photo: Jesse Barbon
Sky high and still soaring from the release of Mirrorland, Earthgang embarked on their first global headlining tour at the end of 2019 to wild success. Their long-awaited major-label debut is a magic carpet ride that has propelled them to new frontiers and on January 21st, the Welcome to Mirrorland Tour pulled-up to a sold-out The Fillmore in San Francisco in a whirlwind of idiosyncrasies and bass frequencies.
Radiating in the spotlight as Atlanta’s latest eclectic hip-hop duo, Wowgr8 and Olu set about delivering a live experience that emphatically and emotionally communicated the carnival theatrics and progressive politics embedded in their refreshing brand of psychedelic trap-hop. To up the ante and raise the temperature considerably, Earthgang enlisted the blazing hot emcee Mick Jenkins for direct support.
For the past two years, Earthgang has been fortunate with touring opportunities in support of a smattering of bold font artists, including Dreamville labelmate JID, affiliate Smino, and pop mega-star Billie Eilish. These high-profile opening set placements were essential in breaking the formerly-underground pair on an international scale. Earthgang and their collaborators have wound up on the omnipresent playlists of young people around the world, quirky underground fests like electronic music metropolis Shambala Festival in British Columbia, and in The Cave with hip-hop’s producer du jour, Kenny Beats. Earthgang has proven themselves willing to spread their proverbial wings and take chances beyond their comfort zone. Clearly, their attitudes are as adventurous as their music is magnetizing.
With a trio of independent EPs, including 2017’s Rags, Earthgang built a foundation, sound, and story for themselves that’s as inclusive as it is weird. It embraces diversity and sensitivity and is altogether addictive. Earthgang proudly and defiantly deviates from the radio-trap norm, even though Olu and WowGr8 made their bones in the bustling epicenter of contemporary hip-hop, Atlanta GA, the very city that made promethazine mumble-trap the homogenized mess it is today. Their artistic prowess and musical evolution, plus a little industry luck, led to collaborative project Revenge of the Dreamers III, an impressive album of posse cuts that features a number of Earthgang contributions and earned a nomination for “Best Rap Album” at the 62nd Grammy Awards.
With the Dreamville wind at their sails, the dynamic duo chased that magic with the astounding Mirrorland, a fully developed record of undeniable lyrical depth and intoxicating musicality. Their penchant for a vibrant live show and prolific recorded output are responsible for their seemingly-recent meteoric ascent. This mojo and momentum carried them into the Bay Area with a certain swagger-like confidence, one that was on display for the entirety of their 70-minute set. WowGr8 and Olu were ably assisted on the wheels-of-steel by their longtime co-conspirator DJ Dark Knight. Earthgang came, they saw, they conquered, then they gave it all back to us to share equally among ourselves.
But first things first, the capacity crowd got a lengthy opening frame from the equally-hot Chicago emcee extraordinaire, Mick Jenkins. The Windy-City rapper was backed by a DJ on a modest riser, and Jenkins made sure to bless the Bay Area up with a run through some of his most beloved tracks and popular features, including “Jazz”, “Gucci Bag”, “Spread Love”, “Grace & Mercy”, “Jerome” and, of course, “The Waters”. When Mick Jenkins thanked the people and ambled offstage, he left to an ovation so thunderous you might have been convinced he was the headlining performer.
Shortly thereafter, a series of popular Dreamville joints culled from the last half-dozen years of this extended collective populating and course-correcting the cultural zeitgeist rained down on us via the venue PA, and it seemed like every beating heart in the house knew every lyric to every song. It was somewhat reaffirming; the youth that filled this iconic room were steadfast in showing and proving that real hip-hop—the kind that features intellectual bars, intelligent messages, evolutionary soundscapes, and frenetic flows—is alive and well not just in the ATL, but in the NorCal schools and city streets alike.
The screaming was equally deafening as the strains of “Lala Challenge” filled the air and Earthgang’s Johnny Venus (Olu) and Doctur Dot (WowGr8) bounded onto the stage, DJ Dark Knight cutting up the beats behind them. Johnny is as eccentric as the sounds would have you imagine, dreadlocked in a 3-Stacks ATLiens-era headwrap and huge, white flowing pants, while the good Doctor held him down in a Kevlar vest, clad in some overalls with a slight gangsta lean. The pair displayed an innate ability to engage the rabid, youthful audience with hilarious dance moves and banter, interspersed with positive messages and a general air of inclusivity. This was a new Afrofuturism; a buoyant, bodacious homage to both Parliament-Funkadelic and Organized Noize. Dark Knight saw to it that each track was uncorked like a cannon blast, and the natives were restless, early and often.
The squad wasted no time getting down to business with three massive anthems in the first few jams; “Top Down”, “Proud of U”, and “This Side” had the kids going berserk, forgetting about Instagram—if only for a moment—to air-drive the whip and croon into the night. “This Side” saw the rappers enthusiastically break the audience in half, splitting us down the middle in the classic hip-hop crowd battle. The chants of “Earth-Gang!”—unfortunately punctuated by the ever-present rap DJ gunshot—threatened to blow the legendary Fillmore chandeliers right off the ceiling. As the group called for an old-school mosh pit to break out, it became clear that the southern-rap phenoms owe as much of a debt of gratitude to Tallahassee militant emcees Dead Prez as they do the oft-compared OutKast. Aside from the Atlanta connection and the definitive juxtaposition of styles between Olu and WowGr8, Earthgang is as much Lets Get Free as Dungeon Family.
Throughout the Earthgang session, Olu repeatedly revealed himself to be an exhilarating onstage persona, dancing, singing and rapping cadences in different styles and geographic affectations. WowGr8 was a bit more reserved, or stoic in his performance mode, but proved the perfect foil for his animated partner. His continual refrain of “I am Earthgang. You are Earthgang. WE are Earthgang” was contagious and empowering. Instead of bragging about their jewelry or riches, the pair repeatedly promised us all abundance, everyone rubbing their thumb and fingers together to signify our collective forthcoming good fortune.
As the group tore through tracks with lightning speed one after the next, current fave “Swivel” warned of the perils of violence and pharmaceutical poisons, a sentiment that lingered in the air for the duration of the number. Yet they made sure to breeze through the intoxicating hook of the T Pain-enhanced “Tequila” and hit us with a strong dose of “Trippin’”. At the midpoint of the set, the titanic “Missed Calls” dropped and was more than just another bombtrack; Dark Knight and the duo led a charged-up crowd through the rowdy chorus that repeats “F*ck Donald Trump!”, dead serious but delivered with childlike glee and reckless abandon.
The group reached back for some older joints like “1993”, “Meditate” and “Monday”, the latter featuring the late Mac Miller, to whom Olu offered a brief memorial moment of silence. “Sacrifice” and “Wells Fargo” were riotously received joints from Revenge of the Dreamers III. Olu let his locks and guard down and poured his emotions into song. That translated to the transfixed audience, who alternated between spasmodic exuberance and almost-silent trance, depending on the moment. DJ Dark Knight was the consummate professional; no tricks or gimmicks, just competent turntablism and an ability to roll with the punches of his unpredictable frontmen.
Towards the end of the performance, Earthgang invited a select few members of the frothing audience onto the stage for what appeared to be a twerk-a-thon. All races, sizes and shapes were well represented up there, another example of the prevalent inclusivity of these festivities. The redemptive, Grammy-nominated anthem “Down Bad” was a thunderclap that threatened the structural integrity of the age-old San Francisco venue. The notion of screwing up something good, getting depressed, and then using that to motivate to higher heights—that’s a concept with which everybody in the room could resonate.
On that note, the boys finished with the irresistible “Up”, a melodic, multi-faceted joyride that may be the most sincerely uplifting song on Mirrorland, an album brimming with them. One final blast of Bankhead bombast for the Bay, leaving us with all the pomp, circumstance, and colorful swagger of those filthy sweet Atlanta streets.
For a list of upcoming Earthgang Welcome To Mirrorland Tour dates, head here.