EarthGang’s been putting out quality music for years, but the Atlanta natives made headlines in August by signing with J. Cole’s Dreamville Records. With a lot of new listeners paying attention to the talented duo, Doctur Dot and Johnny Venus spoke to HipHopDX during a tour stop in New Orleans, Louisiana for an extensive interview about their careers.
In Part 1 of our conversation with EarthGang, the two members delve into their early days and break down some of the pivotal music and moments from before they got their record deal.
HipHopDX: Y’all just signed with Dreamville. Maybe a bunch of people looking at you now have no clue who EarthGang is. They just saw some guys signed by J. Cole. So tell me, who is EarthGang?
Doctur Dot: We’re a team of interdimensional sound painters and warriors.
Johnny Venus: We the goddamn people you always want to be.
Dot: Yeah, we are idols. We are idol’s idols. Fuck you. We idols.
Venus: We your favorite cousins, yo. We your favorite cousins pulling up to the cookout.
Dot: We’re your big brothers.
Venus: Kicking it with you. Talking about “Let’s go smoke. Let’s blow this popsicle joint.”
DX: I heard a funny story about when y’all met, there was some kind of fire at your school.
Venus: Yeah, there was a fire at the school. We was on a lil goddamn field trip. You know, anything you could do to get away from school, I’m with that. So we was on a lil field trip and we was pulling back up to the school. We went to Mays High School, this high school on top of a huge-ass hill, bro. Used to run this hill for track practice, conditioning, everything. So we’re going up this hill and the next thing you know, you’re seeing fire trucks just zooming by, just flying by the school. Like, “What’s going on?”
So we get up to the top, kids all out in the parking lot, folks’ parents coming to pick ’em up, school buses pulling up. It was crazy, bro. And then we look — the school is on fire. Somebody was smoking upstairs like right around the gym area and I guess they just let the cigarette butt or the weed hit a rolled piece of paper or the carpet or something. So, it started a little fire. It was chaos, man. He just got the trajectory right, man. It was like pew!
Dot: We just had a bunch of stupid stuff like that in high school. A whole group of friends came together, and we was the two that decided to do some music.
DX: So, at what age did y’all first say, ok, this is something we really want to do?
Dot: I’d say 17.
Venus: I kind of fucked with that shit early. It’s weird ‘cause I was on my writing shit way before that. I got a fond memory of being a kid singing [and] playing piano. Then when I was like 11, 12, I started writing. Then I got off it real quick and went to sports, and then I came back to it, and I was like, “You know what brother? This is where I’ve been all along.”
This is the easiest thing to me. Everything else becomes super easy, but this is super easy. And when you do it the right way, man, you got the right effect on people. So, I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been doing this all my life.
Dot: I just decided at 17 that that’s what I’m going to do with my life as a career. And even then, I didn’t think of it as a career. I was like, “This is what I’m about to do the most.” And that was just it. You know what I’m saying? It wasn’t like … It kind of evolved into a legitimate career, which I appreciate. It was very organic.
DX: Now your first project was in 2010?
Venus: It depends on when you got hip to the game!
Dot: It really depends bro because honestly, we got so many “first” projects. We got a first project actually delivered, we got a first project that we just made music on. There’s so many different firsts.
Venus: It just depends.
Dot: I don’t know what you consider to be our first project.
DX: This was Better Party.
Venus: Yeah! Let’s break it down!
Dot: So Better Party is the first music we ever made, period. Like, ever made music. Ever.
Venus: And we was listening to it, like, we mixed it. We definitely didn’t master that shit. So we mixed it ourselves, put it out there ourselves, like the whole thing.
I used to go buy the CD packages, print them things up, cut ’em, put ’em inside the shit, and then it was like, you can get the CD or you can get it online, but you get whatever you need. And it was just our first little putout.
Dot: It was our first time ever making music, our first time using a studio, any of that.
Venus: That’s kind of how my whole education process been. Except when I was young, young. When I was young, it was cool. But once I got to eight, nine, it was like you gotta get it how you live. You gotta get it yourself. If you want it, you gotta teach yourself. There’s a couple people around that gonna fuck with you but other than that, yo, make it happen. So, that’s what this whole career has been like.
DX: The first project I got wind of was Shallow Graves for Toys, and to me, that was really an incredible project.
Dot: That’s what I consider our first in my head. Everybody’s got different firsts in their head, but in my head, that’s when we started the journey that we’re on. Them early stages was us learning how to make music and trying to be in many different environments with different artists and different people. That was the first time we was like … ‘Cause before Shallow Graves, we was shooting stuff for Mad Men and shit like that. It was during a video shoot for Mad Men that we decided on Shallow Graves [as] the title and the whole concept and all that shit.
And that’s the first time we actually went into a project like, “Ok, let’s get this type of record, this type of record.” And then we was listening to it while we was making it and we thought, “Well, shit. We ain’t got no shit for this.” And then the next thing we know, we’re working with 808 Mafia. That’s kind of how these things happen. That was the first one … We was back home in Atlanta.
Venus: That was definitely the first Atlanta project. The others we made while we was in college.
Dot: Yeah. We was home in the city.
Venus: It had the emotional feel of being in the city, being surrounded by the music, being surrounded by the circumstances. Life happening and all that stuff, so we definitely wanted to put that into the music. That was when we definitely started to get further and further into the production process and into the recording process. It was a real fun time. We recorded on Metropolitan, right on Metropolitan Avenue. It’s so crazy man.
Dot: We did some in Five Points too. We did a couple of them in Five Points.
Venus: It was beautiful.
Dot: Really, if you watched us from Better Party on through, you can see we learning the whole time. You can watch us learn. I think that’s the best thing about our shit is like, it’s an improvement. We take time to do that each time.
Venus: And it’s visible so like, it’s not like … A lot of my favorite artists came up in the time where you couldn’t see what was going on. You had to watch the documentary or read about what was going on through their life. It’s dope that people are able to see our growth. Now in this day and age when art is going on, you can see it step-by-step. This is real life, this is not … It’s magical, but it’s also realistic, you know? So, I fuck with that shit.
DX: That album was authentic Atlanta, and it makes a lot of sense that you feel like that was your first Atlanta album.
Dot: That’s our first real project. Things before that …
Venus: Hey, I Iove everything. I don’t really have no first. People like Better Party, Mad Men, Shallow Graves and even with this Rags … a lot of people listen to Rags and be like, “Y’all really killed that shit. The growth is so crazy.”
And I be like, “Hey bro, I love this shit!” But I love all this shit. I’m always surprised when people gravitate toward something that’s like, “This is the pinnacle, y’all really pushed through right here.” And this, I guess, is a great thing that with each project we get that response. That’s always the goal. With the next project it’s like, yo, y’all reached this checkpoint. Y’all push through, we’re going to the next shit.
DX: Tell me a little bit about the evolution. What was making music like in college as opposed to when you came back to Atlanta?
Dot: In college, you are always trying to get in … I mean, it was like that a little for us when we came to Atlanta, but definitely, in college, you’re always trying to get into the studio when you can and sneaking in after-hours type shit. It’s a lot more … you’re not thinking about the audience as much. You’re thinking about … well, I know we weren’t at the time. We was just making music that we thought the best of what we could do musically.
Venus: And for the internet.
Dot: Yeah. We just trying to make the best shit we can make. We weren’t thinking … I know the difference is when we started making music in school and when was making Shallow Graves and beyond, we torn and shit. I know we both had … We was talking about music totally differently because moving crowds is different. If you could find a way to move somebody’s mind and they heart and move them physically, you do that.
Venus: And making music in college was kind of … To me, it was easy because you really ain’t having nothing else to do. School was easy, so I just wanna — like he said — sneak into the studio at 3 a.m. in the morning, leave at six. This is the focus.
You know, we got back home, you’ve been gone for a minute. Folks want to see you and just a whole bunch of things get involved into the process, which helps you make this type of music so much more beautiful and so much more enthralling. And it’s like the further we get into the professional stages of it, you can hear through the music. You can hear the content. What we’re talking about has an effect on our relationships and all of that stuff. So, it’s just a gradual process.
Like I said, in college, that’s all that I thought about. That was it. I just wanted to get into the fucking studio. I want to write. I wanted to make something right now. And you take that on to the professional stages, so it’s like you pushing and pushing through to where we at the point where it’s the same thing. It’s the same exact thing.
DX: So, as you’re progressing — and you can tell me if I’m wrong — I felt like 2015 was when awareness of you guys started to really ramp up. You had the Mac Miller collab.
Venus: In 2015, we did a lot. We dropped Torba. We had the collab with Mac Miller. We went on two tours in 2015. And we really started working with Barry and Zeke, our managers, and we really started to put everything together, pull all the pieces together. You know, put the music with the rollouts with the touring. And we went on tour with Ab-Soul all 2014. Well, like probably September to probably November. So, I know all those people went home over the break and were like, “Yo, we don’t know who the fuck these cats are, but this was the best 15 minutes of my life.” So, it was like all that goes forward to us getting the recognition of people, the word of mouth starting to spread. That’s why we stay on tour ‘cause there’s nothing like having that emotional response from people in the present.
DX: So after your tour, did y’all notice a real uptick in the sales and streams of your music?
Dot: After the Mac tour?
DX: After Mac or Ab-Soul.
Dot: Yeah, both actually. Ab-Soul took us … We had never been anywhere before this. The Ab-Soul tour is going to have an effect regardless. And then the Mac Miller tour was like … It was a good time for Mac, it was a good time for the music he was dropping. It was very good for us. We was talking to Mac all the time. That’s still our dog. People be busy. Niggas working. But all that synergy at that time was boosting up the numbers. I think that actually was the first time we had a video … he tweeted out the video. It went crazy. It’s pretty good.
That whole time was pretty cool. 2014, 2015, the tour. I mean, we got verified on Twitter. I was still at work. I was actually at work when it happened and somebody texted me like, “Yo, bro. Y’all lit! You’re verified.” We didn’t have that many followers then, but Trinidad James tweeted out “Machete” and the tweet went crazy and the next day, we was verified. We was like, “What?” Shit was crazy. All that was happening around the same time.
DX: So for the Strays With Rabies album, did y’all feel like it was a real change in your career? Like, ok, maybe this is something we can really do and go all out?
Venus: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Especially with the kind of … To me, the wildest thing about Strays With Rabies was the videos we started being able to shoot. We started working with Chad [Tennies]. We shot the “Momma Told Me” video and “Liquor Sto” video in the same day. From 8 a.m. to 12 at night. We shot both videos, and those were like, we finally get to see ideas come to fruition in a professional manner.
And besides the videos, like the music, that’s the first time we really went out to L.A. and focused in and recording in a space where … Like really just sit down and go in, come outside in the courtyard, chill, think about what we doing, decide on what we gonna put here and there.
Dot: Now you want to talk about Strays, man. My favorite thing about Strays is that we was doing a lot of psychedelics during Strays. And that shit was fire.
Venus: That was a great time regardless, man. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, bro! Some real shit happened, bro. And I was like, yo, let me dive in because music became my addiction. Straight up. Those were the best of times for me. I appreciate that shit.
DX: With your style and your sound, a lot of people immediately get that feeling of Dungeon Family and OutKast.
Dot: That’s ‘cause they don’t know what else to say. But that’s cool though. Say what you want to say, feel free. It’s all freedom.
DX: Were those guys big influences or do you just feel that’s in the fabric of Atlanta?
Dot: They’re definitely influences but they was like influences when I was like six, you know what I’m saying?
Venus: Even from them, you could tell where their influences came from, like Parliament, Funkadelic and stuff. All those people was big influences in what we do. The music stays. The music is long lasting, bro. It’s like we saying — the coach lasts longer than the players. But the music is the influence. Definitely Dungeon Family, definitely UGK.
I started listening to UGK before I started listening to OutKast, so … and 8Ball & MJG. Those had the same amount of influence, the same amount of country production and Pimp C, like [him] putting beats together, making shit. That whole, “I’m gonna do it myself, I’m gonna create the sound I want.” It’s a super influence. I was a crazy Hot Boys fan too. Mannie Fresh had my mind blown before I was on the OutKast shit. It all comes together to that melting pot of jamming.
DX: Continuing on your style, most people nowadays just generalize Atlanta as trap music. Do you feel like that outside perception of the sameness has allowed you to find a lane and find a way to differentiate yourselves?
Dot: Art is all about a conversation, man. If you find another way to make a conversation interesting, then you’re gonna keep going. That’s our part of the combo. That’s what we bring to it.
Venus: We definitely, like all of us, even our DJ. Our DJ was a drum major at Stephenson [High School]. We’ve all been heavily influenced by live music arrangements and just getting that live feeling of people moving in stands, in places. We all stuck to that way before we started doing this thing professionally. We came from that musical background.
As you said, that’s the outside perception. In Atlanta, we definitely want to continue to cultivate these musicians, these people who play live music, especially with the youth coming up. That’s just a whole ‘nother dimension of if it. We gotta keep that, we gotta have that ‘cause that’s where we came from and I’m sure most other people came from. They say Zaytoven still plays the organ piano in church every Sunday. It goes the same. Zaytoven made some of the craziest trap beats ever, bro! Some of the most classic trap beats ever, but he still playing organically every Sunday. You gotta have that.
DX: People that have followed y’all for a while know about the Spillage Village crew. Can y’all tell me a little bit about how that started, what it entailed and what y’all’s relationship is?
Dot: Spill Vill started around 2012/2013. Niggas was already always around each other. And we was like, “Might as well just call it something and run with some momentum.” A lot of it started up in school in Virginia in Hampton. And then when these guys got kicked out at the end of the year, it was like, “Well, damn.” A good portion of Spill — me, Venus and J.I.D from Atlanta. We went back home to Atlanta.
I remember initially, it was like, “What we gonna do?” And it just kinda turned into, “We’re just gonna keep going to these parties and these shows until people recognize us.” And then we did, actually a few times, and then we started performing. We were finally recognized. I feel like our biggest moment early on being recognized as a squad in Atlanta … We did a show called Spoiled Milk. It was a crazy show. It was like, us performing, Young Thug performed. Who else was performing? I feel like a lot of people that ended up … [YFN] Lucci performed. I feel like Peewee [Longway] might have been there. A lot of people that ended up like shooting off were on the same ticket. And this was before anybody was doing anything.
Venus: It was crazy.
Dot: It was early, but we all came up and the whole squad was there. We kind of forced everybody to listen to us and after it that it was like, at least them niggas doing something. And then as time went on, our presence grew and J.I.D’s presence grew, and people liked to hear us rap together and apart. It just became a thing. It was like there’s a squad over here that’s doing their own thing. Whatever you want to call it, whatever you want to label it as. Them niggas is doing them. We feel it that way. Spill Vill’s everything to me. I love it.
Look out for Part 2 of DX’s EarthGang interview, which delves into their signing with J. Cole and upcoming releases.