“Everything is so regurgitated, that’s how they teach people. ‘Just spit this back to me and put it down on a test.’ It doesn’t leave room for discovery,” Olu O. “Johnny Venus” Fann says, reclined in a booth at New York restaurant Sonnyboy on the kind of uncomfortably hot August day that is becoming all too common in the northeast.
Olu is lamenting the state of public education in his hometown of Atlanta, but he could just as easily be talking about the copycat epidemic plaguing modern rap. Olu is part of the electrifying duo Earthgang alongside Eian “WowGr8” Parker, and their long-awaited major label debut Mirrorland has finally arrived. The record possesses a kind of musical magic realism, where gritty stories and bluesy instrumentation are enhanced by raucous, unexpected beat switches and verses that tumble downhill at seemingly impossible angles. The project is a masterclass in originality, self-awareness, and world building, but Earthgang would not be such effective teachers if they weren’t lifelong, insatiable students themselves.
Hip-hop has always been a tool for education going beyond KRS-One adopting the moniker “Teacha” or the slew of artists whose names include “doctor” and “professor” honorifics. The genre has been used by the oppressed and underserved to document life on the margins while also providing a crash course on regional culture. Like the most impactful educators, truly transcendent rappers like Earthgang posses a quality of relatability and eccentricity, serving as both an inspiring and pragmatic resource for humans operating on high-minded frequencies. Their enjoyment of the creative process has never wavered, even as they’ve been able to enjoy the spoils of success.
“I didn’t realize how much I love being intimately involved in the [creative] process. It’s a thing that I did in the beginning because I didn’t have the resources. I didn’t have a huge studio and 10 or 15 producers to call on,” says Olu. “Even though these things are now at my disposal, I still enjoy being there all the time. I still enjoy that it’s a living thing, it’s an organism, and I love being there to watch it grow.”
Two of the most important lessons that the duo learned while completing Mirrorland were patience and resilience. They first announced the record in August 2017 and have continued to develop and fine-tune it, maintaining a healthy attitude and sense of humor throughout a situation that often leads artists to blow a gasket. The members have been honest about their frustrations, but have done so in a way that emphasizes their desire to share this music and world with their fans. As eager as longtime supporters have been to hear the group’s first full-length album since 2015, they’ve been equally eager to provide it.
On the album’s opener, “LaLa Challenge,” Olu laments, “I been writing this album damn way too long.” The duo is keenly aware of the lengthy gestation period for their first major label album, and instead of trying to downplay it, they address it head on.
“That song came like halfway through [completing Mirroland],” WowGr8 says with a laugh. “We weren’t done.”
For Olu, that little moment was cathartic, representing a shared sigh of frustration between he, WowGr8, and their fans.
“It just got to the point where I was like, ‘I’m breaking the fourth wall. The fourth wall is done.’ I can’t sit on the other side of this anymore,” Olu recalls. “This is what’s going on in my life, and this is supposed to be in the music, so I just wrote it. It was a small thing, but it was liberating for me personally.”
The fourth wall comes up again in reference to a line on “Stuck,” a bleary-eyed account of the pair’s shortcomings and failed relationships. WowGr8 opens his verse rapping about how his first attempt at recording it didn’t match the emotion of the song, a testament to authenticity far greater than how most rappers proclaim themselves to be real.
But their occasional penchant for meta-ness doesn’t stop Earthgang from committing fully on stage. At Afropunk Brooklyn last month, the pair employ a light versus dark, heaven versus hell motif. WowGr8 is dressed in black, including wings that sprout from his back and an eerie bird mask straight out of Eyes Wide Shut, while Olu rocks all white, including what appear to be feathered pants, by contrast. The outfits are stunning, though only ratchet a few degrees from what the pair wore to brunch earlier that week.
There may not be a more fitting festival for the group than Afropunk, which puts a far greater emphasis on education and activism than most midsummer gatherings of similar size. On stage, Earthgang strives to break down the divide between audience and performer, bringing several festival goers up to dance, holding a brief moment of silence before rapping the somber, reflective cut “Swivel,” and closing the set by leading everyone in a primal scream.
“I’m Earthgang, he’s Earthgang. He, she, we all Earthgang,” Olu explains to the crowd as the show winds down. “It’s the biggest gang on the globe.”
Earthgang has never had more potential new members as the group’s profile has risen considerably recently in large part to strong contributions on Revenge of the Dreamers III, the chart-topping compilation album featuring Dreamville’s roster alongside a slew of other artists and producers.
While Earthgang in its ideal form is a massive movement, some of the most powerful moments on Mirrorland are those that reflect the singular experiences of WowGr8 and Olu. Those are found in the lyrics of songs like “Blue Moon” and “Wings,” as well as instrumental flourishes that are rooted in their Atlanta origins. The organ on “LaLa Challenge” and “Trippin” is one that Olu has been hearing since his churchgoing childhood, and the rapper recorded Tim Maxey, a member of the same congregation, playing it in the sanctuary itself.
“The organ is like 70 years old, it’s been around me my whole life. I’ve seen it have maintenance issues and be re-tweaked my entire life. I was like, ‘Let’s put that organ on this project.’ Little things like that just make it go and go and go,” he says.
Including the organ was not just a huge sonic component, but an anchor for Olu during a particularly turbulent stretch of time where he was watching his father battle health issues. Working on the album was a salve during this trying period, even if some days all Olu could find the strength to do was add a few chords to a track.
“[At the time], it was like, we need this project to happen, so every day I’ma wake up and do one thing,” he says. “If there’s just one goal I want to accomplish, I’m going to do that.”
No music from the Revenge of the Dreamers III recording camp made its way onto the project, but the convivial spirit of those sessions inspired the duo as they continued to work and put finishing touches on the LP.
“I do think it kind of opened up the creative space a little more in Atlanta,” says Olu. “‘Top Down’ was influenced by [the Atlanta sessions], because you can feel how the momentum was still there from the sessions where everybody just wanted to continue to collab and to be around one another in the studio.”
With guest vocalists, Earthgang opted for quality over quantity, enlisting Young Thug, Kehlani, and T-Pain, the latter of whom has never sounded better than playing a 21st century haggard bluesman on the weary, soulful “Tequila.” But never for a moment does it feel like Earthgang has ceded the duties of guiding listeners through Mirrorland to one of their collaborators; the pair remains fully in control of the tour at all times. Unlike some artists who achieve auteur-level creativity through a rigid routine, Earthgang is committed to an open, non-prescriptive process.
“I think the point of this shit is to be as free as possible,” said WowGr8. “If I had wanted a job with rules, then I would’ve just gotten one.”
They apply that same mentality when talking about the music industry at large; their path to success is no better than anyone else’s, and they have sympathy for young artists being forced into high-profile, make-or-break positions before they’re ready. WowGr8 uses Lil Yachty as an example, referring to his sudden rise in 2016 and the harsh criticism he faced from the jump.
“You’re asking someone to learn how to swim in front of you, and you’re getting mad that they aren’t doing Olympic laps?” Olu says. “He’s learning to swim right now, let’s embrace this and watch the journey. The negative side of that is people being too critical, but on the positive side it’s about people learning to embrace a journey together.”
Earthgang shined alongside a wide range of artists on ROTD3, with the duo impressing on raucous fan favorite “Wells Fargo” and meditative album closer “Sacrifices,” but their strongest contribution to the project is “Swivel,” a song that has been with them since before J. Cole came calling and which reappears on Mirrorland.
In late 2015, Earthgang joined Mac Miller on tour, getting a prolonged taste of life on the road, but still reckoning with raw trauma from their past. For WowGr8 specifically, that included the death of a longtime friend who was killed attempting a robbery. Those memories, and the less-than-stellar living conditions they endured from city to city, combined and led to a track that captures the warring feelings of fatigue and fear.
“That whole tour we couldn’t afford hotels, so we were sleeping anywhere. That particular night, we were sleeping on the floor in Bink!’s little garage studio. We slept on concrete the night we made that, and the song sounds like we were sleeping on concrete.”
While the song captured WowGr8 and Olu at their nadir, it also helped springboard them to better circumstances. “That was one of the first songs we ever played for Cole when we started hanging with him,” WowGr8 says, noting that their soon-to-be label boss suggested they hold the song for an album, advice they ultimately took to heart. Now, though the song has grown and changed like the rest of Mirrorland it stands as such a visceral time capsule that it even caught some of their friends off guard.
“When ‘Swivel’ came out on Dreamers, this girl that I used to know in L.A. hit me up like, ‘Yo, you sound like you were sick on the song. Are you okay? Let me know if you need anything!’” he recalls.
Over the last few years, Cole has been an instrumental figure for Olu and WowGr8, a fellow eccentric artist with a probing mind. “He asks the most questions on Earth,” WowGr8 jokes. Cole doesn’t rap on Mirrorland, but he still played a key role in ways both direct (“Tequila” was recorded at his North Carolina home) and more abstract.
“He asks us questions about our process, we ask him questions about, ‘What were you doing when you did this? What was this like?’” Olu says of their dynamic. “It’s always a give and take, which is what education should be. It shouldn’t be a lecture, it should be a dialogue.”
Education has long been important to Olu and WowGr8, who both attended Hampton University and said that while they had some teachers who discouraged them from pursuing their dreams, they also had others who supported their musical pursuit.
“Everybody wants to say that their teachers told them they couldn’t make it, but I’m gonna keep it a buck: I freestyled for my chemistry teacher in 10th grade,” WowGr8 laughs.
WowGr8 helped his family run an extracurricular learning center for several years, and both express a desire to teach in some form down the road when they’re not preoccupied with releasing one of 2019’s most anticipated rap records.
Earthgang sees the nationwide scaling back of music programs as a serious problem, not so kids can follow in their footsteps to stardom, but so they can explore in their own way the unique relationship between artistic expression and mathematics that is part of creating and performing.
“You don’t have to be a virtuoso, you don’t have to be a piano player for the rest of your life, but why not encourage people to understand how logic helps creativity and vice versa?” says Olu. “You can grow a business, you can grow yourself with logic and creativity.”
One constant throughout was simply the duo’s love of the creative process and their commitment to learning everything they could to improve the album.
“I don’t even know what mastering is,” Olu jokes. “But if it’s a part of the process that makes it better I’m like, ‘Teach me a little bit more about this. I just want to know.’”
As brunch is winding down, Olu pulls out a small electric travel guitar the way most people turn to their cell phone during a lull in conversation. As he noodles with the instrument, I ask how long he’s been playing.
“Two months,” he grinned.
Even in the midst of promoting Revenge of the Dreamers III, finishing Mirrorland, and planning an international tour, Earthgang is still always learning. And naturally, their measure of success for the album is not a top 10 debut or hit single, but how the project can inspire and serve as fuel for generations of artists to come.
“I really would like this project to evolve past us. I want it to be so impactful in other people’s lives that maybe some of these songs get covered, some of them are recreated or sampled. I really want this to be a big inspiration for creativity as a whole,” WowGr8 says. “Maybe I’m 40 years old and ‘Mirrorland: The Musical’ comes out, and I’m watching that shit on Broadway.”