Flatbush Zombies Put The Beast In Beast Coast At SXSW

When Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era, the Flatbush Zombies, the Underachievers, Phony Ppl, and Action Bronson began the “Beast Coast” movement back around 2011, I initially thought: “Damn, how many times do these cats have to bring New York back?”

The origin and mecca of hip-hop boasts a lineage of Chuck D, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, Nas, KRS-One, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte — the list goes on. The West technically wrestled the spotlight away in the ’90s as Death Row and Aftermath ruled the radio, and the South rose inimitably with the Dungeon Family, Cash Money, and No Limit. Each region had their turn with the genre, but NYC seemed to be left out in the cold, figuratively and literally. The East’s resurgence in the late ’90s and early 2000s was pretty dope, though, with Roc-A-Fella and the Ruff Ryders holding things down. But once the South took over with viral dance crazes and radio-tailored hits, NYC began to feel like an old relic grasping desperately to the traditions of penmanship and storytelling that they originated. Goofy dudes like Papoose, Maino, and a diminished Consequence were left with the task of keeping New York relevant in the mainstream. They were buckling under the weight of giants instead of standing on their shoulders.

The Beast Coast movement is not just some collective of revivalists holding onto time-honored traditions as I thought they would be. Pro Era and Action Bronson fit that bill, but their nuances make them feel updated. Phony Ppl are an excellent R&B jam band with hip-hop more as an afterthought. The Underachievers are an indigo duo that lean bass-heavy trap and shimmering enlightenment. That leaves the Flatbush Zombies. The trio embody most what New York City hip-hop is about and push those principles forward with the best chance of breaking through to the mainstream if they choose to do so. Juice, Meech, and Erick Arc Elliot all spit crazy bars with multis, wordplay, varying cadences and speeds, and take their pen skills very seriously. But they also indulge hedonistically in drugs, partying, and sex like ravers, and Elliot’s production can take on any number of rap’s sub-genres from trap to boom bap. They aren’t just chameleons camouflaging with what’s popular at the moment; they dexterously spit every aspect of their lives, from grimy Flatbush gutter rhymes to the rage life, and it all feels authentic.

CREDIT: Roger Kisby/Getty Images

All of those elements were present in their show at the Fader Fort yesterday, and it was insanely lit. They left the ground for every single song. They could barely contain their energy during the opening Bone Thugs-N-Harmony tribute “Glorious Thugs.” Their shirts came off halfway through the second song, “Bounce,” the lead single off of last week’s dope 3001:A Laced Odyssey. They were fully thrashing through the calm of “Palm Trees,” and were moshing in the crowd by their fourth song. It was incredible, but not necessarily surprising because Meech warned that if a mosh was initiated and it wasn’t to his satisfaction he was going to mosh himself and fuck some people up. Well, he and Juice did just that. The energy was palpitating so poignantly that I didn’t even realize an entire 12 oz. whiskey and ginger beer had been dumped on my sleeve until they were back on stage — and getting drenched was totally worth it. I feel like they could have performed a song I didn’t even like and they still would have murdered it.

There was no way you could be in the crowd at that show and not be hyped. That said, the Zombies had a crowd that met them in outerspace. They knew every word to the songs on their older mixtapes and even knew the lyrics to songs that just came out six days ago on 3001, even as the Zombies spit them a cappella. They had their hands up long enough seemingly to have blood rush to their shoulders. They jumped up and down until a little Pigpen dust cloud kicked up from the dirt. And oh did they mosh. Maybe not to Meech’s standards, but they cleared a Fight Club circle and crashed like pinballs into each other and the people forming the circumference. The energy only slightly let up when the trio reconvened on stage to rifle through a couple more tracks. When they left the stage, the lifeforce they left behind slowly dissipated like an arthritic fist into outstretched fingers. I suddenly realized how hungry and thirsty I was because they relinquished control of my senses and sentience.

That performance doesn’t have me thinking New York is going to come careening into the forefront anytime soon, but it made me realize that the Beast Coast movement has a good chance at longevity. They are already five years deep. Joey Bada$$’ B4DA$$ landed and #1 debut on the rap charts. Bronson’s Mr. Wonderful debuted at #7 on the charts. Phony Ppl have had their biggest year ever, playing dozens of shows regularly, and opening for the Grammy-nominated Hiatus Kaiyote for their sold out tour last year. The Underachievers dropped two stellar albums on Brainfeeder that were criminally slept on.

The Zombies’ new album probably won’t chart very highly, but it’s fantastic. These guys simply make good music and perform the shit out of it. I don’t see how that could ever be a bad thing or go out of style. Given their ability to make popular soundscapes all their own, and an energy I haven’t seen matched by any artist at SXSW so far, an album or two down the road I could easily see them doing the exact same thing they did today for a larger audience at a later hour with their name in larger font on the bill.

Long live the Beast Coast movement.

CREDIT: Roger Kisby/Getty Images