[14 June 2011]
Individually, Zumbi and Amp Live (together known in hip-hop as Zion I, with the “I” pronounced like “eye”) create great music. It’s easy, and enjoyable, to dig into their discography, because all of their albums are solid, but my favorite Zion I releases are Mind Over Matter (2000), The Takeover (2009), and Atomic Clock (2010).
Zumbi is the emcee, a thoughtful but slightly underrated wordsmith with a smooth delivery. His voice falls somewhere near Q-Tip’s and Lil Wayne’s, and he uses language in thought-provoking and subtly poetic ways. His lean, economical diction, along with his keen attention to imagery and specifically metaphor, enable him to build rhyming soliloquies that both illuminate his subjects and make you want to nod your head, but the beauty of it is that he makes it sound simple. A dude like Pharoahe Monch is so dope, you can hear the complexities in every bar. With Zumbi, he slides it all by you in effortless fashion. In his work, he seems to take care with the actual sound of the words in relation to each other, so that he not only says what he means, but he says it in a way that is aesthetically pleasing—musical and rhythmical as well as lyrical. Accomplishing all of this without becoming overly preachy, or too limited by his discipline, must be daunting.
Amp Live, on the other hand, is one of the most skilled DJs and producers working today. He is most certainly one of the most sonically interesting. Never settling for a musical formula, Amp Live stretches himself and his audience with rigorous experimentation to match his ambitions. His signature, then, is that he has no signature. He is comfortable as a minimalist, and in productions that sound as full and large as a marching band. On the flip side, he can take a track to the max, and fill it with all sorts of incredible details. He’s also capable of studies in genre that range from disco to pop.
Zion I’s 2011 release, Heroes in the Healing of the Nation, brings them together with the Grouch, an emcee and producer of Living Legends fame. In 2006, Zion I and the Grouch released Heroes in the City of Dope, a hip-hop manual of tight beats and limber rhymes from this Oakland, California, ensemble. With Zumbi and the Grouch trading verses over Amp Live’s compositions—along with other production work from the Grouch, Eligh, and Headnodic—the synergy was magnetic.
With Heroes in the Healing of a Nation, Zion I and the Grouch seek to recapture the best parts of their previous release while upping the ante with new elements. Even the album title hints at this, with its use of the word “nation” compared to the former album’s “city”. The scope is bigger and more expansive. The topics have a bit more range.
The follow-up is, in some respects, a progression, particularly with regard to Amp Live’s musical variety. Yet, although I enjoy the consistency to be found here, I think the highs on City of Dope were higher than they are on Healing. I attribute this to the “healing” motif that unifies this collection of 13 tracks. Thematic cohesion helps to give the album its consistency. That consistency, in turn, yields a more modest lyrical reward than a riskier venture. But, again, the musical vibe and song arrangements are quite adventurous.
At the same time, the message of healing is appropriately rendered—and timely too. On the intro “Invitation”, Brother Ali offers a pensive sermon that calls on applicants to become heroes amid difficult and trying times. “We are losing wars, losing children, losing jobs”, he laments. “Losing our minds, souls, and our homes”. The explicit statement is that true empowerment emanates from the inner core of each individual (“Our heroes are us”). At the same time, the implication from the album as a whole is that we can begin to unearth our potential when we tap into the right musical frequencies. Presumably, the album itself is an example. Without question, I’d rather have Brother Ali as a guest emcee, a role he played to great effect in “Caged Bird, Pt. One”, from Zion I’s The Takeover. Still, the intro here provides the album’s binding mood and theme.
As the intro spills into the first track, “Leader”, you’ll find this album frequently employing the continuous program technique. Vocal samples, skits, and instrumental asides adorn the ends of certain songs, moving the track list forward in seamless fashion. Perhaps this approach underscores the notion that “healing” is an ongoing process—one that works best when guided by a steady hand, without interruptions.
“Leader” is founded on the affirmation, “I’m a leader / I don’t wanna be a follower”. The listener, then, is invited to pledge his or her own abilities to the goal of reaching a more enlightened plane. The track is embellished with childlike voices intended to recreate a gathering of youngsters participating in an uplifting moment. Similar vocals appeared in the Nas song “I Can” and Nas’s 2010 song with Damian Marley, “My Generation” (featuring Lil Wayne and Joss Stone). Eminem’s “I’m Back” used it as well, with the children chanting, “Slim Shady!” during the hook. Perhaps the idea is to reach the kids, or at least reach the inner child, in order to affirm positive change and progress, although with Eminem it’s probably more along the lines of proclaiming—and, implicitly, warning us about—the immense reach of Eminem’s influence. In this light, Zion I’s “Leader” can be distinguished from another Nas & Damian Marley tune, “Leaders”. There, the positive inspiration for change resided in capable third parties, with the caveat that most of these leaders of the past had been mistreated or misunderstood. Here, Zion I and the Grouch stress the need for self-motivation and self-determination. In large part, the concept is healing through self-critique and, from there, self-actualization.
The message espoused in “Leader” is reaffirmed in “Victorious People”, featuring a passionate Freeway over an undulating backdrop; “Journey to Forever”, which mixes spoken word, rap, and jazz into a heady concoction of several movements; and “Like a G”, wiring a snake charming groove behind lyrics that speak to autonomy and independence (“Living inside me is a mighty spirit”). The experimental assembly of “Journey to Forever” pays dividends, and justly earns its seven-plus minute running time.
While “Journey to Forever” goes for lush and venturesome arrangements, songs like “Drop It on the 1” and “Rock It Man” lean toward minimalism. “Drop It on the 1” operates over tin beats at a hyphy-style tempo. It’s a bit like Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot”, but with a repetitive hook that sounds like a skipping CD rather than a catchy chorus. “Rock It Man” takes the “heroes” from the “city of dope” and propels them to levels larger than “nation” status, into space territory. As the album raises its conceptual aim beyond the stratosphere, it also positions individuals as the basic building blocks of nations, and then locates those nations among others from a global perspective. The album’s “nation” reference is not a play on D.W. Griffith’s motion picture The Birth of a Nation, as Public Enemy’s Rebirth of a Nation (2006) might have been. And Public Enemy’s Rebirth could also be viewed as a revival of the group’s own seminal work It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988). Rather, it’s the healing process that takes precedent, a soothing balm to be enjoyed after hardship.
Besides straightforward self-determination, Zion I & the Grouch explore three other topics that expound upon the album’s overall theme. First, “Be a Father to Your Child” communicates the exact message of its title. Featuring multi-instrumentalist Roy Ayers, the song revisits the parental responsibility message in 1991’s Edo G. & Da Bulldogs song of the same name. Lines like “Realize your significance, the baby needs love” are unmistakably forward and direct, as it’s difficult to advance much of a counterargument when it comes to a father’s responsibility to his children. The more subtle aspect here is how the song speaks to the album’s advocacy of personal responsibility as the foundation for growth and eventual success. Loving relationships—between significant others as well as children—can be a form of healing, which is the point of the soul-tinged “Test of Time”. Internal and interpersonal change may have the deepest impact of all. Back in the introduction, Brother Ali proclaimed, “The salvation our souls have cried out for is here / It stares us down quietly when we look in the mirror”.
Likewise, “I Used to Be a Vegan” brings a comical perspective to organic living, but does so in a way that extends self-critique to the area of nutrition and health. That the protagonists of the song are former vegans (“I used to be vegan but I missed mozzarella”) avoids the self-righteous or preachy tone that might have otherwise existed. Monie Love’s “Swiney Swiney” (an anti-pork song) and dead prez’s “Be Healthy” (advocating proper nutrition in general) are well-written and probably contain good advice, but they are also a bit commanding.
Finally, there’s the issue of corporate greed, covered in “Frankenstein”, arguing that impersonal multinational conglomerates are out of control, and “Plead the Fifth”, suggesting that executives of big business concerns unjustly hide behind legalities to keep information from the public. “Plead the Fifth” is a highlight, a posse track animated by skilled guest rappers Fashawn and Casual, while Codany Holiday hits the mark on the hooks. What I dig most is that while the song rails against pharmaceutical companies for disseminating medicine designed to “mask the symptoms” and “hide the truth”, it also (1) incorporates the judicial system as a form of “business”, which is intriguing, and (2) pushes us to search ourselves for healing solutions when we “switch pleas to guilty and then change”. The advice is more “heal thyself to heal the world” than “blame the world”, and that prescription is a winner.