With the arrival of his son, the passing of his father, and even some behind the music scenes trouble, ‘The Labyrinth’ was a record that Zion I never thought would see the light of day.
Thankfully, despite all of the challenges, Zion I shared another musical studio installment titled ‘The Labyrinth’ featuring the likes of Codnay Holiday, MC Deuce Eclipse, Jane Hancock, Viveca Hawkins, and Alam Khan.
Zion I burst into the lives of many back in 2000 with the release of their debut album, ‘Mind Over Matter’; a record that The Source named as their “Independent Album of the Year”.
Now, fast forward 17 years, Zion I has seen a fair bit of change; Amp Live is no longer a part of the duo, Baba Zumbi is now a father of three, and ‘The Labyrinth’ is the first full-length record, released October 2016, by Zumbi (Zion I) since 2012’s ‘Shadowboxing’.
Vaunter caught up with Zion I at Santa Cruz Music Festival to discuss the new album, how is the Bay area coping with the ongoing gentrification, and what lies in store for him now that he’s running solo. This is what he had to say:
First of all, congratulations on the release of The Labyrinth. It’s your first record without Amp Live, how did that creative process feel?
It was interesting. It was a big transition period for me. Not just musically, my father passed away, I left my management & booking agent, and the record ended up just being about me regrouping.
I had to learn how to find producers that I like consistently, not just one-hit wonders, and then pay those people. I had to look at getting in singers, mixed, people to master, and even the artwork. I’m used to doing the artwork, but I also had to do my own radio campaign.
The other thing is, the manager at the time wasn’t accustom to working at a label capacity and as a result it just encouraged me to work solely on the process. I was doing all this whilst still grieving over my father. If anything, I’m just happy I managed to get this record out. It may have been later than I planned, but it at least it’s out there.
Looking back, I didn’t plan it enough because of everything I was going through and not having the help. As a result, I don’t think it achieved what it could have but it was a learning curve and next time I’ll be better prepared.
You mentioned bringing on singers; the record sees appearances from MC Deuce Eclipse and Codnay Holiday. How did these collaborations come about?
Codnay is my homie, he’s always been about so I hit him up. Viveca [Hawkins] was the same thing. I just call her and she pops over to my house to record, and then edit.
Jane Hancock, I got to her my boys. I don’t know her but I heard her music and was like “I want to work with her”. So I sent over a few tracks and then she come back that she was feeling it.
Talking about collaborations, you worked with Bassnectar for his track ‘TKO (ft. Rye Rye)’. Do you still feel honored when other artists select you to feature on a track?
It’s a blessing and an honor. I honestly think I get more recognition outside of hip-hop than I do within the scene. I guess that Zion I is known as the collective name now, and not just the boom-bap hip-hop anymore like where we started.
However, over the last few years, we’ve been invited to reggae shows. We are trying to get back to solidifying the hip-hop, but it’s still a blessing to have people from all genres look at Zion I and ask for a feature.
‘Tech $’ comes as an address to the gentrification of your hometown, Oakland. Apart from the mass exodus from the Bay area, how do you feel that has affected the emerging music scene?
It’s like another world, if I’m honest. In some ways, Oakland is still the same but there is also a lot different. I’m still seeing some of my same folks doing the same things and pushing their music, but a lot of the places we used to go to is different now and not so welcoming for us. It’s just weird situation.
Living my life is kind of the same, but I’ve had to move out of the city a little. I feel like it puts a lot of pressure on the creatives in the city. That’s a huge disadvantage for the Bay area, as a lot of artists run independently and not signed to a major label. I feel that forces musicians to either change themselves to sell or move out of the city. However, if you are super successful, you can always stay, but there’s not that many.
Bay area is now more of, who’s doing what where?
With 17 years under your belt, do you also feel technology has also positively influenced the music industry in some ways?
I do feel that the internet allows you to just record a track one night, put it out, and, by chance, you could end up viral. These things do happen. They suddenly make a career for themselves out of thin air. Another positive is being able to collaborate with anyone from across the world with the click of a button using Dropbox or something. You could never do that before.
Also, especially for children, you can get a computer anywhere now and it comes stocked with applications and programs that give you the opportunity to explore yourself creatively. When I was starting music, you had to go to a studio or it’d sound like s***. Now, you can record something at some on some basic equipment and it can end up sounding as if it went through a big studio – or at least the vibes.
Technology is very Yin and Yang. Whilst all that it positive, the negatives are the fact that everyone on the internet can be so cynical and sarcastic. Everyone suddenly watches an informed video about something or stay up listening to things about the illuminati, and then they suddenly think they have a PHD. You have to be real man. Many things on the internet is fake information.
In this time right now, it is psychology warfare. Everyone is fighting for your attention. People are writing things to send you down these rabbit holes and if you’re not disciplined enough, then you succumb to it. Now, you’ve ended up in someone else’s thought process.
The thing with technology is that you need to learn to tap out of it, and tap back into it when you feel ready. You don’t have to stay 24/7 on the web. I have so many friends that end up spending most of the day arguing on Facebook.
Talking of the video, I loved the documentary you shot recently, ‘The Boombox Collection’. You mentioned during the interview that you “used to write for your people”, but the latest album seems so much more soul-searching that some of your previous work. When did you feel you changed to focusing on yourself?
I always write music for my folks. But, my point in that was, I have got to be as honest with myself. I just know that the “hood’ doesn’t always reverberate what I do. The funny thing is that after this video was published, I had a few friends from across the country being like, “Yo, I f*** with you”. [laughs] I’m not kidding. I had a few people just saying that they used to be from some of these neighborhoods and they still listen to my music. It was an honor.
I think for the video that it was just a strong statement that needed to be said, and there is truth to it. But, the irony of it is that I still write music for the disempowered and, to me, that’s what hip-hop is about. I feel that hip-hop was always about empowering people who didn’t have a voice, it’s why I got into it. Now, it’s more about I’ve got this much money or this fancy cars. Whereas, in my mind, I’m like your people are being killed on TV. Why are you not talking about that? How does having so many diamonds around your neck or women in the club associate yourself to what’s happening in real life?
The short film ended with you rapping 2000-track, ‘Trippin’’. What made you close with that release rather something else? Do you feel what the track symbolizes is even more fitting to the modern day?
The director actually requested that song. It was actually one of his favorite Zion I songs. The message and the wording in that is still universal. I’m actually happy he went with that. I was sending him a load of new material, but he was adamant that ‘Trippin’’ would be good.
I have songs on the record that similarly reflect what ‘Trippin’’ talks about. However, looking at it creatively, the song actually showed where Zion I was and where it is now. And, despite after everything with the years that have passed and Amp Live going, the message still remains true to our circumstances.
It was cool that he did that. It worked.
With the show now just consisting of you, and for those that missed your last tour, what should people expect from a Zion-I live performance?
I feel that it’s still very similar, but the only thing I do miss is the live beat production. The freestyling is still there and the beats, but now it’s more a focus on the MC-ing. I do have a talented DJ with me, but he’s not able to bang out beats whilst on stage.
However, that is something I’m hoping to bring back into the Zion I live show, somehow. I haven’t worked it out all the way just yet. Sometimes I do tour with a drummer and keyboardist, and we get into more impromptu stuff. That’s why I want to bring back live beat making, I feel it keeps people on the edge of their seats and really energized for the show. There is always a feeling on being in the unknown and that forces you into the moment.
We’re at Santa Cruz Music Festival, do you have any acts that you’re excited to be seeing? Like I know, The Grouch follows you and you previously worked together.
I know most of the guys, but I don’t know the later acts like TROYBOI. Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to see him as I need to get home to the three kids, which is great. As an artist, the fact I love being at home, is probably really weird, but I really do. I may be able to check out a few tracks, but I mostly have to bounce.
With you having to look after the kids, is that why you only have a few more festival performances listed?
Nah. I actually start back up in June. I’m now working with a new booking agent, who I started with in November or December, and they made it clear that everything runs six months out. They picked up a few dates here and there, but from the summer, that’s when everything will beginning happening again.
It’s kind of good though, as my son is only six months old. It gives me time to really watch him grow, but at the same time really hone in on my recording. I’m going to be sitting around recording stuff and working on some projects. I already have something lined up with DJ Fresh and I’ve also started another project with someone else, but I can’t talk too much about that until I get deeper into it. Then, of course, I have my solo stuff. There’s a lot on the grill, but I’ve got time to really focus on everything.
Our final question; if we were to open your phone right now, who would the last artist that you was listening to?
Damn, who was it? We were on the road the other day listening to something; I’m going to check what is on my Spotify. It was Gang Starr.
To be honest, I go all over the place. I have U2 in here, Duran Duran, The Cure, Sam Cooke, Run The Jewels, Amy Winehouse, Migos, and MF Doom. I write music, so I try to tap into inspiration from all kinds of areas. Plus, there’s some stuff where I just haven’t heard it and feel like I should.
A lot of stuff that I vibe to is the stuff that touches me emotionally. I was just on one of those rampages the other day listening to everything that I connected to when I was younger.
For more information on Zion I, ‘The Labyrinth’, and his forthcoming tour dates, visit his website.