Johnny Venus and Doctur Dot, collectively known as EarthGang, have been making waves from southwest Atlanta since 2008. Thanks to their personal accounts of rebellion, sex, drug indulgence, and the experiences of two black men in the city, they have earned the opportunity to perform on the same stages as rappers Ab-Soul, Raury, and Bas, the latter of whom wrapped his Too High to Riot tour with the rap duo last night in New York City.
Though Venus and Dot differ in personality, they share a similar vision: to tell honest, intimate stories in order to get people thinking and moving. They started to make music in high school and continued through college (both received bachelor’s degrees from Hampton University in 2012). Since then, they have developed a unique and down-to-earth sound that distinguishes them from their trap-rapping counterparts from Atlanta, such as Lil Yachty, Key!, and Playboi Carti. With headstrong determination—and an admittedly high dosage of, er, green substances—they have established a discography that incorporates relatable, nostalgic, and “healing” lyrics with trippy, infectious beats to get their listeners thinking, thus liberating those who feel trapped by the constraints of societal norms.
Their lyrics touch on everything from the frustration of endless working days to the annoyance and disappointment of black people being killed unjustly, inspiring epiphanies within listeners. That, combined with their organic and experimental sound, will have you convinced that by making music, the friends are fulfilling some sort of prophecy of emancipating listeners with their art. And their hometown pride is consistently present in their music: Hits like “Liquor Sto’” and “A.W.O.L.” off of their last album, Strays With Rabies, take you on a ride through the streets of “Traplanta,” with the underlying message that coming from nothing can push you to pursue exactly what you want to do.
Here, the guys tell us about their influences, their opinions on the “New Atlanta,” and saving lives while on tour with Bas and the Dreamville crew.
You graduated college in 2012 [Venus, with a degree in graphic design, and Doc with one in psychology]. How did you transition from your respective majors to making music?
Johnny Venus: I used to do a lot of the art direction for our early work. I still do for some current things we have going. We both get together and curate our latest things. Doc has a knack for finding dope, obscure things on the ‘net. Also, art is the study of humanity, the study of life, so I got a lot of perspectives on the impermeable boundaries of visual art and music and actually put them to use with my hands. Presentation, sketches, reworks, masterpieces, and stuff like that are all in the realms of craftsmanship. I started teaching myself how to make beats right after high school, and I just worked on it. There's a lot of solitary hours in the world of art—a lot of late nights up by yourself, tearing yourself down, and rebuilding yourself to present your literal insides to someone who doesn't even know you. It's a sharpening process that I grew into.
Doctur Doc: My major was just something to do to keep my scholarship. Music has always been my focus.
How would you describe your sound? Who are your influences?
DD: I would describe our sound as being young, but soulful—a good mix of psychedelics and growing up in the city. I grew up listening to everything my parents played, and by high school, I was bumping shit way before my time. That plus the influence of the rapidly growing and changing music scene of Atlanta influences our approach.
JV: Our sound is a lot like watching a full moon at night on the beach, and then all of a sudden, a sea monster comes out of the water to battle this other giant sea monster that also just now came out of the water. My influences are the people who mastered the skill of “people-moving”—the people who I think have journeyed to achieve their most pure self, being exactly who they are, with conviction. People usually love them or hate them for it, but they have lasting effects on society.
To name a few, Fela Kuti—really, all African music spanning from the southern coast to the Mediterranean. The rhythms that jump out and have made themselves present in virtually every current genre, from rap with drums to samba to jazz. A good rhythm changes the energy of spaces. Also, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Hiatus Kaiyote, Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Minnie Riperton, Parliament-Funkadelic, Dungeon Family, Master P, anything involving Jack White, Cream, Nina Simone, SWV, Jay Z, En Vogue, Big Mama Thornton, UGK, Ty Dolla $ign, Kanye West, Marvin Gaye, Prince, Queen, Erykah Badu, The Congos, Bob Marley, and gospel music. We're lucky to be growing up in a time where we can access and transfer so many sounds.
What gives you inspiration when you're having writer’s block?
DD: I'm motivated by the people around me that are inspired by what I do. You never know who's watching you and who gets energy off of your own. The best thing I can say about [getting over] writer’s block is to just write through it.
JV: Telling the truth, being honest, conquering the fear of not being perfect. Saying things for people that they don't want to say or know how to say—I know that's what I appreciate from artists. And just the love of the jam. Sound heals.
Your music puts the listener in the streets of Atlanta from a pretty intimate and raw standpoint. What are some of your favorite things about the city?
JV: Just that: the raw intimacy you get. People will treat you like they know you instantly. It's full of proud black folk with a long history. We ain't perfect. We basically got the eye of arguably the most influential culture in the world on us. Come to the city, though, and you'll see the good and the bad. You can tell we're going through so much by the music. It's the expression. Expressing the truth. Expressing the misdirected energy of the youth. The joy of life and, at times, the dark side of things. A people fighting for a place in society.
DD: My favorite thing about Atlanta is the natural spirit of pride for your home that you get from growing up here. And the music is so embedded in our culture. It really starts in middle school for a lot of the artists that end up doing it professionally.
What are your opinions of the term “New Atlanta”? Do you consider yourself as being part of the movement?
JV: To be honest, I stay away from the term wars. My dad's dad moved to Atlanta from Fort Valley, Georgia, in the early ‘40s. We have buildings and bricks with our name on them. We’re from these streets. But a new age is upon us, and change is the constant of life.
DD: This is always a funny subject. I remember when people were first throwing this "New Atlanta" term around, we were loosely attached to the conversation. Now, I don't hear people even saying it as much anymore. I'm not sure if it was a collective movement as much as it was just artists looking for an outlet in a city dominated by the mainstream. I think the "New Atlanta" term started to get quiet when niggas involved started blowing up, like Young Thug, iLoveMakonnen, and Trinidad James.
What are the social and political issues that are most important for you to address in your music?
JV: We could really go a few days discussing all this. But really, it's wholeness, completeness, oneness, and freedom of self, the process of self-transformation, and love, sex, rhythm, and respect.
DD: Nothing is more important than the liberation of black people. Nothing.
Can you take us through the story of “A.W.O.L.”—particularly touching on the themes of brotherhood, your personal childhoods, and finding ways to escape?
JV: I remember the day [that inspired the song]. I think about it all the time. It was a good day with good people. We were on the Ab-Soul tour, stopping through Baltimore, and we played a game of pick-up in the gym. Doc went off to take a walk, and after the game, we went looking for him, calling and getting no response. Then we saw a man's head start rising over the cemetery walls, and I figured that was where he might be. But I think the seed kinda started there.
DD: It was our first time on the road and, more than anything, all I wanted was solitude. On a rare moment I found for myself, I walked around and thought of that hook. Next thing I know, me and Venus were running through it, and we recorded it at home. It is a very personal song. I really was that kid at the bus stop looking lame as fuck playing Killer Mike and T.I. Also, this song goes back to what I said about never knowing who's watching you. I got a fuck-ton of little brothers and cousins that live and grow up in The A, and need some shit like that for when they’re at the bus stop.
JV: We always get the question, "Where you been?" from family and friends. We’ve been focused—headphones on and headed to our destination. We touch on that journey and background.
“Punchanella” speaks on being fed up with your situation and starting to make things happen for yourself. What’s an example of a time when you’ve had to do that, outside of music? (Also, what does “Punchanella in the shoe” mean?)
JV: It's crazy because before we made this song, we swore everybody played Punchanella, growing up. Obviously, we’re just some Southern folk, and everyone didn't. I don't know the exact origins, but it's a courting game. Kids would stand in a circle with one child in the middle, and they would sing "What can you do, Punchanella Punchanella? What can you do, Punchanella in the shoe?" And the kid in the center would have to bust a move. Then they would say, "Who can you choose Punchanella?" And the child would pick his or her crush to replace them. But the song is about rebellion, apathy, drug use, losing your identity in the process of creating one, and the fact that copy-catting or following the crowd causes these things.
I worked at Domino’s for a month to buy a new MPK. I was a horrible pizza delivery man, but that MPK was necessary. Really, our whole career has been, "Fed up? Do it yourself." We’re from Atlanta, Georgia. Our dads worked on and sold cars. We had to work for everything. We didn't start getting mentors and stuff like that until recently. We still have that determination and headstrong [mentality] in everything we do. We’re rebels, as you say.
DD: Even though you said outside of music, it's literally the most control I ever had of my life, and it’s no cakewalk. I worked every type of job to sustain my life as an artist. I cleaned rat traps at the rec center; I took phone calls at a call center; I’ve done food service, delivery, and warehouse work. I even sold a little bud, but I quit that before I really got into it. "Punchanella” was just me harnessing all the feelings of not making it for myself and putting it in the mic. The child’s game Punchanella just rang out in my memory when [the song’s producer] DrewsThatDude sent me the beat for our song.
The “leafy green" seems to be a regular part of your lifestyle. What's your favorite strand?
JV: I'm a chill guy most of the time, so I [prefer] sativa. I'll take a hybrid with just enough "put" to keep me still, but nothing too strong to knock me out. I like Pineapple Express. Girl Scout Cookies. I'm not too keen on all the names, though.
DD: I prefer sativa for going about my day. I can function well on it. I write on it; slide in DMs on it. Indica is for what happens after the DM.
Who did you connect with the most from the Dreamville crew while on the Too High to Riot tour?
JV: We love all these guys, but Cedric Brown is my dog. He’s really about his business all the time and you’ve got to respect that. The Hics are cool as fuck. They're completely hilarious. Bas is just a communal fellow. He's not selfish or egotistical. He shares everything, down to his bunk. We've gotten to learn so much from everyone really.
What has been your craziest experience on the road?
JV: So far, the craziest experience was this wreck that happened in Oregon. This family was coming through oncoming traffic and caught a flat. The dad swerved and the truck started to tumble. It hit the median and tumbled six more times till it stopped. Our driver stopped the bus, and people got out and risked their lives to cross the highway to see if anyone was alive. No one else stopped. Folks from our crew really were first responders with waters and towels.
DD: We weren’t even trying to be heroes. We just saw a crazy situation, and nobody was stopping or helping. It was a family of four, and they ended up being okay, but they had some crazy injuries. Blood was everywhere, but we stayed till the ambulance came. If that's not crazy enough, XTC Cabaret, the strip club in Dallas, changed my life.
What can we expect next from you?
JV: The vibrations, shawty. We bout to come set y'all loose.