Six years ago, Flatbush Zombies performed at a small, 2,000-capacity venue in Sayreville, New Jersey. Electric, chaotic and furious, the group ripped through their set like the threat of never playing another show again was a cloud circling above their head. Meechy Darko, Zombie Juice and Erick “The Architect” Elliot’s brand of dark, ominous, and brutal rap easily won over a room packed with white, suburban teens. The three artists were billed as openers on the Camp Gambino Tour that night, but the New Yorkers’ supreme confidence made that distinction seem irrelevant.
Earlier that day, a fan had described seeing Meech, Juice and Erick at that same show. As the Zombies settle into a phone call, that performance becomes a symbol for their career.
“People follow our story and I think that we made an impact that day,” Erick explains. “As much as at the time [we] may have just have looked at it like another show. We were dying to have our own tour. We were dying to have our own tour bus, have our own thing going [and] at the time, we were manifesting the things that are real now, which is two albums, and our own tour, and making our own name in hip-hop music.”
For nearly a decade, Flatbush Zombies have been independent and, more importantly, stayed together. On Vacation in Hell, the three weave loose stories of death, existential crisis, and brotherhood. Emotionally, it’s a dark album even for a group that’s known for reveling in dark imagery. Discussing the project, it’s evident they’ve weathered a year that would erode away at the foundations of most groups. However, the adversity only seems to have strengthened the three men.
Arriving in New York after a performance at the Breakaway Music Festival, the three discussed why they’ve stayed independent, the conviction necessary in never compromising their vision, and life after Vacation In Hell.
You guys performed at the Breakaway Music Festival last weekend. How was it? How did the fans respond to the new music?
Erick: It was good. The second day we went on after Jaden Smith. It was cool. It was our first time meeting him. I feel like that was a bit more of a hip-hop crowd that are more into the music than the first day. So he warmed it up for us and we shut it down.
In a streaming era where labels are snatching up anyone they can, why is it important for you guys to keep the operation independent and in-house?
Meechy: These other guys were there. They don’t know what it was like to split a chicken sandwich. Me and Juice used to split sandwiches together and decide on like if we were going to buy a dub of weed later. Me and Erick knew each other since we were four-years-old. These labels weren’t there. So I don’t care what kind of money you have. That doesn’t mean anything. You’re not really here for what we’re trying to do and the vision of where we’re trying to take this.
It’s not about money or anything. You could get us more notoriety, but the victory would be so much better us three or our friends and family and our team and everyone that we have here we got that together, on our own. I think that’s way more worth and speaks a lot more volumes than being under some big umbrella corporation that produces movies and music and TV shows and clothing, of course, if they invest all this money, eventually something is going to stick.
Erick: There’s always been this kinda like cloud over the industry like we don’t know. People say we’re in the industry or whatever, sometimes I laugh, ‘cause it’s like are we really? All the things that we’ve received, you know playing Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel. Those are all from staying true to who we were. I don’t know if we would even make it to those same avenues if we didn’t stay independent and stay true to our vision. I think a lot of people compromise their vision to get on those shows. Whereas we kinda did the opposite. It’s like what did we change? If anything we changed to grow as people and better artists, but we never compromised our vision for an opportunity or a look.
Meechy: Man I sacrificed that money and that fame to have control of my destiny and my music, our music and our destiny rather.
Did you guys really make a million off merch?
Meechy: We don’t lie. I think me and Juice have been saying that low-key for a little bit. We tried our best not to really talk about money like that, because we don’t want it to be a thing also where we’re trying to take everybody’s money. It’s not really about money. At the same time, what’s very important is that we invest our money into ourselves, more than anyone that I know. We invest all of our dollars right back into the group.
So yeah, we made multiple fucking m[illion]’s off merchandise over the time that we’ve been selling merchandise. Yeah of course, but to me, it’s like what’s deeper is explaining to people, ‘Yeah we made that, but guess where that money goes right back into? The same system.’ That’s how it keeps getting bigger and better. I’m not selling this merchandise to go buy a nice Lamborghini. That’s dope, but nah. We want to sell this merchandise so we can make you guys better merchandise.
Juice: We would just rather spend that money back into our business [rather than] to borrow millions of dollars from a label, to have to owe back. That’s kind of silly. We enjoy being the label if that makes sense.
You fight for your fans. You’ve earned them with your shows, you put time in your merch and designing it in a way I don’t think a lot of rappers now do. Is that something that’s important to you guys, earning your fans and keeping them and making them feel important that they’re spending their money, time, and ears with you guys through this journey?
Erick: It’s a 100%, a 1000% important, especially us growing up listening to hip-hop music. I remember as a young man listening to Pharrell and seeing everything that surrounded him. His music was pristine, his clothes, his style, his beats, it made me want to rally for him. Billionaire Boys Club and Bape, Ice Cream, all that was so huge when we were younger. It was so influential to us as like being able to save up money to buy one of those shirts or one of those pair of sneakers. That was like a big deal and it still reminded me so much of the artist and the music. It forced us even whether it was on purpose or subconsciously, that’s the same quality we have to give back to people that enjoy us.
Meechy: Hell yeah.
Erick: I think that’s really, really important, because a lot of people just take the package and give it to you. You know you fill out this form and say, ‘put our logo on a water bottle, put our logo on a pair of hats.’ Is that what they deserve or do they deserve somebody who can actually you know comb through designs and spend too much time on it as it deserves?
Meechy: Also to add, just because you mentioned water bottles and stuff like that. Erick, you made me just remember something. To add onto the last question when you asked if we really make millions off merchandise, here’s another very important thing to understand. There was a time and point where me and Juice, literally were selling those shirts out of a bag, like a duffle bag on Flatbush Avenue. So that’s one thing that’s very important. I don’t want people to ever hear the words, lyrics, or numbers and never not see or understand that it came from that to get to where we at now.
A majority of Vacation In Hell seems to circle messages of you guys going through depression and anxiety, and a general malaise about the daily challenges of human existence. Spiritually, where are you guys now after the record?
Erick: I think when you’re in something it’s so difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Whether we were going through something, personally or as individuals or whatever. I think how I feel now, I’m proud of our accomplishments. I’m the type of person I really prolly don’t give ourselves enough credit for how hard we work, but I think that’s a testament to kind of what we were talking about before. Topping our last or there’s always a sophomore jinx thing that people are just so scared of doing.
There was a gap between the first two albums. So even people were expecting music, but we also wanted to make a product and a project that people enjoyed as much as we did. I think it’s hard to really know if people are going to like something. So the thing I was always trying to make sure that we loved it before the people listened to it. Before they consumed it, we were satisfied with it and we knew this was the right message we wanted to put out there.
So for right now, I feel great. I feel like the album even though it came out in April, I still feel remember the process of making it and I use all that energy to create new music. Maybe during the time we were all kinda going through something, transitional moments of our lives. Moving out, whatever other personal shit we had going on, but I think now we’re in the lighter part of the year.
Is there any sense of competition when you collaborate, coming from New York with a Jadakiss, you getting his verse of “Facts.” Do you go back and forth from being a fan and also trying to want to run circles around him?
Meechy: I always want to have the best verse. I want to have the best verse ever, every time. Regardless, of whether it’s Jadakiss or fucking Erick or Juice or A$AP Rocky or Andre 3000 or anybody. I don’t care who really it is. I’m always going to try my best. Never to the point where the song won’t be as good as it can be, because that’s also a thing where you go in there and try to have the best verse and then you try to make the best song.
I’m just happy to hear my fucking my voice together with a legend like that. Somebody like that to even hear my voice and say, ‘Alright, I want to rap on this. I like what this guy did.’ That’s more what I care about. I hope that when people hear a verses like that or hear a song, they understand we can go toe to toe with really I think anybody.
Is there anything that you guys have experienced on this tour now that Vacation Is Hell is released and it was so emotional and visceral. You guys were really vulnerable. Have fans given you any feedback on it now?
Erick: The “Trap” one for me to perform that it took a lot, because I had to be totally empathetic and I’m not like Eric Benét, I’m Erick Elliott. My voice, I’m just trying to get my message out. I wrote the song with the intent of something that I really couldn’t convey in words. Sometimes if you rap something it just gets lost in the linguistics of rapping it and singing, it allows you to know be more ethereal with it. You don’t really have to explain things in black and white.
I always see people say that that song took them through some kind of depression or something that they regret doing to themselves, harming themselves. If I even ask about what they had on the album, of course, there are other songs that probably perform with more higher energy, but that one [“Trap”] I think people walk away from with a different sentiment. Meech’s verse on there is one of my favorite verses too. I think overall people enjoy the emotional shit, but I think also people want to hear Better Off Dead, all the time no matter what we do. It’s like this relic that people are prepared to, which is ironic, because I feel like when we put it out, there was no smoke around it. It was just like Zombies put out a CD and now I think it’s kind of like our Illmatic.