Marriage, jobs, cars— ten years can be a stretch for a lot of things in our world, but the hip-hop created by Zion I is still fresh after a decade, the signs of wear and tear only showing on the albums themselves. Producer AmpLive and emcee Zumbi make up the Bay Area duo—playing Thurs/1 at the Rickshaw Stop and Fri/2 at the Independent— who have just returned from a 35-city tour around the country. Zumbi says they’re officially “ready to vibe with the hometown crowd.”
“The tour was great, but I need to get my life and routine back together,” Zumbi said over the phone while prepping for his regular show on Oakland’s Youth Radio. Sharing the bill with Cali-raggae stars Rebelution and Soja, the laid-back hippy crowd proved to be quite different than the fans Zion I usually sees when they share the stage with other hip-hop artists.
“A lot less ego and a lot more energy,” he said, noting that the tour consistently had an average of one to three thousand people in the audience. “Usually on a tour, it fluctuates. Some nights are big and others just have 50 people. The consistency brought out a lot of energy. Every night was so exciting— never a drag.”
His favorite stop on the tour was definitely New Orleans. The massive amounts of reconstruction throughout the city reminded him a lot of where he calls home— West Oakland.
“The old Victorian houses, next to the new condos and all the construction. New Orleans was like my neighborhood three times over. It was nuts.”
Back on his home turf, Zion I is the same cat you met back in the late ‘90s: prominently loaded with thick, luscious beats from AmpLive’s unpredictable bag of tricks and smooth, conscious lyrics from the mouth of Zumbi. Funk, soul, D&B, and space vibes remain as they have throughout Zion I’s career, but their sixth and most recent release, The Takeover (Gold Dust Media, 2009), really hits home by honing in on these qualities. Sharp hooks, anchored melodies and beats that bump make this album congruent with Kanye-style hits.
“We switched up our process and did lots of revisions on this album. We’d change up one song like two, three or four times. I’d write three or four raps for each beat,” he said, which is quite a contrast to the previously process: Amp would make the beat, Zumbi would write the rhyme and they’d record.
Such a drastic change in work ethic doesn’t just come out of nowhere.
“Well, we’ve been in this for ten years…” he starts out. “And Amp just got married and had baby. And we both just bought houses.” The truth comes out: they’ve grown up. And so has their music. “We’re ready to take on more responsibilities. This is where we are. We are grown men with something to say.”
Zumbi considers each song like a journal entry, a story in each song that reflects where these two men have been, what they’ve seen and the thoughts the journey has inspired.
And he wraps it up in one perfect statement: “One of the most beautiful things in life is to watch an artist evolve.”
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