Twenty years ago Zumbi and Amp Live burst onto the scene as the group Zion I. The emcee/producer duo created thought provoking music that could make you move. After drifting in different directions Amp Live and Zumbi are no longer a group, but Zion I lives on. Zumbi now goes by his original rap name, Zion I, and has released his first solo album under the Zion I moniker entitled, “The Labyrinth.”
Released on his very own Mind Over Matter Record label, The Labyrinth features appearances by Deuce Eclipse, Jane Hancock, Codnay Holiday, Viveca Hawkins, and Alam Khan. The album is produced by Teeko, Decap, Ariano, and Mikos the Gawd.
The Real Hip-Hop spoke to Zion I about the transformation of his group, the problem of gentrification in the Bay Area, how he copes with the loss of his father, and his new album, The Labyrinth.
TRHH: Why’d you title the new album The Labyrinth?
Zion I: Basically this album was chocked full of hardships trying to get it done. In the beginning of the process I stopped working with the producer who’d been in the group the whole time. Amp Live was in the crew, he’s not in it no more, it’s just me. We stopped working together the beginning of 2015. After he left I left my management, I left my booking agent, one of my best friends that I grew up with passed away, my grandmother passed away, and then in August of last year my father passed away. It was a lot of shit going on. In the process of all that my music came back to me. It was my way of dealing with all these situations.
I called it The Labyrinth because what I’ve learned about the labyrinth is it’s basically like a walking meditation. You walk into this circle and follow all these lines and the whole aim is to get to the center of it. While you’re walking through all these concentric circles you’re supposed to contemplate all your challenges. When you get to the center of that circle that’s when you’re supposed to gain clarity about all the different things you’re going through. That’s basically what I wanted this album to be – taking somebody’s hand and walking them through my life and all my trials and tribulations in an effort that at the end of the record there is an emotional release. There is more clarity. I want people to be able to reflect on their own struggle by viewing mine. I want people to have clarity and a sense of peace once they finish listening to the whole album.
TRHH: On the song “Saving Souls” you say, “I hope I’m saving souls.” Is that similar to what you’re saying when you say you want people to have clarity?
Zion I: Yeah, man. I come from the era of Hip-Hop when it was about empowerment. Back in the day our way of communication was distant drums. We had no other way of talking. We didn’t have the internet. We make these songs and now I know what it’s like to be in Brooklyn, I know what it’s like to be in Chicago, I know what it’s like to be in L.A. It’s about raising awareness and consciousness. I’m still at that point with the music. I feel like that’s an element of Hip-Hop that is very important to me and where I think the culture should be and I don’t wanna lose that. That’s definitely a primary focus of mine.
TRHH: You touched on it briefly, but how exactly did Zion I go from being a group to a solo entity?
Zion I: Man we’d been working together since the early 90s. We traveled the world and released hella albums together. I don’t wanna go too much into it ‘cause I could probably write a book about it just trying to figure it out. We just stopped clicking like we used to. I think he was going through some things family-wise and whatnot. It just started to be a rift. We were really tight homies for years and it just started to be something that was different. We’d be on the road and fools wouldn’t be talking to each other for two weeks on the road. It just started getting weird. That’s the homeboy, why ain’t we talking about basic shit? I started asking him about it in 2013 and he said, “Nah, it’s all good. I might have to not tour with the group sometimes.”
2014 came and I wanted to make some music. He said, “Okay,” but wouldn’t really send no beats. Then I started getting irritated like, “Blood, what’s up? Just be honest with how you’re feeling.” Then it started to be a situation where I felt like I was doing a lot of shit to push Zion I forward and he was just kind of falling back and wasn’t into it. At that point I was getting other producers to work. Finally it was like, “Hey man, we gotta do something about this because it’s not even fun no more. This music has always been a source of freedom and creativity. It’s a good time and it allows me to enjoy my life and right now it don’t feel that way.” He was like, “Yeah, I’m not gonna tour no more,” and at that point he just decided that he was gonna do whatever, not be on the road as much, and I was gonna hold the mantle of Zion I and keep going.
TRHH: What made you take the crowd funding approach with this project?
Zion I: I don’t know how much I can go into this but generally speaking I don’t have a label I’m signed to. I do my own independent label and I have a distributor that I’ve been working with for years. Generally when I announce that I’m doing an album they give me funding. Basically they give me an advance without a contract because we’ve been working together for so long that it’s always been good. This time when I asked for an advance they said, “If you want an advance we have to cross collateralize your catalog and own the record for perpetuity. I was like, “Hold up, why do we have to change the contract?” and they said, “It’s a new era. Records aren’t selling the way they used to, everyone is streaming so we have to protect our investments.” I didn’t wanna do that.
One of the things that has allowed me to remain in this game for so long is the fact that I own my masters and I own my music. Long after I put out the record I’m still getting royalties through SoundExchange, ASCAP, and all of that. I know that to give that up I won’t be able to sustain in the game. I needed a way to help me fund this record because I’m manufacturing vinyl, making videos, and doing a radio campaign. I’m coming out the pocket for everything. It was basically just a way to engage the fans and bring them into it a little more. People that already fuck with the music anyway, give them an opportunity to get involved and also for me to connect more with them and interact a little bit. It’s been cool. I haven’t honestly raised that much bread, but it’s been good for me to get out of my shell and be interactive with the people who have shown love for so long.
TRHH: You released a song on the Stay Woke Mixtape called “Tech $.” Talk about why you decided to write that song.
Zion I: I pretty much explain it in the song. Gentrification is going wild in Oakland right now. I don’t know how much you know about this city out here but it’s black, Latino, Asian, and it’s white folks out here, too. What happened was I was in this crib with my family and my dad passed away. A week after that the landlord that I was renting from said he had to sell the house. I said, “Let me buy it,” and he said, “Alright, $750,000.” I was like, “Damn, I don’t have that right now.” I had just done a short sale on my other crib in West Oakland so my credit was not the greatest. I sold it because my son was having really bad eczema. I bought at the top of the market. The market crashed in 2008 and I bought it in 2007. The house was worth about thirty five percent of what I paid for it.
My son was suffering. The environment over there is very toxic. There’s hella freeways and the ground has all this industrial shit going on. It wasn’t a good situation. I did a short sale on the house and moved to this other house in East Oakland. I started looking at cribs around Oakland and I noticed immediately that in the two years since I had been living in that house prices had jumped $1500 to $2000. A crib that used to be $2000 was now $4000. I started getting hip to this gentrification wave in Oakland. The first thing that happened was Uber announced that they were building their headquarters in Oakland. Once that happened streams of out of towners started coming here and it became the hot place to be. They call it “The New Brooklyn.” Places where it’s traditionally Latino and black families like West Oakland, North Oakland, and Downtown Oakland all of a sudden it’s very white there and the prices were going up hella high.
I basically wrote the song to talk about the experience of being gentrified out of a city that I love so much. It’s across the board. I got homies that teach Kung-Fu, they just got evicted. My son’s daycare just got evicted. A bunch of my peoples have been kicked out of their cribs – people who have been in Oakland 10-15 years. It’s an interesting thing that’s happening out here. It’s not really cool, but it’s one of those things that you look at it like, “What can I do?” I make music so I can write a song about it and show people the process of me actually leaving my house. It was not a fun thing to do, but I thought it was the only way I could speak out and use my voice.
TRHH: You touched on your father passing and you have a song on the album about your late father called “Not Ur Fault.” Was it difficult for you to write such a personal song?
Zion I: Hell yeah. I wrote that the night he passed away. I was going to kick it with my son. I was taking him to see my homie the Grouch’s daughter – they always hang out together. We were going to go swimming. I’m waiting in line to get into this lake and all of a sudden my lady just runs up out of nowhere and she’s like, “You gotta go, your dad just passed.” I drop off my son and head off to the hospital. I go see him, his body was cold, ashy — the life was gone. I shed my tears and went home. It was obviously a sad day. I tried to go to sleep and I couldn’t sleep. At 3:30 in the morning I went down to the studio and I just started thumbing through beats.
I found that beat and it just seemed to speak to me. I immediately starting writing to it. It was a way to deal with the pain and the loss. It was a real honest song. Music for me, that’s how I use it. I’m not writing songs about macking hoes and all the money I make. It’s about real life for me. Not to say that that other shit ain’t cool, but my personal take on it is it’s a personal thing. I reflect on my life. It was a heavy moment. I’d never lost a parent before and it really hit me hard. I just wanted to express the love and adoration that I had for my father and recognize the good job that he did in raising me. I didn’t know how good a father I had until I realized that a lot of people don’t have fathers.
TRHH: I lost my dad in 2009 and it’s still difficult for me. How are you coping?
Zion I: That’s a great question. It is hard. What’s crazy about it is when you say that I feel you saying it. It makes me feel my pain a little more. In addition to that, one of my best homies I grew up with, his father passed earlier this year. It’s a trip because when my dad was hella sick and sliding down the slope I’m talking to my best homie and he’s like, “Damn, my dad is in a bad way too,” and basically my father just happened to pass before his. It’s like this mourning thing. I’d say for about six weeks after my father passed I was just in a slump. I couldn’t leave the house. I was trying to write music but I could only write about my father passing. I was like, damn, I can’t make this morbid ass gothic album. I’d almost not even write.
I wrote “Not Ur Fault,” “Heaven 4 a G” and maybe one other song in that time period, but that’s it. I couldn’t really write but I focused my energy on my kids and my family. I know I’m really blessed and I know my father is still here with me at the same time. I just hold him in my memory. In my studio I got his picture right underneath my computer. He’s always with me and always in my memory. I know one thing, performing these songs live I don’t think I’m going to be able to do it. I really don’t know ‘cause even when I just listen to them I tear up. I’m glad that I was able to express the feelings and capture them in the moment, but at the same time it’s still a very raw feeling for me. Right now I can’t see myself getting on stage and performing those songs. I might try, but I don’t know if I could get through it right now. That’s real shit.
TRHH: Who is The Labyrinth made for?
Zion I: I would say it’s made for people that are going through some kind of turbulent time or people that are seeking something more in their experience in life. I would say that this is not a turn up record. This is not a record that you play in the club and drink beers to. It’s more an introspective vibration for people to kind of sit with and feel. It’s more of an emotional thing. I didn’t do that on purpose, it was just all that I could do at the moment. I think this record is uplifting, but it’s a little darker than Zion I records have been. I played some of the songs for my son and he’s like, “Dad, this is deep!” He likes Flo-Rida and stuff like that [laughs]. He said, “It’s kind of heavy for me right now,” and I feel him because it’s heavy music. That’s how I was feeling when I created it. It is out there for some people. We all go through shit in life. I just feel like I’m talking about it in a way I feel is relatable to people. I feel like Hip-Hop is not just partying and bullshit. I’ve never thought that. This is a record that’s going to speak to people if they’re ready for it. It’s going to speak to their spirit and their soul.
Purchase: Zion I – The Labyrinth