Steve Gaines, better known as Zumbi from Zion I, suddenly passed away on August 13 in Berkeley, California, at the age of 49. The initial news shocked those of us who learned about it through social media, with follow-up reports about his death at a Berkeley hospital only making the matter more baffling. Exactly what took place at the hospital hasn’t been revealed to the public. (Zumbi’s family has since launched their own investigation into his death.) But what his fans and peers do know is that he’ll be eternally remembered for his wisdom, love for others, and tireless work ethic.
I was 12-years-old when I first learned about Zion I through a large poster featuring the group’s Mind Over Matter album art posted on the outside of the Rasputin music store in Berkeley. While I was quickly becoming a fan of Mac Dre, Frontline, and Mistah F.A.B., I had yet to hear about Zion I. Upon seeing the poster, I went into Rasputin, found a used copy of the album and took it to a listening station, where I listened to it in its entirety and immediately became a fan of Zumbi’s style.
His lyrics were focused on day-to-day living and simple, relatable wants: maintaining in “The Town” — Oakland, where he was from — and becoming a better man and musician. He was also able to come across as self-assured and cocky without relying on threats of violence, maintaining the confidence integral to so many MCs but expressing it in a refreshing way.
A week prior to his passing, Zumbi had announced that him and fellow Zion I member and producer Amp Live would be touring to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Mind Over Matter. I told myself I was going to that show even if I went alone. Unfortunately, that show never came to be. But myself and the rest of Zumbi’s fans will always have his music to remember him by. In honor of Zumbi and his legacy as a Bay Area hip-hop legend, here is an unranked list of the 10 best Zion I songs that capture his brilliance.
In “Bird’s Eye View,” Zumbi offers a touching tribute to hip-hop as he details his love for the genre. It’s love at first sight for Zumbi as he gets acquainted with hip-hop, opening up his verse with, “From the first time I saw you, infatuation / Pulled to the side to provide conversation.”
Hip-hop was near and dear to Zumbi’s heart: an art form he contributed to and advocated for until his final days. “Bird’s Eye View” is a testament to just how strong his love for the music and culture of the genre was.
In 2007, Zumbi and Amp Live cooked up a regional classic using a beat similar to what Young L was lacing The Pack with at the time. The 808s and bounce made it a staple at parties and sideshows, but the lyrics were a reminder to be smart about how you move while navigating “The Town,” warning listeners that showing off too much money and being greedy or inconsiderate could make things turn left real quick. “Don’t Lose Your Head” introduced Zumbi to a new generation of hip-hop fans, the track even getting its own remix featuring Oakland legend Too $hort.
Listening to the “Silly Puddy” beat come together during the first minute feels like watching a sped up time lapse of a beautiful sunrise. At first, you have no idea what it will look like. But as the sounds come together, the larger picture becomes apparent. Zumbi and guest feature The Grouch think out loud about their relationship with the Lord, thanking him and affirming their trust in his plan for them. The two MCs know that they have been blessed with the gift to make music, and show their gratitude without asserting platitudes or cliches.
Their most known song, “Coastin'” is a reminder to trust and believe in yourself even when challenges present themselves. K. Flay provides a catchy hook with her calm and soothing singing, while Zumbi takes us through how he came to have this mindset for himself. Rather than handling difficulties head on, he suggests that listeners focus on slowing down and tapping into love and self-assurance to glide past obstacles. The antiquated dichotomy of fight or flight gets a new alternative in Zumbi’s hands, resulting in a track that’s an uplifting morale booster.
The jazzy, hazy beat of “Venus” lays in the cut as Zumbi tells listeners about women like Venus who are only out for material pleasures, and how men fall for them. “Think a little green give her something to feel / But the best thing she can do is just chill,” he raps on the track’s hook, hoping that Venus will realize there’s more to life than material wants. But the desires of money, fame, and luxury cars and homes is all she wants.
Gentrification courtesy of the tech companies nestled in Silicon Valley has been rampant throughout the Bay Area, beginning in San Francisco and since spreading from Oakland all the way to San Jose. Zumbi goes after the tech companies and their corporate culture on “Tech $,” voicing how he’s fed up with their lack of respect for the Bay’s culture, and their pompous attitude toward long time city residents. He then takes it a step further, ultimately questioning the system that allows this to be an ongoing problem in the Bay Area, and how it’s changed it for the worst.
The horns of “Doin’ My Thing” usher in a low-key but enjoyable version of Zumbi, who reflects on not only his dedication and passion for being an MC, but the rewards — and most importantly joy — that his career has given him. He’s climbing the charts and taking planes for promotional runs — he’s living his dream and doin’ his thing. While this isn’t the most complex or intricate display of his writing or delivery, it gives you a glimpse of how far he’s come, and how he’s brought his lifelong dream as a talented rapper and artist to life.
For “The Bay (Remix),” Zumbi recruited an eclectic lineup of his peers — veterans San Quinn and Casual and newcomers Turf Talk and Clyde Carson — for a regional posse cut. Each rapper reps their hometowns and neighborhoods located in Oakland, San Francisco, and Vallejo, as they try to outshine each other on the track like it’s a cypher. “The Bay (Remix)” is a rare instance of Bay Area underground, Hyphy, and gangsta rap coming together in such a triumphant way. This collaborative spirit and bringing rappers together who might otherwise not cross paths is what drew people to Zumbi.
Usually positive and optimistic, Zumbi candidly discusses the effects that the world’s problem and pressure is having on him on “What We Gone Do.” Zumbi tended to be the guy who knew just what to say when faced with challenges. To hear him indecisive and having doubt was humanizing and relatable. It showed that, even the people who have a vision and a deep connection to their purpose can struggle with deciding what to do when things get difficult. The dark and slightly menacing 808s of the track, along with guest vocalist — and fellow Oakland artist — Jane Hancock’s cool but somber delivery on the hook, add to the moodiness of it all.
Zumbi re-emerged in February 2021 alongside fellow rapper Born I and quickly showed why he remained a fixture for over 20 years on “2 Eyes.” Produced by Nathan Fields, the beat bounces with booming drums, which was just what Zumbi needed to show he hadn’t lost a step in his rhyming abilities. He details how staying in his lane and keeping his third eye open helps him remain grounded and wise through life. This being one of the final songs he released is a bittersweet farewell. He knew a catchy beat would help get his message across, and with that he gave us one final lesson on how we can achieve more peace and harmony in our lives.
Ruben is a hip-hop journalist and artist development consultant based in Sacramento, CA. He enjoys discovering new talent and making sure hip-hop legends get their flowers. Keep up with him on Twitter.
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