Bay Area hip-hop heads are grateful that Zion I walks these mean streets. Emcee Zumbi and DJ Amp Live have been expanding the boundaries of what dope beats and lifted lyrics can be ever since they fled the industry culture of Atlanta and hit the Oakland scene with 1997's underground hit Enter the Woods. Their vibe's stayed positive while resisting major label affliation and a lot of the turf warring that plagues hip-hop in a weird, stereotype-enhancing way around some of the Bay's venues.
We spoke with Morehouse College grad Zumbi over the phone on the cusp of the duo's weekend-long Slim's celebration (Sat/20 and Sun/21) in honor of new album Atomic Clock, and the gig will be the duo's last before hitting the road on tour. Clock is a bangin', lifted affair studded with gems like "Always" and "Girlz" featuring Martin Luther's sweet hook -- but all the same, we still found ourselves talking politics. Sheesh.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: What's your definition of a conscious emcee? I hear a lot of people call themselves “backpack rappers” and then come out with a song telling girls to shake faster, make that money. How can you tell who the conscious rappers are?
Zumbi: For one, I don't think consciousness is dictated by sexuality. For instance Common is a cat who's a pretty consistently conscious person. But then he comes out talking about getting head -- I think in most of his music there's an awareness. For me, Jacka has conscious music because he reflects on spirituality and Allah. Even though he's got the gangster stuff he's analyzing society and spirituality, mixing it together. It's about the dominant sense you get from the music. I feel you though, there are people that say they're a conscious rapper and then their album just doesn't feel that way. For me, consciousness doesn't make you dope necessarily, even though most of the people I respect have it.
SFBG: I've read in past interviews that your parents attended the March on Washington and that you were at the Million Man March yourself. Can you tell me what your political beliefs are?
Z: I don't really think of myself as a political person. I don't totally believe in Democrats and Republicans and voting. I'm not sold on those things. I think there's manipulation involved in all of that, and I don't consider myself political, because I don't think the political system is just. I just think people should be able to get what they need, that they should be able to have a full life. That's why I've chosen music: it's a little more direct. People have to jump through hoops with politics, I see it as kind of fraternity.
Zion I's latest, Atomic Clock, tells the time
SFBG: But you have musical talent you can use as a forum to express your beliefs – how do people make a difference who don't have that platform?
Z: By being present and really standing for what you believe – just show up. I don't call myself political, but take something like Oscar Grant, I was down there at the BART station, I was at City Hall the second time, I was taking pictures and trying to get footage. I think it's more about that: standing up and making your voice known. Your clothes, your fashion sense, riding a bike instead of driving cars. There's a disconnect between what people want and how people live their lives. You don't want to be a slave to the system, so why do you put on clothes you don't want to wear and go do something that someone tells you that you don't want to do every day of your life? That's what life is about, what you choose to do. Living in the United States, we can pretty much say what we want to say. It's not a country that's overly oppressive on the intellectual level. Physically it is, but you can pretty much say what you want. Just get out there and be it instead of complaining about everything, be the change you want to see in the world.
SFBG: Tell me your take on Obama's presidency so far.
Z: It's very interesting. You couldn't write this stuff, this is a movie in action. When he got elected there was this passion, everyone was so over George Bush. It was like we were ushering in this whole level of politics in the US. And then, because things didn't change... for me, I voted for Obama, but I don't think the president makes all the decisions. He's just the face man for the government. It's not like this guy was going to change all evils in the world! But now reality is setting in. And because he is Black, it's encouraged this other thing, the Tea Party? That's just ridiculous, it's engendered this backlash, there's this ideal that there is no racism but in reality there's more racism than before. Michael Vick -- whose dog killed a man on his property -- he served two years. Obama to me is a symbol of something – I'm not sure what it is yet, some kind of transformation hopefully, but people are pushing back against what change could be because they're frustrated, there's no jobs – they're looking for a way out. It's a strange story, it's like a movie I'm watching.
SFBG: I've heard that in Zion I, one of you studied to be a doctor and another, a psychologist. Which is which? How'd you chose that course of study?
Z: (laughs) I might again, you never know, I was just looking at grad schools online. The fact that it had to do with the mind in general. In college I was undeclared for the first two years and then I was getting to that point, so I was like psychology. I like the power of the mind, what the new age thing-movement is all about now, meditation, clearing your mind, intuition,
SFBG: Atomic Clock has been described as “moody and emotional.” Are you guys getting moody these days?
Z: Yeah a bit. The record, we did it really quickly in two and a half, three weeks. We proposed it to the label, hoping that they'd pass on it initially but they optioned it. It was a quick sprint all of a sudden, it went from this cool idea to something we had to rush to finish it. Because of that we had a moody attitude to it, the timing added this urgent feeling. Also, like the thing about Obama, it's where things are, everything is in this transitional period, everyone's stressed.
SFBG: What do you think of the influx of dance beats in hip hop these days?
Z: I think its cool. I n the beginning, hip hop was always dance music. Sugar Hill Gang was the first quote-unquote rap record. For cats to be doing [dance beats], it's a natural thing. That's a part of hip hop. In the late '90s, early '00s hip hop kind of left the club, and then the South brought us back into the club. This music is about celebrating, having a good time.
Zion I Atomic Clock CD release parties
Sat/20: featuring Locksmith, Hold Up, Bayliens, DJ Kevvy Kev
8:30 p.m., $20-23
Sun/21: featuring Eligh w/ Scarub, Bang Data, Hold Up, Oakland Faders
8 p.m., $20-23
333 11th St., SF