Flatbush Zombies are surprisingly down to earth. That isn’t to say that other rappers aren’t down to earth, or that the Zombies should be some sort of bugged-out psychos. It’s just that for a group that just released an album called Vacation In Hell, which they say represents day-to-day existence as much as any sort of religious concept of eternal punishment, they aren’t quite as shell-shocked as you’d expect.
In fact, they’re warm, gregarious, and have the sort of chemistry that is born of growing up together watching cartoons and wrestling. Contrary to their aggressive performance style, which I got the opportunity to witness up close and personal at Coachella just a few days before, they’re almost alarmingly laid back in person, a rap trio of Jekyll and Hydes.
I met Erick, Juice, and Meech at their Los Angeles hotel between Coachella weekends to discuss the new album’s creation and its enthusiastic reception from their fans, taking extended breaks from recording, and unplugging from The Matrix of social media validation. During the course of the conversation, we accidentally found ourselves getting deep about friendships and how to create art that lasts longer than the latest album promotion cycle.
What I found was that these are three performers, entertainers, and artists who also happen to be best friends, truly. While many artists tout their friendships, Flatbush Zombies genuinely seem to enjoy each others’ company, finishing each others’ sentences, and bouncing off each others’ ideas. They are more like a trio of brothers than anything else, tightly-knit and simpatico, the sort of unit you can imagine having a long-term career like some of the great touring bands of rock. That’s exactly what they’d want too; as I find out during this interview there is no place any of them would rather be than in the company of their brothers-in-arms, the one place they feel truly constitutes their Vacation In Hell.
What’s the worst vacation you’ve ever been on?
Juice: Ah, jail.
Erick: Yeah I’d agree, jail before you have to go to a show, you get arrested.
Erick: I’ve never been to jail but maybe, what do you call it, suspended from school.
Suspended from school?
Erick: Yeah, I like being suspended, you can stay up.
Why’d you get suspended from school?
Erick: Running, playing doing shit I wasn’t supposed to be doing, I don’t remember exactly what it was, I think some kids were chasing me and I was fighting.
Okay, so Erick was fighting. Why’d you guys [Juice and Meech] go to jail? Was it fighting?
Juice: Nah, nah, nah, I aint going to jail for no fighting now. You catch me in jail, it’s most likely to be for stupid crime about drugs that you need to fix ’cause it’s stupid crime.
Meech: Stupid. Right, pretty much.
So, why is this album called Vacation In Hell? Of all places, why would anybody want to vacation in Hell?
Meech: It’s not about what she wants, it’s not even our choice, I mean we are vacationing in hell every day, you know what I’m sayin’, we go through the good things and the bad things and the best parts and worst parts of living on this earth which is hell man.
If you have to define hell, do you define it as fire and brimstone, or is there a specific thing that comes to mind? Like, what’s the worst thing to you that would be hell if you had to stay there forever?
Meech: I think about eternal pain, somewhat like living on earth now and being aware, kind of the innocence that you have as a child, that you lose once you become an adult. You start to realize all the things about the world that are kind of like fucked up. I think that’s hell to me. The transition of being innocent and now being awake.
Juice: I got one, trusting in your forefathers, trusting in your government and being lied to, and thinking that everything that you’re doing is right, but its mostly wrong and corrupt.
Erick: To me, existence is hell. I mean, we live in the now so that’s why we titled the album that ’cause life is hell, but it’s about finding the cool spots out there. Once you’re born, you’re fighting to be alive so it’s like, you can’t sit here and act like everything is loving, roses and flowers and candy and gumdrops and shit, ’cause I don’t live that life. I’ve seen way more hell than I’ve seen heaven, I tell you that.
How do you guys take that break from the hell of existence? What do you do to escape?
Erick: I read a lot, I draw, I play video games. I create stuff all the time, I feel guilty when I don’t. That’s probably my own doing, but it’s just the way that I am. At this point I think I can’t help it, so once I stop making music — which is never — I find other ways to get my mind off of thinking about the pressures of how people are going to feel about it when it comes out. I hope it’s on what I’m doing and how it makes me feel, as opposed to like, Damn, what are people gonna think. That’s really the part that’s scary. It’s like, you could love something but somebody may never and you have to be alright with that.
Juice: Try to stay away from the internet, ’cause the more I go on the more I get pissed off. So I try stay away from that and you know, I play video games, watch wrestlin’ you know, eat greens, you know and just regular shit.
Meech: Making this music, and touring the world with my friends, and creating something that actually affects people. And not just about numbers and making money or being popular or you know, just being cool for the moment, just tryin’ to make somethin’ that that sticks with people. Like, test of time really, whether they know it now or not, that’s really how I escape. Flatbush Zombies is how I escape.
When you guys were coming up with the concept for Vacation In Hell, was that the initial concept or was that something that came out over the course of the creation of the album?
Erick: I think Meech had the name for a while, we didn’t solidify it as a name but I think just because of the music and what we were going through, we were kind of talkin’ about reality and government and death and sickness. You can’t stop making music just because those things are present. You gotta keep going and the name became more true, I guess as months and months went on, it’s like, Damn, this really is a vacation in hell. So I’m like, everything is lit, you know, we’re going to Coachella, the albums coming out, we know that things is good but, we gotta do a lot of shit to get there and yeah, the name just kind of like became like real.
Meech: Ah yeah, family problems, internal problems with yourself, you know, just regular shit that everyone goes through, that people don’t seem to think about sometimes when they think about artists that they listen to. I guess ’cause not a lot of artists are very expressive, or self-expressive so yeah and it’s like I said the title started to just make more and more sense every day. My aunt passed away the day we shot the cover, the most beautiful cover of all time. It was, like, poetic. It really just was meant to be the title, I don’t even know how it just meant to be the title. If it was a random computer was supposed to generate a random title, it probably would’ve picked this title. If a fucking baby was to get a bunch of blocks and put letters together randomly, it probably would’ve made this title. It was supposed to be. I don’t even remember if we had another one.
Erick: I don’t think so.
So you guys started doing the album, you have all this stuff going on, what songs really, do you guys feel on the album, reflect best what your situation was at that time?
Juice: Well, I think, here’s the thing, I think when we put our albums together, we really put our life and our stories inside of it. So everything on the album will reflect it, so it’s very important to listen to every single song. And as far as separate songs that really stand out, what are you thinking?
Erick: I think “U & I” and “Trapped” were the closest to capturing what it is I felt was going on with us. Especially after hearing “Headstone,” I think that when people heard “U & I,” it was like, Damn, they’re back for real. I don’t sample as much as I used to, so I think it was refreshing to hear people say it reminded them of old Kanye West or 9th Wonder, know what I’m saying? And I think that in hip-hop right now, that’s not a prevalent sound, so I wanted to make sure that was there for people and especially for Meech’s verse. There was a lot of instrumentation in it, it was a lot of choirs, it was guitar and I would say it was presented in a new way versus the stuff that we did before. I wanted to show that, you know, our music has multi-dimensions, it’s not just “Headstone,” it’s not just “U & I” but the whole album really has something for everybody.
Meech: Yeah, they pretty much locked it down.
Like you said, that sound really doesn’t seem prevalent on something like the Spotify Rap Caviar playlist right? What is it about that sound that you guys gravitated to and why do you think that your fans have gravitated to you as a result of it?
Meech: I think, I mean personally, most music is, especially the ones we consume all the time, is music that creates a fantasy, there’s no duality. It doesn’t tell you, you know I took 10 Xans and passed out, no one’s ever done that. It’s just you took 10 Xans, there’s no reality, there’s no tradeoff or..
Meech: Right, no consequences for what you’re doing. And for us I feel like we have to talk about the other side, whether it’s abrasive or not. It’s like for us to leave that part out we wouldn’t be Flatbush Zombies. I think the people listen to our music know that too, so even if they hear ‘Oh shit, like it’s about to get trippy’ it’s like not just tripping as in we leave you in a trip and we leave you in a trip, and you don’t know how to get home, or you don’t know how to feel.
We’re telling you our story, how to guide you through an experience, and all these guys are here, they just don’t, they just wanna make money and make hits. We wanna make money and we wanna make hits but we never compromise who we are or our message just to make some money. Maybe the people in those playlists just wanna make money and that’s why they sell a lifestyle that is just…
Erick: There are artists and there are entertainers, then there are entertaining artists and a lot of them are motherfucker entertainers. That’s really what it boils down to. They don’t have integrity, so people do a song of something they don’t stand for at all. Because they have no integrity because that song is gonna benefit them in whatever realm they think is beneficial. Whereas our realm of benefit is authenticity. Being yourself and creating the best art possible, not compromising who we are for some fucking number game or some pooping, pissing contest or some stupid shit.
Meech: I also say, I said it on Flex, I’ll say it again. Just ’cause you have streams doesn’t mean your song is hot. That just means a lot of people clicked it. It don’t mean that it’s hot, it don’t mean that it changes anybody’s life. You can’t sit here and gauge how important people’s music is based on numbers, it’s bullshit.
Erick: A barometer for influence.
Meech: It’s not real.
You guys went and shot a full-on short film, mini-movie for “Vacation.” How did that come together? What was the concept? Tell me about this ’cause I’m convinced that you guys are geniuses at this point.
Juice: First, it was “Building A Ladder.” We went on 3001 tour and we went to Europe and two of our friends were filming the whole time. They would sometimes put us in room by ourselves and start asking lots of questions and be like, ‘yo, like oh’ a lot, and I would never know what they’re saying, they wouldn’t know what I’m saying until we actually sat to edit the footage but they actually came out first and that was half hour long. We actually had a opening at the Roxy in Manhattan, where we had sold tickets and had our family and friends and fans come to actually watch it. And that was a completely different feeling than the “Vacation” movie.
Meech: Brainstorming ideas about social issues. People still don’t get it, which is weird. We talk about Cardi B being number one, and people just think that we’re salty and we’re like no, we’re talking in the perspective of you, you think that we’re salty, we’re not salty and all those guys just fuck with us generally. We cross paths with all those dudes and they generally fuck with us. So it wasn’t really like the crazy, ‘ooh let’s get together’ picking the brain type scheme, it just naturally happened.
Juice: Tryin’ to make people laugh, tryin’ make fun of ourselves.
Meech: And get people the best entertainment, like you just said, make people laugh. Making them smile and have moments like that, authentically. Weird, random moments you would never think of ever, like you never thought you would see those people on a video ever together.
I’ve been wondering how you guys kept straight faces through the whole thing.
Erick: It was rough, man.
Why do you think it is that hip-hop has this issue with making fun of itself?
Juice: ‘Cause they haven’t seen 8 Mile and they don’t know that to make fun of yourself is actually a power man. Like, I don’t know, it’s not that fucking serious.
Meech: I have a thing with it too though, it’s also ’cause it’s like, sometimes, I guess ’cause we’re getting made fun of below other people all the time. You know, they’re always making fun of our culture whether they notice it or not. When they’re doing beatboxing in their commercials to sell burgers and doing all this rapping mice and all these mascots with hippity hoppity shit. All that shit makes fun of hip-hop, so for me it’s like, that’s why I be taking it seriously sometimes. ‘Cause it’s the Dave Chappelle shit: Are they really getting the jokes or are they just laughing at me? So that’s why for me sometimes I was talking about a theme for a video today and I was like ‘God damn it, people ain’t gonna get this shit.’ They’re gonna find something, they’re gonna think its different, so I think that’s the hard part. But like he said, people should learn from shit like 8 Mile. Even fucking Biggie Smalls was a funny guy, he was like a Redman, those guys are funny.
Juice: He said he’s fat as fuck. It’s not uncommon.
He made “Player Hater,” he basically did a cover of the Delfonics.
Erick: Off key
Meech: Off key.
Erick: And Diddy was worse.
Meech: Way worse, Diddy was worse, I don’t know how Diddy got better at singing. That was some of the worst singing I’ve ever heard in my life.
Juice: He did get better.
Because of the accelerated pace of the internet cycle, I was honestly surprised at the response of the Coachella crowd, because they did know every single song, they were jumping on each other, at you guys’ stage.
Meech: I was surprised too.
What does that mean for you guys, to look out at the crowd and see that? Like they’re still rocking with you but they’re rocking harder than they are for even artists who just put something out.
Erick: I think it’s a testament to longevity man, I don’t want to jinx myself or us but it’s like, yo, when you make shit that people feel, it don’t matter how long you waited for it. I been waiting a long time to hear the Gorillaz album, I was fucking excited for D’Angelo, was happy to hear the Vanguard shit, you know what I’m saying? If it’s really good, I’m gonna wait. And I feel like that’s just the way it is, I don’t think you have to release shit all the time to be relevant.
We really hate checking in with people online. I really hate it ’cause I work all the time. I don’t want to sit here and show you that I’m working. It bothers me, ’cause I feel like I’m tryin’ to overcompensate or I’m tryin’ to ‘Oh, I’m in the studio tonight.’ Fuck that. I’m in the studio all the time, n—-. When you think of me, think of the studio, don’t think of the internet.
Erick: There’s no pictures of it.
Juice: We’re not really like —
Erick: We’re not that kind of people.
Juice: I’m surprised that the people we around or —
Meech: Situations we get into.
Erick: We’re not broadcasting it.
Meech: And maybe that’s why we are the way we are. Other people benefit off of that kind of shit. I like to live my life and have my experiences, man. Ain’t nothing better than memories in your head. Ain’t nothing better than that, fuck that picture.
I started off with the question about what is a bad vacation. What is a perfect vacation for you guys? What was the last really great vacation you went on?
Juice: I guess we were in Japan not so long ago, we were in Hawaii not so long ago.
Meech: My vacation is when I go on stage and perform.
Erick: And that’s the best one.
Meech: Yeah, even when we go to those places, it’s fun, but when we get to perform, it’s like, “Oh god, that’s why we came here.” Even when we’re going on vacation, literally if we can perform, we’ll perform, that’s why we came here.
Vacation In Hell is out now. Read our RX-review of the record here.