The Legacy of Zion I’s Steve ‘Zumbi’ Gaines, who Passed at Age 49
In 2000, hip-hop was in a very different place than it is today. Outkast’s Stankonia, Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, and Jay-Z’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia topped the annual charts; Nelly released his first album; Big Pun released his last; and through all of the sonic experimentation ranging a broader geographic scope than ever before, much of the scene focused on the Bay Area with smooth-talking pimp-culture projects coming from a number of acclaimed emcees including Del the Funky Homosapien, Mac Dre, and E-40. And yet, often overlooked amongst a sea of not only Bay Area hip-hop artists, but hip-hop and influence through the last two decades at large, exists the career of Zion I, who released their own debut album, Mind Over Matter, on May 30 of the same year.
From the very beginning, the hyper-lyrical, consciously rooted raps of front man, Steve ‘Zumbi’ Gaines danced across the framework of electronically nuanced beats from DJ and producer, Amp Live. Undisputedly ahead of their time when it came to infusing a signature sound with cyber-punk keystrokes that left a listener suspended sans gravity in a futurist sonic space, Zumbi’s raps acted as a balancing act, carrying more than enough gravity to bring a listener not only back to Earth, but into their own mind. Perhaps the most prominent of such a balancing act first came in the form of Silly Puddy, an immersive five-and-a-half-minute exhibition of the spacey production and thought-provoking poeticism that would come to define Zion I’s texture for the next two decades. Galactic synth play, deep bass, dynamic penmanship, and an addicting hook make the track — and really the entirety of the debut album around it — feel like a collection that could have been released from the retrofuturistic SoundCloud underground of today.
And so much of that simple fact is owed to Zion I’s oft-overlooked influence. The Bay Area has always been known for pushing the boundaries of hip-hop, merging the game’s existing state of trends with the quirky, art-school nature of the creative hub that the Bay Area is. Oakland has birthed many of hip-hop’s most overlooked and important names, and like all hip-hop hubs — New York, LA, Chicago, Houston, New Orleans — much of rap’s success is born from detailing the struggles and strife that communities in those respective cities have long faced, and ultimately overcome.
Even late into his career, Zumbi was putting the challenges of the communities that birthed his path as a rapper front and center. “I’m not a rich man by any stretch, but I’m also not poor. I feel like I’m blessed to be able to do my music and support my family and live a decent life, you know. I can only imagine people that are actually struggling economically dealing with this situation,” Zion I disclosed upon the release of 2015’s Tech $ visuals which detailed he and his family’s eviction from their home in the wake of Oakland’s devastating gentrification. ‘In art, you take your hard times and make them good times.’
It’s a manifesto that Zion I has always adhered to. Some of their most popular tracks like Trippin (taken from 2000’s Mind Over Matter) which details the economic and social struggles of the Black community; Don’t Lose Your Head (a single from 2009) which immerses a listener in the blurry danger of a drug and alcohol fueled party existence; and Coastin’ (from 2009’s The Takeover) which exists as one of modernity’s most prominent positivist hip-hop anthems, exist at a crossroads of consciously self-aware and positively influential rap. Merged with their daunting influence as pioneers blending together the soundscapes of both emerging hip-hop and electronic music scenes, Zion I, with Zumbi at the helm and Amp Live behind the boards, have been unequivocal in their influence of hip-hop’s path over the last 20 years.
On August 13, 2021, Steve ‘Zumbi’ Gaines passed away. And with Amp Live having departed their collaborative effort a few years ago, Zion I has released the last of their trailblazing hip-hop. To wit, the world thanks them for a masterful career, having through the years released more than 10 albums, pushed hip-hop into a space of electronically experimental dynamism, all the while proving that with the right sound and the right mindset, rappers can transcend the trends of a fidgety hip-hop scene, forging a new, steady, and necessary path in music, influencing generations of musicians and fans present and future in the process.
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