Itâ€™s the day after the Fourth of July, and the captain of the Ocean Gang is sitting on his mom’s couch, drinking sweet tea. Born Mario Smith, he is known to a growing legion of online fans as the rapper Cartier God (though here, he answers to Mario). He’s watching a TV program about the Georgia Guidestones, the granite monument in Elbert County sometimes called the “American Stonehenge.” The newscaster talks up its enigmatic origins and its expressed plea that mankind work “in perpetual balance with nature,” while Smith sits transfixed by the strangeness of it all.
“I want to go to it now,” he says, “because they say you can look through the hole and see the North Star every time. I like stuff like that. Iâ€™m into astronomy, stars. Iâ€™m into everything above and everything below.”
Itâ€™s a statement that might raise eyebrows coming from most people, but Smith is sincere. On the walls around him are scores of variously sized, circular mirrors that resemble bubbles and give the impression of an underwater scene. It’s not entirely accidental. Over the past two years, the Athens native has assembled a loose network of rappers, producers and graphic designers who make up the Ocean Gang, a burgeoning hip-hop collective rooted in the emotional immediacy and first-thought-best-thought “based freestyles” pioneered by Berkeley rapper Lil B.
As the name suggests, the crew is fascinated by all things aquatic. “I was kind of just in that mode, that Beach Boys mode, like, oceanic, you know?” Smith says, and it occurs that most of the Beach Boys didnâ€™t actually surfâ€”they, too, just liked the idea of it.
Landlocked his whole life and raised on Atlanta MCs like Outkast and Kilo Ali, it was his discovery of Lil B and, via an online fan page, a group of peers who were similarly devoted to “based” philosophy, that led Smith to go deeper and more idiosyncratic with his own music. Soon he had linked up with a far-flung but like-minded community that included DJM (from California), Yung God (Texas), Truly Based and Too Eazy (Cleveland), and fellow Athenian Bang Bang.
“We were trying to be a family. We were all positive and friendly,” he says. But it wasnâ€™t only the immediate acceptance and “really-just-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude” that drew him to Lil Bâ€™s universe. Equally important was the no-budget approach.
Just as the Desperate Bicycles motivated a generation of DIY post-punk bands in the late ’70s, with their famous slogan “It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it,” Lil B has served as a model for an emerging set of bedroom rappersâ€”Cartier God and his Ocean Gang among them. Smithâ€™s studio is his laptop, on which he and his little brother Tre (AKA Tre Beat) make many of the Gangâ€™s beats; theyâ€™ve named their production duo Futuristic Ideaz. Their lax, ethereal soundscapes include field recordings of seagulls and waves, as well as a diverse range of other nautical source materials, such as, Tre points out, the underwater themes from “Super Mario 64.”
Over the course of the groupâ€™s five mixtapes and countless music videos, its members have developed a language and aesthetic all to themselves, using “wet” the way Gucci Mane uses “icy,” randomly shouting “splash,” and referring to women as “mermaids” (because, Smith says, theyâ€™re “beautiful and mysterious”).
Though heâ€™s obviously enjoying himself, Smith’s own music is hypnotic and often insular, with hooks that are half-sung in a languid monotone. But there are also actual hooks: tracks like “Itâ€™s All Gucci,” “Iâ€™m Drowning” and “Waterbed” suggest a kind of outsider-pop sensibility buried beneath the synth-pad haze.
Ocean Gang’s efforts have already attracted a sizeable fan base that includes thousands of loyal Twitter followers and at least one world-famous, Forbes-certified millionaire in Atlanta rapper, Soulja Boy, who asked to join the group after finding its music on YouTube. (Theyâ€™ve since started a clothing company together, and Soulja regularly shows his support. “Shouts out to Cartier God; thatâ€™s the captain,” he raps on “Soulja Hova.”)
Despite the success, and with two new mixtapes set to be released in the coming weeks, Cartier still views himself as an outcast in the Athens rap community. “They say they donâ€™t understand it, because they really donâ€™t want to understand. But they know itâ€™s there.” When asked if he has considered relocating to Atlanta, he shrugs and offers that heâ€™s “not a traffic person,” and, anyway, would prefer the beach.
“I think the whole Ocean Gang is just a dream for me,” he says. “Just to be able to lay in the sand, retire and just be OKâ€¦ Thatâ€™s what everybody works for. Iâ€™m just bringing that to life for myself and my whole team.”
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