Photos: Arian Stevens | Graphics: Talia
As the stronghold of Bay Area underground Hip-Hop, Zion I has never stepped on the mainstream stage despite creating several critically-acclaimed alternative albums in the last decade. Their desire to stay to true to their music and loyal to their fans is a great responsibility to them. Subsequently, it takes priority over any amount of money they could receive on any higher platform.
So on a similar theme, their second studio album alongside longtime journeyman, The Grouch, Heroes in the Healing of the Nation, takes their years of experience and quite literally gives it all back to the people worldwide. As part of their current Heroes… tour the group is donating a percentage of profits to each and every host city, as a version of living the album’s message.
And while on this legacy-making tour, Zion I and The Grouch were able to take some time off to chop it up with TSS Crew’s Raj and give some insight on the album’s behind the scenes, their future plans for the group and to finally clarify why going mainstream isn’t ever going to be for them.
TSS: Where you guys at right now?
Zumbi: We’re in Fort Collins, Colorado, about to drive to Boulder, Colorado.
TSS: How’s the tour going so far?
Zumbi: It’s crazy man. About 85% of the shows have been sold out and if they’re not sold out, they’re between five and ten people short. The shows have been dope man, packed.
AmpLive: Yeah, it’s been tight! People just been going crazy. Mosh-pitting and stuff, you know, the whole deal.
The Grouch: The tour’s been great, mostly sold out. The response to the album and the material we just put out is super inspiring because I didn’t know how people were going to react to the album. It’s a lot of talking about positive issues and stuff like that and conditions right now. We try to do it in a way where it’s not like ‘everything’s all bad!’ but more like an uplifting way but also not in a preachy way. And from the response, people are feeling it. Everybody’s been thinking about the things we’re thinking about and we’re putting it out there and sharing it with the world and they’re getting into it.
TSS: Sick! And how many tours and stops do you guys got planned overall?
Zumbi: On this tour, we got about 30 dates or something like that. And we got a Canadian run and an European run, and then another one towards the end of the year.
TSS: And you guys are donating some of the proceeds to local charities and every stop, right?
AmpLive: Yeah, we donate the percentage that Ticketmaster takes as an online fee.
TSS: Is this all part of living out the themes of Heroes in the Healing of the Nation?
Zumbi: Yeah, when we first got out to make this album, we wanted to do a non-profit or create some kind of movement and it was hard to do a non-profit because we had to focus on albums and tours, so we decided to donate money. And it’s been a real dope idea and people have responded really positively.
TSS: No doubt, it’s a great thing you guys are doing. A lot of your music is positive like that and it’s awesome to see Zion I actually living it like that and helping out communities on a local level.
Zumbi: Yeah man, we went to see some kids an elementary school the other day, to just talk about Hip-Hop and the positive energy and it’s cool to interact with the community beyond just doing shows, you know?
TSS: Definitely. How did the whole concept of Heroes in the Healing of the Nation come up when you guys were starting to create a new album?
AmpLive: Man, from a producer’s standpoint, I just wanted to build a positive album, and something that our fans would really really like. That was the basic thing.
Zumbi: The first record we made together was called Heroes in the City of Dope. You know we were just trying to be positive and “the City of Dope” is the name for the city of Oakland, as coined by Too $hort. But then for this one, we wanted to be a little more global and even though the album is called “Nation,” we’re kind of talking about the whole world.
But with everything going on man, and Earth changes, earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes and floods and economically things is changing. You got wars, you got the stuff going on in Libya, Egypt, and Bahrain, all across the planet. All these things are happening at once. And then you got all the ideas of 2012 and the cleansing of the Earth.
So we wanted to create something that was gonna inspire people and just some all around feel good music, something to help people through these difficult times. But still nothing like “I’m at the club, I’m smoking on stuff!” We wanted to do something from a different angle that was gonna affect people differently.
TSS: Amp, what was the sound you were looking for when you guys were making Heroes in the Healing of the Nation?
AmpLive: Well, I wanted to definitely have more of a harder type of sound but then also straightforward and soulful. And also I wanted to make sure it sounded different from City of Dope. That one had a lot more Oakland and reflected what was going on at the time. I think this album, I wanted it to be a little more universal.
TSS: And Grouch, how did you link up with Zion I for the first time?
The Grouch: Initially it was around ’98, we were both making Hip-Hop music in the Bay Area. They were doing shows and I was doing shows so we’d see each other around. And I think AmpLive approached me about doing a song and he came over with his MPC one time and just played the beat and it was dope and I was like, “Hell yeah, I’d love to be on the song!” We had a mutual friend who was recording their album, we laid it down and the rest is history.
TSS: Word, and you all have collaborated on tracks a few times before. Why do a full-length collaboration now?
Zumbi: Like I said, this is our second album together and basically we did “Silly Puddy” on our first record Mind Over Matter in 2000 and that’s still one of our best songs and people really connected with it over the years. And it was just like we should do an album together. We did a couple more songs together and people were really liking all this music, so were like we should just do an album together because our chemistry is really mixing well. So we just decided to do that and it came off well. Hopefully it’s something that we can continue because people are feeling the energy. I can’t explain exactly why, but something about it just feels natural and organic.
TSS: Zumbi, how are your records with The Grouch different from your records with just Amp?
Zumbi: I think the records with just Zion I are a little more eclectic and less definitive as a style. The song concepts are a little more abstract. But the records we do with The Grouch are more precise and succinct. We lay it all out before the pen even hits the paper. We gotta make sure we all link up together because when I’m writing I just write and see where it goes and that doesn’t necessarily work in a group setting.
TSS: One of my favorite songs off Healing of the Nation was “I Used To Be A Vegan.” Can you give some insight on it? What’s the basis of the song?
The Grouch: The song is about being title-less really. I don’t want to call myself any specific title. Recently, I did two months of eating raw foods only. After that I decided I’d allow myself to eat some non-hormone grass-fed meat here and there. And I go day to day and I try to eat what I think is healthy for me at the time. If I’m performing every night and staying up ‘til four in the morning, I adjust my diet. If I’m in Hawaii and the temperature is really warm and there’s a lot of fresh organic fruits, I mostly just eat fruit. But if I come over to the mainland and it’s freezing cold, I’m gonna change my diet accordingly.
TSS: Are you guys against the slaughtering of animals?
The Grouch: I don’t agree with the crazy slaughtering of animals and some of the techniques they use in the United States especially. I live in Maui and they have a little better treatment of animals out there. I feel like people out there have a little bit more respect for the way they treat animals and that’s the meat that I eat. I don’t just buy meat from fast food joints or anything like that. I do eat animals but I don’t think it’s right to senselessly slaughter animals and treat them wrong. But I think if you got a level of respect for what you’re eating and you try to make sure it comes from the most humane places, then I don’t think it’s all that bad. But the song isn’t just about that. A huge part of it is health reasons as well.
TSS: What do you think is the secret to making a song catchy without dumbing it down?
Zumbi: It’s hard to do. Basically, I try to be fresh, really. Style it out and don’t compromise on the message. I listen to people who I think can do that. People like Lauryn Hill, Nas, OutKast. Some people like Kanye, Common and Mos Def have mastered being able to slip that message under the rug and just keep it fresh. So then it’s like you’re still saying something without going over the top.
The Grouch: Honestly, I don’t think you have to ever dumb down the message in your music ever to make it catchy. I think that music, beats and sound – aka the actual music without the lyrics – can be anything you want it to be. If I’m into hyphy music for instance, I can take that soundscape and write what I want to write on top of it and present it. And either people are going to like it or not. There were a couple times in my career where I tried to make catchy things and I felt like everybody was going to like and I weight out some of the things in my head sometimes but for the most part the best music that I’ve ever made is just music that I feel is good music for my own self. I don’t generally think about people outside too much when I make music. When you start thinking about that, that’s when the music starts feeling contrived and forced and it just doesn’t work.
AmpLive: You just gotta really honestly do your thing. Some people just really try to write catchy songs but they can’t pull it off. It has to be a natural process. You can’t conform your craft; you just gotta be the best you can be.
TSS: What was the atmosphere like in the studio when you guys were making the record?
The Grouch: It was a lot of fun man. Since I’m out in Maui, and they flew out there and we recorded half the album. And then I also came to Oakland and did some stuff out there in the studio they had set up. The vibe is always good. When we get in the room together, Amp is playing beats, we’re getting the energy off of beats. Zumbi and I are bouncing concepts off each other and writing verses. It’s a good time, taking breaks and having long conversations about things. That’s one of the best things about being in the studio, just hanging out and having good conversation. Getting food, just chilling and being in a creative space.
TSS: How do you think Zion I’s message has changed over the years, since you guys came out?
Zumbi: I think that when we first started, making music was still a dream. It wasn’t real to us because we were doing it but living the life and waking up and making music was a dream. So on our first records, we were paying homage to the thing that we loved. Every song was a dream come true.
Then when we dropped the record, we got caught up in trying to sound cool and sound like what was happening. You know, things on the radio and stuff like that. It was good in some ways, but we might have lost a little bit of integrity along the way and, in some ways, the tone changed. I think now we’re kind of getting back to that ideal vibration where we’re just going back to our roots. Personally, I love music and I’m just thankful to be able to do it and I see how people respond, so I just try to stay sincere and maintain that same depth that we’re trying to expose people to. In a way, I think it’s almost come full circle, not that it was all bad at any point, but it’s just returned to where it started.
AmpLive: I think it sounds better and it’s gotten more straight to the point. I think that we also tune into our fanbase a little bit more. So that’s really helped through the years.
TSS: Why have you guys stayed on the independent platform for so long and not taken your music up to the next level?
AmpLive: Well, it’s part of the natural progression of things. We never really got picked up by the majors and we just kept on doing music, and our fanbase kept on getting bigger. So, what do you do? You don’t want to break something that doesn’t need to be fixed. At this particular time, I think the playing field has gotten more equal. Nowadays to be independent versus to be on a major label is almost the same thing.
TSS: How do you think record labels influence an artist’s music?
AmpLive: Especially with major labels, a lot of the time they pay for stuff to be played on the radio. If you hear a certain type of song on the radio all the time, people are going to think that’s the sound you have to do to blow up. It’s a machine that goes all around.
TSS: And like you said, even though you’ve stayed indy, your fanbase has always continued to grow. What quality do you think Zion I has that allows you guys to keep on getting bigger without the backing of that machine?
AmpLive: I think we just try to be different and we try to push the envelope all the time. And I think that’s what really helps.
TSS: Where do you guys see Zion I going in the future?
Zumbi: We keep making music, probably drop some kind of EP this year. I really want to get to making, or rather releasing music on a more consistent basis. Not necessarily whole albums, but individual songs and then collect everything and drop an album. That way we can just keep it lit and people know that there’s always action. Back in the day, artists used to start out and you do an album and then you work on another one for a year and half, two years and then drop it. But in this era, you can’t really do that anymore because the music is moving so fast and people’s attention spans are so short. The window of opportunity is so intense and small that you’ve got to respond what’s happening in life and talk and engage with people. Almost like a conversation.
So yeah, just drop music. We got some burners coming out, record probably coming out too. I’d like to develop Live Up Records some more to create a platform for younger artists to spread their gospel and really support them. I want to help them out and get ‘em on their feet.
AmpLive: We just want to keep on moving, honestly. I just hope it gets better and better.
TSS: Who are some people you want to collaborate with one day?
The Grouch: In the future, I would like to do some stuff with Ziggy Marley or Damien Marley. I’ve done a song with Raphael Saadiq, but I’d like to do more work with him. There’s also a lot of people in Maui who just play instruments who’re unknown and so dope. Like there’s people playing the harp outside my grocery store and stuff like that. And I always want to get those kind of people to come into the studio with me and just lay down some stuff because there’s so many dope musicians in the world, it’s not about who’s already famous.
Zumbi: I’d love to do some work with Mos. I’d love to do some work with Three Stacks, Madlib. I really respect intelligent street minds, kind of bridges between worlds, people that aren’t really stuck in any one box. Their minds are so vast that they can cover many different areas and it’s a natural thing, it’s not like they’re trying. That’s the kind of artist I respect.
TSS: And who are some artists that you guys look up to as influences on your own style?
The Grouch: I grew up listening to everybody. I’m from Oakland, so I grew up listening to a lot of Too $hort, then at the same time I was listening to Boogie Down Productions, KRS-One, Public Enemy and then it got to the age of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, The Pharcyde, Hieroglyphics and that’s when shit really just flipped out because I felt like that was closer to what I was really on myself. That’s a lot of the people that I consider my peers, even though they’re a little older than me.
AmpLive: As a producer, I look to everybody man. The usual big guys like the Timbalands to producers that you just hear on some independent stuff.
TSS: Grouch, what was it like for you, growing up in Oakland?
The Grouch: I was into Hip-Hop, and back then it wasn’t the most popular culture and music. So not everybody was listening to it. There were people around me that used to make fun of me for listening to Hip-Hop. And even in high school, if you listened to Hip-Hop, you were in a smaller majority. You were kind of in an unspoken club with the other people that were on the same wavelength who loved Hip-Hop. You didn’t even have to say anything. You’d be dressed a certain way and you kind of knew, “Oh, that dude dresses like me and he’s listening to Hip-Hop.” We probably had similar ideas and things. But now it’s not necessarily like that because the culture has permeated the whole society and you got grandmothers that listen to Hip-Hop and dance to it when they go to the gym.
I went from having an all black audience in Oakland, California to now mostly an all white audience and it’s strange to me, because that’s not how I grew up. But I can’t complain, it’s not a negative thing. I’m not mad at anybody who’s in front of me listening to my raps and liking them. It’s just a different time and that’s what it is.
TSS: And Amp, who do you think is the next big artist coming out of Oakland?
AmpLive: Man, I don’t know. How do you even gauge that now? YouTube views? Radio play? I don’t know if any of those outlets can even accurately tell you. It’s really hard to tell.
TSS: Alright, let rephrase that, what artists do you listen to from the Bay right now?
AmpLive: I definitely like Trackademicks, he’s tight. There’s so many different artists man, it’s just matter what you’re talking about (Laughs). I think that artists who continue to do shows and really push the envelopes are the ones who’ll last. Like Los Rakas, for example. They do Spanish music, electro almost and it just sounds really crazy. Their music is really cool.
TSS: One more thing man, Zumbi, I caught that “Geek to the Beat” video, that shit was dope.
Zumbi: [Laughs] Right on.
TSS: Do you think you can match or even top that creatively?
Zumbi: You know what man, with that video the guys that shot the video hit me up on Facebook, and they were like, “Yo we wanna do a video with y’all!” and I got the message super late because I wasn’t even really checking the messages, so I got it like four months later. But I hit ‘em up and they were still down to do it. I ain’t even ever met these guys before and I sent ‘em the album, and they wanted to do it to “Geek to the Beat” and so they sent me a treatment. And when I read it, I was like this is ill and I could just picture it from the email they sent me. Those guys funded that video themselves, they got their grandmother’s house and tricked it out and they just put in so much work, their name is the M.A.Y.O. Collective, out in New York. That was a wild video man. I had a little bit do with it, in terms of just providing feedback, but really they wrote the treatment. Hopefully eventually we can hit that level of creativity again, because that was definitely sick.
TSS: (Laughs) Cool man, that wraps it up. Any last things you want to say to the readers?
Zumbi: One love, we appreciate the support. Stay tuned to us man and check out www.zioniandthegrouch.com. We’re all over Facebook on our official page as well. Just keep your eyes open, ‘cuz cats are getting busy. I got projects. Amp got projects. Grouch got projects. We bout to work on some film stuff, video stuff, maybe a book too. We just trying to stay creative and get down. One love.
And there you have it. Zion I & The Grouch’s Heroes In The Healing Of The Nation is available on iTunes and Amazon courtesy of Z & G Music. For more information on the solidified trio, visit www.zioniandthegrouch.com and follow them each on Twitter @ZIONI, @therealgrouch, @zumbi808 & @amplive.