Around four years ago, members of the Brooklyn hip-hop trio Flatbush Zombies and their friends gathered around a TV, drank liquid LSD and tripped while watching A Clockwork Orange. "We all just felt this supernatural existence," Antonio "Zombie Juice" Lewis told Rolling Stone before the first stop of their U.S. tour in March. "I left my body, man," his bandmate Meechy Darko adds. "It fucked my mind."
This blend of Kubrickian dystopia and drug-fueled mind expansion is at the heart of the group's recently released debut LP, 3001: A Laced Odyssey. For Juice and Meechy (third member Erick "Arc" Elliott only smokes weed), psychedelic drugs like acid and shrooms have been more than escapist fun; they're a portal into self-reflection that informs much of their lyrics.
"Sometimes I want to take a trip real deep in to my mind," Meechy says. "I like to travel back into my consciousness and face my demons. They say, 'Don’t look into a mirror when you trip.' That's my favorite thing to do." The group may be the only rappers to sell blotter paper alongside T-shirts at their merch table.
Sonically, 3001, which reached Number One on Billboard's Independent Albums chart upon its March release, can be as bleak and layered as its lyrics. "I was trying to create a dark orchestra feel for the whole album," Elliott says. "I wanted people to be like, 'Damn, this is like a movie trailer.' I wanted [the album] to take a journey that transcends into the darkness to ascension and gets happy again." Club music, this is not, as Elliott's beats, whether orchestral ("Ascension"), cosmic ("Bounce") or woozy ("This Is It") remain hypnotic throughout the album.
"They say, 'Don't look into a mirror when you trip.' That's my favorite thing to do." –Meechy Darko
It's no coincidence that all three members grew up in Brooklyn with more esoteric musical influences than just hip-hop, with the group citing everyone from Joe Tex and Yellowman to Stan Getz, the Grateful Dead and John Mayer as early obsessions. "John Mayer can always get me out of a bad mood," Juice says. "He is Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton to me."
But backstage before their sold-out tour kickoff in New Haven, Connecticut, conversations about music often detour into the metaphysical and spiritual. Amid talk of blunts and bad shroom trips, members will bring up ego death, the yogic theory of kundalini, third eyes and "Spirit Science," an esoteric animated YouTube series with titles like "Math of God," "Mars Retrograde" and "Cosmic Connections." Clockwork Indigo, the group's 2014 EP with New York rap group the Underachievers, derives part of its name from indigo children, the New Age belief that certain kids possess supernatural abilities.
"The spiritual aspect came from me understanding consciousness and where I fit in this world," Arc says, echoing the other members. "It helped me through being depressed. Once you know where you stand in the world, you actually feel like you're important."
Both Arc and Meechy have struggled with depression, with the latter admitting to past suicidal thoughts. (The 3001 song "Fly Away" finds Meechy talking to a friend who killed himself in real life.) Arc took up production, in part, when his mother went blind from renal failure and he could let her hear the fruits of his work.
"If I feel like shit, I'm going to talk about it because I'm not the only one who feels like shit in the world," says Meechy. "There's no downfall [in most rap songs]. No one's getting anyone pregnant. No one's getting any STDs. Nobody's going broke. There's no two sides."
If 3001 sounds like three longtime friends talking to each other, that's not far from the truth. Meechy and Arc lived on the same block and have known each other since the age of five. Juice joined the duo in the fourth grade, bonding with Meechy over Japanese anime and manga like Dragonball Z and Hunter X Hunter. All three members live in the same Flatbush apartment complex. The group officially formed in 2010 and released their first mixtape, D.R.U.G.S., two years later. (The title, past the obvious meaning, stands for Death and Reincarnation Under God's Supervision.)
"Major label music is safe music." –Arc
Numerous mixtapes and guest spots would follow, most notably on A$AP Mob's Lord$ Never Worry and RZA's The Man With the Iron Fists soundtrack. While taking their time to work on a debut LP, the group notched viral successes with songs like 2013's narcotic "Palm Trees," which has racked up more than 17 million YouTube views.
At the same time, Arc was working as a college marketing rep for Sony Music, creating press kits and coding databases for the label. It was the group's first taste of a major label, albeit indirectly, and inspired them to release music independently. "[Majors] don’t want to take a chance with something that may 'fail,'" Arc says. "Major label music is safe music sometimes."
Juice is blunter, offering that the group would sign to a major "if these guys are able to do our job, but five thousand, million times better."
Contrary to most current rappers who saturate the market, Flatbush Zombies are happy to have waited six years before releasing an LP. Will the second album arrive in 2022? "I can't call it. We go by the motion of the waves and follow the waves of the universe, man," Meechy says. "If it feels right, then we're gonna do it."