- Words Liam Cattermole
The Brooklyn native talks turning insecurity into superpowers, being a natural psychonaut and finding solace on his debut album, I’ve Never Been Here Before.
It’s promising – important even – that there’s someone making hip-hop music as challenging as Erick the Architect. Since pulling the strings of a psychedelic rap surge in his native New York, as one-third of Flatbush Zombies, he’s forayed effortlessly into a solo career that encompasses his neighbourhood’s rich heritage. From soul to funk and reggae to dance music, few stones are left unturned on the artist’s journey toward musical enlightenment.
On a bitterly cold London afternoon, he answers my call in high spirits from the comparably warm Los Angeles. We’re here to talk about his debut album, I’ve Never Been Here Before, which is set for release in February. Finding beauty in trepidation, across 16 tracks, Erick confronts his bottled emotions and encourages others to turn their insecurities into superpowers. Fans have waited patiently for this; it’s been 35 years in the making: a record that embodies his life from the minute he was born and submerged in the sounds of Flatbush’s streets.
In the continued spirit of experimentation, on the album, parliament-funkadelic maestro George Clinton, house revivalist Channel Tres and fellow NYC rap trailblazer Joey Bada$$ all play their part in Erick’s vision. Perhaps more poignant is the production contribution from long-time collaborator James Blake, who adds his rich layers of post-apocalyptic electronica to a handful of tracks, including ‘Parkour’: the dizzying trap single and first taste of what’s to come next month.
Beyond James Blake and this album, Erick’s always shown love to the UK. 2021’s Future Proof EP featured solely British artists, including former Notion cover stars Col3trane, Pip Millett and Loyle Carner. More recently, he rapped on Jungle’s hit ‘Candle Flame’, an uplifting track that stands in stark contrast to the darker and more atmospheric palette from his discography. Even as Flatbush Zombies, he was one of the first American artists to work with Skepta, inviting him to a studio where they made the bona fide underground classic, ‘RedEye To Paris’, which sits on tens of millions of views despite never having a commercial release. More on that later.
Like his namesake, Erick orchestrates the entire process of his vision, constructing beats from scratch, developing lyrics with nuance and masterminding an aesthetic that represents his truest form. No, he’s not the psychedelic-taking maverick everyone presumed during Flatbush Zombies’ horrorcore heyday. He’s never touched psyches in his life. We’re talking about an art-obsessive, constantly raising the bar of what a creative should be, inspiring others to do things on their terms while disbanding the elitist hierarchy between artist and audience. Erick the Architect is unapologetically himself and doesn’t plan to change anytime soon.
How do I find you today, Erick, in good spirits?
I’m excellent. I just had some coffee to start my day right. It’s 9 AM but I got up at 4 AM today. I felt inspired this morning. Starting work before everybody wakes up, there’s a special solace in that, I think.
What’s an average day like for you in LA at the moment, are you still creating even though you’ve got this debut album coming out next month?
A lot of people are telling me to celebrate but this is the first time that I’ve had this momentum. I don’t want to settle. The album is done, but I feel like I have so much more to say. I figured, that while I have the energy before I go for a vacation, let’s keep the energy up and be inspired while I am. I guess I don’t celebrate because I’m always thinking about what’s next. I need to make space to merit myself the hard work because I never want to feel like work is more important than my solace. This is hip-hop, man, it’s a sport. So, the moment that you stop, some other person is trying to take your spot; it’s hard for me to ever relax entirely.
Just last week, you released ‘Ezekiel’s Wheel’, a collaboration with funk legend George Clinton. Can you tell us a bit about how this one came about? What’s your impression of the North Carolina native now that you’ve met him?
When I first started the song with my mate Matt from London, the idea came from a bunch of stuff that he let me listen to and that one spoke to me in such a way, that I can’t describe. It was just like, “Wow, this is out of this world”. It feels transcendent. I was like, “Man, it would be crazy to have George Clinton on this”. It was only a fleeting thought. Then randomly, I was asked to be part of a photoshoot with him. I asked him straight up, “Yo, I have a song for you. I would love to have you on my album”, and he agreed there and then. Within the first 30 minutes of meeting him, he gave me his blessing.
The title of your debut album, I’ve Never Been Here Before, feels quite nomadic – there’s a sense of the unknown about it. What did you want its name to reflect and is it a feeling you’ve felt recently with something that’s happened in your life?
I’ve felt so many different emotions while making this project. When people ask how long it took to make, naturally I say five years. But truly, I’m 35, so it took 35 years to do my debut album: you have to give yourself grace for the time that you put into making something that you believe in. I know in my heart that I’m a good person. But if I’m perceived by anyone to be irrational, erratic, crazy or delusional, that’s their problem, not mine. I believe in myself at the utmost but I’ve never had this sense of reflection. I want people who’ve ever doubted themselves to join me. You can turn your insecurities into power: you don’t have to feel like you’re beneath anybody or anything; you can win and I don’t mean on some Disney cartoon shit but like some real-life shit.
Did you feel that, when you were producing for Flatbush Zombies, you were restricted in what you could make? Especially when you were pigeonholed under the psychedelic rap label so many put you in?
100%. I would tell people all the time, that I don’t do psychedelics; I’m just naturally psychedelic. Because I was producing the music, I would often be labelled a psychedelic producer. I used to make tracks like I’m making now in secret, under different monikers and pseudonyms.
I wanted people to see me as they see me now, which is like, ‘Yo, he just does whatever he wants to do and Flatbush Zombies is just one of the things that he does.’ I think that any group, whether it’s Wu-Tang, A Tribe Called Quest, Mob Deep or Outkast, they’re amazing groups that have individual prowess.
You address themes like fearlessness, Black resilience, beauty in darkness and unity on the record. What would you say is the overarching feeling or mantra that you learnt not only about yourself but the wider world when tying these subjects together?
Initially, when I started this, I was with a girl. Our relationship was quite long but I ended it. I think having a partner allows you to see yourself as they see you. Relationships are great, even if they don’t last forever. I’m a lover, man; I always have a girl, I always have somebody who supports me. Through the journey of not being with that person, I think there’s music in the album that describes how I was feeling directly. I think through that you find power in being empathetic and vulnerable. There’s nothing wrong with saying that something hurts you because talking about it shows how strong you are. It’s the stuff that we’re hiding that we need to fear because we’re not comfortable talking about it anymore.
The first single off the record was ‘Parkour’, which features production from James Blake, who you count as a close friend. What do you think he and your friendship brings out in you musically?
I’d been a fan of his music for so long that I didn’t know how much he’d impact my life as a friend. I’m more grateful for that than the music because that’s something that will live beyond the ethos of just the music. The music is tangible but this is a friendship that will last when the music is gone, when we’re gone from this earth. We will still be friends somewhere in the universe. I really believe the connections you make with people are everlasting. ‘Parkour’ in particular, was a song that we made so fast. There’s a workflow and chemistry there that I don’t have with any other person. It’s super unique and I trust this man to always push the vision.
Production credits also come from Dom Maker, who’s one-half of Mount Kimbie. You’re clearly clued up on the UK’s electronic scene. Can you remember your early interactions with that music, and why you thought these producers would fit the vibe of your debut?
Dom has always been super supportive. He’s like a scientist with this shit. When you need an idea, you tap Dom and he always has the perfect idea. His ear, and taste, are something that I value. But how that applies to the music is insurmountable. I see why James always wants him around in the studio. Brian Eno, Jamie XX, M.I.A, obviously James. I was introduced to rock music like The Beatles by my mum. They’re probably most Americans’ idea of what a band should be. As a kid, The Beatles were like superheroes. Most of my favourite artists are British, beyond electronic music: Elton John, Amy Winehouse and Damon Albarn; what he did and is doing with Gorillaz, is so influential to me. I always thought the cartoon element was cool because it felt selfless in that we didn’t even know what these people look like, but you’re still invested in the story.
One of your biggest songs of recent times is ‘Candle Flame’ with Jungle – an infectious house jam made with summer days in mind. Did you know that you had a hit in your hands when you made it?
I heard the album early and I was just like, ‘Holy shit they have a crazy album coming.’ ‘Candle Flame’ was the record that I picked to collaborate on. I don’t know if that meant I had the foresight that it would be a hit but It’s such a fun record. I’ve never been part of a song that makes people so happy, there’s usually more darkness or edge to me. I think ‘Candle Flame’ is one of those songs you’re gonna hear forever, God willing.
I have to talk with you about ‘RedEye to Paris’, your collaboration as Flatbush Zombies with Skepta. Recorded in the city of its title, can you remember how it came about? Describe that studio session to me from your point of view…
I DJ’d last year in Manchester at the Jazz Café and they were begging me to play it. That shit turned the place upside down. This is a song that’s not on streaming platforms. That’s how I know it’s a low-key underground classic. I was a fan of Skepta before we made the record, I remember hearing Blacklisted and thinking that he was going to cross over [to America]. We set up a studio session in Paris, which is always weird when you don’t know someone. You never really know what version of you is going to show up that day. Skepta came in and he was on his roadman shit; I think he was with Jammer. I played the beat and he fucked with it; he started writing there and then. By the time he said, “I get love from the north from the west, love from the south and the east. It’s a zombie attack you bitches we don’t care about the police,” I knew we were gonna have a song that day. It really captured the energy that was going on in there. Somebody stole the hard drive with that song on while we were on tour. So, I had to remake the beat; people from everywhere have told me that’s their shit.
Last year, you celebrated 10 years of BetterOffDEAD, the second mixtape to be released by Flatbush Zombies. Why do you think that record still has such a profound impact on people today?
I think it’s so raw and honest, which is hard to come by when we live in such a conformed sense of creation. We said a lot of things on there that I thought at the time people would be mad at us for. I was really surprised at the reception initially, but once we started going on tour, I knew that this would be something that we would eat off of, and people would resonate with for a long time. It’s a timeless project and the tour that we just did, reaffirmed that for me.
And what’s next for Erick The Architect? Do you have any final words you’d like to say to your fans before this record comes out next month?
A lot of people have been waiting for this. I know there will be a lot of Flatbush Zombies fans who will support this project and I love you guys, and I know there will be a lot of Erick fans supporting this project, and I love you guys. I also love the people who are just discovering me. It’s a blessing to be doing something for this long in this industry and get new fans. The feeling of people discovering you is humbling and I’m ready to prove that I’m the best out there right now. I want to put this project in the hands of people who desire something new and refreshing.