It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's everything. At least to a music writer.
I'd been seeing EarthGang's name recommended here and there, mostly via my esteemed Atlanta colleague Yoh, and when I first took the time to listen my expectations were lukewarm. Years of having my inbox flooded by new rappers had taught me that the best case scenario was often, "Actually pretty good, not good enough to get me to truly care."
And then I pressed play on EarthGang...
This wasn't just good, this wasn't dope considering they're new artists, this was just straight up excellent. They poured out creative energy like Malt liquor, it was soul mixed with 808s, flows that Barry Sanders-ed over the beat, lyrics that hit the strip club on Saturday night and then cleansed their sins on Sunday. Outkast comparisons come easy and they're not completely off-base. EarthGang is also a duo out of Atlanta, but those are broad strokes, demographic generalities. What they share with Outkast is an abiding faith in being completely willing to stray from the established path. They're only identical in their uniqueness.
Johnny Venus and Doctur Dot met in high school, they both make sure to point out that they're true Atlanta natives with roots in the Georgia soil going generations back, but at that time they didn't envision a career in hip-hop. As Dot said in my conversation with them, "If you've got any kind of sense you're not trying to be a rapper." They were just kids who loved art and had fun occasionally making music together, but when they both ended up at Hampton University together visions of a hip-hop life began to crystallize. They shifted so they could spend as little time as possible on school and could instead devote themselves to their real majors - making music. "I picked up nothing at school," said Dot. "I picked up a lot of growth just being in that environment, but I didn't learn shit from teachers."
The duo didn't have any teachers outside the classroom either, every step of the music process was mastered by the grueling, neccesary work of trial and error.
"We were auto-didactic in every sense of the word. We didn't have a mentor, no one to come through and teach us how to record, we had none of that. We spent our time to make music. Some people encountered that rapper lifestyle they got pulled into, someone was rapping and brought them in, but we had none of that. It was literally just us. That's why our sound is our own, because we made it ourselves."
With a couple projects under their collective belts EarthGang moved back to Atlanta and found a city that they recognized but was changing rapidly. It was right before Trinidad James popped and the ATL's new wave truly took off and while the duo couldn't be treated as outsiders, they weren't exactly embraced either, likely because they didn't quite fit into any established scene or clique. "We came back to a city we were raised in, generations from here, by the time we came back it felt like the scene was shifting, something had changed," said Dot. "It isolated us and made us more alluring at the same time. We were on our own island, but it was an island people had to come check out."
All those early days learning every facet of the game themselves, from recording to booking shows to making t-shirts and flyers, allowed EarthGang to begin to flourish on their own terms, begin to become impossible to ignore. Their 2013 project Shallow Graves For Toys generated a first relatively small wave of buzz, but it was 2015's Strays With Rabies that truly first turned heads, including mine.
EarthGang is currently in a particularly strange place, which fits right into their long history of strangeness. They've worked too hard for too long to be considered rookies, but in hip-hop's larger world they're still relatively unknown, their videos and music suggest a mastery of craft that doesn't match their current level of popularity, and in my experience that means a blow up is just around the corner. In other words, while hip-hop may not be able to label them, they're perfect Top Prospects.
But when I try to get them to reveal their plans for said blow up - maybe sign to a major, some big co-sign on the horizon - I perhaphs shouldn't be surprised to hear their plans for the future extend far beyond music. Or rather, they're almost entirely focused on using their music to improve Atlanta, not having Atlanta improve their lives. "We're not 'on' by any means, but we're doing enough that we can really impact the city," said Venus. "We want to do a lot, not for the industry but for the neighborhoods our cousins live in, aunties, uncles, grandmas. We're gonna be at home now. We went off to build ourselves, now it's time to do something for the people of Atlanta."
In all of the interviews I've done, the countless number of times I've asked artists that same question about their plans for the future, I've never heard an answer like EarthGang's, and it only makes me believe in their musical mission more. That feeling only happens rarely, but when it does, it's everything.
"Nothing is beyond my realm" - Doctur Dot
By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.