Before A Vacation In Hell: A Conversation with Flatbush Zombies

"I hate anything that sounds like anybody else’s music."
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The key to a balanced life is duality, being able to recognize and understand both the pleasures and pain that come with existence. We work jobs we don’t like for the financial security, listen to people’s arguments instead of punching them in the face, and brave the sour before savoring the sweet.

Erick Elliott’s lifelong love of music began when his mother, before eventually losing her vision, showed him the cover for Lionel Richie and The Commodores’ “Just to Be Close to You.” A five-year-old Dimitri Simms told his mother he is ready to die, the start of a lifelong fight for mental health that he’s worked to stay ahead of as a 28-year-old with his next finger ring and vintage band t-shirt on his mind. Antonio Lewis was adopted by his grandparents at seven, given an allowance and left to his own devices, lacking direction and facing existential self-doubt until he stumbled across the art of rap.

These are the stories Erick “The Architect” Elliott, Meechy Darko, and Zombie Juice have been sewing into their music as Flatbush Zombies for the past eight years, which, as they explained inside a cacophonous BBQ joint on New York’s Lower West Side last month, culminated in their long-awaited sophomore album, Vacation In Hell. 

“It’s about making the best out of what you have,” Meech says with his trademark raspy croon. “Life is never gonna be perfect, and as artists, we have a responsibility to not name our album The Good Life or The Life & Times of Flatbush Zombies. There has to be a way to show duality in life. When I listen to old Marvin Gaye albums, he’s talking about heartbreak and he talks about love, the Earth, the moon and stars; he don’t just talk about winning and fucking.” 

Sitting down for an interview with the Zombies feels like having a conversation at a high school lunch reunion with the music nerds. Meech’s turquoise grill gleams from behind the lip of a Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boy; Erick’s nose is buried in a custom postcard he was adorning with Cubist faces, multitasking like only a rapper-producer could; Juice surveys from the corner, his curly orange-red hair flowing every time he speaks a short sentence or drops ad-libs on a statement from his bandmates.

All three are bursting at the seams with musical knowledge and energy, confident but never overwhelming. It’s the same attitude that’s endeared them to legions of fans since Juice and Meech were blowing trees in front of stacks of Eggos in the “Thug Waffle” video.

On the surface, their music scans similarly to their brethren in New York’s Beast Coast movement. If Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era are Boot Camp Clik, then the Zombies are the Gravediggaz dipped in a bucket of MDMA. They specialize in psychedelic boom-bap bangers backed with lyrical muscle, a style that Erick believes he's polished to a mirror sheen. 

“I feel a lot of music has so many standards that are the same and people are scared to go against that because it works,” Erick quips. “Fuck that shit. So many people ask me why I’m not trying to do these things that other people are doing, like, 'Why don’t you just try to make a hit?' You don’t understand, especially because I’m stubborn, I hate anything that sounds like anybody else’s music. Sometimes it may hurt me as a producer, but I really really believe that if you do something that’s that amazing, people will copy you and it will become the norm.” 

That stubbornness is most prominent on their debut studio album, 3001: A Laced Odyssey, which was more uniform in sound than the eclectic BetterOffDEAD before it: hazy and atmospheric almost to a fault, like one very long smoke session. 

On Vacation In Hell, Erick spreads his musical wings even further. This time around, chirping synths (“Vacation”), chipmunk soul (“U&I”), jazzy grooves (“The Goddess”), and guitar strums (“Trapped”) find space among the gothic bangers. The beat for “Reel Girls” sputters forward aggressively before breaking apart to reveal nothing but the menacing minor piano keys, throbbing bassline and click-clack drums of “Facts.” 

As a group, the Zombies are even getting more clever with their lyrical tag-teaming, hopping in and out of each other’s verses (“Hell-O”, “Ask Courtney”). All of this adds more variety and texture to the album’s 19 circles of Hell. The other layer comes from the devotion and open-mindedness of their fans, a handful of whom had shown up for the premiere of the group's short film Building A Ladder a day earlier. After hearing how their fans reacted to the screening, Meech drops a jewel that took me by surprise.

“My favorite fucking artists never told me they loved me, he says.

Before I could wrap my head around that concept, Erick continues:

“When you meet us, it’s not some weird hierarchy where you feel like you can’t talk to them or anything, know what I mean? I really feel like because of the music that we make, it makes people think that we’re their friends. Like [Meech] said, my favorite artists never told me they loved me, either. They never did enough to make me feel like I really matter. And even though they’re mad ill, as much as I may adore someone, I never really felt like I matter to them. I know that me buying their albums and now streaming their album is helping them, but I never feel like they were talking to me.” —Erick “The Architect” Elliott 

That direct connection with fans—a recurring theme throughout our conversation—extends far beyond their music and into their merchandising: shirts, sweatpants, and bandanas splattered with tie-dye or stylized images of skeletons or the group’s name. They come in sets of 400 to 500 and most sell out in minutes. 

“I want our shirts to be like the shirts I like to collect, like old Metallica and Nirvana and Marilyn Manson tees,” Meech says. “I have on an old Jamiroquai shirt right now. I want our shirts to be the ones that old men wear and kids say, 'What the fuck is a Flatbush Zombie?' Kids who wear Rolling Stones shirts and don’t know one word, I want our shirts to become those shirts.”

Despite having one of the most rabid fanbases in rap, which, if you've seen the group perform BetterOffDEAD single “Palm Trees” live at a sold-out festival is hard to argue against, all three group members believe they still haven't received their just due. But not as a three-man group with an in-house producer who also raps, not for embracing the “weirdo” aesthetic before the Uzis and the 6ix9ines of the world made it the norm, and not for standing tall as rappers who embrace the artform’s roots without qualifiers.

“We live in such a time now where it’s not even cool to like hip-hop anymore. It’s almost corny now,” Meech says, exasperated. “And to have a song where n*ggas is nodding their heads, like a real head nod, not whatever the new dance is now—I like all the new dances and everything, but it feels good to have a song in rotation that’s hip-hop, where a n*gga wants to grab a can and spray some graffiti and breakdance and do all of the above.”

That song is “Headstone,” a lead single that includes more references to '90s and early aughts rap than your favorite Game single. Skillfully, the group worked these references into stories that exist outside of simply being references (“The chronic smoke in public, hate it or love it / The underdogs, with liquid swords / It was written in my diary this art of war”). Later on “U&I,” Erick and Juice interpolate OutKast and Do or Die lyrics in the hook. Meech called quoting Pimp C on a track featuring Bun B a moment that “made me feel like a kid again.” Outside of preserving the culture, the group wants to bridge hip-hop’s generational gap in a meaningful way.

Seven years after forming the Beast Coast with Pro Era and The Underachievers, Vacation In Hell is both the apex of Flatbush Zombies’ musical brotherhood and hard-earned validation for betting on themselves and their fans. While the album is only the second in their catalog to be given a wide release—Meech says he would upload all four of their free projects to streaming services "if I was a millionaire"—the group finds it "very hip-hop" to still be considered an underdog.

“We need another DMX to come through in a bathtub full of blood and for niggas to wanna change the climate again, because right now hip-hop is all about chasing the biggest hit, having the biggest features, having the number one record, getting the most streams,” Meech says. “Every day there’s a new fucking record. I wanna win the accolade for 'First Album Where Every Song Made Me Cry.' How about that accolade? We’re talking dumb shit right now with the numbers, trying to beat ghosts and dead people who made albums years ago. I don’t care about numbers and Billboard or none of that shit. We’ve been doing this for seven, eight years, I done seen seven to eight million n*ggas around when we started that ain’t around now and never did the stages we did.”

Hell for Flatbush Zombies is clouded with sour vapors, not sulfur. 

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