Since emerging in the late ’90s, Oakland duo Zion I has established itself as a hip-hop group that makes energetic music for the thinking man. But that niche doesn’t limit the group’s ambitions. Each album from producer AmpLive and rhymer Zumbi has revealed new angles in sound. Amp has been known to draw from styles as up-tempo as drum ‘n’ bass or as relaxed as dub, always a complement to Zumbi’s mix of reflective and party-ready raps. The two have garnered a loyal following over the past decade, with a little extra shine for AmpLive’s Radiohead remix project, Rainydayz. And they didn’t sacrifice substance on their most recent album, The Take Over, which is both catchy and lyrical. Here, the two discuss their new album, their side projects and making music with a message without being pushy.
Part 1: AmpLive
You’ve been doing a good amount of remixes lately. What inspired you to do so many with such a variety of acts?
The thing is, I’ve always been into all types of music — I just haven’t released it as long as I’ve been in Zion I. So the past couple years I decided to go ahead and just step out and start doing more of the stuff that I’m also interested in. I listen to and produce a lot of rock, a lot of electro kind of stuff. The Radiohead thing was just something that happened. I’m a Radiohead fan, I like the album, and I just did a couple remixes and it sort of took off. From there a whole bunch of other stuff started happening.
When Warner Brothers served you with the cease and desist order a year ago, how did that change your view on doing remixes?
Well, the thing is, I’ve done official remixes before. I just didn’t know that was going to happen with [Raindayz] because the remix game has changed, technology has changed, and DJs do their own remixes. So I didn’t know that it was going to really catch fire like that. Most of the remixes I’ve done have been legit, like the ones I did for Linkin Park and for other acts — they hit me up. For [Rainydayz], I did my own DJ edits and remixed things up, and when they hit me, I was like, "Wow, this must have gotten a lot of attention." So from that point we contacted each other and made it official.
With the more recent groups like Tokyo Police Club and Of Montreal, did they hit you up or did you hit them up?
Yeah, Tokyo Police Club hit me up. Jamie Lidell — all those people — they hit me up. So those are official remixes. They’re real cool people.
In doing those remixes, how did that inform the new Zion I album?
Well, it didn’t quite influence it totally, but I used a couple of the tricks that I was using on some of the remixes, just messing with the vocals. There was a couple songs where I went back and changed the whole song up. We started with the initial idea and then we went back and changed up the idea. I don’t know, I don’t think it had a big influence on the album, but because I was in that mode, I was maybe doing a couple things I was doing with some of the other remixes. For Zion I, I’m doing stuff from scratch. With the remixes, a lot of times they were sending me their ProTools sessions, so the music was already there. I was just taking it and manipulating it or maybe replaying it.
What inspired some of the more retro-sounding Zion I songs like “Country Baked Yams?”
I wanted to do a song with Devin the Dude. Zumbi sent me an a capella and I flipped it up. I basically just took his a capella and placed it over a track, and that’s sort of what got that sparking. After we did, we thought, "Who can we put on the song just to make it hot?" And thinking about it, I’ve always wanted to do something with Devin the Dude, and of course Zumbi was down, so we just hit Devin up, sent him the track, and he was down. With the sound of it, I wanted to do a mix up of live drums with electronic drums. I do that a lot, but I wanted to do it more like live electro. I didn’t want to switch up.
Did you play the drums yourself?
Kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum is “Caged Bird” with Brother Ali. That has more of a classic boom-bap sound to it. Was that a case where you had the beat and you felt it was a good opportunity to link up with Brother Ali?
That song went through three different beats. It started out as a drum ‘n’ bass song, and then it went to a dub-sounding beat — the other version could have been on KMEL. It was a dub, Down South-sounding beat, and then it ended up the way it was. It was pretty crazy. Out of all our songs, that one went through the most transitions. And when you listen to the final copy, you would never know. It sounds like a straight-ahead hip-hop song.
Does that happen a lot, where songs take a new life as they go along?
It doesn’t happen as much but within us it does happen. Zumbi wrote “Caged Bird” a while ago. So if it’s just sitting there and we’re not quite comfortable with it, it’s probably going to go through another transition. But with newer songs, it’s sort of hard because you’re running out of time. You don’t have time to really go back and make changes.
You know Zumbi’s always been about the smart, more focused type of subject matter, but how do you balance that with a fun element in the beats?
We sort of go off each other. I might make something that has a light feeling to it, like “Juicy Juice” or “DJ DJ,” and he’ll write to that. Or sometimes with the irony of the song, he comes with something serious, so I might put a lighter beat behind it. Sometimes you don’t want to do that because you want the whole emotion to come to through big.
Part 2: Zumbi
How do you feel about the album now that it’s a wrap?
Right now I’m just really trying to focus my mind on marketing and promoting and letting people know what’s up. There’s a lot going on in the world so with so much information, we’re trying to break through and have something break out so people can connect with it.
Even back when you guys put out Mind over Matter, a lot of people weren’t rapping over drum ‘n’ bass-style beats and now you guys are doing different things, creating different sounds. Does that make it harder to market yourself?
Not in my mind. Maybe some people would think that, but in my mind, it’s the only choice we have. We can’t be anybody but ourselves. I think the challenge is to master what we do and bring people in and introduce ’em, ’cause I don’t think it’s a thing of making good music. I’ve never been that cat to follow anyone else. I’ve always been kind of on my own shit, and I think Amp is the same way, so I don’t think that’s a detraction. If anything, I’ve always respected that we’re unique and original. For us, I think that’s the plus — I think that’s why we’ve been in the game. We’re still going so that’s one of the best attributes we have.
Just sticking to your guns has kept you in the game for so long?
Yeah, just sticking to our guns and not being afraid to say we’re human beings, so there are moments when cats get a little squeamish at points. We’ve never been afraid to innovate and try to push and do something different. Just ’cause they weren’t playing it on the radio didn’t stop us from doing stuff, because we thought it was fresh and because we wanted to.
Songs from the new album like “Juicy Juice” and “Radio” take smart subject matter and meld it with approachable beats. Can you talk about the challenge of making catchy hip-hop that isn’t dumbed down?
That’s something that we’re still in the process of mastering. I think this album is probably the closest we’ve come to that. But it’s funny, man. Even though it’s not dumbed down and our music will never be stupid, because that’s not what I’m about, it’s so funny that when people hear certain sounds from us they automatically categorize it: "Oh, they’re not on that positive thing no more." I’m like, "Dude, did you hear the lyrics? All you’re hearing is the beats, but did you listen to the rhymes?" I feel like at this point in time, people have a hard time seeing past the surface. I just feel like that’s what our music’s all about — looking deeper into things whether it be music, relationships, your life, your spiritual connection. I think our music has always been about just trying to push people into reflection.
I remember when the Fugees came out, and I was talking to my homie ‘cause he was going on tour with them. And he was like, "I talked to Lauryn [Hill] and she talks about trying to get a positive message out," but what she told my partner was that you just have to slip it in under the door. People don’t want to be told how to be positive or that they need to change something. You just gotta make it fresh and then just slip some jewels in there — some positive energy. Right now the movement’s all about spreading love. I think we let the beats draw people in and then I just try to hit ‘em ever so gently with some messages. But I think without the meaning behind the words and the intention behind the music, it loses its power. So that’s key to us. It is a challenge, but luckily there’s people out there that feel what we do.
What songs from the album do you think best accomplished that?
“Geek to the Beat,” just because the message of the song is we’re living in this modern society and everyone’s so uptight, everybody wants to be rich — everyone is so caught up in materialism. And “Geek to the Beat” is saying, "Man, relax, take off your suit and tie, live in the moment for one second and enjoy yourself." It’s not really a deep thing, like a prescription how to be, but more like, take off all those trappings of modern life and just relax in your instinctive, natural self for a second; give yourself one minute to breathe. People get so caught up in jobs and trying to get that next thing that’s going to make them feel good about themselves that they forget that there’s already a place here to feel good.
You don’t talk too much about what other people are doing, but is it hard not to lash back at the materialism that’s still found in hip-hop?
I’m not going to lash back at something. I’m not trying to make angry music. I don’t really listen to hella-angry music. If there’s a reason — like that some kid from Oakland got shot on New Year’s Day, getting off the BART train; the cops had him down and they had their knee to his back and they shot him — I write something about that. It makes me angry that as a community, we don’t get up and riot like they did in Greece. We don’t say anything. Something like that, I’ll write about, but in terms of materialism or people’s messages in hip-hop, I feel like everybody’s got a life path and people have been through stuff I have never been through. So I’m not really trying to judge the next man’s viewpoint, ‘cause they feel that way for a reason.
So I’d rather just talk about what I talk about and like you said make it fresh and bring people in rather than bashing the next man’s experience. You can’t make somebody grow, you can’t do anything for anybody. You can just share your experience and say, "Look, check this out, this is where I’ve been." I think if we did this more often rather than bashing this dude and [saying], "This dude did something different so he’s wack" and "This cat changed styles so he sucks." I think you can waste a lot of energy on the next person instead of just concentrating on how we feel.
How much does coming from the Bay, a historically activist environment, influence the music?
The Bay is a very interesting place. It’s probably one of the most leftist regions in the United States. There’s just a lot of different people and social movements going on, from black, Latino, Phillipino, Chinese — everyone just trying to do work for the community. We constantly get hit up by people: "We doing a benefit for this" or "We’d like you guys to come through and talk to our kids in juvenile hall." For us, our music grew a lot out here and social activism is just a part of the environment here, so I think our music naturally fits with that. It’s a constant reminder being out here when you see people protesting something or I get an e-mail from somebody with some information I didn’t know. It’s like, damn, we gotta stay on our toes — it’s just a part of being a person of color, man. Sometimes they forget about you, so you gotta remind ‘em that you still here. You can’t get stepped on.
In terms of the beats and music, I feel like, a lot of the popular music is not contentious or whatever you want to call it. It’s not about getting a message across — it’s just about having fun, smoking, getting juiced, dancing, turfing– whatever. I feel like Zion I’s whole thing right now is bridging worlds, pulling things together that don’t seem like they fit together, putting them together so people can enjoy something new, some type of new fusion. And I think that’s what we do with the lyrics and the music.
I like how on "The Take Over” you say how people call you “starvin’ to grimy, conscious to Cosby, hyphy to hip-hop.” Do you enjoy being hard to categorize in that sense?
Yeah. It’s a two-sided coin. I feel like now music is spread by word of mouth. Even if it’s on the Internet, it’s still this kind of a word-of-mouth thing. The more easily you can categorize it, the faster that message can spread. So it’s like a two-sided coin for us, man. Being that changing chameleon, esoteric sometimes, I feel like that’s hard for people to describe so sometimes people just can’t pass along the message. But at the same time, I like the material nature because I feel like a true artist is going to change and evolve. And if you do the same thing twice, definitely, I’m already knowing our fans will get bored of it and I don’t think any new fans will deal with it.
I think at one point, everything will connect. We’ll get that big song or that publishing thing that happens, and people will be exposed to our music. And then everybody that feels us can come and get in. It’s just one of those things — the balance.