Before Atlanta earned the reputation for being the epicenter of the Trap music universe, the capital of Georgia left a mark on the Hip Hop landscape with the soulful sounds of the Dungeon Family crew.
Two decades later, there is a new duo grabbing that baton handed off by ATL icons OutKast and Goodie Mob. While they may not acknowledge it, EarthGang is helping to restructure the musical foundation of their hometown.
Johnny Venus and Doctur Dot have constructed a discography that combines alternative soundbeds, socially aware lyrics, and an authentic Atlanta aura. Even with a vibe that leans more towards perceptive thinking and emotional connection, Venus and Dot do not embrace the “conscious” or “gospel rap” stamp.
“That whole conscious thing is the elephant in the room. When you label something ‘conscious,’ it gets a label that I don’t necessarily want,” Dot relays to AllHipHop.com. “Does that mean I’m not a conscious human being? I don’t know who is and who isn’t. I know our music is based on authenticity more than anything. We call it ‘authentic.’ You can call it ‘real.’ But ‘conscious’ is just a word that's become almost taboo at this point. So why even say it at all?”
Venus adds, “Nobody’s really trying to listen to Gospel rap. It can be entertaining like Lecrae, but if it’s boring nobody wants to hear that sh*t. You have to entertain while you’re bringing your message. A lot of times, entertainment is done by exaggeration, hyperbole, jokes, and saying wild sh*t.”
During their 9th grade year at Benjamin E. Mays High School, the two Southwest Atlanta natives united under the goal of providing edutainment. The story goes Venus and Dot met while on a field trip. When they arrived back at school, the building was ablaze. Much like the prophecies of the Red Priestess Melisandre from Game Of Thrones, the fire was seen as a sign the future would be bright for the pair.
“At that moment, we said this is something special, this is something crazy. We started kicking it hard after that," states Venus. “We had similar interests as far as music and learning. We could teach each other about music and other sh*t.”
That initial meet led to several classmates interested in rapping coming together under the name EarthGang. Over time other members parted ways until eventually Venus and Dot decided to go at it as a twosome.
The emcees even stayed together as a group when they enrolled at Hampton University in Virginia. Venus studied graphic design, and Dot studied psychology. But music was still near the forefront of their personal pursuits.
Positive reaction to tracks uploaded to the net provided a push toward the Hip Hop route permanently. Friends and family began sharing those early EarthGang tunes on Facebook which made the tandem take a serious approach to being music artists.
“The internet makes it a more professional thing than you actually are. We put stuff up on the internet, and it started to get traction,” recalls Dot. “So it was like, ‘I guess we’re in it now.’ We were just putting it out to share our art.”
By 2011, EarthGang had dropped the projects The Better Party EP, Mad Men, and Good News. Then 2014 included their breakout album Shallow Graves For Toys released via Spillage Village Records.
SV is a collective of Atlanta/Baltimore acts that united during their college days. EarthGang, J.I.D., Jordxn Bryant, and Hollywood JB also joined forces for the Bears Like This and Bears Like This Too compilations.
“Spillage Village was generated out of a community that comes from being artists who ain’t got sh*t. We were all using each other’s studio time,” Dot explains. “We were always around each other anyway and helping each other. So it was Why don’t we take it to the next level?Why don’t we call ourselves something? It was something between the n*ggas that started to take on a brand of its own.”
A faction of like-minded funk/soul influenced Hip Hop artists based in the southwest section of Atlanta sounds very similar to the aforementioned Dungeon Family. Goodie Mob once walked the same Mays High School hallways as Dot and Venus as well. So the inevitable Spillage Village/Dungeon Family and EarthGang/OutKast correlations were sure to come.
“Some people give that as a lazy comparison without going through the music. It’s two cats from Atlanta who really got some content, so we’re going to put them in the OutKast lane,” responds Venus. “On the flip side of that, it’s still cool when your name is brought up - not on the same level - in relation to people that have done so many things. It’s motivating and ensures you’re on the right path. It’s not a glass ceiling. That’s not how I see it.”
EarthGang have no problem naming OutKast's Big Boi and Andre 3000 as rhymers they listened to growing up. Venus lists Bone Crusher and Lil Jon as performers he followed as a youth. Dot refers to T.I. and Baby D as middle school favorites.
Yet as self-described “kids of the LimeWire Age,” Venus and Dot had the opportunity to be exposed to music beyond what local radio and mainstream TV outlets fed to the public. That counterculture openness and individuality created by the internet saturated into the brand and mindset of EarthGang as well as the art they present.
“What n*ggas don’t realize, Hip Hop is West African transformational storytelling that we brought over here. We don’t get a chance to tell our stories in the media,” says Venus. “When we do our storytelling - when we say what we say - it’s our authentic experience. It’s all the experiences of Black people."
He continued, "It’s an education message, because people don’t know themselves. That's why when people hear Hip Hop, they appreciate the real, the truth. As an educational tool, it’s passing down information in the context of how we’re living as a people.”
Unfortunately, that message still involves addressing the issue of race in America. EarthGang had the opportunity to travel the nation as part of separate tours with Ab-Soul and Fashawn. Their experiences on the road included reminders that some citizens of this country still have an issue with young, Black males simply because of the color of their skin.
“One time we got kicked out of a hotel for smoking weed. We smoked zero weed. We didn’t even pull the sh*t out in the hotel,” conveys Dot. “We were in Kansas City, Kansas. We went right across the bridge that same day to Kansas City, Missouri. Not only was the staff a different shade of people, they were very hospitable. We got our first taste of that.”
Both rappers mention similar incidents in other states. One unwarranted police stop happened outside the same city where Caucasian software developer Michael Dunn murdered 17-year-old African-American Jordan Davis over playing rap music too loud.
“We were driving to Jacksonville on the Ab-Soul tour. One of the service vehicles - not highway patrol - pulled us over. He was an off duty officer. He told us, ‘You’re going too fast. That’s how people end up getting shot down here,’” states Venus. “He didn’t give us a ticket, because he was off duty. He didn’t have the jurisdiction to do any of this stuff. He low-key threatened us. That sh*t is commonplace.”
Like Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, and Lauryn Hill before them, EarthGang use their art to shine a light on the political and social concerns of the greater society. Songs such as “New Malcolm X” and “Mojo” are rhythmic presentations equivalent to HBCU poli-sci lectures.
Doctur Dot and Johnny Venus are set to continue their authentic entertainment instruction with the forthcoming Strays With Rabies album. The project features production by DJ Khalil, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, Mike Will Made It's Eardrummers, and the Dungeon Family’s Organized Noize. The latter two beat making teams suggest the LP will contain some of the diverse styles radiating from the ATL.
Could Strays represent the intersection between Organized Noize’s Southernplayalistic sound and Mike Will Made It’s Trap tendencies? Listeners will have to wait until EarthGang’s latest work hits stores to find out, but the Georgia boys definitely recognize a common bond with their street-centered A-Town counterparts.
Venus declares, “We’re not seen as the Trap guys from Atlanta, but we go through the same things that they go through. Same day, same city, same troubles.”
Read other installments of AllHipHop’s #ATLRiseUp series here.
To purchase tickets to Mac Miller’s “The GO:OD AM Tour” featuring EarthGang visit haveagoodam.com.
Stream EarthGang’s Shallow Graves For Toys below and purchase the album on iTunes.