There's No Place Like Earthgang

There's No Place Like Earthgang

Written by Diamond Alexis

Photography by Evans Alexandre and Kacey Greene

Published September 6, 2019

Atlanta’s psychedelic rap duo is paving a new lane down the yellow brick roads of hip-hop, soul and funk movements.

Upon first impression of the name,

EarthGang leaves just as much a lasting impression on the eyes as their sound does on the ears.

No, they aren’t that environmentalism extremist group making some hopeless attempt at urban assimilation that some nature lovers were probably hoping for. It’s a movement. It’s a connection. It’s a freedom. A place of belonging, if you will. “I’m Earthgang. You’re EarthGang. He, she—we all EarthGang,” as one-half of the Atlanta-hailed hip-hop duo, WowGr8, once put it.

Comprised of Johnny Venus and WowGr8 (dually known as Doctur Dot), EarthGang is home to two of rap’s dewiest soul-funk sound-benders. Often likened to Outkast, their hometown’s zeitgeist mavericks of the ‘90s and early 2000s, their outré musical disposition personifies itself in physical form, too.  

Johnny is an optical parade from head to toe. His thick locs are sheathed in a kaleidoscopic headwrap, accentuating the sundry shades of brown strewn throughout each one. He dons cream-colored denim pants with a matching jacket, CTM Akila sunglasses, camo boots and a yellow choker—all subtle extensions of his own prismatic charisma. WowGr8 is modest in a simple floral-accented Adidas fit. He accessorizes with sleeve-length tattoos, one of which carries a motivational motto designed to keep his integrity intact and found in the lead verse of their “Robots” single: NMBK, short for “No More Bad Karma.”  

EarthGang’s hyperactive customs and eye-catching wardrobe expressions are counterpoised by their mellow demeanors. When they first walk into the building at BET’s New York headquarters, they are modest, but not meek. They shake hands, exchange smiles and follow the casual routine of pleasantries with every new face. But in a matter of 20 minutes, they’ve already made each room, hallway, staircase and elevator theirs as white photo flashes snap their every move. The pair gleefully hop atop couches, repurpose chandeliers by poking their heads in the center of them, flaunt around a random inflatable palm tree found in a nearby closet, and even sing melodies to a deer head.

Johnny and WowGr8’s serendipitous behavior would seem natural when considering their music catalog, which mirrors their eccentricity.

The Better Party, their first mixtape, is doused in colorful up-tempos and hook-heavy lyricism. Echoing house music, most of its tracks sound like they stemmed from “type beat” searches on YouTube. It’s classically underdeveloped, as any first release would be from a pair of rookies making stride recording attempts in Hampton University dorm rooms and closets. But even in their DatPiff amateurism, their lyrical chops and ear for sonic appeal is prevalent.

From there, they slow-burned into the industry space with a few loosies: a single here (“Miss The Show,” “F Bomb”) a music video there (“Opium,” “Fire Kicking Tree Limbs”), and a few LPs (Mad Men, Good News) and festival appearances in between. But Johnny’s magnetically twangy vocals and WowGr8’s metaphorical mastery brought them further than even they might have expected. They can now be found on Dreamville Records, J. Cole’s record label imprint, alongside a versatile set of gifted rap artists Bas, Omen, Lute, J.I.D., Cozz, and the family’s lone R&B gem, Ari Lennox. The Gang also showed face on Revenge of the Dreamers III, Dreamville’s third compilation album installment and Billboard 200’s No.1 album in the country boasting several names of hip-hop and R&B’s freshest, most-talented class.

It was the perfect impetus to drive them full-force into Friday (September 6): the birth date of their major label debut album, Mirrorland

We'd hop on stage and people would be like, 'What the f**k is Earthgang?

The project is symbolic of a journey (followed through their Rags, Robots, and Royalty EP triology), and cleverly follows the archetype of The Wiz.

But prior to EarthGang’s journey down this yellow brick road, the two descended from their co-founded Spillage Village collective. The artist-producer-singer posse was less of a clique and more a synergistic space for creative collaboration among the different soul, rap and R&B talents of the group, including soulstress Mereba, R&B’s 6lack and EarthGang’s longtime (and now Dreamville) brethren, J.I.D. Here is where they birthed some of their earliest EPs Shallow Toys For Graves, Strays With Rabies, Torba, Bears Like This Too, and the late Mac Miller-produced Bears Like This Too Much. Despite diverging into their own careers, respectively, the entire collective still holds firm to their covenant: Spillage Village to the coffin.

Long before their newfangled industry successes (including a spot on Cole’s 2017 4 Your Eyes Only and 2018 KOD tours), it was this visibility that hoisted them to other spaces among their rap peers. The 2015 stage of Top Dawg Entertainment artist Ab-Soul’s These Days Tour was the first and most experimental one, allowing them to thrust themselves onto the radar of millions of unsuspecting (and unfamiliar) fans.  

BET: The KOD Tour was a pretty huge deal considering it was your second run with Cole. But you both are well-seasoned in the game of touring by now. What have been some of your growing pains since you first started?

WowGr8Our first tour was Ab-Soul's "These Days Tour" in about 2015, and the first time touring was the hardest. Not many hard things have happened since then, but the first one was definitely the hardest. First, we got notice of the tour within about 10 days to two weeks before knowing we were even going to go. We was opening, so we going first as f**k. That means you gotta get there early. But also, our manager Barry is driving everywhere, so we're not necessarily getting there early. We're literally driving city to city with eight of us packed in a Chevy Traverse—slightly bigger than a minivan.

Take your pick. We didn't make no money. Everything that would happen to people who have never been on tour before happened. We got sick, there would be nights where we couldn't be at hotel rooms because there were too many of us and we couldn't afford another one, etc. It was our first time leaving the house. That's where we met Cole too in person, actually. He came to the show we did here in New York. That was the super silver-lining to it. Otherwise, it was a very hard time. I will say we had a good time, though. We had fun because it was our first time going on tour, but there were just a lot of things to grow through. 

Even the actual shows themselves. We'd hop on stage and people would be like, 'What the f**k is Earthgang? What are these n**gas doing— just bouncing around?' We had J.I.D. come out for one song each night, so people didn't know the difference between us and J.I.D. It was a whole thing. J.I.D. also didn't have any projects out at the time, but he was my roommate and brother. We've been rocking together since forever. So, I'm like, 'If I go on the road, you coming.' He would come out and spit one verse in the middle of our set every night. People would just be like, 'Oh...okay. That one dude's alright, too.' Then, people would just be sitting there quiet, or worse. 

Everybody don't get the chance to do this, and we're blessed. Even though it's not easy, we're blessed.
Johnny Venus

BET: Shout out to y'all for keeping the faith through all of that, though. Other people may have just said, F**k it.' 

WowGr8: I mean, we took it and learned from it almost immediately. It was like, 'Okay, well. What do people like then?' After talking among each other, that's when the music started changing, too. Even though I liked our music from many points in time, you can hear a difference from before compared to when we started touring. Now, we're making songs that are more interactive. Now, we're making records that are easy to remember and songs that are more fun to perform! And that's not just for the audience, but for myself to get up on stage and do. A lot of our records before that were real cerebral. We were in our home studio and saying all of this extra sh**. It sounded cool, and it was good enough to get us [to the point of touring], but at the same time, performing that sh** is not the same as performing a grand notion that delivers a grand thought. People can interpret it a lot of different ways versus you and your pigeonhole.

You learn a lot of different things. We learned how to leave the stage even. There would be times where we'd be like, 'Alright, y'all-- bye!' and we'd just leave! [laughs.] Because we were just happy to be there and happy to get the f**k off stage. I remember one time we got off stage, Soul pulled us to the side and said, ‘Hey man, y'all gotta get off stage better than that, man. The shows are getting better, but y'all just leave so awkward!’ And I'm like, ‘Damn, we didn't even think about that.’ And leaving is a thing. And it's a way to leave. There's several different ways to leave, and there's no single perfect way. But you gotta get a way that works, and makes the fans want to think about you later.

Johnny: Girls were a growing pain. My first tour I was out there. It was cool and I was enjoying myself. But these last few tours, I just used a little more discernment. I don't know what it is about me, but women want to possess me. Like, 'If you're with me, then you're with me!’ I can't really just be having everyone in my room like that, or all in my bunk. If we're going to rock and kick it, there has to be a mutual understanding. Because if we're just friends, we're just friends. I can't have you being a stalker. [laughs.]

The second thing is being away from home. Just understanding that I miss home, and friends and family and stuff. But, this is a privilege. Everybody don't get the chance to do this, and we're blessed. Even though it's not easy, we're blessed. That's not just for people who are on tour, it's for everyone who moves away from home to pursue their dreams. Yeah, I know you miss being home. But you're super blessed to be able to experience the world and go on tour. Spain, Italy, Africa. People back in the hood are not doing this. Every time you come back, they look at you like, 'Bro, what's going on? How are you able to do this?' I put in them hours, I put in that work and I linked up with people who had the same drive as me. We haven't even been home this year!

So, it's like, 'I'm doing this sh** so y'all can get a chance to see what's possible. So after me, you might get a chance to do it better than me!' And I'm 100 percent cool with that. 

We got sick, there would be nights where we couldn't be at hotel rooms because there were too many of us and we couldn't afford another one...
EarthGang photographed on March 22, 2018 at BET's New York City studio. (Photo: Treya Bolin/BET)

Earthgang is similarly humble in their idea of celebrityhood.

While WowGr8 considers himself more a hometown hero than a celebrity, Johnny believes he fits the profile so long as others care about what he does and can draw inspiration from him. Given a day with any celebrity that he shares the same Libra zodiac sign with, Johnny would pick West Coast legend, Snoop Dogg. It wouldn’t be because of his weed connoisseurship or social status, but simply because “Snoop is f**king hilarious.” Surprisingly, revered silver screen A-lister and another fellow Libra Will Smith is out of the running after a hilarious backstage encounter while on the KOD Tour (which the Smith patriarch popped up in a surprise appearance for). “He said what’s up to me one day. And I was like, ‘Why you talking to me, Will?’ he recollected. Smith family heir, Jayden Smith, was another co-headliner on the tour, and thus, his pops showed up for support as well.

"Jayden actually thought he was coming to dap him," he continued. "And then [Will] was like, ‘Ah, you’re my son, man. I know you—like—what are you doing? I’m coming to say what’s up to him [Johnny]!’ That’s how I became a celebrity. Will Smith touch you, and you’re a celebrity."

WowGr8, the Scorpio energy between the two, veered into entirely different territory in his pick with a Scorpio celebrity to spend a day with: Microsoft’s techie multibillionaire magnate, Bill Gates. “We going to the tech world,” he said. “We doing venture capitalism type sh**. We doing lobbying in the White House. It’s between him and Frank Ocean, though. I still haven’t met him yet.” Such stark contrasts in something as simple as who they’d fancy for a day with a celebrity of the same sign might lead one to question whether their astrological differences clash in other creative aspects.

BET: In your respective processes, have the two of you ever bumped heads while merging creative synergies?

WowGr8: A lot of times. We've had songs some people want or some people don't want on records since ‘Torba.’ I remember it was certain songs I was trying to fight for, I got outvoted and I lost. 

JohnnyBut we won, though. The record came out.

WowGr8Yeah, exactly. Each record is made so differently. Especially with ‘Mirrorland’ in particular. Each record is its own thing. We really could release it as an exhibit by itself. If you can imagine it as a gallery of paintings, it would be like, 'This is the day for this song. This is the month for this song.' Each one was made in a different place, a different time, different people involved, different settings and different situations we were going through in life. So because it took so long to record it, everything is so different and it makes the selection process an actual process. What you end up doing is seeing what's the best way to present an idea, and which of these is the best way to take that idea the direction you want it to go. I'm just speaking on what I've seen happen with the group. That's kind of what all of the conversations revolve around. 

Johnny:  It's just basically contributing. If I focus on that, then everything else will take care of itself. Of course, there are songs that you want to be on the project. But, maybe those songs are for a later date. Maybe those songs are for a different time. We've had songs that were on ‘Mirrorland’ that we might have wanted on one of the EPs. But, it just didn't make it. You just have to trust God and trust the process. You stay inspired, and you won't have to worry about that.

I don't have no issue bowing down to the presence of a woman because people have bowed down to kings forever. Why can't we bow down to queens or recognize a goddess? They create life.
Johnny Venus

Without revealing too much, I inform them that I’ve already heard some tracks from the project that are not yet released. This prompted Johnny to steal away a white and silver platform sneaker from my foot that they showed interest in a few moments earlier. I would have to reveal who played me the songs to release my shoe from its hostage situation. Instead, we agreed on a different ultimatum: I’d reveal the names of only two songs that I heard in exchange for the shoe. After settling on this, we discussed said tracks, “Tequila” and “Lala Challenge.”

The latter is an L.A.-Atlanta sonic hybrid. Constructed with Norwegian producer Lido, “LaLa Challenge” is one of Mirrorland’s most organic brainchildren from the inside-out. The track floats atop an organ-like background, courtesy of Johnny’s west-end Atlanta church, the Shrine of the Black Madonna. Johnny remembers that they set up a mic in the center of the room to record from a vintage B3 Hammond. It grew legs with Lido afterward, who finished the track in L.A. as they all sipped on Jaden’s Just Water and invited whatever friends were available to come in to the studio and lay down voiceovers for it. Even 2000 miles from home, the track never lost its “Atlanta sauce,” as Johnny deems it. “I remember we were talking about really making it feel like the Atlanta we grew up in,” WowGr8 adds. “That was a very on-purpose feeling. Very dedicated and deliberate through the strip clubs, hot wings, studio, club, church—the whole culture.”  

The former of the two tracks, “Tequila,” is one of Mirrorland’s older records and, perhaps, the only track with the most compellingly storied history. Dreamville’s resident producer talent, Elite, played the beat for the first time at J. Cole’s North Carolina home studio, legendarily recognized as “The Sheltuh.” Fans of Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only album may be most familiar with this site as the nucleus of his “Neighbors” track. The song lyricizes (and visually evidences through its music video) the incident that resulted in a SWAT team tearing through the house after a neighbor reported him to police upon racially profiling-rooted suspicions of drug activity. Fortunately, as Elite told Complex in 2016, no one was present at the residence when the militarized police force encroached it. But Johnny does remember coming face-to-face with the prying neighbor at one point before the invasion.

He was like, ‘So, who’s living there?,’ and I’m like, ‘Bro, I’m just a guest. Mind your f**king business. I’m not telling you nothing. I’m somebody’s guest in their home, like, why you being so nosey and sh**?’” Apparently, this neighbor assumed that Cole and company were operating a grow house at the bottom of the spot. The false alarm prompted SWAT officials to show up with infrared scans, assault rifles and more—only to find studio equipment. “That’s why there was heat down there,” Johnny said with a laugh. “They literally were on pins and needles trying to find a way to get those ‘drug dealers’ out of there."

I remember it was certain songs I was trying to fight for, I got outvoted and I lost.

Fortunately, Elite and the gang were able to make “Tequila” happen before the invasion. Admittedly, Elite hated the beat for the track at first. WowGr8 remembers going through a breakup at the time, and emotions were still fresh. He attempted to shake himself loose with a quick jog, which is where he spent more time with Elite’s soundboard creation. By the end of his run, he came back with a hook—the one ingredient needed for Elite to fall in love with the beat and run with it for the final record. “He’s one of my favorite people to work with probably in my whole life,” WowGr8 lauds of Elite. “He challenges me. He’s probably one of the most consistent who will just hit me up just to check in on me. That goes a long way too, even outside of music.”

EarthGang experiences a similar heart for the women

they’ve had the pleasure of sharing a stage, a mic, a track and even a label family with throughout their industry run.

Forever super-stans of their R&B soulstress sisters Mereba and Ari Lennox, EarthGang smoothed over several of their EP standouts, like “Nothing But The Best,” “Lovechild,” and “UFOs” with the ladies’ soothingly soulful R&B vocals. On the hip-hop front, they’ve lent bars to trap metal superstar Rico Nasty’s bouncy “Big Titties” record and dove into alternative categories with electro pop artist Billie Eilish, whom they supported on her 1 by 1 Tour. Johnny and WowGr8 have rallied behind L.A.’s rap cowgirl Doja Cat and “Hope You’re Happy” songstress Emeryld, too.

But, it didn’t take a new wave of female urban music talents or industry elbow-rubbing for them to activate this movement within their artistry. Sporting “End Rape Culture” jumpsuits across many stages in 2018, the duo has long championed and represented allyship in womanism. A fist in the air for women of the world didn’t take a female kinship for WowGr8 either, who reveals he doesn’t have any biological sisters in his life.

BET: Outside of the female rap and R&B circles, do you believe women’s empowerment is lacking among male hip-hop right now?

WowGr8: I think what we’re witnessing now is probably one of the biggest resurgences of women claiming what they deserve. I feel like with anything in this world and in this life that pertains to humanity is worth fighting for. But when you fight certain types of energy—like the empowerment of women— you’re really just wasting your time.  Not only are you wasting your time, you’re hurting yourself. You’re not allowing yourself to grow. Anybody who’s fighting the amount of power that women are claiming these days is tripping. Like, why be backwards? It's almost like when people get cellphones, for example. Not saying it's the same level of issues at all, but just as an analogy. I'm sure there was a time when they were like, "Man, f**k that! I'm gonna go home and talk to people [in person]!" Now, everyone has cellphones. We don't even remember the people that were ever against it. Sooner than we think, we won't even remember as many of the guys who were trying to make it difficult for women to get to the next point. But, Earthgang, we're all about that.

Johnny: Honestly, I've always felt connected to the feminine energy. I walk around with headwraps and sh** on. And I love flowers. It's balance. Balance is necessary. You can't go through life just talking about f**king b**ches until you're 80-years-old. You miss a lot of things. I'm not saying you 'can't' do it. But, you're just going to miss out on a lot. You're going to miss a lot of growth opportunities, even though it may not be easy. It may be hard, but you're still going to miss that. So, that's coming from the male perspective. As a man, being open to that other energy enhances your life. But, from a societal perspective, it comes with balance. Women just have a quality that men don't have.Things that I really love to see, for example, are all-women bands. All-women camera crews. Just simple things like that. 

It’s beautiful because the last generation we came up in was super male-dominant. But, I was in an Uber with this dude in Kansas. He was talking about presidency and stuff, and I said, 'Maybe we should have a woman president.' He's like, 'You sure?,' and I'm like, 'I mean, they know how to run a house. Why couldn’t they run a government?' He didn't have no words for that. It's crazy because we think this is how the world has always been, but the world has gone through ebbs and flows. So, there was a time where women were the head and end-all-be-all. Then, there came a time where men dominated all facets of the creative world. But women are still in the background. They're still in the home. They're still in the office spaces. You see the CEO. You see a Bill Gates, but you don't see all the women doing the stuff that makes it happen. 

Even with Young Thug. We were on tour with him and every time he went to the dressing room, it was his sisters making sure he was straight. They were there every night making sure he had everything he needed. They were making sure he was taken care of. They were running everything. They were making sure no girls were coming in that he didn't want-- all of that. And people think that men run the show, but if you're really paying attention, it's the women that plant the seeds and make them grow. So, why not bring that to the forefront of society? Give credit where credit is due. I don't have no issue bowing down to the presence of a woman because people have bowed down to kings forever. Why can't we bow down to queens or recognize a goddess? They create life.

EarthGang’s artistry is equally deep-seated in these tenets as they are in their Southern roots.

Never ones to detach from Atlanta’s foundational trap marrow, Johnny and WowGr8 find perfect balance in psychotropic lifts and dips on hi-hats and syrupy vocals gliding across crisp, cinematic snares. Voltaic lyricism stimulates the momentum of tracks like “Up,” while deep, reverberating melodies sedate the vibes of “Proud Of You.” EarthGang thrives from a sui generis hip-hop intelligence in sound and locution that few others before them have. Because of  their Atlanta nativity, they are receptive to love only: less of a feeling, and more of a place that they thrive among their Dreamville label home and fans, closest industry friends and ATL brotherhood.

They still aren’t blind from realities of hip-hop and the full scope of the music industry’s malignance that lurks among them, though. As proponents of tolerance, acceptance and empowerment, EarthGang doesn’t tie a cape around their necks and pander to the world that they’re the cure to its cancerous injustices. But at the end of their journey, just maybe, their unifying, provocative musical imprint can ease the symptoms of them.“That’s not a problem that can be solved in a year, or day, or even a generation,” WowGr8 says. “All you can do is play your part.” 

Stream EarthGang's new 'Mirrorland' album below.




NOVEMBER 3, 2020