MC, writer, and father, veteran MC Zumbi (of west coast hip-hop stalwarts Zion I) is also a self-professed free-thinking tai chi fanatic. Somewhere within this web of persona is a balance between the family, spiritual and physical self that developing MCs would do well to emulate. Without disregarding each important layer that speaks to who the man is though, it might well be his diligence toward his craft that aspiring artists would most benefit from paying attention to.
Since the release of Zion I’s Heroes in the Healing of the Nation collaboration with The Grouch last year, Zumbi unleashed his own spin on the likes of Flying Lotus, Bassnectar, and Wiz Khalifa with the Versus mixtape, only to be followed by Zion I’s Livity mix and a solo 420 EP which both dropped this past spring. Most recently the MC jumped on a track with the Bay Area’s 40Love (“Tiki Tiki”) while also stepping into an on-screen role as a baseball bat-wielding villain in Aesop Rock’s kung-fu happy “ZZZ Top” video. Somewhere amid all of this -- (not to mention releasing his weekly “Science of Breath” podcast) — Zumbi’s also been developing “Book of Rhymes,” a project aimed at celebrating Zion I’s lyrical history.
“I came up with the idea as a way for our fans to get all of the lyrics straight from my book. It’s also a way of solidifying our legacy in Hip-Hop. We’ve been making music for 16 years, I think it’s about time we had a book documenting our journey.” Yet while his continual artistic outpouring is something to be celebrated, it’s his ability to maintain his personal equilibrium that might be his most advantageous strength.
“Spirituality is the backbone of my existence,” Zumbi explains. “I strive to be completely in tune with myself through my spirit, and the music is one of the ways in which I explore this.” He cites his family and friends as helping him maintain a hold on reality, but it’s his reliance on the Taoist practices of Chen-style Tai Chi, Qigong, and Bagua that have ensured that he steers clear of burning out. “These are exercises that assist my writing and singing, and help me to concentrate more. It’s a trip; after practicing I feel more coordinated and overall more confident.”
The continued theme of balance is no better expressed than through Zumbi’s passion for martial arts, as Tai Chi in particular demands an equal focus on a number of sacred elements and techniques. A broad dexterity results from the training: a sense of resourcefulness and flexibility that is also a necessity in the creation of poetry and lyrics. Not unlike martial arts, the need to observe and study the masters in art is key for personal evolution, and in hip hop this sort of thoughtful nimbleness is no more apparent than in the belly of a cypher. Growing up examining such expert craftsmen as Rakim and Coltrane, Zumbi developed a taste for freestyling early, a passion that drives him to this day. “I started MC’ing through freestyling, so it’s the basis of rhyming to me,” he reflects. “Back in the day we would just sit up and freestyle for hours and hours and then listen back and pull song concepts out of the stream of consciousness flows.”
Part of Zumbi’s ability to react within the moment is what has driven the success of Zion I and helped the duo adopt their music to the live setting. Be it their recent set at Louisville’s Forecastle, or upcoming gigs at Chicago’s North Coast Festival, Salt Lake City’s Audio Circus, or a pair of Rock the Bells festival dates, Zion I have become something of a festival-circuit staple, showcasing their abilities to a wide-ranging audience. “In the live set, the freestyle is integral to what we do. It puts us on the edge, where the line between the performers and the audience is blurred, because during the freestyle we feed off of one another’s energy, so it’s as if we are both creating the show. Many times, the freestyle is the most exciting part of the show because everything is on the line, and the added excitement energizes the vibe.”
The energy, ability to play off one another, and musical diversity are all pillars in the foundation of what makes Zion I unique. “This is just who we are,” Zumbi adds. Yet while there’s little thought put into strategically deviating from a particular musical style, the MC does express indecision over how deep to invite listeners into his life through his lyrics. “I am hesitant about opening up every aspect of my life. However, the true power of art is the unveiling of the internal world, so inevitably, I am forced to confront my dark side thru the music.” This is an aim that the MC explains will be at the forefront of Zion I’s forthcoming full length release, Shadowboxing, which is set to drop this fall. “This is the blessing of being an artist, I can share my pain in a way that is liberating for others as well as myself.” It’s almost comical how even in moments of deep contemplation over the darkness in his life, Zumbi is able to remain in the light, his balance undeterred.
[This article first appeared on Brite Revolution.]