To some people, sticking a comedian between the two principal acts on your tour would seem like a weird decision. When those two acts are Earthgang and Smino, “weird” comes with the territory — but weird in the most sublime, Outkastian way.
It’s actually sort of brilliant that these two acts sought to seek their collective fortunes in tandem on Smino’s Hoopti Tour, because that shared flag-flying freakiness is not just a common bond between them, it also sets them apart from their respective collaborators and crews, giving them license to do whatever the hell they want. That devil-may-care, anything-goes disposition is what has endeared them to legions of fans nationwide despite both artists flying well under the radar for the early parts of their careers. That condition is about as likely to change as Earthgang’s Johnny Venus is to wrap his locs in a colorful head scarf — almost certain.
When Chicago producer extraordinaire Phoelix opened the show with as much panache and polish as many of the veteran artists he’s worked with — Noname, Saba, Smino — it was hard to believe his claim that this was his first tour, so authentic was the Windy City soul behind his falsetto vocals. He delivered one hell of an opening act, making way for the outer space funk to follow. His traditional brand of slowed down, Fender-Rhodes-keyboard-soul provided the perfect springboard and connective tissue for the more well-known acts to follow. He’ll definitely be worth paying attention to as he edges into the spotlight alongside his famous friends.
Earthgang, the Dreamville-approved Atlanta duo comprised of Doctur Dot and Johnny Venus, lit up the room, both literally and figuratively, with their set, emanating a genuine exuberance at being able to share the stage with one another and share the electric chemistry that’s gotten them compared to another pair of ATLiens as spiritual successors — if not literal ones. Performing a string of songs pulled from their three alliteratively titled EPs, Rags, Robots, and Royalty, they zipped across the stage like pinballs, exhorting the crowd to mirror their infectious energy.
After the aforementioned comedian held court from a seat on stage for a bit, the curtain dramatically fell before reopening to reveal Smino, his backup singer, and his live band standing on a stage decked out to look like the inside of a car customization shop. There were racks of rims scattered around, the DJ booth was nestled into a stack of tires — painted bright yellow, for the extra cosmic pop that truly made them part of Smino’s Parliament-inspired set. Speaking of pop, a sign in one corner of the stage advertised a fictitious brand of soda as well as the name of the tour, completing the look.
As for Smino’s set, I can only say it resembled the feel of something fifteen years older, which is a very good thing. Despite borrowing more from ATL production crew Organized Noize as far as his musical roots, Smino’s staging and and mannerisms reminded me a lot of the crunk and snap eras that dominated the early 2000s. Smino wore a baggy t-shirt and jeans, evoking the style of the era, although he thankfully kept away from the comical dimensions that marked the end of that particular era in favor of looser but still fitting wardrobe choices. But the truly striking aspect was his confidence and the way he moved.
Back then, before mosh pits were the preferred form of audience participation and seemingly every artist mimicked either a stoned poet or a caffeinated Drake, groups like Atlanta’s Eastside Boyz and Smino’s hometown St. Lunatics brought a rambunctious free-flowing energy, which was built upon by Crime Mobs, D4Ls, and Dem Franchise Boyz. There was chaos, but it was controlled, coordinated. Everybody two-stepped, everybody snapped, on command. Bows were thrown but it was all in love and enjoyment, and everybody had a goofy, two-move dance that was easy to pick up and lean into before Soulja Boy had us all practicing cranking dat at home.
Smino not only grounded his performance in that sort of lighthearted coordination, he actively invoked it, pausing between performances of favored hits from both his albums Blkswn and Noir like “Anita,” “Glass Flows,” “Hoopti,” “Klink,” “Netflix & Dusse,” “Pizano,” and “Z4L” — he joked that he’d performed 30 songs by the end of his set, but the number wasn’t far off — to pepper his performance with band-backed covers of Yung Joc’s “It’s Going Down” and even set off a swag surf that the young LA crowd enthusiastically jumped into, even if it was a little shaky on the execution side. Smino’s charisma through it all could have seen him bopping along during MTV’s Spring Break performances, even as the silky, pro-Black funk took a hard left turn away from the crunk anthems that obviously inspired him just as much as the jazz raps of his peers.
That both Earthgang and Smino are the designated George Clinton and Bootsy Collins of their respective clans — Earthgang with Dreamville, and Smino with the loose collection of Midwestern, Chicago-based backpackers that includes Noname, Mick Jenkins, and Saba — allows them to try stranger things than some of their more straightlaced compatriots. While a swag surf might seem out of place at a J. Cole show, with its mellow vibes, and Noname is far too soft-spoken to demand the audience “release the soul of their spirits” as a guttural battle cry at the close of a set like Earthgang did, Smino, Doctor Dot, and Johnny Venus are allowed to do a little more rule-breaking and freewheeling. They’re the parts of their respective crews that color outside the lines, drawing even more attention to themselves and those groups as a whole. Every gang needs a wild card. With their Organized Noize-inspired sounds and Funkadelic-influenced looks, these two acts are just that, keeping things interesting, and those freak flags flying.