On January 13, 2020, Meechy Darko of Flatbush Zombies shared with his followers that his father was shot and killed by Miami police officers. Many months later, the country is faced with the coronavirus pandemic, as well as ongoing protests after the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau, and so many others. Even as artists continue to release new music to increase awareness and support the Black Lives Matter movement, Meechy is still torn between being a spokesperson against police brutality and staying silent on the issue. The influence he has as an artist is not something he takes lightly.
“Can you imagine how I feel right now?” he asks me. “Do you want me to go on a song and really say what I want to do when I look at a cop? Do you want me to say that? Do you want me to go tell kids that kind of stuff? I have to be conscious and smart because when my people do shit like that, we're called anarchists. We're called crazy revolutionaries.”
Instead of letting Meechy’s father's death cripple them, Flatbush Zombies have used it as fuel for new initiatives to affect change on the largest scale possible. In June, they dropped an EP called Now, More Than Ever, their first release since 2018’s Vacation in Hell, accompanied by merch raising money for organizations making a positive impact in the Black community. They raised $100,000 in one day shortly after the announcement on social media, and over $150,000 in total. Noticing how powerful their message can be, the group channeled their energies into individual efforts to help their community. Erick Arc Elliott says he’s been looking into how he can educate kids to understand the vast information that’s on the internet while Zombie Juice is focused on building his Talking Terps brand and learning more about self-sustainability.
Flatbush Zombies have been a must-see group out of the East Coast since going viral with their dark and stoned-out single, “Thug Waffle.” Back-to-back years of foundation-building mixtapes like 2012’s D.R.U.G.S. and 2013’s BetterOffDEAD grew their reputation as an essential new rap group and laid the foundations of a dedicated fanbase that still stands behind them today. They’re part of the hip-hop supergroup Beast Coast with Pro Era and The Underachievers and have a reputation for putting on one of the best live shows in hip-hop. It’s rare to see a group remain together for almost a decade, but it works because they move like family, with an unbreakable bond.
Flatbush Zombies have always acted in the spirit of giving back. To be independent artists in this industry while still caring about your art and message is no easy task. With their James Blake collab "Afterlife" and a new NPR Tiny Desk (home) concert out now, the Zombies spoke to us about staying productive during quarantine, their upcoming full project with James Blake, remembering Mac Miller, and dealing with trauma.
How have you been holding up in quarantine?
Erick Arc Elliott: To be honest, man, it's quite depressing. I think at the beginning of this, I was really paying attention to a bunch of news because I just wanted to stay informed. But I actually feel like that was doing more harm than good to me. What I decided was that I was going to pay more attention to what I needed emotionally to stay afloat and be more creative. But mostly to challenge myself to try something new and learn. I think that's more important. I'm just blessed that I'm staying healthy throughout this whole pandemic, man.
When did you stop paying attention? What made you step back for a second?
Erick Arc Elliott: I just felt like I didn't really know what some of these intentions were. Was it in their heart? Was it genuine? I didn't take a full reset. I still obviously use my account, but I stopped just looking at the news telling me updates of what's going on. I kept my head to the streets. I looked to people that I knew were activists or abolitionists or philanthropists before this whole thing. If that's their MO before, those are the people that I spoke to get information from to find out how I can help and what we can do to raise awareness for all these issues. That seemed more impactful to me than for me to just hear messages on the internet, because I can't really determine what's really genuine, or what's even the truth.
Juice, how about you?
Zombie Juice: I'm still having a good time because I'm not the type of person that needs other people to value how much fun I'm having, or value my place in society or in my heart you know? The people who need constant reassurance from outside entities and energies, they're the ones that are suffering because they can't stay at home and read a book or stay at home and do some push-ups, or stay at home and clean up, or just do a reset.
People forget how to live with themselves, and people probably hate themselves so much that this whole quarantine shit is making them go crazy, because they realize like, “Yo, I need more. I need these lights, I need this dopamine rush, I need to be seen.” Sometimes you don't need to be seen when you have nothing to really show, so why do you want to be seen so bad? How about you take this time out during quarantine and plan something or set a goal or change your habits. You know? It's a reset, it's a shift.
Yeah, everybody is going through a reset right now.
Zombie Juice: A lot of people are not going to understand this, and it may sound weird and crazy, but we are living sources of energy. We are connected to the Earth. The reason why they call the Earth Mother Earth is because she is nourishing us, she is the creator of everything, everything runs through her. We run through her, we're stepping on her body everyday we walk. Every day we break some shit, we're breaking a part of her bones, or every day we pollute the air, we're fucking up her lungs, you know what I'm saying? Every day we project negative energy and kill each other, we're destroying her heart, she's crying, do you get what I'm saying? The Earth is going through a reset right now, including us, and we're all connected, so everything is moving how it's supposed to be moving.
You guys put out a new single called “Afterlife” produced by James Blake. Erick, you're the main producer for the Zombies, so what do you look for when you're working with an outside producer like James?
Erick Arc Elliott: The first thing I'm going to say is that James Blake is not a human being. He's an entity. He's a spiritual guiding being. He's one of my closest friends, man. More than music, this guy introduced me to so much about myself and how to really improve as a producer. It's a certain level of respect and courtesy that you show and give to people, especially him coming into our situation, where I'm the sole producer. He didn't want to stray us to anything that we weren't comfortable with, but also he wanted to put us in a new place.
I'm looking for someone who's not scared to take the risk, and also passionate about his shit enough to be like, “Yo, here's what I think you should do.” The respect for the music and the love for the music makes me automatically open my ears to say, “What you got?” This was about two years ago, we met each other. Ever since then, I feel like I've reached new heights of production. Even [my] writing, I was able to form better verses because I had less pressure on me to make beats and worry about how the record was constructed from the ground. James gave me the chance to develop as a lyricist and a writer.
Did you and James do this song in the studio together, or was this during quarantine?
Erick Arc Elliott: No, we did it in the studio together, man. Just for some backstory, I met him at the Novo. Actually, I had a hernia surgery that I had months after that. So I was on tour and my hernia was really bad, bro. I remember after I got my surgery, I told him I wanted to record. It was a song that we started called “Speed of My Own.” I made the beat and he wrote the hook and wrote a verse, and we started working from then. Then, all of a sudden, I'm back in L.A. with him working, and we're doing these tracks. We cut about three or four different tracks together, and we sat down and said he wanted to meet Meech and Juice. He wanted my blessing to try to make music together. I gave him the okay and he came to New York. We all sat in Electric Garden and we cranked out pretty much an album's worth of music within a week and half.
When the Zombies and James Blake get in the studio together what is it like? You guys just clicked right off the bat?
Erick Arc Elliott: I think me being the bridge made it a lot easier to speak to him, because I was already kicking it with him so much. He was my friend at that point. So, although we've grown to be better friends since then, I think it was never anything weird. Meech and Juice haven't worked with no one else, really, but me, as far as production. So I think that me being comfortable with him automatically made them comfortable to be free and speak what's on their mind. He was like a fourth member at that point. We were together every day during that little stint of time.
Meechy Darko: I want to thank Erick for introducing me to a very rare, talented human being. It's not just his talents musically—our personalities mesh, because sometimes you meet musical people and it feels like you're trying too hard to read each other and all this stuff. It's very natural with him. Yeah, I like to say he's like a fourth member.
Zombie Juice: It’s pretty apparent that he's a unique artist and a unique individual, and kind of misunderstood, lowkey. People think that he is weird and they have all these perceptions and projections about what they think James is, or how they think James is supposed to be. And I feel like Flatbush Zombies go through the same type of thing where people might think that we're weird or we're different. But really, we're not as different from most people. When you put two people like that together that are almost one and the same in their own different worlds, it's like a match made in heaven.
What can you tell the fans about this James Blake project? How different is it than Vacation in Hell?
Erick Arc Elliott: I will tell them that this is a height that we've never seen. Like I said earlier, me playing the referee in the situation of a production, like, “Hey, I'm going to call the shots. Here's what happens,” I could just take a seat back and be like, “I'm one of the guys right now. James is me right now. James will take the helm and I'm going to chill.” Of course, he didn't do this entirely by himself, but this was the most that I've ever let anyone work on something for us, so I think that all of our writing became stronger. They're in a different space with his piano skill and his understanding of sound and structure. There are some tracks that he and I did, or him and I and Dominic Maker from Mount Kimbie. It's a good mixture of everything. That's all I can tell you.
We recorded it during a very weird time for all of us. We were all going through a lot of shit during that time, but we all were motivated to go to the studio. A song like “Afterlife” came about because of that extreme feeling, especially what I was talking about in my verse. It's funny to hear a song like that now, because you would think we just wrote it. But that just shows you what timelessness does.
Zombie Juice: It’s a different type of emotion that we're bringing out. Most people, when they listen to Flatbush Zombies, they're like, “Oh my God, this beat is hard. Oh my God, Erick, you're dope.” But now that Erick isn't at the forefront of the beat, now Erick can MC.
They keep us in this box or these perceptions, and it's kind of sad. Now that Erick doesn't have to make beats, no one can automatically put him in that box first. They have to respect the MC! So it's like opening up a whole new world and opening up more eyes, and maybe we'll change people's perception. That's what I'm hoping will happen for him and for us in general.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the songs on the Now, More Than Ever EP. You have this one song in particular, “Quicksand.” It features vocals from Meech's dad. Erick, you and Meech grew up together. When you heard the news about Meech’s father, how did that affect you personally?
Erick Arc Elliott: Man, he fell victim to the story that we've heard so many times. It's so frustrating to hear this shit over and over again. Another Black person killed by cops. I've known Meech since I was 4 years old, and his father means a lot to me. It still doesn't seem real to me that he's gone. I will tell you when I found out the information, when he called me, I just was hysterical. The last thing you want to hear is someone fell victim to this crime, but then you hear it was somebody you actually know and love. It hit me in a way that I was not prepared for, man, and it could have easily taken us to a place of darkness and anger and resentment.
But instead of doing that, Meech and I took a really tragic event and turned it into something that somebody could listen to as a story and a testimony as opposed to diving into a darker place because it's a traumatic experience. It is what it is. But unfortunately, it's something that is common. That's why you have to make songs like that. You have to tell people about the truth because that's the only way that the message will be spread is to put it right in your face, so you can't ignore it. “Quicksand” was our version of that. It gives me chills every time I hear it.
Meech, you start off your verse on “When I’m Gone” with a reference to Mac Miller. Tell me about writing this song.
Meechy Darko: Mac was a really good guy, a pleasant soul. One of my favorite people that I've met in this weird industry. He was always very genuine and nice to us. He was just a good guy. The day we were making that song, he actually passed. I don't remember if we were playing the beat while we got the news, or we were just chilling and then we got the news. At this point in my life right now, man, I don't really fully think out a lot of the stuff that I'm doing musically. I call it the musical spirit. Sometimes you just have to close your eyes and feel the vibe and just the words will come to you.
At that moment I wasn't thinking, I was just feeling. That's my favorite form of music, when you just tap into your feelings and it's autopilot. I don't remember, “Yo, I made this rhyme with that.” I don't even remember. It was just feelings—let them all out, and get the fuck out of there.
When someone I meet in the industry that has integrity for their art, and they're about something, that's very important to me. I tend to try to send my respect to the dead as much as possible. I will continue to do that whenever a fellow peer of mine passes away. I think it's very important to hold them in high regards the same way they hold presidents. They make us remember all these guys getting killed, and the fact that they just died. Why the fuck can't we remember all our motherfuckers that died? That's how I look at it.
Erick Arc Elliott: Fact.
I think a lot of fans know that you guys can get political in your music. With the current wave of activism happening in the world right now, why do you think it's important to speak out?
Erick Arc Elliott: Because I want to know where you stand. I want to know that if I've been supporting your company, your business, your entity, or your vision for this long, you're somebody that I want to rally with. I have to know that you're in this fight with me. We got all these companies and people that are just streaming out this money, but you don't know where they stand. I don't mean who you voted for. As a human being, what's your take on some of this shit that's happening? Because if you're not saying anything, the first thing I assume—and it's not always right—is like, “Yo, you don't give a shit.”
I said earlier to you that I don't listen to the news because it makes me feel uncomfortable. Some of that discomfort is because of the reality of having to hear this message over and over again. It's not the fact that it's happening. The fact that it's happening, in general, makes me uncomfortable, and I'm talking about police brutality. I'm talking about racial injustice. I'm talking about COVID. But if there's no resume to show where you stand prior, it's weird to me that now all these people are coming out and speaking, when I should have seen a little breadcrumb trail to show where you stand.
A guy like Kendrick [Lamar], I know where he stands because of the music that he's made for years and years and years. It doesn't make you right to be quiet, but I do believe that the real artists and the real people who are standing up don't need to tweet. I don't need a picture. I don't need to know anything. I know your heart is in the right place, and I know that we're all fighting this together.
Meechy Darko: To me, it's strange. I don't want to force any artist that's not prepared or educated enough in a subject to feel like they have to speak on something. But I do feel like you do owe it to your fans—or if you don't even consider them fans, your consumers—you have a duty to those people.
That's my main trip. It's about your integrity as an artist. It's all about integrity. I can completely disagree with someone, but if they fully in their heart feel like this is what it is, I can respect them. I think that's what we're losing now in the world. Me and Erick don't agree on everything. We disagree on so much shit. But we respect each other's opinions on everything. And guess what? If I don't know what I'm talking about he'll show me the way.
Imagine if the biggest artist right now who is not Black said, “I don't understand systemic racism. Could someone help me?” They probably would get answers. Who's going to ignore Katy Perry asking that question? You're going to ignore Lil Baby asking that question, but you're not going to ignore Katy Perry. So, that's my mindset.
When you put out Now, More Than Ever, you sold merch with the proceeds going to organizations you felt were going to change the world. Why did you want to choose these organizations? I think one is called BEAM. I think the other one is Equality for Flatbush, and the other one is Everybody Eats.
Erick Arc Elliott: Just in general, we all wanted to do something, so we raised this money knowing that we could reinvest it. We are a Black-owned business. We are entrepreneurs, but we still felt very responsible to reach out and help people who we felt were aligned with our cause. Everybody Eats Atlanta, I think that was Juice's. He has a connection with the owners of the organization. It's trying to create a food system that's freeing nutrients and helping people. They're not even taught what to eat, or how to eat. Once again, if you're not feeling good, how can you rally and fight if your food source is not constant? How can you be compassionate and say you're healthy and bring your best if the food consumption that you're doing is bad for you? It's actually making you sluggish and lazy and tired. So it's to help make a better ecosystem for our food.
Equality for Flatbush is more of a grassroots kind of thing, it’s anti-police repression and providing affordable housing. Us being from Flatbush, that was a super important thing. There's a lot of stuff happening where people are being removed from their houses and they don't have anyplace to go. They've pushed them so far out that they're now in communities they don't even know and they're not from. So at least if we uplift our neighborhood, we can ensure that the people that are there are safe and not being victim to all these murders by police.
The BEAM organization is to help with health emotionally, healing through education and advocacy. It is important to have someone to speak to. It is important to do yoga. It is important to meditate. It's important to align yourself with higher consciousness. That's not religious, that's just the spirit, man, that's in your heart. We all need it. It doesn't matter who you pray to.
So, we wanted to make sure we gave something for every aspect of what we thought was necessary at the moment, as much as we could at the time.
Erick mentioned being independent Black business owners. How do you guys balance being left brain and right brain? You guys are creative, but at the same time, you have really good business acumen.
Erick Arc Elliott: As I was telling you earlier, the creative part of me is going to create out of desire. Even if nobody paid attention to me, I would still create. For a long time I created and no one paid attention to me, so I knew that my goal has always been to just be myself and do what was in my heart. When it comes to business, it's kind of like I don't feel bad accepting money or fame from any of those things because I know that my reasoning for doing it was always pure. You're talking about people using their influence to prey upon other people because they're popular. And to me, I don't make songs for money. I make songs because that's me. I can't even be mad. I would never turn down money from the most purest form of myself. That sounds crazy to me, because my intention is pure.
I know that there's people out there that use music strictly as business, I totally get that too. But that should differentiate the legends from people who maybe come and go, because there's only so long you really ride that wave, and people are going to see.
Meechy Darko: It’s like you said about expecting things from certain artists? It's because there's no balance. If someone seems a bit conscious, when some shit hits the fan you're expecting them to say something. They're like, “Bro, I'm not really conscious. I'm just conscious in comparison to everything else here.” You understand what I'm saying? That's all I want to say about that. It's really that. Erick really hit the nail on the head.
Are you talking about the whole J. Cole and Noname situation?
Meechy Darko: No, it's not even just Cole. It's everybody who gets into something where they say some shit, and instead of saying, “Oh, man, I fully believe this,” they say, “Shit! Maybe I'm wrong about this.” Even Nick Cannon. Nick Cannon sounds like he was very confident in what he said, and then he said something different the next day, and then he said, immediately, “Okay, I'm wrong.” Sometimes, there has to be a person in the world that says, “Hey, I believe this thing.” I don't like the way Nick was saying what he was trying to say. I didn't like how it sounded. But I'm going to use him as an example because he's on the cross right now.
There are many people who will just bow down. Many people will just bow down and be like, “Well, fuck it, man. I'm not that guy.” I've felt that way. My father was killed by police in January. You know how bad I want to talk about all this stuff? But at the same time, it hurts me to talk about it every time. Is it my job to go on Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon and be the spokesperson about police brutality?
It's a really tough thing for artists to stand for something, because you might lose everything, and it's like, “Yo, is it really worth it?” Someone like Erick, it's probably fucking worth it, because he's like, “I don't need this shit. I'm going to make music forever whether anybody listens to me or not.” For another guy that needs that Top 10, Top 100, needs fame, needs people to love him? He's not losing that for nothing. He will call himself a piece of shit to keep his fucking lights on.
In the last seven months or so, we've seen a lot more instances of police brutality and protests across the world. If a fan looks up to you, they want you to say something. You don't want to say something if you're not totally sure of what you're talking about?
Meechy Darko: Listen, I know what I'm talking about. You want me to go on a song and tell motherfuckers how I really [feel]? Can you imagine how I feel right now? Do you want me to go on a song and really say what I want to do when I look at a cop? Do you want me to say that? Do you want me to go tell kids that kind of stuff? I have to be conscious and smart because when my people do shit like that, we're called anarchists. We're called crazy revolutionaries, so I have to be very conscious of what I say, brother. My heart is full with a lot of emotions, a lot of rage, a lot of confusion. But if I say the wrong thing, I have followers. I can change the way people think, and I want to change the way people think for the better.
I wasn't trying to be offensive or anything. So I take it that the loss of your father is still pretty hard on you.
Meechy Darko: It will be for the rest of my life. It will be every time I hear the word father. It will be when I have a child. It will be when I see somebody die on the streets on camera, whatever color they are. It will be every time I see a police officer. Fuck it, it's going to be like that. That's just how it is. I'm sure it's going to happen like that for my friends, too. I'm sure Erick thinks about it pretty often too. It wasn't like he died in his sleep, you understand? He died in a very brutal... it's on camera, my friend. It's a totally different world.
So, once again, you ain't offend me at all. These are discussions that we need to have, and I need more people to not be afraid to offend, because hey, offend me, n***a. It is reality, though. What happened, happened, so let's talk about it. Maybe that's what separates me from other people. Ask the question so you can get the raw answer.