Zion I: Go Dumb And Get Smart
Underground legends in Oakland, Zion I has won over hearts and car stereos with social-awakening bars and forward-thinking beats. Its no exaggeration to say that where Bay Area icons Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Souls of Mischief left off, Zion I picked up with CDs like Mind Over Matter, True & Livin [click to read] and this month's The Take Over. But hey, Amp and Zumbi arent mad that the masses arent terribly familiar with their sound. They just dont necessarily want to hear the complaints either about the lack of diversity in music when theyve been rapping something different since 97.
HipHopDX: Tell me about your Oakland.
Zumbi: Man, Oakland is an interesting place. California is a big state, but its not that many concentrations of black folks in this whole state. Oakland is one of them places like L.A. Its got its own lil steez. Its small, but its real tough and its real prideful. Its kinda like a blue-collar city compared to San Francisco. It makes everybody have a certain swag. Its definitely different from L.A. Its way more laid back and mellow, but its grimy, too. The music outta here, well, you know what that is. Its way original stuff. Too Short [click to read], E-40 [click to read], Mac Dre, Hieroglyphics [click to read]. Theres all kinds of different styles. But with the good stuff, theres always roots and foundations in bass and 808.
DX: Amp, you moved to Oakland in the late '90s from Texas, right? In what ways has the city changed to you?
AmpLive: In the late '90s, you had the big boom of independent labels out here. The Bay Area has basically always been known for its independent scene, so during that time, it was really poppin. You had a lot of groups come out of here that are now large. Back in the day, with Too Short, E-40 and Mac Dre, theyve been on the independent grind. When their industries grew, a lot of people followed them. Basically in the late '90s, it was just a boom. After that, when the dot com slowed down, a lot of things slowed down, but you still had a lot of those groups out here. The hustles always been there. With the hyphy movement coming in, like, four years, it sort of resurged things and brought light again to the Bay Area. So, I think its a scene thats always been here, even though theres ups and downs in the industry. The independent scenes always been here. Youve got such a big diversity of groups. Youve got Hieroglyphics, whove made a big mark in this industry, to pioneers like Too Short, Quannum [Projects] [click to read], Lyrics Born, to groups like us. Its a big variety of independent groups out here.
DX: The Mac Dres and Too Shorts have a different sound than Zion I. How did they influence you?
Zumbi: Its funny, man. People wouldnt suspect that I grew up listening to Too Short. I grew up listening to Born to Mack. Its not really like I took in all the messages, that type of thing. But it was just the formidable years of Hip Hop, I dont know. That was just what was playin. That was bangin in the speakers of all the cars. You couldnt go anywhere without hearing Too Short back in the day, especially Too Short. Its just a part of being an emcee and a fan of Hip Hop and a perpetuator of Hip Hop culture, its just something you take in and it stays with you. Its not like a pattern myself after that obviously. Im a big fan of a lot of east coast rappers as well, like Nas, [A Tribe Called Quest] [click to read] and Rakim [click to read]. But that west coast was inside, cause thats what was really around me, more so than even the music I chose to listen to. Its just part of the background to who you are as an artist. As an artist, I think, the things that you take in and experience you use in your music. Thats with everybody. Its a part of just being out here. Even the Hyphy music and all that stuff. Just hearing Mistah F.A.B. [click to read], Kaz Kyzah from The Team and all them cats. Everybody is cool, so it just becomes the background to what youre doing. Even though were doing something considered totally different, those influences are still in there.
DX: Does it get frustrating that the whole region gets categorized one way?
Zumbi: Uh, I chose really not to get frustrated by it. It is interesting because weve had so many groups come outta here. Weve had Souls of Mischief, Del [The Funkee Homosapien] [click to read], Quannum Crew, Lyrics Born, Living Legends [click to read], The Grouch [click to read]. All kinds of cats coming out that are doing music thats not turf or Hyphy or whatever you wanna call it. But people still stick to the same guns with the Oakland sound or the Bay Area sound. To me, thats the folks who aint really lookin at everything thats going on. If you look at everything thats crackin, youll see a cornucopia of different styles out here. It depends on what youre lookin at. Its all perspective. If youre just lookin at one side, youre only gonna see one side.
AmpLive: Well, the funny thing is thats the mainstream youre talking about. VIBE magazine voted the Hieroglyphics symbol as the third-most recognized symbol in the world, under McDonalds. It matters who youre talking to, really. I think, to a lot of the kids coming up, that may be so because the Hyphy movement was just publicized. Its recent. But I dont know. When you talk to the Hip Hop masses worldwide, I think people know that the Bay Areas always had a large amount of groups. With the Hyphy movement, I think its gone along with the southern movement in a way, more Crunk and stuff like that. So, I can see how people can think that, but I dont think its as obvious as were you to talk about Atlanta or something like that.
DX: What does it take to be a true Zion I fan?
Zumbi: Thats a good question. Ill say it takes proper dedication and having the guts and the stomach to bear through cold months, cold winters without hearing an album. [A fan] must be able to dig and get all the stuff that we do. Obviously, a lot of the stuff we do is not going to be on MTV. Its not going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. I think a fan really appreciates good music and content and is not looking for the average thing. What we do is not typical. Our fans really appreciate the time spent on the music. I dont know. I think theyre really specific fans. Them cats that are with us, come to the shows and be like, Man, I got all your albums. Blah, blah, blah. I got this and I got that. And Im like, Damn, you really got every album. We were in Rotterdam, Holland two weeks ago. It wasnt even a big crowd, probably about 70 people. It was our first time there or whatever. The kids that came through knew every song from these esoteric mixtapes and jams released only in Japan. Thats the kind of fans we have, the hardcore. They really get into it. From the bottom to the top, they really just vibe off of what were doing. Were very appreciative of that and were very blessed to have fans like that.
DX: With this Obama presidency, are rappers games forced to step up?
Zumbi: I dont know if its just because of that. I feel like theres a lot of changes going on in the planet, from the economic structures that are failing across the world [to other factors]. Oil is not an infinite product. Its not something that goes on for ever and ever. Thats coming to a close. You got people strugglin. [Gas] got cheaper all of a sudden, but its about to go back up. Its not going to stay like this. I dont know. I just think the world right now, collectively, something is happening thats different. Its a new energy. I definitely feel the vibe that artists need to step up their game and really try to represent changes that are happening on a positive level. To continue to glorify the negative is so stupid. If you go to places where people are really in civil war and people are really dying every day like rappers are trying to talk about, aint nuthin glamorous about it. It aint nuthin glamorous about a lil kid gettin shot. Theres definitely a change, and I think that Obama is a part of that. I think as a symbol for us here in this country, its dope because it gives youngsters something to look up to. It gives adults something to look up to. In that way, yeah, hopefully, itll be a positive change on lyricism and how they approach their music. But I just think theres also a bigger change. Its not just Obama. Its something bigger going on with the planet.
DX: Where does The Take Over fit in this bigger change?
Zumbi: For us, man, I feel like weve always been world bridges. We connect things that seemingly dont connect and put them together. People say, Oh, okay. That does work together. Right now were just pushing forward. The intent on this record was to really spread love on some black community, black folks, Asian folks, Latino folks, white folks. This album is definitely about spreading love to everybody. Human beings are one. Theres one love, one God. The inner vibe of the record is like that. But on the outside, The Take Over is just going through black music and reclaiming all the vast creativity weve embodied since leaving the continent and coming to this one. So, Blues, Jazz, Reggae, Hip Hop, House music, Rock & Roll, were taking it. Were trying to look back at all the legacies that we brought with us and mesh it up and fused it into one album. We really tried to capture our own imaginations and make it interesting for us and give thanks to our ancestors and the ones who came before us.
DX: Talk about the creative process for the new project.
Zumbi: This new record, man, we really took our time with it. It was a process, like, a couple of different sessions of maybe six to eight weeks each. Wed make a bunch of music and sit back and listen to it. Wed see what we thought. Wed make some more. We were just going back and forth, sitting with it and seeing the direction. It took us to the beginning of  till we really began hitting our stride like, Okay, this is the album. This is what were going with. Amp and I usually write in the studio, but this time, I did a lot of writing in my crib. I have a lil home studio. I do a lot of writing there. Ill email him verses and hed give me feedback. Id give him feedback on beats. We did a lot of stuff. It was a lil different this time, man.
DX: What were thoughts behind emcees like Brother Ali and Devin The Dude being on the album?
AmpLive: First and foremost, theyre dope artists. Two, they mesh well with what were doing. Brother Ali [click to read] is off the hook. His message is always good. Hes got a lot of passion to what hes saying. Devin The Dude [click to view] is just classic. And me being from Texas, its always good to have somebody else representing on the album. So, I generally have him on there. Its just a good combination. With the people we include on the albums, we just always try to have the best vibe possible.
DX: Zumbi, describe Amps sound.
Zumbi: To me, Amp almost doesnt have a sound. Thats the crazy thing. He can do just about anything he wants, in terms of making music, style-wise. Hes been doing long enough to be that diverse. He can do an R&B joint. He can do an Electro song. He can do a Drum & Bass song. He can do boom bap, Hip Hop joint. He can do some southern-soundin Hip Hop. The dude is like a chameleon with beats. He can do anything he wants. Basically, what guides him is what kind of energy hes on, what hes feeling at the moment. A lot of times, when we start doing records, hes on some uptempo, super club [sound]. I gotta be like, Amp, dude Im not trying to rap on that. Hell go, Oh, okay, okay. Hell go make a bunch of other stuff. Itll be a bridge between where he was going and what Im feelin. Hell make something in between. Hes really guided by his creativity. He can do anything he wants. There arent many hip hop producers that can go so many different directions. Dilla was one of them. Dr. Dre and Timbaland [are two others]. Soon, Amp will be on that level of producers, cause dude is talented.
AmpLive: Ive just always been into all types of music. When I was young, I was exposed to all types of stuff. It just transferred into my music. I used to listen to a lot of Blues, Gospel music and Soul. In school, I listened to Skate Punk, a lot of New Wave stuff and Rock music. This was, like, in middle school. I just had a bunch of stuff I enjoyed and was exposed to.
DX: Theres a line in Radio where you all speak to the ancestors and go, Need yall back to get us on track. In your eyes, is there any hope for hip hop in 09 and 10?
AmpLive: I hope so. Im one of those people who sorta doesnt look at whats going on now as a negative because I understand that Hip Hop is like any other form of music. Its like Jazz, Classical music. We are just a generation thats grown along with it, so I think we sometimes have a hard time adjusting. There are, like, five or six generations of kids in hip hop. Its no longer about the 90s. You got nine-year, ten-year-old kids listening to Hip Hop. Then you got their fathers, who are 40, listening to Hip Hop. You cant expect 'em to be listening to the same thing. I feel like the quality of it hasnt changed. Its become more diverse and its become more different styles. But I feel like the message thats being pushed by the corporations has changed. I think thats what has sorta skewed things. I think when we made that line, we were referring to that particular message. Those are classic roots [referred to in the song]: John Coltrane, Miles [Davis], Jimi Hendrix. Those were major label groups. That sorta needs to be flipped. I think theres more diversity that needs to be put out there, so people dont think that Hip Hop is all about just this. Overall, it just needs to be presented that its all of this.
DX: Define success in your eyes. Is it health? Is it financial? Something else?
AmpLive: I definitely think success is how you feel when you go home at the end of the day. It doesnt really matter how much money you make because money doesnt make you happy. To some people, money makes it easier. To me, its sorta like, if I can come home and Im happy, Ive fulfilled my message for the day. If Im using [my skills] to the biggest of my ability, Im happy. Within doing that, you have to have good health, love, passion. Thats what its basically about to me.
DX: Most days do you have that feeling?
AmpLive: Most days, yeah. 2008 has been rough because of all the changes in the world. But you gotta keep your head up. With the dark days comes the light. When I feel down, I realize theres light at the end of the tunnel.