The Essential Zion-I

Some emcees rap. Others make art.

Zumbi Zoom aka Zion of Zion-I aka Steve Gaines was one of the latter. Zion-I never had huge, major-label promo budgets. But they enjoyed more longevity than many major-label acts. For 20 years, they occupied a critical space in the local hip-hop community.

Throughout their entire career, they presented an alternative to toxic, cliched, or predictable rap– even while cruising some of those same streets as the mobb music purveyors, the hyphy cats, the unrepentant pimps and the pharmaceutical slangers. A deep dive into their massive catalog is an epiphany and a realization that they may have been the most consistent out of any Bay Area hip-hop act, historically speaking. Their message was there in the very beginning, and remained there at the end.

Culling an essential list of Zion-I tracks is more difficult than it appears. From 1998-2005 they dropped three critically-acclaimed albums and established themselves as stewards of underground hip-hop. They never completely blew up, but always seemed on the cusp of doing so. Over the next ten years, they continued to make fire tracks and blazing albums, but became less enamored with commercial crossover potential and more concerned with delivering what their fan base had come to expect. After 2015, the departure of producer Amp Live pushed Zumbi into a space of iconoclasm — working with different producers, he maintained his chi and stretched himself artistically even further, remaining contemporary rather than looking in the rear-view mirror.

The breadth and scope of the Zion-I catalog makes compiling a list of 10 essential songs nigh-impossible. 20 is more appropriate for a group that transcended eras, trends, and fads, yet remained present and woke throughout all of that. Zion-I’s last two albums Ritual Mystik and Labyrinth are often sublime, if not immediate, in their impact. On top of that, there’s the collaboration with DJ Fresh, The Tonite Show, and recent singles, like 2020’s End Times with Locksmith and Sa-Roc, or The Most High, featuring vocalist Shirena Parker. Then there’s 2012’s Shadowboxing, 2010’s Atomic Clock, 2008’s The Takeover, 2005’s True & Livin’, 2003’s Deep Water Slang, and 2001’s Mind Over Matter — each of which yields several noteworthy tracks — to consider. On top of that, there are the two albums recorded with the Grouch, several EPs, mixtapes, and singles, and dozens of songs by other artists featuring Zion-I. Suffice to say that work ethic was not a problem for Baba Zumbi.

Infinity (2018)
As good a place to start as any, this quintessential, late-period track from Ritual Mystik finds Zumbi musing about external conflicts an choosing to respond with internal fortitude. The flow here is monk-like, as Zumbi battles demons in his mind, references Sumerian Annunaki, the pharaoah Akhnaten, and lotus flowers, declaring, “watch me free up my mind ‘til infinity time.” His lyrical catharsis is delivered with bass-heavy beats and synth tones that recall the tolling bells of Tupac’s Hail Mary.

Kale (2018)
Only Zumbi could title a song after a leafy green vegetable commonly found in vegan dishes and make it sound rugged. Kale in this case being a metaphor for money. “In my element I’m permanent and I amass a grip,” he says over a gritty DJ Fresh beat with plenty of slap. For almost any other rapper, this could have been a throwaway track. With Zumbi, you hang on every word and couplet like it all counts.

Cold Game (2016)
“Eurocentric thinking but the ancestors is African.” That’s just one of the many gems Zumbi drops on this track from the Labyrinth album. Eighteen years into the game he sounds hungry and determined, a “Black Sophocles” who’s taken a “Hippocratic oath” to “climb over swine that’s at the bottom of the pit/ a barbeque that look like you is getting roasted at the spit.” Ouch. The minimal beat drops with satisfying low-end hum; singer Codony Holiday supplies the chorus: “it’s a cold world and a cold game/ these days are strange/ time for ways to change.”

Let Me Be (2016)
Zumbi attacks the track with a cadence reminiscent of early Mos Def, before pausing for a half-sung hook: “I just wanna be free/ they wont let me be.” Then it’s back to the lyrical skirmishes as he declares, “these imperial riches cook you like callaloo… we stay woke in the presence of God.” Self-righteous? Yes. But somehow not preachy.

Danger Zone (2014)
Tracks like these show why Zumbi and Amp Live were such a dynamic duo. The beat here is simply bananas, a slumping banger with shifting tempos further enhanced by Oakland’s `1-O.A.K. who handles the sung hook. Amp uses minimalism to maximum effect, while Zumbi lays down a clever, briskly-paced flow: “Still the same old G, fella/ sun still shine on me, fella/ tap chi on lean, fella/ is she important on my team, fella/ Shawty look fly, bella/ Zion-I tell no lie, hella.”

Life’s Work (2012)
“I promise, I’m honest,” Zumbi tells the object of his affections, played by Goapele. Of their many collaborations, this may be the most heartfelt and sweetest. The song is about a man and a woman dealing with the feelings they’ve developed for each other, in a realistic, enamored way. It’s essentially a rap love song that’s not corny, and doesn’t imply an unbalanced power dynamic.

Like A G (2011)
This track, from Heroes In the Healing of the Nation, easily epitomizes the indie screed: if commercial radio stations or video channels had dared to play it, the entire future of pop culture may have been irrevocably altered. As it is, however, the song still stands up — 10 year later — as a manifesto of Bay Area hip-hop’s utter originality, with Zumbi, The Grouch and Los Rakas all holding forth on a life-affirming track that ultimately references the Most High, referred to here as the titular “G.”

Many Stylez (2010)
Ever since “Inner Light” paraphrased Bob Marley’s Wake Up and Live back in 1998, we’ve been wondering what Zumbi would sound like on a full-on reggae track. Well, this is it, complete with backing from Rebelution. “I walk with a million souls so alone/ so desperate in need of a zone/ and bleeding to free up their dome/ and needing the freedom to be where they roam.” A nice dubwise break near the end locks in the irie vibrations.

North Star (2010)
Zion-I’s Atomic Clock was a super slept-on album. This timeless-sounding track suggests it’s time to wake up and check it out. Zumbi is in top form here, crafting visual metaphors and metaphysical imagery that revolves around internal cosmology. The lyrics are perfectly matched by Amp’s swirling production. This tune pushes the boundary of what hip-hop aspires to be, while still remaining in pocket. It’s hard to imagine anyone else creating a song like this.

Go Hard (2009)
The austere, snare-accented Amp Live beat sounds like a sequel to Zion-I’s conscious hyphy track Don’t Lose Your Head, but instead of chronicling street life impurities, here we find Zumbi doubling down on his conscious convictions.

Bring In The Light (2008)
“808s up in the middle even rattle your teeth.” This song’s conceptualism is up there with the best efforts of Blackalicious and Deltron 3030. It’s a mini sci-fi novel of — you guessed it — a dystopian reality where martial law has just been declared. The antidote? Meditation, incense, and tea lights. And savage rhymes from a kind soul.

Caged Bird pts 1 and 2 (2008)
It’s a testament to Zumbi’s lyrical finesse that he escapes being overshadowed by the Rhymesayers’ Brother Ali on this epic two-part anthem from The Takeover. The theme involves those “searching for a better world” and seeking to break free from the constraints imposed by narrow minds and societal constructs. Part 1’s soaring female vocals are contrasted by a bluesy male voice in Part 2; this voice gives way to a scathing selection of Zumbiisms which embody the struggle for freedom.

Antenna (2008)
There are very few hip-house tracks made after the early 90s worth mentioning. Antenna: isn’t really a house track, but it recalls the days when the likes of KC Flightt and the Jungle Brothers were crossing genres like kindergarten crosswalks. “Make me feel brand new” is as good of a repeated mantra as any in electronic dance music, and the hook “what can I do when can I/ talk to you through my antenna” is kinda fly.

Current Affairs (2006)
The remarkable thing about this song is that the paranoid reality it riffs off of is basically what we’re living in now: Government surveillance, vaccines, homeless people living in boxes, etc. — sound familiar? Zumbi and the Grouch paint vivid pictures of woke rebels creating resilience, while Amp Live’s 808 beats anchor the song’s hip-hoptitude.This could be a rap classic, as long as we widen the definition to include conscious songs that clocked zero commercial radio spins.

Hit Em (2006)
At the time, this collaboration between Zion-I, The Grouch and Mistah F.A.B. was somewhat overshadowed by the hyphy movement. But while it has the same energy as hyphy, its message is far less dubious and, perhaps, longer-lasting. “They feeling the styles.”

Don’t Lose Your Head (2005)
“Gotta big beat so fat you can smoke it.” Only Zion-I could make a conscious hyphy song, complete with a Too Short verse. Amp Live’s production perfectly captures the essence of that time, as Zumbi displays a working knowledge of slang and colloquia while urging listeners to get smart, not go dumb.

The Bay (2005)
A history lesson, affirmation of regional identity, and soulful uplift all in one. “We never act shy when it’s time to ride, and we claim Tupac as a source of pride.” There’s a violin solo near the end, for God’s sake. The remix to this features The Team, Casual, and Turf Talk.

Doing My Thing (2005)
“Now you see who I am/ MC to the heart/ I’mma funk the jam.” A straight-forward, autobiographical tale with trumpet samples detailing Zumbi’s dedication to the artform of hip-hop. The Zion-I ethos is evident in the crafting; new-school takes on old-school tradition.

The End (2003)
“People get scared when you hollar revolution.” True indeed. This raw-sounding bonus track from Deep Water Slang has a grimey, early-Wu feel, replete with staticy samples and a basic boom bap beat that may be slightly over-modulated. The song isn’t the album’s most-accessible or polished track. But it revels in the love of hip-hop, for hip-hop’s sake.

Silly Puddy (2001)
This collaboration with The Grouch not only still sounds relevant, but foreshadowed two subsequent albums and a few singles. The chemistry between Grouch and Zumbi is evident; each gives the other space to hold microphone minutes. “Trying to find myself/ Looking at reflections of everyone else” Zumbi spits, while The Grouch retorts, “I speak it verbally, making sure all them fools have heard of me.”

A public celebration of the life of Zumbi will be held from 1-6p on Sunday, August 22 at Brooklyn Basin’s Township Commons in Oakland. Masks required.

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