Flatbush Zombies are setting a brilliant example of how to navigate the difficult contours of 2020. The Brooklyn trio of childhood friends—Meechy Darko, Zombie Juice and Erick the Architect—have been making music together for almost a decade, and in the face of a pandemic that’s flung each of them to a separate corner of America, they’re still finding ways to release some of the best records of their career.
Their June EP Now, More Than Ever was conceived as a way to reach out to fans during the early, uncertain days of the CoronaVirus outbreak. It’s an emotional time capsule that grapples with America’s twin crises—police brutality and the havoc of CoronaVirus—punctuated by intensely personal and deeply comforting moments: a voicemail from Meech’s late father appears on “quicksand”, “when i’m gone” recorded after Mac Miller’s passing reflects on the aftermath of death, “herb” soundtracks the end-of-the-day unwind. After the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, the record and its merchandise became a means for the group to raise over $100,000 for pro-Black charities.
Just days ago, the trio unveiled the James Blake collaboration “Afterlife”, one of their best records to date, buoyed by a mind-bending video in which complex special effects emulate impossible motion X-Rays. Over their sessions, first in Los Angeles then in New York, the four artists became great friends, trading glowing praise on social media on release day (“James built confidence in me I didn’t even know I had,” Erick wrote, “Erick, Meech, and Juice were three of my favourite rappers and now they’re my friends.” wrote James).
Still separated by COVID-19, the trio are bunkering down across America, gearing up to release their third studio album. We reached them all over a zoom call to talk Now More Than Ever, their James Blake sessions, gratitude, and creating a last climate of change.
What’s up guys? How are you all feeling?
Meech: Feeling good, feeling great. How are you?
Doing good on this side. Are you all in different places right now?
Meech: I’m at the abyss.
Erick: I’m leaving the post office. It’s actually a pretty nice day today.
Thank you guys for now, more than ever. It’s tight that you’re fighting for change. It’s been a little while since you put music out as Flatbush Zombies. Putting that project together this year would have been different on so many levels.
Erick: Yeah, we were all working on stuff in Los Angeles, then when the COVID shit started getting crazy, we had to split and go to different places. I was in LA, Juice was in Baltimore, Meech was in New York. So, despite the struggles we had to face—the imminent problem that is the virus itself, and the immense levels of police brutality, so many factors that stopped us from putting this project out—we felt that we had to talk about that in the music and defeat the opposition, man. Just make something that we felt passionate about and release it at a time when people need to hear the message from us. We know we have a platform to talk to people and we want to take advantage of that. That was a huge inspiration behind the project itself.
It’s really interesting that some of this material was written before things got this fucked up, but it’s still relevant. Tracks like ‘blessings’ and ‘when i’m gone’ feel brand new to what is going on.
Meech: It’s like a good TV show that’s been out for a long time. Your friend’s like, “You ever heard of The Sopranos?” you’re like, “Yeah, it came out in the early 2000s.” I feel like that’s what it is with police brutality. That is what it is with human trafficking. That is what it is with all of this stuff. People are just now wanting to open their eyes. Maybe they’re not wanting to, but they’re at home and they have no choice now, because it’s all over your social media. It’s all there. Go read the newspaper, go watch television, watch American news. You will see it.
It feels like listeners are starting to change their mindset in a way that’s more connected to the themes that you guys have been exploring for the last, shit, nearly ten years now.
Meech: I know people are waking up. Everyone has their own battles. Me, Erick and Juice, we all have the same moral fibre, but they are different battles that we each stand in front of. Juice and I definitely care about a lot of the same things, but there has to be one thing that he cares about more than I do. And as far as this whole thing comes, with everybody else in the industry, and just the world in general, I do feel like this is an awakening, but I’m not really sure where it’s going to lead to, or if it’s temporary. Sometimes you have a little awakening and then you just go back to your ignorance. It happens all the time. This is not a fad, this is a lifestyle. This is something that you have to train yourself and do all the time if you want to really live this—I don’t even want to say ‘woke life’—but the life you should be living. I feel like you can’t really tell right now. It’s too early. Let some time pass and four years from now, you could look at people and be like, “Weren’t you talking some different type of shit in 2020?”
Juice: It’s trendy to be woke and shit. That is why I’m happy to use that word. That word is just fucking trendy as shit. You know what I mean? People act like they care about one thing, but they really don’t. The same niggas that care about black rights and all this shit are the same niggas that are making fun of Megan for getting shot in the toe and all that, man. So it’s a lot of fucking ignorance and a lot of just trendy shit.
Erick: I’m hoping that it’s the beginning of a shift that’s permanent, but I second what they’re saying. I am all for progressive change. I am all for things changing and becoming, like you say, woke, but I feel like there’s a lot of work to do because a lot of people are just doing things because they know they’re supposed to. I think it’s going to change when those become genuine things you do because you should, and not just because it’s cool or because it’s a thing to do right now. It’s cool to listen to D’Angelo and Erykah Badu right now—that’s my favourite music of all time, so it’s weird. I’m hoping that these are, like you said, not a fad. I’m hoping this is the beginning of a real change that’s permanent.
For sure. Erick, I wondered if you could talk to me briefly about the computer situation with putting together now, more than ever.
Erick: What did you hear about the computer crashing?
I heard that you lost a lot of your production, but it inspired you to push even harder and rework your ideas.
Erick: Yes, I was being a bit irresponsible. [Everyone laughs] I had a very LA drink on me, which was a fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice or some shit like that. I was trying to go to the beach with my lady. I was going to the beach and wanted to just do beach shit, but during that time, I was making so much music that every day. In production, you may get into a groove that you don’t want to stop, and during that time I was making so many beats that I was so proud of, I didn’t want to have my laptop not near me. I wanted to pull inspiration from everywhere, so I thought the beach was a really cool place to do that, right? So I put it in a bag with that crazy LA drink. And it spilled into the laptop.
Meech is shaking his head.
Meech: It’s just a funny thing. I mean, what are you going to do? You lose shit all the time. I’m losing brain cells as we speak. I cannot get them back. [Laughs]
Erick: It definitely made me upset at first, because there was a lot that I only had just a bounce of what I did. I didn’t have any stems, and because I made them so fast I didn’t even have the chance or time to back them up, which is normally my thing. We made ‘Herb’ during that time and luckily that was salvaged. A couple of the songs that we worked on were gone and a lot of the beats that I was working on were gone too. But it made me say, “Well, I gotta make up for these ideas and maybe repurpose what we do have, re-interpret it and make sure that I’m actually doing something better than the version I made the first time.” So, ‘When I’m Gone’ was a reimagined idea and ‘Blessings’ was a totally reimagined idea, because that one was totally gone. I had to start that from nothing.
Juice: Even ‘dirty elevator music’ got remade.
Meech: I’m not shaking my head at Erick spilling that drink on the computer by the way. I’m shaking my head at hard work being just gone.
“The same niggas that care about black rights and all this shit are the same niggas that are making fun of Megan for getting shot in the toe and all that, man.”
I wanted to switch gears and speak about your new track, ‘Afterlife’. How did you guys first tap in with James Blake?
Erick: First off, I love the song and it’s one of my favourite songs of ours. Even if we didn’t make it, I would have been really excited to hear three guys say what we said. We met James originally maybe about two years ago. He’d reached out to us through a radio interview he did, he said that we were one of his favourite groups and I was one of his favourite producers. So I reached out to him and we kind of started doing email, texting, and it felt right. It was a cool experience. This guy is really polite and really nice, but I was just like, “I want to do this in person, man.” He came to our show at The Novo in LA and we met him. From then on, it was kind of like the magic started to create itself. He and I had a couple of sessions, and we wanted to have one with the whole group. So we formed this Voltron shit and did it. We got him to come to Brooklyn for a little while, and we locked down in the studio for a week and a half and just cranked out a bunch of music.
Is there anything about James Blake’s approach to production that stood out to you guys?
Meech: Can I say what I learned?
Meech: Not to be too married to any idea. Yes, that’s one thing that I just learned. It’s not often that I get to really make music with somebody else that’s not Erick or Juice where I feel very comfortable and I don’t feel like I have to try to do anything, to go into their world per se. It’s a very symbiotic relationship. [James] feels like another bandmate. I’ll have done some shit and be like, “I absolutely love it” and he’ll send something back to me two days later and it sounds totally different and I’ll just totally forget about the thing I did before. [Laughs]
Could we talk about the music video for a second as well? That is the craziest shit I have ever seen. Can you tell me how that came together?
Juice: Well, I do not know how we did that [Everyone laughs]. But we wanted to try something different. The directors were using a special technology, this X-Ray type technology, and we were like, “Yo, this fits exactly with this song.” Everyone marinated on it and we all collected our thoughts, that’s how the video got started. We went and did it in Paris. Probably the most expensive video we ever shot. Not probably, it is.
Meech: It is.
Juice: That is a fact. So yeah, we were just trying some new things. A whole new video we never saw happened like this before. I loved it.
Meech: I hope everybody likes it. It’s artistic as fuck. It ain’t just some video of a bunch of guys pointing at the camera, you know?
You guys often credit each other for your individual contributions to the music, and you’ve been able to keep growing as a group for a really long time. How do you keep each other motivated and inspired after all these years together?
Juice: I mean, my answers are always so weird. I was going to say like it’s just an internal thing that keeps us going inside of us. It’s like we’re tethered together no matter what. Just seeing or hearing their voices, or just being next to them, that’s an inspiration. Or just hearing the next idea, that makes you want to keep going. You know what I mean?
Erick: I think for me, a lot of what inspires me about working in the group is that everyone — I mean, you just kind of said it, everyone plays a role. In the early stages of forming a group when you’re independent artists, a lot of the roles are ambiguous because you have to do everything yourself. If we were signed to a big company, there would be people designated to be helping with specific things. Each one of us does more than we should be doing. I’ve played the role of the manager, Meech has played the role of the merch guy, Juice played the role of stage designer. We’ve all sculpted this vision to be exactly what we wanted it to be. I think that doing it on your own teaches you that you have to be a renaissance man. And if you’re not focused, or you’re too worried about your individual representation, it’s hard for you to win as a group. That has always been our thing, from the beginning.
Meech, I’ve heard you credit your fans for being very switched on and understanding people. In such a tense time around the world, I wonder what you’re hoping to give your fans with the next music release. Where do you want to steer the conversation for them?
Meech: Honesty. I just want to bring more honesty to everything that I do. Sometimes I listen to myself and can be like, “Damn, I am being honest. But am I really being honest? Can I be more honest? Is there more I can say?” I feel like the more I push myself to that direction through music, the more I’m going to find out more about myself and my fans will find out more about themselves, in the hope that that could be a trend that passes on. Honesty, a brutal honesty too, you know? That’s something I really want to do more of, reflecting on yourself and taking accountability and not being afraid to say how you feel or how you felt about something. If I ever feel jealous of Juice’s dog for being cuter than me, I’m going to write about it. Even if it’s a weird feeling, and Juice might feel weird that I am writing about his dog, we’re going to talk about it. I am going to write about how we talked about how we felt weird about it [Laughs]. That is what I want my life to be about.
We need artists to really tell the truth, and not the shallow truth. The scary, sad, dark, funny, happy; all those emotions and not just some one-sided, “I win. I am the best. My clothes are better than you. I look better than you. My hair is longer.” We get that all the time. I want to hear you lose. I want to hear about you balding. I want to hear about bunions on your feet. I want to hear about your breath stinking. I want to hear about your girl leaving you. I want to hear about those things, because that’s what reality really is.
Is there anything you want to share with your fans and our readers who are sitting at home, holding out for things to get better? Any wisdom or well wishes?
Juice: Well, plant your seeds. You got to plant your seeds before they can grow and be trees. You feel me? So, you plant your seeds, work on that shit, grow that shit. It’s going to turn into some palm trees and shit. You’re going to be flowing and winning and living. This is the time to plant your seeds and watch them grow to trees.
Meech: Don’t overthink everything right now. I would say take it to the limit, right there. Do not jump over the ledge, though. Just think as much as you need to, and like I said, reflect and focus and try to be more human. [Laughs] Whatever the fuck that means, and it’s a dark thing to say, too, because someone could just research what humans are and be like, “Ew, that’s what I’m supposed to be?” But try to think about other people and other perspectives, be more of an advocate. I feel there’s too much “I talk to people and if I do not agree with them, it’s just over with them.” That is not how the world runs. You do not want a world full of a bunch of yous.
Erick: For me, it would be to focus on your passions and harness creativity. Stay aware. Shit, I could talk about it forever, man. Just too many people giving up on dreams because they’re hard. Imagine if we’d given up on ours before COVID—we wouldn’t have Now, More Than Ever. We wouldn’t have this James Blake song. This shit is going to get worse before it gets better. I really believe that. It’s all cyclical, man. If you study any history, this is not the first time we’ve experienced something like this.
Meech: And be fucking grateful.
Erick: Real shit.
Can I ask you guys what is something, big or small, that you are grateful for during this time?
Erick: I am grateful for the risk that I took to move to Los Angeles to buy a house. That was a big risk for me, but I am very grateful that I have. Like Juice was saying, planting the seeds. That was a seed I planted. I didn’t even know it would be so beneficial in the way that it is for me now.
That’s what’s up.
Juice: I got one. [Juice holds up a framed death certificate]. I don’t know if you can see this shit but this right here, this is my mother. She stays with me right here in this room. She died at twenty-nine. I am thirty years old. I am just so happy that I am fucking alive. Legit, bro.
Meech: Mine is really going to be simple. It’s like what Juice said, just life, at this point. The fact that I could even get annoyed at the flies that are in my house right now, and the fact that somebody on the other side of the world wants to talk to me about stuff and my music and things that I’ve done in the past that easily could be forgotten. So many crazy things are going on in the world, and people still want to talk to us and ask us questions and wonder where we come from to this day. That right there is the thing, I guess. Not a tangible thing, but it’s something that I really feel like I will never take for granted.
Erick: That is a fact. Word up.
Guys, I will let you go. Appreciate you. Thank you for the time.
Follow Flatbush Zombies here for more and check out ‘Afterlife’ below.