Keeping an ‘I’ on the Prize: An Interview with Zumbi of Zion I

Zion I lyricist Zumbi offers PopMatters an overview of his body of work and discusses what he brings to hip-hop as a creative individual.

One of the most distinctive voices in hip-hop of these last 20 years, Zumbi, one half of lauded West Coast duo Zion I, has been flipping verse and rhyme with a skill that employs all the nuances of his unusual voice. Zumbi doesn’t expel breath with the baritone registers of his many contemporaries. His tremolo timbre forges its own autonomy in the grinding rhythms of his enterprising hip-hop. With Amp Live, the other half of Zion I, producing a wide range of styles and beats, the duo has managed to turn out some of the most inventive and forward-thinking music that has been a staple in underground clubs and the more adventurous radios stations across the US.

Zion I hit paydirt right out of the gates with their debut,
Mind Over Matter, in 2000. An album of heavy head-nodding grooves, skewed melodies and def(t) rhymes cutting a nimble sequence, it quickly became an underground favourite with both hip-hop heads and breakbeat junkies, thanks to its diverse influences and styles. Mind Over Matter would soon enjoy the indie cult status held by fellow West Coast natives like Aceyalone (who released two staggering classics in All Balls Don’t Bounce and A Book of Human Language in the ’90s) and Saafir.

Taking a cue from the success of their debut, Zion I widened the perimeters of their hip-hop to include more of the stylistic influences of electronica for their next outing,
Deep Water Slang V2.0 (2003). With even trickier rhythms than the album’s predecessor, the duo’s sophomore effort drew more texture into the folds of the hip-hop, taking in reggae, rock, R&B and breakbeat, tweaking those elements into the further extremes of radical experiment. Die-hard hip-hop fans may have been left scratching their heads, but Zion I’s anything-goes approach helped to loosen the sometimes suffocating purist constraints that can bleed a genre dry of its energy.

True & Livin’ raised high the hip-hop quotient to the liking of purists, scoring high with critics and fans alike. The album featured harder beats that also managed a supple consistency, thanks to Amp Live’s jazz-fingered production. The arrangements on the album were judicious and spare, yet they opened up the atmospheres to expanses that were luxuriant and comfortable. An ideal breadth of space for Zumbi’s vocal idiosyncrasies, True & Livin’ offered the rapper a sharper and agile practice of lyrical flow; his rhymes took to the sinuous grooves like oil paint on canvas. The inspired touches of some live instrumentation (a varied assortment: saxophone, trumpet, trombone, acoustic guitar, upright bass, piano, live drums and even the sitar) gave the duo a serious push in a new direction which would inform the rest of their works and further set them apart from their musical colleagues.

Zion I continued their prolific streak, releasing both
Break a Dawn and Heroes in the City of Dope (a collaborative effort with rapper The Grouch) in 2006. Break a Dawn traded on the strut of ’70s funk, adding some summery spring to the cool, turntablist swings. The duo’s joint work with The Grouch offered a more straightforward excursion into hip-hop, keeping the grooves a little less tricky this time than their characteristically experimental undertakings.

The Takeover (2009) returned the duo to their trials of experiment, this time exploring the ambits of Afrofuturism. Brimming with sci-fi soundbites, gospel-soaked soul and the wall-to-wall splendours of classical strings, the album raised the plateau for the following album which would have Zion I take their earthly musings into the cosmos. On the H.G. Wells-meets-hip-hop of 2010’s Atomic Clock, Zumbi and Amp Live upped the electronic ante and divined a new language of urban lyricism and sound in the outer reaches of galactic space. This time using the sounds of Motown as a reference point, Zion I infused Atomic Clock with the squalls of dirty blues swirling in the hemispheres of electronica. Amidst the drum storms, echoing clamours and heavy electro-funk, the duo managed to conceive a work that sounded like a smoky nightclub on Mars.

Yet another collaboration with the Grouch materialized in 2011 (Heroes in the Healing of the Nation) and in 2012, Shadowboxing explored a sort of electronic minimalism, referencing such artists like Egyptian Lover. The album was stripped down to mainly just beats and vocals, revealing the bare essentials of the duo’s aestheticism. 2016’s The Labyrinth following the same route as its predecessor, adding a few more layers in its beat-structures to give the album some dubstep heft.

Zion I, in the interim of recording studio albums, have released a healthy number of mixtapes. Among them was their first installment of
Street Legends, released back in 2007. A follow-up, Street Legends 2, has been released a decade later and it compresses the best of Zion I’s talents into a solid package, designed as much for the dancefloor as it is for personal headphone listening. As prime movers and shakers in the West Coast scene, Zion I has made good with just about everyone and their grandmothers and their influence has reached admirable measures in the hip-hop community. Featuring collaborations with fellow artists Mac Dre, The Jacka and Too $hort, Zion I propounds the vitals of hip-hop culture on their latest mixtape. Lyricist Zumbi offers PopMatters an overview of his body of work and discusses what he brings to hip-hop as a creative individual.

Can you give a little bit of an overview about your newest work Street Legends 2? How would you describe the nature of the material on this particular collection, ten years on since the first volume?

Street Legends 2 came about when I reconnected with the homie Network from Go Der magazine who came up with the original idea for the first Street Legends mixtape. It was the type of thing where we wanted to remind folks of where this music started, and that it’s still growing and evolving. I wanted to remind people of the classic collabs with icons like Mac Dre, the Jacka, and Too $hort in terms of Bay Area history. But to also push forward into current works, including unreleased and exclusive tracks created solely for the sake of the mixtape. I also want to hail up Rick Lee for putting it all together with flair and funk.

In everything you do, you work with a fairly stylistically diverse palette, whether it’s because of your working relationship with Amp Live or your own musical preferences. Deep Water Slang V2.0 had breakbeat and electronica elements, “True & Livin'” had a harder hip-hop vibe and live jazz and Atomic Clock was electro-hip-hop but also had reggae influences on it. With all the new kinds of musical styles being developed yearly, what are some new kinds of music you are keen on exploring at the moment?

True indeed. I’ve always viewed music as a choose-your-own-adventure type of thing. If the next book is the same as the last, it gets old quick, so I like to change the landscape and keep exploring the outer edges of where my creativity chooses to drift. Currently, my vibe is kind of all over the place. I’m digging on what sounds to me like music from a ghetto in the rainforest, as well as classic boom-bap grit, soulful bangers, and joints that are designed to get the dancefloor poppin’. I’m excited about what I’m creating right now and can’t wait for y’all to experience the vibes.

You mentioned that you initially had some reservations about rapping because you felt insecure about the tonality of your speaking voice, that it was unlike the other rappers’ you were listening to. In fact, your voice has a rather malleable quality; it adapts easily to just about any style (as evidenced by the many different genres you’ve explored within your hip-hop). How do you feel about your voice now?

Right on, man. Yeah, I was shy and introverted as a kid. To hear my voice recorded and played back used to make me shudder and cringe. But recording became my therapy and it was liberating to hear myself played back over the monitors and actually enjoy my tone of voice. I am honestly always looking for that feeling of inner acceptance when I record. Just because I performed it doesn’t necessarily make it good. I want to feel it. If I feel it, I know that others will also resonate with it at some level, because I too am a fan of music. With that said, I am continuing to work on and explore my voice. It is a lifelong practice for me, much like martial arts training or yoga. You don’t stop working. The process is the end goal.

You are also an MC who enjoys musical extremes; you’ve rhymed over airy, subtle, minimalist grooves as well as some of the hardest and heaviest beats in hip-hop. Street Legends 2 features both these extremes (the heavier end like “Blak Russian”, “Lay Up”, “Wake Up” and “Sriracha” and the minimalist end like “Saving Souls”, “Dank” and “Medicine”). What qualities in hip-hop productions grab your attention especially when you are looking for, or trying to develop, the perfect beat to rhyme over?

I just rhyme to what moves me in the moment. I am a very emotional and sensitive being. I want to feel things more than think about them when making music. If the music gives me a feeling, then my mind starts to throw words at me that accent the vibe. I enjoy clarity and a degree of minimalism these days in my production. I don’t want to try to cut through a bunch of noise. I want there to be enough space that I can complement the tune without having to overexert and try too hard. I enjoy soulful, emotive joints and also heavily percussive ones that make me want to get up and dance my ass off!

Following Street Legends 2, what other projects do you have on the horizon?

The next project to drop is
The Tonite Show with DJ Fresh. My boy goes hard on the production and that drops somewhere between late February and March. After that, I am currently working on the next Zion I LP Ritual Mystik. I am in the lab as we speak vibing on it and there is some good shit on this project. I feel like I’m returning to my true self after all these years. I’m just doing what I feel. There are no boundaries. I have all kinds of different production and voices on it. It’s going to be a sonic journey to the inner realms for fans of the music… I’m juiced!

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