City on a Hill Press: So you’re from the Bay Area. The bay has a really rich hip-hop scene; what factors would you guys say contribute to making the scene so rich and diverse?
Zumbi: I feel like the diversity of the actual ethnicity of people there. I feel like it’s one of the more diverse areas in the United States, just from racial and ethnic backgrounds. I feel like that, along with the socio-political edge from the ‘60s that’s always been in the Bay Area, along with the fact that we don’t have major labels. So everybody kind of has to find their way. And the fact that people come and support the music locally. It makes for a rich bed of … it may not be the biggest across the world but there are always artists coming out of the Bay Area, representing something a little different or new.
Amplive: There are a lot of different genres too. All the genres are independent, like rock, hip-hop and electro. Then you got like super big acts there like Green Day. You know what I’m saying? And like, E-40, Too $hort. All these people are represented by major labels but their labels aren’t there so they can take people from the Bay and bring them with them.
CHP: So is there a strong culture of doing it yourself and being independent?
Z: Definitely. Especially, like he said Green Day, they started independently. E-40 and Too $hort too, to me these are the authors of the independent movement in hip-hop, period. Too $hort was doing it in the early ‘80s before anyone was doing it. E-40 was in the early ‘90s. And going from there to a major label, that was unheard of. So I feel like the Bay Area had a lot to do with the scene you see now, where guys like Macklemore are able to be indie but be on a major level. Without Too $hort and 40 and all these guys laying it down, the scene wouldn’t be what it is today. So I think the Bay Area has an integral role in the development of hip-hop as we know it right now.
CHP: How did you guys cut your teeth, as rappers and producers?
A: I always had music around me. My dad played jazz and piano. I played in the church. There was always music around me, you know? So it was just having the itch for it. My mom is an extremely creative person. I started doing music in high school, it was really bad but I kept going and doing it for myself.
CHP: What about you Zumbi, how did you get into rapping?
Z: It was just a natural thing when I was growing up. I always loved music. I didn’t really take it seriously and think I could do it for a living. I wasn’t even thinking about that, I was just a kid listening to top 40 radio. I’d wake up every Sunday morning and tape Casey Kasem’s top 40 and try to memorize as many songs as I could. That was when I was a kid, and when I got older that love of music never went away. When I played sports, my most enjoyable part of playing sports was the warm-up when I got to pick the music. We’d come out and I’d be all hyped. It was just something that was with me.
Then when I graduated high school, I went to college and I started seeing cats rapping more. I was seeing that people were taking it seriously and maybe I should take it serious. It kind of flew from there.
CHP: What hip-hop artists, or maybe not just hip-hop, informed your perspective on music?
A: Definitely Hieroglyphics, Too $hort, Living Legends, all these people when we came out to the Bay they were rolling, making a living and traveling the world. They laid a foundation for a lot of people.
Z: Bob Marley, Rakim, Nas, Outkast, A Tribe Called Quest, Earth, Wind and Fire, John Coltrane, U2, The Beatles. I always liked music that was fun but also had a deeper message to it. That’s just the type of stuff I was always drawn to and it made me feel like that’s what the best music does. It touches you on an emotional level to where it speaks to you in your actual life. It’s like, have fun but also be aware of what you’re doing too.
CHP: I thought it was neat that you were able to do that in your music. During your set, the audience was having a lot of fun but at the same time you were delivering some pretty thoughtful messages. How do you balance that?
Z: We’ve always been kind of conscious of it because when we first came out, people were like “Oh, they’re kind of preachy.” So then I went through a stage where I didn’t want to preach, I just wanted to be more cool. Then I just decided to be who I was, I didn’t want to think about it so much. You just got to be who you are. You try to cater too much to people and they don’t like it because they know you’re not being authentic to who you are. Not everybody is going to like you, it’s impossible. So you have to take it for what it is and be strong with who you are.
CHP: I know you’ve played in SC a couple of time before, but why get involved with UCSC’s first music festival?
A: We’ve been up here a bunch of times actually. We always perform at The Catalyst. So it’s just a bigger extension of that. A lot of these kids go see us and this is a chance for them to come see us on a bigger platform.
CHP: Do you feel that rap or hip-hop is a valuable avenue to communicate heavier, socially conscious messages?
Z: For me growing up with hip-hop, that’s what it was. Chuck D and KRS-One, the golden age of hip-hop, that’s what I felt like those guys were doing. We didn’t really have the internet, so hip-hop was the way I heard about guys like Farrakhan and how to eat to live and being a vegan. Just all these different ideas I got through hip-hop. So as I got older, it’s still that for me. It comes from an impoverished perspective. Blacks and Puerto Ricans in New York created hip-hop because they didn’t have anything, nobody was servicing them and the school district was broken down and the Bronx was all fucked up. So they had to create something that spoke to their position in life but also to give them freedom and liberation. I feel like that is the epitome of what hip-hop at its highest point it.
CHP: Who do you feel that your music is geared toward?
Z: I feel like it’s geared toward people who are seeking something else. It’s definitely not for somebody who’s just turning on the radio or somebody who watches MTV all the time. I think it’s for somebody who is kind of searching for something that’s a little different and maybe more insightful than “Oh look it, let’s get a new car and some cool chains and let’s get a lot of girls and have sex all the time and smoke and get so high we forget who we are.” Our music is not about that. It’s more about introspection.
CHP: Was there ever a moment when either of you when you felt you were doing the right thing? When you knew this was what you wanted to do with your life?
Z: One time we had a show in the ‘90s. It was with one of my idols Rakim. We were opening, it was our biggest show, like 3,000 people. We’d never done a show that big and our parents were there. We were rockin’ the show and his CD player started to skip, it wouldn’t play. So we started freestyling. I started freestyling a capella and he got on his keyboard and started making a beat. From that, the crowd got even more hyped than they did for our regular songs. That became … I don’t know, I feel like people in the Bay knew us for that moment, like “Oh, you’re them dudes that freestyled when it all messed up.” After that moment, I felt this was what we were supposed to do. Because we had messed up but we weren’t so self-conscious that we allowed it to defeat us. We turned the lemons into lemonade. And our parents were there too.
CHP: That must’ve felt so incredible. Did it feel like that for you too?
A: Yeah, that was a turning point. We realized we had something that was getting attention.
CHP: You mix live instruments and samples, why do that?
A: Well for one, it’s easier to license your music. Two, it’s just a richer feeling. I don’t know, I make stuff up and make it sound like something. It’s just fun to me. But I mean, I sample stuff off of records too, it’s just a different process.
CHP: What’s the process like when you’re looking for stuff to sample? Do you feel like you are always listening?
A: Yeah, you just gotta have an ear. Everybody picks something different. You can play a ten second clip of ten different producers and they’ll all pick something different. Even if you’re sampling, you’re picking your own thing.
CHP: So you have your new EP “Libations” that came out fairly recently, what would you say the tone of that is?
Z: It’s kinda deep, looking within for sure. In writing that EP, one of my closest friends, a lifelong friend of mine, passed away suddenly. It was hard for me to write for a couple of weeks and the EP was due. I was having trouble trying to process the grief. Every time I would listen to music I would just think about him. So I finally decided to write a song about him and after I did that the other songs could come out. Before that, I was just kind of grieving and it was hard. I think the EP has that tone of just kind of reflecting and being reminiscent. Theres a song for him, a couple songs about relationships, there’s one that’s just pure hip-hop with a bunch of rappers. But overall, it’s more of an emotional thing.
CHP: Anything else you’d like to add before we wrap up?
Z: Stay tuned — we have one more EP coming out this year. It’s a three part series, the first is “Master of Ceremonies,” the second is “Libations” and the third is being worked on. We also have our festival at the end of this year, Hella Fresh Fest in Oakland. We’re also supposed to do a live album this year. We’ll see if that happens. Some kind of album, either live or just recorded.