isn’t known for their hooks or bridges but “Wings” is special, a real record that has the potential to be one of their biggest whenever it drops. “I know the importance of the song,” Dot said with a smirk.

“Tequila” took us from soulful homage to a left-field breakup song of epic proportions. The production catches you immediately, off-kilter drums wobbling like a drunk driver who stopped caring about walking straight. It explodes with Doc’s first high note, he’s singing to the heavens. His voice displays an unexpected range and the energy―part rapper, part bluesy punk-rocker. And the strings!

The third record, “Bluemoon,” filled me with OutKast nostalgia. That’s not hyperbole. It felt like the aesthetics of Idlewild’s best ideas were executed and tweaked. Every song was better than the last. More experimental, more daring, but somehow more engrossing. Whatever ceiling I had made for EarthGang was broken.

The EPs and album to come are unlike anything fans have heard. After listening to all of their new materialI changed my mind—EarthGang didn’t just update the iOS, they evolved into two of the most imaginative artists in hip-hop. Not just rappers, but creatives who will shatter your every expectation. That's their best comparison to OutKast, a never-ending sense of artistic evolution. They are living out what they told to former DJBooth scribe Nathan two years ago: "Nothing is beyond my realm."

September 1, the flood begins. 

By Yoh, aka Doctur Yoh Venus aka @Yoh31

Editors Note: A previous version of this article stated that Rags would be one of four new EPs. There will be a total of four new projects, three EPs and one album.

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