In Conversation: EarthGang Go Live (Finally) with “Mirrorland”
After a two-year writing process, the funkadelic Atlanta hip-hop duo’s debut is here in all of its natural glory.
Atlanta natives Olu (a.k.a. Johnny Venus) and WowGr8 (a.k.a Doctur Dot) have known each other since high school in 2008, riding the wave of space-is-the-place funk and Southern rap ever since they became buds. The depths of friendship, an awareness of the planet, and the glorification of funk in unison gave their creation EarthGang an almost holy vision (and, by the time they started dropping EPs such as The Better Party and mixtapes like Mad Men, a unique brand of sartorial splendor to match their sound) that made them desirable to every major label.
Yes, J. Cole’s Dreamville imprint won the duo’s favor, but it still took two years for their debut full-length, Mirrorland, to be released last week. We spoke to them right before the sensual, psychedelic new record dropped, the excitement of its release palpable.
You guys have known each other a long time. Do you think you’re pretty much the same people as you were when you met, or has there been a radical shift?
WowGr8: We have grown a lot, or watched the other one grow at least. We were hanging out in high school, outside of classes, after classes. We wound up going to college together and being roommates. Living together, we watched each other go through a lot of changes. I think that part of the direction we’ve gone in is because we kept around each other.
There is an intimacy to your sound, a genuine familial vibe of finishing one another’s thoughts and phrases. How much of what EarthGang is—that intergalactic George Clinton thing—did you have at the start?
Olu: Even before we started making our own music, we were trading music with each other, stuff we liked. That could be Led Zeppelin 1 to Nina Simone to Zappa and Roger Waters. We always had that spectrum to play with. These were the tools that we gave ourselves, the stuff that we enjoyed.
Would you say that you were both fashion plates as kids? You have a pretty singular style now.
Olu: Nah [laughs]. When I was growing up, I didn’t have many clothes. Me and my parents did not go shopping often. We were not material-minded people. Expression didn’t come from the clothes, our expression was about writing and making music. I didn’t get into a clothes mindset until college, where I realized that I could get into that expression and still live within my means. That’s where it jumped off for me. I couldn’t do it when I was young, couldn’t keep up with what the kids were wearing in high school. I was never on the latest trends back then. Now, I do what I can and want because it is a new frontier.
WowGr8: We didn’t have it like that either. I do remember that my big statement in high school was those oversized Polo shirts from Foot Locker or something. Once we got to college, we began experimenting with different looks. But we were still green to it.
“We wound up going to college together and being roommates. Living together, we watched each other go through a lot of changes. I think that part of the direction we’ve gone in is because we kept around each other.” — WowGr8
Can you pinpoint the exact moment when EarthGang became EarthGang, when it made sense?
WowGr8: Wow. Olu suggested the name in the parking lot outside of our high school, so we’ve kind of been calling ourselves that ever since. It started taking on a life of its own. We moved into Atlanta’s underground hip-hop scene and were known by that. But it’s the same thing we had in that parking lot.
Olu: I would say at our high school graduation. That’s when we first performed big. For some reason, us doing our thing on the corners travelled through the grapevine in the music department, all the way to the piano teacher. She knew us, even though I had never taken her class. I would go in and touch the keys. So she reached out to us and asked if we wanted to write the graduation song—of course we did—and she helped us write a chorus while we wrote out the verses. Some of the cats that we were producing with created the music, We taught the song to the class, practiced with them, then we performed in front of our family and friends at the Civic Center in Atlanta—which is a really big deal, that place is historic. This was before one of our songs hit the internet, before we released a mixtape or put ourselves on Facebook. Before all of that. So many people believing in us at that moment? Yeah, I rocked with that. That was dope.
You’ve been friends with Young Thug, J.I.D., and some of the other Atlanta rap cats since you were kids. Do you think that, as you were considering labels, EarthGang wanted a relationship that was more like a brotherhood, something communal?
Olu: For sure. A lot of my favorite artists always had a community around them: Bob Marley, Prince, J Dilla, or even Funkadelic and OutKast. There was always one more flavor to the meal that was being served. That’s super important to me.
WowGr8: As artists, you’re always trying to expand your community, so having a base was crucial. When the opportunity came to expand our community in J. Cole’s direction, we took it. We met Cole, he admired our work, gave us opportunities to work with him—a true camaraderie—and let us know that there’s nothing better than working with friends and brothers you like.
How did recording Revenge of the Dreamers III—all of the Dreamville artists in one house for over ten days—solidify that bond?
WowGr8: When we first started coming around that situation, we hung out with the whole crew all the time. We had that vibe at Dreamville from the start—everyone contributing to each other’s music. Add onto this, add onto that. It’s artists working for the sake of art, together.
Olu: I think the sessions just opened us—and the Dreamville vibe—up to the world. We knew what we were doing, putting everyone in the same space. Now everybody knew, seeing what we are capable of on the regular. This is how it all starts.
Not to sound corny, but EarthGang actually talks the talk when it comes to being green and maintaining coherence when it comes to caring for the planet. That’s not often enough a part of hip-hop or any music. Has that always been part of your dialogue?
Olu: The things that always really stood out for me when I was young… I just like nature. And we constantly ignore it. We marvel at tall buildings and big cars, crazy weapons, new phones and technology. We never take the time to marvel at things that we did not make. We never give that reverence. I used to watch the nature channels as a kid, and was always aware that there’s so much cool shit here. Artists should be inspired by this—I want to interact with this. The earth fuels us and gives us life. That’s all part of the cycle. What better way to do that than to infuse our music with our love for the place that we want to take our music to. That way everyone is involved, not just a “hey you, love us” thing. It’s reciprocal. We love the earth. The earth loves us back.
“With patience, you get a chance to test your songs against time. You test them against the social climate. If you make a song two years ago, and there’s nothing like it, there still must be something great about it.” — Olu
WowGr8: You’re right. Nature is not a part of hip-hop or rock or anything. There’s beauty in everything. This generation should know this. I would like to continue to perpetuate the beauty of nature in our art.
You guys took your time putting Mirrorland together. A lot of people want to crank stuff out fast. Why did you want this material to stew? What was gained in waiting?
WowGr8: One thing we were able to do was just sit on songs. I think any chance you have to make a song better, you should take. We started Mirrorland two years ago. It was a skeleton. In that time, we brought an orchestra and background singers in. We would do something, come back months later, or a year later. Allowing this record to grow into full-sounding songs made all the difference.
It blossomed like a flower, as in nature.
Olu: With patience, you get a chance to test your songs against time. You test them against the social climate. If you make a song two years ago, and there’s nothing like it, there still must be something great about it. It gives a song purpose. A song should be heard when it’s time to be heard. Not that there’s anything wrong with putting out a song when you make it—that’s cool too. It’s a labor of love to birth an album. An elephant’s gestation period is eighteen months—that’s a long ass time to be pregnant, to protect something, feed something, grow something. But when the birth comes, it’s a monumental and mammoth thing that cannot be ignored. That’s us.
A pregnant elephant.
Olu: It’s like fast food. We don’t want to give you a bunch of nasty ass burgers. We want to give you a gourmet meal that we took our time marinating, cooking, and preparing—and that we want you to take your time consuming, too. FL