ZION I & THE GROUCH: AGAINST THE GRAIN INTERVIEW [PART 1]
It took three weeks to catch all three members of Zion I & The Grouch.
What was originally intended to be a sleek, thirty-minute interview before the Brooklyn-leg of their sprawling, twenty-five city nationwide tour, quickly morphed into segmented conversations. Two separately at The Knitting Factory. One over the Blackberry—twenty-one days later.
It makes sense. Heroes have responsibilities.
Zion I and The Grouch (as part of Livin’ Legends) are nearly two decades deep into their perpetually progressive careers. Album after album, they’ve consistently tight-walked the line dividing artistic integrity and commercial resilience, reinventing their sound while maintaining their message. Amp Live, Zumbi and The Grouch teamed up for 2006’s Heroes In The City Of Dope. In 2011, they expanded on the eclectic series with Heroes In The Healing Of A Nation -- all while remaining devoted husbands, fathers and champions for their many fans.
The Well Versed and The Bay Area luminaries talked much about life and the way America is going in this segmented conversation. We talked about family and politics and how the youth are ably etching their own names into Hip-Hop’s talisman. And of course, we talked at length about Heroes In The Healing Of A Nation.
The Well Versed: Mind Over Matter debuted eleven years ago. Since then, Zion I’s consistently performed and traveled and continued to build on its legacy, but you’ve also been very good at reinventing yourself and changing your sound. Is it difficult to not get complacent?
Zumbi: You know what? I don’t think it’s difficult to not be complacent because that’s really just what’s in our DNA. We don’t really like doing the same thing over. It gets boring. It’s been like that for us for some reason. Even while we were making Mind Over Matter and even before that -- there’s an essential adventure that comes with the music for us. It’s not really about replicating things or copying what’s cool. It’s more about discovering a new space within yourself or discovering something new about who you are through the music. It’s always this constant progression and constant push to try new things or fuse different things together. I’m thankful because that small aspect of what we do has really invigorated our career. It’s separated us from other people. I thought everybody was like that but you start to see there is a formula for a lot of cats. For us, we just try to keep pushing and discovering new things, new territory.
TWV: How do you think the formula comes about? I’ve noticed that too and I think that’s one of the things that distinguishes Zion I from many acts. Sometimes I feel like artists stumble into accidental success and then receive a lot of pressure from the label or their management to recreate that and are limited in range because maybe they achieved that success prematurely. What’s your take on it?
Zumbi: I definitely see that often, especially these days when you can make one catapult to international success. I’ve seen it. Cats even up here in The Bay. This one dude did a video. He had like 8 million hits in two months. The difference was he was a genuine talent and so when they asked him to do all of these commercials and everything, he was like, “Nah, I’m cool,” just because he recognized that if he did that, it could put him in a situation where, “You’re that guy.” Once the world sees you as something for the first time and it’s so big, it’s kind of hard to redefine yourself in people’s minds. Even Lupe Fiasco’s last album, from the reports I read, he had a very difficult time with [LASERS] because [Atlantic Records] wanted him to recreate “Superstar” over and over again. So, yeah, I do see that. I think it’s just part of the age we live in. The labels aren’t making as much money as they once were so they’re trying to make their money on sure bets. It kind of unbalances everything in terms of making pure art.
TWV: Amp, how real did it feel to get a cease and desist from Warner Bros. for the RainyDayz Remixes of Radiohead’s In Rainbows?
Amp Live: [Laughs] How did it feel? It felt pretty real seeing that emblem on a piece of paper.
TWV: Did you expect that?
Amp Live: The thing about that situation, it sort of opened me up to a different fan base because you have all these people who -- I mean, I’ve done official remixes for the major labels.
TWV: A bunch of them.
Amp Live: A lot. So, it wasn’t a big deal but then to some people it was like, “Oh, who is this dude? I’ve never heard of him.” Then all of a sudden Warner Bros. just sent the letter. It was just like, I wasn’t too surprised. I was just like, “OK, I guess I got the attention of the publishing company.” But a lot of that situation escalated because my publicist and Pitchfork started getting the ball rolling and saying stuff without me even saying anything and I think after all of that, it just messed up into a big media thing. Sort of just a whole bunch of things I had to learn.
TWV: When I’m listening to your most recent project, Heroes In The Healing of a Nation, it feels like an eclectic album. Its hollow drums and base heavy at points. Sometimes it sounds like it could be on the soundtrack to a 1990s black movie. I can see some of these songs on “The Best Man,” for example.
Zumbi: Oh wow! [Laughs]
TWV: Especially when I listen to “Victorious People”, for example. But just the eclectic range and the instruments and the message is always there -- “I Used To Be A Vegan”, “Be A Father”, “I’m A Leader.” That’s always been very consistent with Zion I throughout your career. Are you at a point now where can’t nobody tell you nothing? Because it seems like when you have a prominent message, there’s less of an avenue for that music. At least that’s how it seems on a shallow level.
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