Flatbush Zombies Are Proving You Don't Need a Hit or a Record Deal to Be In Demand

Five years into their career, the Dead have provided a blueprint to independent success without sacrificing anything.
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On the surface, the Flatbush Zombies (aka Flatbush ZOMBiES) have not accomplished all that much in their half-decade as a group.

Over a period of five years, the lovable, psychedelic rap trio out of Brooklyn has only managed to release one LP, 2016’s 3001: A Laced Odyssey, alongside two mixtapes and a collaborative EP with The Underachievers. They have zero true hits and are not making Spotify's Rap Caviar playlist anytime soon. They are not signed to a major label, nor are they self-made independent moguls (though they do own their own label). And unlike many essential rap groups, no one member has any real solo career to bolster their reputation or relevance.

Upon closer inspection, though, those numbers begin to lie. Or, at least, others emerge that give a fuller picture of the group’s successes. This spring and summer alone, the trio, comprised of Meechy Darko, Zombie Juice and Erick Arc Elliott (or Erick the Architect), will ultimately perform at 17 different festivals across the world—more than many artists with better streaming numbers and/or record deals. In 2016, the group played more than 80 shows, many of which sold out. They had a collaboration with revered streetwear brand Bape, and have 50+ pieces of sold-out merch on their website. They performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, which may be one of the only late-night performances ever to result in a mosh pit.

So, what gives?

When we generally think about financial and professional achievements like the ones listed in the second paragraph—sold-out shows, sold-out merch, festival slots—they’re usually as byproducts or effects of those listed in the first. Artists that have hits get to tour the world. Artists that have hits get booked for a ton of festivals. Artists that have hits sell out their merch, and so on. Often, these things are also easier when an artist has a big record deal which, again, Flatbush Zombies do not. There are some workarounds to this, like becoming an underground legend, already being a legend, or by being a meme, but they are not any of those either.

The Flatbush Zombies are exactly what they present themselves as—three dudes that do drugs, watch Stanley Kubrick, play shows, get political occasionally and then rap about all of it. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less.

How, then, did they pull this off? How did Flatbush Zombies carve out a profitable and lasting niche for themselves in a hip-hop climate that is as cutthroat as ever?

Unfortunately, there’s no deep, satisfying answer to this question, nor are they in possession of some magical cheat code. They are simply themselves, working extremely hard and being very, very good to their fans. Let’s examine.

In an interview with HotNewHipHop on the heels of 3001’s release, Erick the Architect said the following about the group’s intent for the album:

"We approached [3001] with the intent to change and to basically re-establish that we are already psychedelic hip hop artists [...] like we’re new to the world, but we’ve been doing this. To quote [Meechy Darko,] ‘we’ve been doing this,’ so it’s not like that changed much. It’s more like we’ll tell you again who we are, and why we do this shit."

Keeping things the same may seem like a safe move, but it’s actually quite bold for most artists nowadays. From project to project or even track-to-track, artists are always expected to change their sound and adapt to whatever sound, approach or style is "in."

For the Zombies, however, this is actually the opposite. Since their greatest strength lies in their core following, switching things up too much and alienating that fanbase presents a risky decision. Just listen to the outro to 3001, where they play roughly seven minutes of recordings just of different fans explaining what Flatbush Zombies’ music means to them.

Though each is very telling about the kind of fanbase the Flatbush Zombies have cultivated, one recording, in particular, stood out to me the most:

"Erick the Architect, Zombie Juice and Meechy Darko, you guys are an amazing music group. You have opened up my mind to all sorts of things. You have completely altered my perception of the world, and I’m going to see you every time you’re in Salt Lake City for the rest of my life."

This is the kind of fandom that not even label-backed promotional campaigns can buy, and is more or less the norm of Flatbush Zombies fans if the rest of the recordings and crowd reactions at their shows are any indication (see again: forming a mosh pit at a Jimmy Kimmel performance). Though the Zombies will likely never amass hundreds of millions of streams on one song or play an arena, you can guarantee that each fan featured on those album recordings, and many who were not, have played each of their songs dozens, if not hundreds, of times, as well as gone out of their way to see them perform on multiple occasions. I know I have.

How did Flatbush Zombies amass their hordes of undying support in the first place? I’ll detail my own conversion to Flatbush Zombies fanaticism.

I had just listened to 3001 for the first time. I was pleased but not blown away. I had been listening to Flatbush since the end of high school, and I had the hope that this next album would be that big change or level-up that we expect artists to make. I thought they would grow up and become serious artists, whatever that means. 3001 was not that. It had its moments of quality but also felt unfocused and sporadic. Mostly, it was more of the same from the group I’d been following on and off since high school.

A few months later, I saw them live for the first time, and I realized I had missed the point entirely. What happened that October night will be etched into my brain until I die. Moses-style, Meechy Darko parted the crowd and proceeded to jump into a nearly 600-person mosh pit, without any security to back him up. He would later stage-dive off a monitor as well. Zombie Juice finished the show on the balcony, somehow, and gave a PSA about Donald Trump accompanied by a picture of The Donald performing auto-fellatio. The only way to describe their encore performance of “Palm Trees,” the only old song they played, is that it felt like all the gravity had been sucked out of the room and, together, we all ascended.

For any part of the album that felt unfocused, every moment of that concert felt curated and choreographed to give fans the most energetic, impactful and immersive concert experience possible. It worked on me, and I imagine many others could relate a similar experience.

This commitment to fans is also one that is present throughout everything Flatbush Zombies do, inside of venues and out. I would later learn that 3001: A Laced Odyssey is actually meant to be listened to in unison with its source material, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I have never experienced this personally, but their syncing of an entire album to a movie not only explains some of the album’s "shortcomings" but also exemplifies the Zombies’ ability to cater to their demographic. There are the little things too, like sticking around after concerts, showing up to festival signing booths and actually providing an insightful AMA on Reddit.

Though it might be difficult to replicate, Flatbush Zombies have provided a blueprint—a straightforward one at that—on how to make a profitable career in music without catering to the hype machine’s whim, nor without sacrificing any of yourself in the process.

If abiding by the rules isn’t your style or what’s new isn’t you, focus on creating music that is as true to yourself as Flatbush Zombies’ music is to them. Then, show the fuck out for the people that end up liking it. Repeat step one and two, and you’ve got yourself a five-year career in rap (and counting), worldwide sold-out shows and constantly sold-out merch.

What more could any artist ask for?

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