Duke is ready to leave. The chow/pit mix has had his fill at the dog park. It’s his dad’s birthday, but Duke doesn’t care. He’s annoyed that dad’s having to delay the return home because he’s doing a phone interview. Dad is Olu aka Johnny Venus, one-half of the Atlanta music duo EarthGang. A few hours prior, Olu and his partner-in-rhyme WowGr8 landed in ATL after wrapping up the What On Earth tour. It was the group’s first European headlining tour, with special guests Wifisfuneral and Innanet James. In less than a month, the pair did 18 shows, culminating in two more gigs in Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa.
We’re talking about Olu’s birthday plans for the 48 hours the group is back on their home soil when WowGr8 calls into the conference line with bad news. His car broke down. Well, technically it’s his father’s car. He wrecked his own before they went on this latest tour. “I’m blowing through cars like Kleenex right now,” he says. “I’m good. I’m in a safe place. I just got off the highway.”
It’s a Friday night, and WowGr8’s transportation troubles can’t reduce the positive energy he’s feeling seeing cars go by blasting Goodie Mob. He’s home. He’s in his element. But their stay won’t last long. On that Saturday the group will headline Afropunk, and on Sunday head to Tallahassee to kick off their Welcome to Mirrorland tour with Benji, Duckwrth, and Guapdad4000. One would think, like any humans, WowGr8 and Olu could use a break from the marathon life of being a touring musician. They don’t want one.
“I’m more used to life on the road and always crave it at this point,” WowGr8 says. “We can get work done wherever at this point. The mission is strong in our mind.”
From their first mixtape, 2010’s The Better Party, to the group’s latest full-length, Mirrorland, that “mission” has always been the same: bring Atlanta’s story to the world. Sure, Atlanta’s musical and cultural influence on the planet seems to be at a fever pitch. It doesn’t take hearing Young Thug’s So Much Fun on loop, drowning your prescription drug-fueled sorrows in Future’s verses, picking your favorite Migo, or discovering the city’s left hand to know that its grip on hip-hop is only getting tighter.
Somewhere between the city’s trappers and hipster rappers rocking Supreme utility pouches, there’s EarthGang. Like the cool kids in high school who didn’t belong to a specific clique, but managed to be cool with everyone, WowGr8 and Olu have been patiently awaiting their turn. Mirrorland, their first release on J. Cole’s Dreamville imprint couldn’t have dropped at a better time. The album was preceded by the group’s five appearances on the platinum-selling Revenge of the Dreamers III compilation, including standouts “Down Bad,” “Wells Fargo,” and “Sacrifices.” The ROTD3 success came on the heels of EarthGang’s Spillage Village brethren, 6LACK and J.I.D, introducing the collective to the industry’s greater conscious. After a run of mixtapes, EPs, singles, and two self-released full-length albums spanning back to 2009, EarthGang was ready for their grand re-introduction.
Mirrorland, released in September of 2019, is a cohesive collection of gems from the group’s past, present, and future. An album influenced by The Wiz and featuring songs that are old (“Swivel,” “UP”) and new (“Wings,” “Proud of U), Mirrorland is an exploration of EarthGang’s Atlanta—warts and all. Their strongest effort to date, the 14-track opus is a celebration of their city’s diversity, black creatives, and being unapologetically comfortable in your own skin.
EarthGang speak to us about life on the road, the growth of Spillage Village, the response to Mirrorland, Genius fucking up their lyrics, and how after a decade in the industry they’re just getting started.
Judging by Instagram, y’all had a blast in South Africa. Was this your first time visiting the continent?
WowGr8: Olu’s been to Africa. That was my first time touching African soil.
Olu: My first time was in Sudan. South Africa has a different level of Western impact, so if you get the chance to go to Soweto—even some of the townships—n****s was still dressing in some cool ass sunglasses, cool shoes and shit. It was just so much swag that’s relatable to America. In Sudan, you’ve got that Middle Eastern beauty, that Islamic beauty. You’ve got that acientness and that regalness. In South Africa, it’s just hella swag bro. That shit was inspiring, man. It was a beautiful thing to see. And the women—oh God!
WowGr8: Baddest women ever.
Olu: EV-ER! Ever, good Sir! EV-ER!
So is it safe to say that was your favorite part of the tour?
WowGr8: That, and then the exchange rate.
Olu: It was crazy because we were just having a good time parlaying, partying in Cape Town, partied in Joburg [Johannesburg]. The shows were crazy, especially in Joburg being able to perform with so many black people. We were in the stadium, bro. Hella black people in that stadium. It reminded me a lot of Atlanta.
Oh yeah, how so?
Olu: Shit—all the black people. [Laughs] Straight up!
The album is still fresh, but you’re going to South Africa performing in stadiums where people already know the words. What does that feel like?
WowGr8: It shows just how communal music is, and also how communal our music is. We spend a lot time making music for all people. To see the Atlanta story translate to these other places it’s so crazy. We were in Joburg and there were some super fans who couldn’t afford to come to the show. I don’t even know if they couldn’t afford it or just didn’t get tickets. They were standing outside quoting bars the whole time, every time we walked past them. It’s like it’s crazy that it means so much to y’all. Y’all don’t just appreciate it, y’all are actually moved by it.
"We spend a lot time making music for all people. To see the Atlanta story translate to these other places it’s so crazy." – Wowgr8
Olu: But then they pulled us to the afterparty.
WowGr8: Yeah, everybody pulled us to the afterparty.
Olu: I was like hell yeah I would much rather rock with y’all out here, too. The album, lowkey, hadn’t even been out a month and it felt like they had been with us for lifetimes. The way people were talking about it, saying, “It changed my life,” or “It changed the trajectory of what I’m doing,” “It touched me so much!” I’m like damn that shit is crazy. This shit has been out for one month.
You guys have been waiting patiently. J.I.D. blew up. 6LACK blew up, and folks don’t realize that you guys have been—via Spillage Village—working together and collaborating for almost a decade. Do you feel like Mirrorland has been your coming out party to everyone who hasn’t been following EarthGang since 2009? Or do you feel like the timing has been just right?
Olu: Man, I’m always happy with God’s timing. That’s just something you learn as you grow older, you know? Even when our album came out it came out off the heels of us dropping amazing songs on the Revenge of the Dreamers III, so it just had so many more eyes on it. To be able to do this and then go to South Africa right after our first European headlining tour. We sold out a lot of dates. I wouldn’t want to rush that. You don’t want to rush that because then it wouldn’t happen like it did.
And the album release date (September 6) was almost a year to day of Mac Miller’s passing (September 7). I know you guys had a good relationship with Mac. Was that on purpose?
Olu: That was just divine order. We didn’t plan that.
Mac produced “Laundry Day” on the Spillage Village EP, Bears Like This Too Much. How important was he to the EarthGang story?
WowGr8: Mac is a real powerful artist. It’s crazy how many people were bumping the hell out of Swimming. He went at a time when his shit was going so well. All that shit was just going so well and I guess, now, at the same time it was getting harder. We always had a good relationship with artists in Pittsburgh through [our manager] Barry [Johnson]. We’ll forever be interwoven with Mac. He’s the first person to ever turn a light on what we did. First artist to go on Twitter and be like, “EarthGang—y’all need to listen to this.” He did it before anybody did, so we’re always going to have love for Mac.
Speaking of paying homage to artists who were early champions of EarthGang, on the album closer “Wings,” WowGr8, you give a shout out to the late Atlanta legend Grip Plyaz [not be confused with the newer rapper Grip from Atlanta] when you say, “R.I.P. Grip / He told me early, they can't tell me shit / Never been the same ever since.”
WowGr8: Shout out to Grip. Grip knew about us from doing the little underground shows in Atlanta. We would just pull up at shows around the city and Grip would be at a lot of them. He would show love after we’d get off stage every time. I had a lot of respect for Grip. I’m glad you noticed that. A lot of people don’t notice that. A lot of people don’t notice the Grip Plyaz shout out. Even though it’s very blatant a lot of people don’t know what I’m talking about. [Ed. Note: The lyrics on Genius incorrectly read "R.I.P. Crypt"]
Olu you drop the line, “Before Hartsfield was Jackson / Before Three Stacks had the accent.” I didn’t see that as a diss, moreso that you guys have grown with Atlanta and seen it change over time. Being that you are now constantly on the road and the city’s changing so rapidly, how does that influence your music? You’re so vocal about Atlanta pride, but not every change you return home to is a welcome one.
Olu: When I get older I don’t want to be one of those old n****s that’s bitching about the changes going on in the environment. Whether it be changes to music, changes to style—I never want to be that person. So, what you’ve got to do is learn from it and influence it. You’ve got to be a part of it. Don’t resist the wave. Ride it. You can be the earthquake to start a new wave. To me, that’s what Atlanta has been.
We’ve been all over the world. While them changes were going on in Atlanta we were all over the world looking at changes. When we come back home it’s some things that we see that are different and new, but it’s also some things we’ve seen across the world that Atlanta ain’t never seen before. We implement those seeds for the next 10 years, for the youngins coming up after us. It’s like, “Damn, they brought some whole new shit!” While this was happening in Atlanta we were out in Johannesburg seeing some whole new shit. We were out in Cape Town. We were down in Tokyo seeing some new shit. We brought a new flavor to them.
"Don’t resist the wave. Ride it. You can be the earthquake to start a new wave. To me, that’s what Atlanta has been." – OLU
When you guys leave here and are traveling the world do you feel a chip on your shoulder or obligation or to ensure that Atlanta is respected and acknowledged for its global influence?
Olu: Yeah for sure, but more than that I feel like if you just remain truthful then that’s going to take care of itself. So trying to be like, “I’m finna to put on” or “I’ve got this chip on my shoulder,” to me, is putting the cart before the horse. Be yourself and let people see what it is. Don’t worry about explaining it to them, just be the picture that you wanted to see on the wall. Be the art piece you wanted to be and let them get their own interpretation.
How crucial is traveling and embracing other cultures to your artistry?
Olu: For me, that was the main reason I decided to want to leave home for school, but also to use the name EarthGang. EarthGang, it’s the opportunity to learn, influence and teach the world at the same time. When we travel we bring this style of truth, this style of rap, hip-hop—whatever you want to call it—to the world. We bring Atlanta to the world and people love that shit. The traveling, not only does it help us learn shit, it helps us continue to spread the Atlanta name around the world. I think it’s a beautiful thing that we’re able to continue to spread the Atlanta name, and not one Atlanta sound, but the diversity of sound that Atlanta is known for.
It’s like you don’t know what’s going to come out. Atlanta influences the world. Atlanta is literally the only place that I’ve been in where you could be anywhere in the world, and somebody’s playing music from Atlanta on the radio. We got in Cape Town and they was playing Thug on the radio. I’m like, "Hell yeah, that’s my city."
You’re performing in Atlanta this weekend. How has the energy of your shows at home grown every time you leave and come back?
Olu: In the beginning, like you said, it was just like the people who were super underground. To see the city really fuck with us after we done put in so much time and so much equity—it’s very satisfying. It’s fire because it’s our family. Even though we traveled around the world we always wanted to be loved by our family. It’s cool because you can’t fake that shit. You can’t fake the love. It’s hella n****s who blow overnight and they think they got love, but n****s don’t fuck with them the long way. You can tell when people come to our shows, even if they’re late bloomers, they love us. That shit hard
Between The Wiz being a major influence on Mirrorland, having a song on the Queen and Slim soundtrack, and the look and feel of your videos, have y’all ever thought about scoring films?
WowGr8: Hell yeah.
Olu: We used to do shit like that in high school, just create films and put soundtracks to movies and create a vibe. Even with each album that we make we make it with our visual mindset.
WowGr8: We like to get as cinematic as possible. That’s why we got songs like “This Side” and “Tequila”—really dramatic endeavors. We want everybody to be able to see it as much as they can hear it, as much as they can taste it, smell it, feel it.
What are some other films that inspire you guys?
Olu: A Raisin in the Sun
WowGr8: A Clockwork Orange, Pulp Fiction, Antoine Fisher, Saving Private Ryan, Django Unchained
Olu: I just watched The Neverending Story again today. Classic. It’s a classic, but that shit was so ass. In the ‘80s it was great though. The graphics was ass but the set designs, bro, that shit was unprecedented. They built them fucking sets, bro. They killed that shit. The set was immaculate. Whole mud valleys in studios. How do you make a mud valley in the studio that n****s is really walking through? They’re not CGI. It’s a horse knee-deep in the mud. We just love crazy films like that. Every time we set out to make a project we think about how it’s going to look to the people when they’re driving, when they’re riding around. That’s the most important thing to us.
You even made a video game. Are there plans in the future to continue pursuing artistic endeavors beyond music?
Olu: Our next great thing is going to be at ComplexCon [which goes down November 2-3 in Long Beach, CA. Tickets and more info here]. Make sure you pull up at ComplexCon. Put that in the article. Make sure they pull up to the booth. We’re going to have a big ass interaction game going with the Mirrorland game. We’re going to take that and splatter that all over the wall. It’s going to explode.
Forget about all those comparisons out there, except for this one: I see Spillage Village as this generation’s Dungeon Family. You have so many creative individuals working together, feeding off of each other’s energy. How has Spillage Village grown and where do you see the collective in terms of its current artistic impact?
WowGr8: I love the growth of Spillage Village. It’s beautiful to see everything taking shape and the entire manifestation that we all went in this together with this mentality of greatness, and how n****s are achieving that shit one by one. I think the beauty of what Spillage Village always was and will always be is the fact that we’re about freedom within the music. I like seeing what J.I.D’s doing now, what JordxnBryant’s doing now. It’s all still connected to a greater community and a greater mission.
Despite the individual successes, does it feel like audiences are slow to the collective as a whole?
Olu: I do, but I think that’s a cool thing. It adds to the legend, it adds to the history, it adds to the story of what we created and what we did before this number of eyes was on us. It makes you want to go back. It’s like how I was with the Hot Boys, how I was with OutKast, Goodie Mob. Really, the first OutKast song I heard was “B.o.B.” The first Hot Boys song I heard was “Bling Bling,” but they had hella records and albums before that. I was so happy to go back and dig and find Get It How You Live find BG’s album, find 400 Degreez, find Tha Block is Hot, ATLiens. That shit was just amazing. I like that shit, folks running back and finding Bears Like This 1, 2, and 3. Finding the Room For Living Remixes with [Spillage Village artist] Mareba.
It’s clear you guys are students of music. Are you learning any new instruments or finding other ways to expand your musicality?
WowGr8: I’m learning the keys and the ukulele right now. I like trying stuff, playing with different sounds. I want to create my own instrument. I want to invent an instrument. I was looking at this thing the other day and this dude basically made an instrument out of a plant through digital sensory. I want to make more electronic type stuff like that. Oh, and we’ve been fucking around with theremins.
Music is growing experience, and you guys have come a long way from The Better Party. If that first project was the incubator stage, where is Mirrorland? What phase of your musical life does that album exist in?
WowGr8: The baby learns how to talk.
Is that because this album is where you guys really found your voice?
WowGr8: I don’t mean we finally found our voice, I just mean it’s only the beginning. It’s still early. We’ve got a lot more to say, and a lot more to do.
And what is the next challenge?
WowGr8: “Tryin to outdo the last verse that I birthed, that is my curse.” Isn’t that what Andre 3000 said? Put that on there.