Dropping Zion

A&E raps with Zumbi of the Oakland hip-hop duo Zion I.

Lucy Nieboer

What: Zion I

When: 8 p.m., Wednesday

Where: Triple Rock Social Club, 629 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis

Cost: $15

Age: 18+


Zumbi and Amp Live have been broadening the definition of hip-hop since the late ’90s. Pulling from soul music, Middle-Eastern beats and unique instrumentation, the independent producer-lyricist combo Zion I has gained national attention for their positive, trippy tunes. Their song “Coastin’,” an anthem of West Coast love, pumped from the speakers of every Californian class-of-2010 student.

The Bay Area group prides itself on moving past the message of materialism that has taken over present day hip-hop.

“You can always tell, for me, when someone is drinking all the time in the studio or all they’re concerned with is getting girls,” Zumbi said. “It’s all about making their bread. You can hear it in their music.”

Amp Live and Zumbi have always wanted to push the boundaries of creating a cutting-edge sound. Their songs pull from Amp’s affinity for house music and Zumbi’s love of reggae, among other eclectic influences.

The group’s mixed-bag approach to musical style also contributes to free-flowing lyrics. Zumbi explained that when they were first starting out, the Bay Area music scene was very open to listening to new kinds of hip-hop.

“There’s an open-mindedness out here. There’s a fusion of different ideas. People seem to collect things from Europe, things from the East Coast, from wherever, and then fuse them,” he said.

For Zion I, pairing the duo’s unique sound with powerful positive messaging was a natural process.

“When I got introduced to it, the things that are cool now, like yes, Big Daddy Kane had on a big-ass chain and all that, but it was like these cats are talking about so much more,” he said.

After Zion I’s first mixtape dropped in 2000, Zumbi was hooked on spreading his message of positivity.

“The wealth that was hip-hop was like our CNN — people without a voice. This is a voice for the voiceless,” he said.

Forming an independent label seemed like the only feasible option for the group that didn’t quite fit anybody’s mold. Zumbi said in the digital age, controlling your own content is more important than ever.

“With the Internet and with the way that records don’t sell, it’s all about merchandising and touring and licensing — you don’t need a label to do that anyway,” he said.

Zumbi admitted that being an independent artist and producer is a lot of hard work but worth it to have a hand in every aspect of creation.

“If you’re like a Wiz Khalifa dude and that’s just how you get down, fine, but if you have counter messages to what’s popular in the media, do it yourself,” he said. “You don’t have to wait for anybody to validate you.”

Now, in addition to working on a new album due out in October, Zumbi is mentoring up-and-coming artists to follow in his footsteps. He thinks forging ahead solo — although intimidating at first — pays off.

“You can be creative, live out your dreams, speak your truth and prosper from how you feel about the world,” he said, “and I think that’s what the independent grind is all about.”