Hip-hop finds new life in EarthGang, Atlanta’s rising rap duo

Life for Atlanta rappers Olu and WowGr8 could not be more different today than when they first met during their freshman year at Mays High School. In the mid-2000s, the two had initially bonded over their love for hip-hop and the fact that they had been placed in gifted classes rather than in the woodshop classes they had wanted to be in. The duo would go on to attend Hampton University, where they started to seriously pursue music as EarthGang.

“There wasn’t any really doubt in the early days, but there was kind of like moments where you had to recommit and like had to reaffirm yourself,” Olu, who also goes by “Johnny Venus,” revealed on “Making It,” a co-production between In The Know and Complex’s Pigeon & Planes.

During their years in college together, Olu and WowGr8 (aka Doctur Dot) released their first EP “The Better Party,” which caught the attention of several listeners. But it wasn’t until the two released their groundbreaking mixtape “Shallow Graves for Toys” on the imprint Spillage Village in 2014 when they really began to find fans.

“‘Shallow Graves for Toys’ should be remembered as one of the greatest the hip-hop releases in the 2010s,” music blog RapReviews.com noted at one point. “The album is extremely dense and has been stowed away in the catacombs of the Internet, only to be discovered by the lucky few that happen to stumble upon it.”

EarthGang followed their successful tape up with several more (namely “Torba” and “Strays with Rabies”) while working with several then up-and-coming artists, including Mac Miller, OG Maco and JID. The two even toured with Los Angeles rapper Ab-Soul but, as Olu put it, the duo “made not one dime.” By then, however, they had started gaining some name recognition.

“That was the first time goin’ across the country and really gettin’ the chance to connect with the fans who had been rockin’ with us over the internet,” he said. “You know what I’m sayin’? So it was like ‘yeah, this is our opportunity.'”

In 2017, EarthGang caught the attention of North Carolina rapper J. Cole, who signed them to his label Dreamville Records. Two years later, they released their first album under Dreamville: “Mirrorland.” Inspired by the 1978 film “The Wiz,” the record, which features artists Young Thug, T-Pain, Kehlani, among others, received praise from Pitchfork, in particular, for its “whimsical, theatrical attempt to capture the inexhaustible magic of Atlanta.”

“The album certainly has the whimsy and spectacle of a musical, and it’s clear Olu and WowGr8 consider themselves unapologetically creative, too, but there is the sense that this is less about them and more about honoring that down-home creative spark,” Pitchfork’s Sheldon Pearce wrote. “There is a theatricality to the music, as if they are donning personas and performing bits, paying homage to the many types of people they encounter and the place that produces them.”

Though many have since compared EarthGang to legendary hip-hop group Outkast for their unusual sounds, Olu and WowGr8 take particular pride in the fact that theirs is one that pushes the boundaries of rap music.

“People are so amazed by their inability to kind of put us in like a box or category, and, sometimes, they just be like, ‘Those wacky guys!'” Olu said on “Making It.”

WowGr8, however, says he’s not concerned about the group being labeled.

“We take from a lot of different categories and genres and inspirations, so, a lot of times, you can’t put a box on that,” he said. “But like, who needs to?”

In The Know recently teamed up with Pigeons & Planes to highlight up-and-coming hip-hop stars. “Making It” tells the stories of their journeys and documents how self-made stars rise to prominence in the digital era.

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