Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Relationships are funny like that. Things can always go south, even when it’s been going well for years. In the case of Oakland-based hip-hop duo Zion I, emcee Zumbi and producer Amp Live have been through the gamut. There’s an undeniable brotherhood that goes back to the early ’90s when they met in Atlanta as students at Morehouse College. The two quickly realized they shared an intense love of music, more specifically, hip-hop. Their first group as The Roots (not the Roots) manifested in 1992. For obvious reasons, they had to change their name to Metaphors once they signed to Tommy Boy Records, which was just the beginning of a bumpy road with the reputable label.
“We signed a contract that we didn’t understand,” Zumbi explains. “We neglected to have a lawyer look at it for us. It stated we were supposed to work with a producer named Spearhead X. We had no idea, but when we started recording it, all came out. We made some good music in the first round, but they wanted more. As we started chasing singles, the sound started becoming whack. We would send them music and they would respond with lukewarm energy. It started to erode our confidence. Tommy Boy wanted another De La Soul or Naughty By Nature. We wanted to make as much music as possible and all they wanted was a hit.”
Needless to say, they eventually cutties with the label. As they continued to meticulously carve out their own path, Zion I came to life in 1996. From 2000’s critically acclaimed debut Mind Over Matter to 2012’s Shadowboxing, Zion I’s body of work is extensive. It includes nine studio albums, eight compilation albums, eight EPs and countless guest appearances. Despite their expansive history, it may come as a shock that Amp Live has left the group to pursue his solo career, leaving Zumbi at the helm. For many fans, a gaping hole in their story remains and the only question on their minds is, why?
“It’s been a long process, something that’s been happening over the past four years or so,” Zumbi explains. “Slowly, Amp started focusing his attention on other things. There would be evidence of this by not coming on tour. He didn’t do The Takeover Tour and he would choose solo shows over Zion I shows. When that started happening, it started to be uncomfortable for me because we were supposed to be a group. We talked about it and without going into too much detail, we just decided it would be better for him to just do his thing, and I would do Zion I.
Honestly, I think we waited a little too long, but it is what it is. Everything happens for a reason.”
As the tension between the two mounted, Zumbi tried to maintain his positive outlook and figure out a solution. After all, they were extremely close at one point: Zumbi spoke at his wedding, they knew each other’s families and had been friends for more than two decades. Much like a break-up, Zumbi was admittedly concerned about what people would think once they heard the news.
“Bottom line is, that’s my brother,” he says. “He’s family. At the same time, we’re not tight in this moment, but he’s still my brother. I pray that going forward we can be cool like we used to be. I’ve been doing everything by myself anyway so I’m pretty much used to the energy. Initially, I was concerned if there would be backlash when people found out. At this point, I feel it’s better to be honest and clarify who I am as opposed to what Zion I was. Now it’s just me holding it down. I’m trying to find positive ways to reinvigorate the brand and push myself forward more.
“When I got out of [the situation], it was like a crazy weight was lifted off my shoulders,” he adds. “It had been stressful for a couple of years.”
Fortunately, as Zumbi jumps in the driver’s seat, he has extremely talented individuals along for the ride. Emcee, DJ and pianist Kev Choice has been part of the Zion I family for years. In fact, the first tour he did with Zion I was The Takeover Tour in 2009. The Oakland-based artist has suited up to support Zumbi on the current Rapture World Tour, but doesn’t necessarily feel like he’s stepping into Amp Live’s role.
“Sometimes in life people need to go do different things,” Choice says. “I don’t feel like I have to fill Amp’s shoes. It’s just a different approach to the music, and it’s something Zumbi has wanted to do for a long time; to bring more live elements to the show. It’s a cool vibe. We’re doing completely avant-garde jazz stuff now and sticking to the Zion I aesthetic; heavy beats and high energy. I’m never trying to replace Amp.”
Zion I has finished a new live album, which drops in April. Titled The Rapture: Live From Oaklandia, the album is an audible history of Zion I’s journey and re-envisions many Zion I classics by incorporating elements of jazz and acoustic instrumentation. There’s a sense Zumbi is looking forward to what lies ahead.
“I don’t feel like my lyrics have ever taken a turn content wise, but maybe the spiritual or emotional content will be different,” Zumbi says. “I just want to get back to that pure form. I’ve been heading there lately and it feels good.”