When Sean and Garrett Wheeler tell stories about growing up on Boulevard in Southeast Atlanta, there's no false bravado or inflated caricature behind their words or mild mannerisms. "We had an eclectic upbringing," Sean, the older of the two brothers, says. "We had educated parents, but knew plenty of ignorant people, we had white friends, black friends, knew nerds and crack dealers. They were all our neighbors and family, and we were two of three white kids in a predominantly black part of town."
Growing up, hip-hop culture was a part of their life. Even now, Sean, 29, and younger brother Garrett, 25, don't personify any of hip-hop's outward stereotypes; the music is in their blood. "When people ask what I do, I say I'm a carpenter," Sean adds. "Not until recently did I ever say, 'I make rap music.'"
The Wheeler Boys write songs about what they know: working-class struggle, politics and weed. It's a far cry from the star-studded image that defines Atlanta's mainstream hip-hop, but in a weary underground scene that's building up as the tide of trap music recedes, the rise of a group like the Wheeler Boys is a sign that the times are changing. "I can't relate to being angry about having bent rims," Sean laughs. "I get angry about how the country handles health insurance."
For a time, Sean's younger brother Garrett immersed himself in the battle-rap scene but couldn't deal with the machismo and posturing. "It's fun to watch, but when people start battling, they say these really fucked up things about you," Garrett says. "I'm the kind of guy that means what I say, and I had to stop because I would just get too pissed off."
In 2006, their first CD — a self-released CDR dubbed Support Your Local Insurgency — was driven by a strong element of political angst. The songs became catalysts for violence at the Wheeler Boys' shows. Fights broke out regularly, and one scuffle resulted in a stabbing/shooting. "It was one incident, but it stigmatized us," Garrett says.
While recording the CD, Sean reached out to Dungeon Family rapper Witchdoctor via MySpace. "We'd never met, but [Witchdoctor's] A S.W.A.T. Healin' Ritual is still one of my favorite albums, so I just said, 'We grew up in the neighborhood and would love to do a track with you,'" Sean says.
Witchdoctor replied and they soon recorded "The Barrel," which appeared on The Diary of An American Witchdoctor (Williams Street Records) in 2007.
"When I listened to that track it was done. I thought, 'Damn, these white boys rap harder than anyone else in the game right now,'" Witchdoctor says.
That same year, he invited them to open for a cross-country tour featuring Witchdoctor, Khujo Goodie and Ghostface Killah. It was a pivotal moment. "We played a show in Albany, N.Y., and the crowd was insane," Sean recalls. "The whole time I was waiting for a bottle to come flying from the crowd, but it never happened. They even cheered when we were done! That was the first time that I thought that we could be successful with this."
As they continued honing their skills, Sean and Garrett's relationship with Dungeon Family grew into friendship. Sean also befriended his neighbor, country singer Sonia Leigh. Through her, the Wheeler Boys met country singer Zac Brown.
For their second CD, My Brother's Keeper, they teamed up with producer Wes Green (Mighty High Coup) to craft a slower Southern hip-hop sound that comes to life in "Go," "Nervous" and "Kush" (feat. Southern Folk). Even Cool Breeze reps the Dungeon Family on "Y'all Know About Us." These songs shed the militant stride of Insurgency, while "So Much Trouble" (feat. Sonia Leigh) resonates with a subtle, country vibe.
My Brother's Keeper is self-released, but the sleeve bares the telltale logos of both Zac Brown's Southern Ground imprint and the Dungeon Family. "We have no official ties to either one," Sean says. "They both support us, and we're working with artists from both families. It helps a lot to have their logos on the CD, but we haven't signed with anyone yet. There could be something in the works, though."
Whatever the future may hold, the Wheeler Boys remain as unassuming and atypical as the streets that raised them.
Download or stream the Wheeler Brothers - "Go"