There are two ways to go when you’re a rapper who gets blog-famous, discovered on YouTube and written about on the strength of a solid mixtape. You can be like Drake, Kid Cudi, Wale and all the other rappers who signed to a major label and then kicked off a career of releasing disappointing albums that, restricted by worrying about your sample-clearance budget and demographics, lack the unrestricted, freewheeling joy of the music that made you famous.
The upshot is you might get to be one of the few people in the music business actually making crazy money, but you’ll have to compromise. You might get to make some decent music on half of your album regardless – Nicki Minaj, never forget – but you’ll have to sit it alongside tunes that aren’t so great, that sound a little more aggressively market-tested.
Then there’s option two, which is basically “be Odd Future”. The LA crew were releasing full albums as well as mixtapes online before anybody over the age of 21 had a clue who they were – well-realised and complete experiences rather than just bundles of gags and good ideas. They’ve maintained that output even after money and fame, or at least infamy, came calling. The other thing they did was have a crew. Odd Future brought back the idea of having a gang of friends on stage with you rather than just an entourage of hangers-on. Even if some of them stumble, the others pick up the slack. Like the Wu-Tang Clan they branch out, but strengthen the core by doing so. There are plenty of people loving Frank Ocean who can’t stand Tyler, the Creator, and vice versa.
Odd Future made it in LA, but New York is where it’s at now. A collective of collectives under the flag of ‘Beast Coast’: groups like A$AP Mob, The Underachievers, World’s Fair, The Progressive Era and Flatbush Zombies. While A$AP Mob’s breakout star A$AP Rocky signed a three-million dollar record deal and then pumped out a predictably compromised album, the Flatbush Zombies – apparently next on the list to break through, with their first world tour lined up in preparation – are determined to go the other way.
“What is it about signing to a label?” says Erick Arc Elliott, the trio’s producer and least-stoned member. His compatriots Meech Darko and Juice are in the background, laughing and heckling, but this is one question serious enough for them to let him be while he answers. “As of now I feel like we’re making our own music, we’re doing it our way. I mean how can someone else not see that?”
The other thing they take seriously is making videos. A lot of their fans discovered them via their clip for ‘Thug Waffle’, which features the three sitting around a table piled high with weed and waffles, gold on their teeth and smoke filling the room. According to Meech, they wanted to make a video that showed them “in their comfort zone and not the artist being an actor. Not saying there’s anything wrong with acting, like scripts and shit, but there’s something wrong when you’re portraying someone else as an artist. Like, our fans like videos that show the artists, that doesn’t feel like some industry-made shit.”
Erick is quick to dismiss comparisons between the sounds and attitudes of the various groups who have been called Beast Coast. “I think we all have respect for hip hop, but that’s about it,” he says of what they’ve got in common. “Everyone coming out of New York right now who’re actually making noise are pretty much themselves, are pretty original I would like to say. I don’t want to say it’s a new second coming of anything.”
The Flatbush Zombies recently collaborated with fellow New Yorkers The Underachievers on a song called ‘No Religion’ that suggests a few similarities, however. They’re both equally fierce in spite of being equally high, and they’re both equally ambitious, audaciously taking the rest of hip hop to task for living in the past: “Stop tryna be Tupac / try and be better.” That’s youth for you. Something else that gives away their Generation Y membership is the constant casual referencing of technology in their metaphors, with The Underachievers boasting that their weed is so potent it’ll “put you in sleep mode” while Juice from the Zombies boasts that he plans to “give her the hard drive.”
The final thing they have in common is a shared mythology made up of references to third eyes, chakras and indigo children, the kind of New Age philosophy that comes from an interest in psychedelic substances and watching documentaries about “spirit science”. Like the Wu-Tang Clan’s five-percenter ideology it’s slightly below the surface but once you go looking for it you realise it’s all over their work like a thumbprint.
Unsurprisingly, the Zombies are big fans of the Wu. “I don’t want to give ’em sole credit ‘cause I don’t give anybody credit for shit,” says Meech, “but I would say a big percentage of it is those guys, so that is what I say. I definitely loved listening to Wu-Tang when I was a child.”
Juice, who has been laughing and talking about Law & Order in the background this whole time, finally steps forward to have his say after that. “Nah, I think no one in the world sound like us, son,” he says. “Nobody sound like us.”
BY JODY MACGREGOR
Flatbush Zombies play Oxford Art Factory Wednesday May 29.