Subsisting on allergy medicine, LSD, and Thai food.
Somewhere in Chicago is a tour bus containing the three members of the Brooklyn underground hip-hop crew, Flatbush Zombies. It’s been a week since they embarked on a nationwide tour in support of their debut studio album,3001: A Laced Odyssey, and they still have two more months of traveling and playing shows ahead of them.
Despite the cocktail of allergy medications he’s taken, Erick Elliott — the crew’s producer, as well as a vocalist, although all three members of Flatbush Zombies rap — sniffles and coughs in one of the rows. Meechy Darko, Flatbush’s dreadlocked vocalist, who has a penchant for rolling his eyes into the back of his head and hiding his irises from view, stretches out on the floor in the aisle. Meanwhile, Zombie Juice, identifiable by his triangular nose and cascading beard, searches on his phone for the nearest and greatest Thai restaurant.
“In every city we go to, I try to find the best Thai food in town,” he says, listing off pad kee mao and chicken pad thai as favorite dishes. In his opinion, Los Angeles, Denver, and New York have had the best Thai food in the States, and “Amsterdam had some fire, too.”
As far as I can tell, none of the guys is on drugs at the time of our interview — but you never know. The crew’s first official mixtape was called D.R.U.G.S., and Darko and Juice, who met when they were teenagers, have a reputation for experimenting with psychedelic drugs and performing while on acid.
“One of the cool things about doing psychedelics is seeing how many fucking psychedelics you can do and still do normal things,” Juice explains. “I would take mad psychedelics and then go hang out with my grandparents, and they wouldn’t even fucking now. It was cool just to see how strong your hold is on your body.”
Though the crew, which formed in 2010, is known for its high-pitched, high-energy cadences, drug references proliferate throughout their music as well. The lyrics to “Drug Parade,” one of the many drug-related singles off their second mixtape, Better Off Dead, are a laundry list of psychedelic and illegal substances — while weed is a common motif on D.R.U.G.S. The crew even released a single called “Don’t Do Drugs Kids” in 2014, a track which — with its hook of “Don’t do drugs, kids, give them to I”— comes across as more of a joke than an actual attempt to sway kids toward a life of temperance and sobriety.
Even the group’s name is an indirect reference to drugs. In multiple interviews, Darko has referred to himself as a “zombie” because his ego has died many times over from taking mushrooms and having psychedelic trips. But when I ask him to expand upon this idea, he refutes the claim entirely. “I don’t think I’m anything,” Darko says. “I know what I am.”
I get similarly dismissed when I ask if they ever worry they’re glorifying drugs. Darko gets defensive and repeats the phrase, “I don’t glorify drugs” multiple times. Though he says he “encourage[s] mind expansion in the right place and time” and “talk[s] about the good times getting high,” that doesn’t count as extolling the use of drugs because he also talks about the bad stuff, too.
“I talk about being addicted,” he says. “So that’s not glorification. If fighting addiction is glorification, then I don’t know. I guess I just can’t rap about anything anymore.”
It’s clear that I’ve hit a nerve by bringing up drugs, but at least one Zombie isn’t irked with me. Elliott, who grew up on the same block as Darko when he was four years old, doesn’t do drugs. In fact, he’s never even tried the harder stuff. Asked why this is, he answers simply, “I am a drug.”
From what little Elliott tells me, it seems as if he just has no interest in the recreational activity. And being in a band with two known drug advocates isn’t a problem, either.
“It’s all a matter of perspective,” Elliott says. “I never looked at these guys and thought, ‘You guys are fucking weird for doing acid.’ I don’t feel left out, either, because I don’t think anyone could tell me I’m not psychedelic.”
Though their drug-related songs have garnered them legions of fans, it has sparked a lot of criticism, too.
“You know what people say about us. It’s the same shit people say now,” Darko says. “It’s about the drugs. They’re not getting the message behind it. People are morons.”
The crew’s anger and frustration with being misunderstood is most apparent in their second mixtape, which is more aggressive lyrically and less melodic and sample-based than D.R.U.G.S.
“They sound entirely different,” Darko says. “That was heavily inspired by people thinking we’re fucking gimmicks and all that bullshit. All the people giving us praise now were not giving us praise then. That’s why it sounds the way it does, and that’s why those shows were so angry.”
With Better Off Dead as the outlet for their anger, Flatbush was able to approach 3001 in a more relaxed, calmer state of mind. For the latter half of 2015, the musicians toiled away on the 12-track record, which was released through their independent label The Glorious Dead Records.
The beats that Elliott concocted for the album are in the vein of Brian Eno — sparse, symphonic, and minimalist — and serve as a perfect backdrop for showcasing the rappers’ fluctuating inflections and forceful deliveries. Unlike their other albums, 3001 was recorded using real instruments — guitar, keys, bass, drums, synthesizer.
“With this album, I was going for something that was more cinematic,” Elliott says. “Our previous projects were about what we were going through at the time, but they weren’t albums. This is 12 tracks totally weaved together on purpose to be an odyssey, to be a journey. This is something that no one has ever heard from Flatbush Zombies before.”