Stephen Gaines, more popularly known as Zumbi from the rap group Zion I, passed away on August 13, 2021, in Berkeley, California. Though gone, the legendary Bay Area MC has undoubtedly left his mark on the global hip-hop community. A prolific artist, he produced 13 studio albums, 13 compilation albums, nine EPs, and a participated in a variety of collaborations — from Linkin Park to The Jacka.
He was a genuine voice for his community, often seen at local events connecting with others and freestyling on corners with fans, as well as tapping into the regional sounds that still define Bay Area hip-hop today. In remembrance of Gaines and his legacy, Okayplayer spoke with five figures that were close to the late MC — rappers The Grouch, Deuce Eclipse, and DUST; producer and fellow Zion I member Amp Live; and former Zion I manager Tim House — with all of them sharing everything from the first time they met Gaines to his impact.
The Grouch: I met Zion I in the scene between 1995-98. Living Legends would throw shows called Underground Survivors at La Peña [in Berkeley, CA], and Zion I started doing shows separately and came on our radar. The MC, who went by Zion at that time, rocked in socks, or even barefoot. We were like, “You seen that dude who rocks out in his socks? What’s up with that?” For us, hip-hop was very competitive but it was all love. Eventually, Amp Live got me a tape of the song “Silly Puddy.” I don’t remember how it went down exactly —
Amp Live: You were like rock stars to us at that point. I think I told you I wanted to get you that beat so I put it on a CD.
Grouch: When I got on that song I thought it was so dope that I told myself I was gonna do it, regardless of politics. I didn’t want anyone in my crew to be lightweight jealous, but I remember walking to Darkman Studios in Oakland like it was yesterday. We recorded it on the spot, and I remember Steve and Amp being in that room, 20-something years ago. The song “Silly Puddy” was created. It was well received and was a great combo. That started our relationship. Ever since then, everything was family.
Amp: For me, I met Zumbi probably in 1991-92. We went to Morehouse College in Atlanta together. We formed a group called Metaphor, and there were four of us. The group dropped off but we stuck together. When we moved back to the Bay, we formed Zion I, and it just went on from there.
Deuce: I met Steve in high school in 1986. We were homies. When he went to college we stayed in touch. When he came back, he told me about the stuff he was doing and wanted to bring Amp out here since he was from Texas. So, we all started to do some stuff together. We clicked like a musical family. It’s been a 36-year relation.
DUST: I met Steve outside Blake’s on Telegraph, in ’99 or ’98. I was doing a show downstairs and he was there with Amp. He saw me perform and after, came up and said something like, “I need someone to rock with me.” I started hanging out with him in his house in El Cerrito at the time, then we rocked shows together. I’m originally from South Africa but when I moved to the Bay, Steve always showed love and brought me in like family.
Tim: I actually met Zumbi around 1999, 2000, at a cookout near Lake Merritt on a Sunday. First time I saw him perform was actually in Watts, which was with Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples, and Planet Asia. I was reading about these cats Zion I who were doing it. I heard their stuff and I knew this was what it was supposed to be about. Even before I saw them perform I was a fan, especially being involved in the underground culture. It was A1 from day one. We clicked immediately.
Deuce: When we would go on tour, Amp would always get mad at me and Zum ’cause we would have too many jokes. There was always a tour theme or saying we had, like “C’mon boys” (laughs). We would drive Amp crazy with that.
Amp: Sometimes it would just be us [Deuce, Zumbi, Tim] and they would gang up on me (laughs). When the tours kind of sucked that made it worthwhile. But man, it’s just so much to recall. I know as a friend he was always there. Even if we were mad at each other we would put it aside. He was a really sincere dude. In terms of him being a person, he was someone you could always count on, and I always appreciated that.
Grouch: For me, there was a consistency with Zumbi with certain things he did. He would talk about praying or meditating, which he would do in his hotel or wherever. Backstage he would stretch, do vocal warm ups, and say a prayer. I could always count on him to set the vibe with us. We weren’t just out drinking all the time; I needed that consistency in my life and I welcomed it. I came to expect that. As a performer, that time before stage is when you can get stressed or you can center yourself, and he set that vibe for centering us with his mellowness and routine.
Deuce: He was someone who helped you feel better about yourself. He also did a lot to care for himself, and that bled into our friendships. We’re a bunch of roughnecks but Zumbi never judged. I knew to keep it together around him, and even when I didn’t do that he still accepted me. I feel even more pressure now to be better because he really lived what he spoke. There was no ego when it came to him. He was that true sense of being a soldier.
DUST: He was always honest and transparent and made us all better, for real. He’d say we were like athletes who needed to keep our chi and energy up.
DUST: There’s so many. I never spent so much time listening to so many raps from one person as I did listening to his. He was just one of the illest to do this because he had so many bars. But they always carried a weight to it — a deeper message. Something that resonates with me is something he actually put out on social media. He said something like, “I never wanted to be the best battle rapper like KRS-One going at other MCs, but I wanted to write songs like John Lennon.”
Deuce: “Show me the best of times / Show me the worst of times.” One thing about Zum is that he had dope rhymes and he didn’t always have to use metaphors. In the end, his rhyming was poetry. So many of his words and tracks — like “Coastin’” — just made me feel empowered. And of course, one of the most prolific songs he did was “Finger Paint.” DUST was on that one.
DUST: Zumbi brought that out of me. I would’ve never even thought about the concept of touching paint on a surface, but he taught me so much about being an MC. How to properly address a crowd, how to go in a booth and touch listeners with your words. He never bragged, but I remember one smooth line he had on [Deep Water Slang 2.0] when he said, “I keep it solar, melt down your polar/ You just a little baby cub on my sonar.” One of the few times he was being braggadocious but it was dope.
Tim: Deep Water Slang was my favorite out of the entire catalogue. The content on that album has so many emotional waves. “Sorry” talks about his parent’s divorce — you don’t hear that type of stuff on a rap record, or even anyone apologizing on a rap record. That brought me in. You also had anthems on that joint: “Warriors Dance,” “Drill,” “Boom Bip,” “Le Le Le.” And I didn’t even mention “Flow.” That was like seeing him graduate to a whole ‘nother level in the pre-Hyphy era. I honestly think that album was the birth of the Hyphy Movement, in terms of audio sound. Later on you had “Don’t Lose Your Head” with Too $hort. He wrote that after coming to my house and smoking. We heard gunshots and we see cats outside just wylin’ out, and that’s how he wrote that song. He had range like no one else. It was conscious, but the production changed from album to album. The thing you could always expect was for it to slap.
Grouch: There’s a few that stand out to me: “We’re kings and queens eating chicken wings / But greasy fingers ain’t hold the scepters so it slips” [from “Silly Puddy]. We know we’re kings and queens, but he’s also saying we are in this human body and we know we slip up. And there’s that commentary that once we stop eating chicken wings and focus on bigger things, we can improve. Another is, “We claim Tupac as a source of pride.” If you’re from the Bay you really feel that. You know exactly what he’s talking about and feeling. He includes himself with everyone by saying “we,” and that makes us all relate and fuck with that. Last one is, “What can I do / When can I / Talk to you / Through my antenna?” What is that antenna? When will I be able to talk to Steve again? How will that message come through? That’s a trip. As I go back and listen to the music, it makes me feel super high but also super low. Amp Live laid the bed for his words to be spoken on. Zion I is a timeless combo of those two.
Amp: Before we did albums, Steve would tell me what we should do together and we would go back and forth. We would talk about the concepts and I would paint the landscape with sounds. What made our combination beautiful is that we would give each other space and dial in together until it was right. I have so many volumes of music that no one has heard because it didn’t sound right, but we made a lot together.
Grouch: For some reason, with maybe “Inner Light,” just the vibe that Zumbi and Amp were putting off was like an elevated consciousness. From the very first time we recorded, I was striving to match that. That’s how our creative connection started. I had Living Legends and they were more of a party group, but when I went to work with Zion I, I wanted to step my consciousness up and be my higher self by matching their energy. Those guys, especially Steve, we were on some MC to MC shit, and it helped me to bring my best game as a man. This goes as deep as having ups and downs with my wife before she was my wife, and even when I had a child. That was when we were creating Heroes in the City of Dope. I wanted to get out of the trouble I had been in with my daughter’s mother, so Zion I and The Grouch represented a space that could hold that positivity for me. My daughter was only six months old, but I knew Steve could carry that responsibility. Later on came Amp’s kids, and then after came Steve’s kids. So, our relationship became how can we be better fathers, and how can we survive in underground hip-hop and still afford to live in places like Oakland and Hawaii? It was real.
Deuce: I remember that. That was an amazing experience for everybody. We all lived a struggle together. Being on tour with Grouch and his daughter, Rio, and the clique, that was an incredible time getting to know each other. Steve was the reason for bringing us together to live our lives.
Tim House: Steve made that happen. Everything happened fast. Everything was aligning. All the features were being beamed in consistently and on time. Everything was lining itself up and the atmosphere was conducive for being creative. That was the first Zion I project that was a collab with Grouch and we were getting beats from everyone. That had never happened with other Zion I projects.
Deuce: On Hiero Day, Mistah Fab came out for their song [“Hit ‘Em”]. When it first came out someone had something to say, but it stands the test of time. I also read an article the other day that said “Don’t Lose Your Head” is the only positive Hyphy song. We were looking to the future and trying new things.
Grouch: Steve was very proud about his verse on “Don’t Lose Your Head.” I wanted to be on that song so bad that I wrote my part, recorded it, and put it on my own mixtape. Steve had two verses on there and we had Too $hort on the remix, and I always wanted to be on a track with $hort. But Steve loved his two verses so we kept them. To be honest, his verses were better than mine. He loved that song for himself.
Amp: That album we did together during the Hyphy era was important because we were finally competing with everybody. I was in the trenches studying at KMEL, chilling with everyone. So when we did that song and it started to get play, it meant a lot to Zumbi because it meant we were worthy. I think he took pride in that. His verse said a lot on a style of beat that everyone was rapping on back then, but he did it differently.
Amp: He gave us inspiration to do better no matter what. Inspiration to stay positive even if you’re in a negative space. Even if you’re in a dark space, find light. That’s the platform he stood on, and that’s what Zion I was about. In his own personal life, he would always make positives out of bad situations.
Deuce: He spread a lot of love. He was everyone’s best friend; so many people loved him. In New Mexico, Germany, Japan — didn’t matter. I had no fear when I was with the homie. He adopted Oakland as a home because that’s who he was in his heart. Maybe he wasn’t born there, but that foo’ cared about Oakland so much and he was there for a reason. Everyone respected him because he gave so much heart to the people. All the gangster ass motherfuckers, whoever — they all gave him love. From a five person show to a five hundred person show, there was no ego with Steve. He would give it his all. At our worst and our best, it was always love no matter what. There was never a discrepancy in his energy.
Grouch: Every time he came off the stage he would change his shirt because it was soaking wet.
Tim: Nothing’s worse than grabbing that wet shirt offstage, bro. I always had a fresh shirt hanging up for him backstage.
DUST: He influenced all of us in the community. He was such a spiritual guy that he never rejected any religion. He respected anyone who was spiritual. The stuff he instilled in me — in us — was that same kind of tolerant energy. Two months ago we were doing tai chi, and he just had me doing these crazy balancing exercises. He didn’t have any egotistical energy; it wasn’t about being flamboyant or flashy for him. He was just grounded: a super caring being who connected with everyone. He made everyone feel safe.
Grouch: Zumbi was prolific. I just want to say thank you for making that creative space. I think Zumbi would tell us all to pursue our own creations. Zumbi left us so much; this is only a few weeks afterward, and I’m still finding songs I didn’t even know existed because he had so much output.
Deuce: He connected all of us here, bro. All of us wouldn’t know each other without Steve, and we ended up doing prayers together. He was all of our brother.
Banner graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
Alan Chazaro is the author of This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album (Black Lawrence Press, 2019), Piñata Theory (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), and Notes from the Eastern Span of the Bay Bridge (Ghost City Press, 2021). He has written for The San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, Oaklandside, SFGATE, 48Hills, and other publications, and is on Twitter and IG being a useless pocho millennial @alan_chazaro.
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