Erick Arc Elliott walks around Brooklyn Bowl on a frigid February night with a sense of pride and comfort. Perhaps because he’s about to perform a solo set there, or maybe because he’ll soon embark on nationwide tour with his Flatbush Zombie groupmates Meech and Juice. But he insists it’s merely because he just paid a bill for his Mom. Erick might always be the kid from Flatbush, but he’s also becoming known as the architect behind one of New York City’s most talked about new acts.

The Flatbush Zombies concoct a musical stew somewhere between the wisdom of sages and the recklessness of youth. The trio is still riding high off the success of their first release D.R.U.G.S. but they’ve got an upcoming project, Better Off Dead, due to drop this spring, as well as Erick’s solo release Been Here Before.

He may not be as overtly bizarre as his groupmates, but Erick is like the Wiz behind the curtain, pulling the strings. His creative credentials include producer, MC and director. With a very distinct sound of his own, one that melds strong jazz influences, reggae ad-libs, the cerebral-nature of Flying Lotus and traditional hip-hop grunginess, Erick Arc Elliott connects music and soul. As much of an intellectual as an MC, Elliott sat down with XXL before his solo set at Brooklyn Bowl and enlightened us with his personal philosophies. — Abrea Armstrong (@abreaknowsbest)

So what was the moment when the group was formally named Flatbush Zombies?

There was no Voltron shit. [It was like] “Nigga, we made all these tracks. We have 5 tracks now. Oh, this shit’s hot. We have ten tracks now. We have 30 tracks now. What the fuck? We might as well start doing this shit. We've been doing it this whole time so let's let it be what it is.” It was never like, I'm gonna be this role and you're gonna do this. It was never like that. I think the best shit is never formed on purpose. It's organic. It's real. What could be realer than niggas smoking and making music together? What's more organic than that?

There seem to be a handful of these collectives coming up in Brooklyn, like Pro Era and The Underachievers. What do you guys think you’re bringing to the Brooklyn music scene?

To speak on behalf of the group, we do that dark shit. We be on our other shit. We be on our third eye shit. That’s it. We on some other shit. I feel all of us have the ability to believe. All of us possess the qualities to be great. So I can’t look at what we specifically did, but we all contribute something different. We just do the dark Zombie shit. That’s us.

There’s a youthfulness to it. How does the group’s young age factor into your music?

These old niggas can't tell you that's cool or hot. They can't tell you that shit. You're too old to know what's hot. You don't even know what YouTube is. Some of these people, even my job when I worked, they would hire young people because they know what's hot. Even if you don't know what's hot and you're young, you're probably closer than the old nigga is. Old niggas have to tap into the younger ones. It's like, you have to get the wisdom from the old people, not to say that a young person doesn't possess that, but the older person has experienced more, spent more time on this Earth. That's it.

How does your solo music differ from the Zombies’?

I think collectively we create something that I’m influenced by, the shit that we have together as a group, and that’s just natural. Those are my brothers. Put it this way—when I’m by myself I have total creative control over whatever I wanna do. Obviously, I have a different [story]. Individually, the three of us, have a different story. My story just happens to be what it is and our story as a group is another story. My story comes from a lot of fucking pain and I feel like The Zombies’ music is more juxtaposed to that. It’s not really about pain, it’s about an ideology of life. That’s the difference. If I had to create any difference, the difference is that. My music is comprised of my pain and my own experiences, and the group’s is comprised of an ideology of what we believe.

When you're talking about ideology, what does that mean to you?

I think that certain people gravitate towards each other because of kinetic, metaphysical energy. I believe that so much of this has happened before and that's why it doesn't feel so unfamiliar to you. “Why do I feel like…?” You know what I mean? There's certain things, not déjà vu, nothing cliche like that, or, “That was a coincidence,” I don't mean like that. I mean when you meet somebody and you're like, "Damn, I think I met you before, son. There's something about you." Or you've known this person for three months but it feels like three years. Something like that just proves to me that we've been here before and that's why I call [the album] Been Here Before. It's always something that I've thought.

Why did you leave college?

I went to school. I went to college for three years. I went to City College in Harlem. I studied Media & Communications. Yeah, it is a beautiful campus. I was dealing with a lot. My mom, she was very sick, and my school didn’t really give a fuck about that. And that swayed me originally like, “Yo, fuck this. If you can’t understand that this is what I have to deal with then I can’t fuck with you.” You know what I’m saying? That’s just that. I wanted to join the music program but they told me I wasn’t prolific in writing and reading sheet music. So I just was like, “What the fuck?” And then that just spawned into me thinking that school is just a way to institutionalize you a little bit. And it is for some people because sometimes you need that guidance. But for me it was just like I was creative enough to learn from school as an experience as opposed to literature. Some literal grade that’s going to tell me what my shit is worth. So that’s why I left.

I know you all are working on a new project. When can people expect that?

The new music is coming springtime with The Zombies. Erick? Springtime, maybe summer. But our shit is coming soon. We wanna make sure we give you a product that we feel comfortable about and we love. It's our baby. It's very important to us. We wanna make sure it's right. Some people wanna rush that shit to make sure it gets out. We wanna make sure all the bolts and screws are tightened. I feel that you can always make something better but as long as you feel comfortable then you can put it out.

How is it sounding?

Sonically? I think we've all grown. I know I've grown and those niggas have definitely grown—songwriting, structure, beats. I think my beats are getting better. I feel more confident about having some more diversity.

Are you going to be rapping on it?

Of course! I don't wanna oversaturate my rapping because I want them to listen to my tape as well. Give them a little taste. But for me, definitely a lot more rapping than on the first one.

Are you afraid if you guys go major at some point you’ll have to compromise or lose some creative control?

I don't know. I think if you come with a good enough product, they won't try to change who you are. That's the way it is. You gotta understand business. I have nothing against majors. I think they get a bad wrap because some people signed the wrong deals. Not every deal that's major is bad. I think that's a common misconception. I'm not against the idea of it at all.

There seems to be more camaraderie among New York artists nowadays, with the Beast Coast movement playing a big part. You guys are touring with Joey Bada$$ and the Underachievers, and you’ve collaborated with the A$AP Mob. Why is that?

I think at this point, at least on this coast, people understand that we are technically better as a team, operating as one whole, representing a coast as a group. I don't think that's ever happened. I think it's a shifting of consciousness. Even when niggas are battle rapping now, after niggas destroy each other, niggas are dapping each other up like, “Yo, you good?” That's a beautiful thing. Back in the day, if you say some shit about me, after we finish battling, I’d wanna fight you. You know what I'm saying? Niggas can separate the art from the personal and they understand that certain things are done just for music. If I have a personal relationship with you, I wanna make music with you because I'm already familiar with who you are. I think the Beast Coast is literally a resurgence of ‘90s hip-hop. It's something we've seen before in another light, it's just a new form of it. We've seen it before. We've seen the LOX. We've seen Wu-Tang. We've seen Black Sheep. We've seen Native Tongues. Maybe this is a rebirth of that. It's starting to look like it to me.