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Zion I in Concert
For almost two decades, Oakland's Zion I has been putting down live underground hip-hop that bucks the norm and stands the test of time. Originally formed as a duo in 2000 with MC Baba Zumbi and producer Amp Live, the project is now led solely by Zumbi, who challenges what you might expect from a hip-hop show.
The year 2018 was downright prolific for Zumbi. It saw the release of both the Ritual Mystik album as well as The Tonite Show With Zion I, a collaboration in the Tonite Show album series of Oakland producer DJ Fresh. When Zion I isn't backed by three-piece band Lespecial on stage, DJ Fresh has been a tour staple behind the decks with Zumbi.
While changes in the musical lineup have been a constant that keeps fans intrigued at each performance, the conscious perspective at the core of Zion I's music is unwavering. Zumbi explained to the San Francisco Chronicle that the music has always been a product of who he is: "I'm an African-American male in Oakland, California, and I don't necessarily fit in anywhere I go. So I try to maintain my unique perspective, but also be universal at the same time. Be a human being first, but also be aware of my community. These are the things I try to say in my music."
Zion I Background
Lyricist Steve "Baba Zumbi" Gaines and producer Amp Live met as students at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where they formed Zion I. In 2000, the pair released their breakthrough debut, Mind Over Matter, an unexpected convergence of conscious hip-hop and drum 'n' bass, flooded with the workhorse spirit of their Oakland home and tinged with the Southern flair of where they met.
The album — which included the anthemic "Silly Puddy" featuring The Grouch — was named Independent Album of the Year by The Source magazine and effectively put Zion I on the map as a force in underground hip-hop. Twelve studio albums later, the group now consists solely of Baba Zumbi as an MC/producer, with a range of collaborators.
After some lineup shuffling, the band changed their name in 2013 and, two years later, signed a deal with Fearless Records. Wage War's 2015 full-length debut for the label, Blueprints, and the 2017 album Deadweight were both co-produced by Andrew Wade and A Day to Remember's Jeremy McKinnon.
Deadweight especially illustrates their progression as a band, as it boasts more confident, emotional songwriting and variety in dynamics. In fact, Wage War continue that soul-searching on the 2019 single "Low" — a bruising song about feeling worn down by life — and via the 2018 singles "Johnny Cash (Stripped)" and "Gravity (Stripped)." The latter two are pared-down versions of songs that originally appeared on Deadweight, and they boast chiming guitars, restrained percussion, and delicate vocals.
Live, Wage War stir up ferocious mosh pits courtesy of Bond's commanding stage presence — he directs his low growls directly at the crowd to emphasize vocal power — and aggressive, thrashing playing.
Given this energy, the band are unsurprisingly road warriors who have done several stints on the Vans Warped Tour and opened for Of Mice & Men, August Burns Red, and A Day to Remember. Wage War are now ranked among the genre's biggest heavyweights, with spots in the lineup of the Sonic Temple Art + Music Festival and Welcome to Rockville 2019.