The best rap collectives operate like chosen families. Placing trust in people who are on the same wavelength can sharpen skills and tease out unrealized talent. Groups from the Wu-Tang Clan and the Dungeon Family to Odd Future and Pro Era were founded on this ethos, feeding into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. I felt this energy while listening to members of Atlanta’s Spillage Village collective—rappers J.I.D and WowGr8 (of EarthGang), vocalist Mereba, and producer/vocalist Benji—crack jokes and reminisce about the group’s origins.
The collective first formed in the early 2010s after J.I.D and EarthGang met while studying at Hampton University. Dorm room cyphers and recording sessions laid the groundwork for the more serious journey the trio would face once they were kicked out of school. “When I even first thought of the name Spillage Village, I was still sleeping in my mom’s basement type shit,” WowGr8 remembers warmly. The three had stoked a passion in each other which would only grow as they began releasing projects and absorbing more members like 6LACK, Mereba, Hollywood JB, Jurdan Bryant, and Benji.
The group’s first three projects, 2014’s Bears Like This, 2015’s Bears Like This Too, and 2016’s Bears Like This Too Much, predated each individual member’s solo success and helped establish their group dynamic: come together to record, break apart to work on solo music, absorb new members, wash, rinse, repeat. During my conversation with WowGr8 and Benji, I mentioned how this sounds like the Avengers' strategy—heroes coming together for a common good before heading out on solo adventures.
The morale boost that comes from working together shows in other members, too. “In general, when you’re around greatness, you sharpen one another,” Mereba explains to me on a separate call with J.I.D. “It brings out a certain side of me that I really appreciate.” Six years' worth of sharpening and camaraderie has led to Spilligion, the collective’s major-label debut album released last Friday, September 25. Recorded over the course of two months at the peak of COVID-mandated quarantine, the album brought every member of the Village to a house J.I.D rented while recording his upcoming third studio album. The sessions yielded music that blurs the lines between Atlanta trap, neo-soul, R&B, and folk music, a gamble that resulted in the most holistic music of their career.
It’s hard to say whether Spillage Village would’ve been able to complete a project of this magnitude without COVID forcing the extremely busy collective indoors. Spilligion speaks to the power of their group dynamic. It’s the Endgame to their Avengers team-up, the spoils for the community bonds they trusted from the beginning.
Forming Spillage Village
WowGr8: Something a lotta people don’t know is that when Spillage Village first started, it was just me, Olu, and J.I.D, bruh. It’s grown into this whole family of artists we respect and love. When I even first thought of the name Spillage Village, I was still sleeping in my mom’s basement type shit. We were still in college. We didn’t even know we wanted to form a group but we were always in the studio together, so we had to call it something. Then we started living together and more people like 6LACK and Mereba and Benji started getting involved. This is a hell of a moment. Not more than our individual careers, but we have this moment together collectively.
When I first met J.I.D, we had a class together. People had already told us about each other by the time we got there. We were both from Atlanta and people knew what we did but we was from different sides of the city. One day, we hopped on one of J.I.D’s songs. He was recording out of his dorm and he had just left but his engineer told us to come in and hop on the record. He came back from football practice and was like, “Yo who the fuck is these two n***as on my song?” After that, we were inseparable. We wound up being kicked out of school together, which really put the fire underneath SV, but we still weren't anybody yet. We also got kicked out of our parents’ house at the same time and we became roommates. We decided we were just gonna do this shit and that’s how the shit grew. That’s when 6LACK moved in; he was in a similar situation, he couldn’t stay with his mama at the time. We were all getting on each other’s nerves.
J.I.D: We were at school in Virginia, so not a lot of people there were from Atlanta. I was an athlete and [EarthGang] were there on an academic scholarship or something like that, so we stayed at different dorms. It’s actually crazy—the first time we physically met, I had a record I had recorded and when I got back to my room they were already recording on it. It wasn’t weird because they were super dope. I feel like my first interaction with them was saying, “Oh, they can rap.”
I wasn’t really taking it seriously until I got kicked out of school. Up until that, it was all fun for me because I was on a football scholarship so I felt like I had other plans. I was really bullshitting with the gifts. It didn’t hit me that I was gonna have to make this a priority until I had to make it a priority. It just made sense, when it came down to it. It was something I was good at so I just went with it.
WowGr8: I didn’t know anybody else who wanted this shit as much as [J.I.D] did. Before me and Olu, I didn’t know anybody who could freestyle like him. We’d just be in the car freestyling for hours.
J.I.D: I probably wouldn’t be doing for music if it wasn’t for them. I was caught up in a whole other world with football. I feel like I was a totally different person. I remember Dot [Doctur Dot was a former alias of WowGr8] telling me, “Bro, you’re 5’7”. You’re never going to the league.” And I was like, “Oh shit, you right.”
I learned a lot about music from [EarthGang], too. They’ve been doing this since high school and then I just came along. It wasn’t my first love but you don’t always wind up marrying your first love. They helped introduce me to it and I learned a lot from them. There’s value in not being the smartest person in the room. That’s the mindset I have around them and everyone else in the group. We can learn from each other. That’s a big part of who we are.
Expanding the team
Benji: I went on the college tour with EarthGang when they dropped Mirrorland and we share the same manager. I had never been a part of anything like this before, music-wise. I had done a couple things but nothing as intensive as the Spill Vill sessions. Everything is such a culture shock for me right now.
I was at home in Pittsburgh. It was right after coronavirus had popped off but it wasn’t as serious and quarantine hadn’t happened yet. My brother Christo told me I should come to Atlanta and sit in on some sessions and get in some work. I thought I was only gonna be there for a few days, maybe a week at most, trying things here and there. I didn’t think it was gonna be super serious for me, let alone joining the group. And when I got down there, they shut the whole country down. The funny thing is, nobody told me I was in Spillage Village.
WowGr8: That’s funny as hell. We were having mad text conversations, but I guess you weren't in them. I remember the voting day I asked people if they were fucking with Benji and they said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Benji: That’s funny as shit because I remember they had put the first draft of the album cover in the group chat we’re all in. I had seen one of the bear things that resembled my face and body and wardrobe and thought, “Is that me? That’s weird.” And then I saw Zeke tweet it out and they were like, “Yeah, that’s Benji.” It hit me after the fact once I started going through the record that I’m in Spill Vill right now. And this shit’s hard. Nobody approached me, outside of the whole voting process I didn’t know about. [Laughs] It came out of nowhere.
Mereba: I joined once they were already formed. I’d say about 2012 was when I made the first song with them. Technically, it wasn’t a Spillage Village song; it was an EarthGang song. Olu introduced me to J.I.D and then we all started working together and hanging out and they told me about the collective they had. It was a natural progression that we started collaborating. For the first Bears project, I remember we were in the studio in Atlanta—I think it was near the West End—and we recorded the first song. I loved how we created when we first got together. I knew this was dope and I wanted to be a part of it.
We used to hang out in two different places. It was [J.I.D and Eian’s] house and then a place called the crew house where a lot of parties happened and a lot of people from the Atlanta scene would come over. There was a trampoline in the backyard and we’d be jumping on the trampoline and then kick back and smoke on the trampoline. It was more that camaraderie and the family feeling I felt when I was around them and the endless laughter. It was that bond that made us
Benji: Everybody’s funny as hell. It’s the family atmosphere. Overall, everyone’s so talented and intelligent so it gives me a lot of room to grow and pick brains and study. They helped me to become a better artist for when and if shit pops off for me individually and I’ve learned how to navigate the industry. It’s all been really educational, which is more important to me than trying to be some superstar out the gate. This is the perfect environment to grow as a new artist like myself. I’ve never met anybody as passionate as them.
Mereba: In general, when you’re around greatness, you sharpen one another. That’s been my experience as a lyricist. Just as someone who’s more reclusive and shy about the personal stuff I do, it brings out a certain side of me that I really appreciate. The camaraderie of people I consider brothers around me who are just really tight and who inspire me to be tight and work super hard. They’re crazy hard-working individuals and they sharpen everyone else’s swords.
The recording process
WowGr8: We have gotten better at songwriting. Every Spill Vill project is lowkey like a time capsule. We do one and all go off and work on what we want to work on and then we come back and do another one. We see how much the music has evolved from the time we were apart to the time we come back together each time. [Spilligion] is gonna be a grand cultivation of that shit. We’re all way more mature and writing about reflections on the times around us right now. This is more in tune socially because we got the chance to sit down and make this project together.
For real for real, I dunno how we’re gonna do another one. Every time we do one of these projects we become progressively busier as artists and we’re all over the world. When we first started conceptualizing this project, we didn’t know how possible it would be because we didn’t know if everybody would have time. It’s like the universe gave us time because we were talking about it. I don’t know when we’d have another time to be able to come together like this, so we had to take full advantage. COVID-19 is our Thanos.
J.I.D: I can’t even cap; I bet nobody told you this but I like to toot my own horn. [Bears Like Us] started with me saying, “I like these songs. Everybody get on these songs, we’re about to put out a project together.” I had, like, seven songs and then everybody got on ‘em, we got what we liked, and sent some stuff out and put a project together. At first, we really didn’t think that we would have installments. Maybe by the third [Spillage Village project] everyone was involved—me, 6LACK, Mereba, EarthGang—we had the full collective involved in the project. But the first two? That was all the kid. That was all me, I ain’t gon’ hold you, bro. All me putting it together. Then the third one, we all worked together and put our efforts together on our Avengers type shit.
Those were the best projects, when we all did them together group project style. [Spilligion] is the best out of all of them because we had the most focus to work together and live. We were at the same crib during quarantine, so we got the chance to make music and have something to focus on while the world was burning down.
Mereba: Even from back then to working now, I think the common thread is that natural camaraderie and pushing each other. I don’t know how it is with everyone else working individually, but it’s very fast-paced when we work together. That’s one of my favorite things about it and it’s what I always remember about it. When we get together, it’s very no-nonsense. What idea is that? Boom. We’re laying down harmonies, we’re doing this, we’re doing that, boom. That energy is consistent but this time it meant so much to be in the same space being like a family as we made the project.
We had been trying to go somewhere for a while but it felt like every time we thought it would work out, something would come up for one of us and keep us out. I like to believe it would’ve happened regardless. It might not have been the same dynamic with us in the same place though. We wanted to do that but it did take this whole crazy ass situation for us to be stationary enough to work together. It was kind of like a blessing in disguise, in that case.
"I think the common thread is that natural camaraderie and pushing each other. When we get together, it’s very no-nonsense. That energy is consistent, but this time it meant so much to be in the same space being like a family as we made the project." - Mereba
The Spilligion commandments
J.I.D: I had never thought about that before. Commandments are intimidating. You got rules and then you got commandments. [Laughs] This is the greatest question. It’s gotta be something about love.
Mereba: Yea, I’d say it has to be about communal love.
J.I.D: You have to have a weapon. You gotta protect yourself, men, women, and children. It’s like the conscious n***as that will beat you unconscious.
WowGr8: Family, awareness…
WowGr8: Yeah, definitely happiness. I’m just trying to think of things included on the project. One thing I noticed when we dropped the cover—I don’t know if this happened to everybody—a lot of fans came to me and said we’re going to hell for the cover. [Laughs] Majority of people were asking what we were trying to say with the cover. On everything, that’s what art is supposed to do. I want people to come up with their interpretations. I will always ask people who come up to me what it means to them. I could paint a picture of seven apples and to some people, it would just be seven apples. To others, it might be the seven deadly sins or the first seven years of their life turned into fruit. That’s the main thing we wanna get from this opportunity.
Benji: That’s kinda how we made the album, too. It was everyone’s lifestyles and musicality and personality, each individual part that made up such a great whole. That’s what we want people to take away from the album. There’s no clear-cut message other than the one you get out of it for yourself. I think it naturally shows who we are individually. That’s how you’re able to get the album we made.
The power of Spillage Village
Mereba: I’ll say the first three things that pop into my head: love, solidarity, and empowerment.
J.I.D: The power of everybody. To the smallest voice. It’s like the underdog being able to have a voice. It’s the voice for that. It’s representation in another area that’s not really being tapped into right now. There’s power in that voice.
This album is also a whole bunch of genres, bro. It’s super neo-soul. Nobody’s doing neo-soul these days. That whole Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Mos Def. Nobody has that representation.
Mereba: It definitely felt like blending genres was a really big thing on this project.
Connecting with fans
Benji: It’s very important. You can look at it from a businessman’s point of view—if you don’t connect with fans then they don’t buy your music. But as far as getting your point across in art, it’s what you make of it. There are plenty of artists that have deeper meanings and tones to the words they say and you have to do more research and sit with it. EarthGang and J.I.D fans are the type of fans who listen to what you say and how you say and why you say it. They’ll damn near show up at your door with a million questions because they heard you say two words in a song and came back with 30 books that are relevant to what you’re saying in that one bar. It helps to connect with that aspect when we’re creating because we know the fans are eager to learn and come away with something. Our job is to deliver that.
WowGr8: I think being clear goes a lot further than just style points. Just do the thing, bro. Don’t torture me, just kill me. And I’ve been like that for a minute. I will admit that early in my career I felt pressured. You’ll do some lyrical shit one time and people will be like, “Keep doing that shit.” So then you feel like the world around you is telling you to do that. At the end of the day, you have to remember what you were always doing. What I’ve prided myself on musically is always being tapped in enough to be clear. [Spilligion] is the clearest music we’ve ever made as a group.
And Spillage Village is the most organically grown operation we’ve ever been a part of. We’re all signed to our different labels, and we grew that organically too, but SV, up until this point, has had no label help. No outside assistance, no secret n***a with the drug money, no none of that shit. Just music for the sake of love for making music. It’s like if a bunch of graffiti artists were painting on the walls outside and now the walls are being picked and shown in a museum.
J.I.D: They takin’ too long. They need to go harder. [Laughs]
Mereba: I had a feeling he was gonna say that.
J.I.D: This is our fourth installment. Come on with it. We've been doing this and they need to catch up. I know it takes real shit a while to seep in, like a Michelin star restaurant as opposed to fast food. We appreciate the ones we got and they know it. That’s why we’re able to say stuff like that.
Spillage Village’s place in the lineage of rap collectives
Mereba: I was deeply in love with The Fugees growing up. They’re a much smaller collective but they had their impact on me that I feel like I still don’t realize. Seeing a woman dominate in that space and be a goddess,
J.I.D: [Lauryn Hill] was the best. She was better than both of them.
Mereba: You see them and how they were singing, writing, rapping, and producing their own music. It just inspired sparks in me from a young age. When I did meet J.I.D, Eian, and Olu, I realized that it resonated with me because this was waiting for me on some spiritual stuff. One day, I was supposed to carry that energy with what I do and what we do. So for me, that’s the only collective I’m seriously tied to. Shout out to Lauryn Hill because when I’m in the room with y’all and y’all rapping y’all asses off, I feel like I gotta show up for the women. Hopefully that will change with more women being included in Spillage.
J.I.D: 100%. Y’all make the village.
WowGr8: I think collectives are always gonna exist. Ours wasn’t born out of a need to blow up but out of a need to create. It started off with who had the computer; then who knew how to make beats; then who got instruments; who knew how to sing and rap. I see collectives come up in Atlanta every day that remind me of Spillage Village when we first started out, groups doing anything they can do. That’s how Wu-Tang was.
Benji: Eian [WowGr8] was saying he sees collectives all the time. In Pittsburgh, that’s not a thing. It’s a very individualistic city. The mentality of getting it on your own is strong. For me, this album and Spill Vill as a whole really reinforced the power of collaboration. This is what you can do when you can sit together and trade and build on ideas. You can do some really powerful stuff. There’s really so much power in collaborating with people.
J.I.D: When I create things, I don’t really create for it to fit anywhere. It’s just an expression. I don’t think that I care where we end up. I don’t really feel like anyone has tried the things we’ve tried before and been free about it and wasn’t afraid. As long as we keep doing what we do, even if we have 50 fans, creating music and the things I learn from those moments? That shit is platinum, you feel me? That’s the biggest part for me. It could be the smallest group of people but if somebody can live with that shit and let it settle in their brain and be singing the words at shows, I don’t give a fuck about the greatest rap collectives in the world. I’ma say we’re the greatest rap collective. That’s just my truth. I don’t think people are that fearless. This project is fearless to me.