From underground anonymity to national acclaim: The life and art of Steve ‘Zumbi’ Gaines

A dynamic presence in the Bay Area hip-hop community for over two decades, the prolific Zion-I rapper was remembered during a Sunday celebration.

Steve “Zumbi” Gaines. Credit: Courtesy of Nicole Balin

It has been a tough year for Bay Area hip-hop. In the space of a few short months, the community has lost three icons: first Blackalicious emcee Timothy “Gift of Gab” Parker, then Digital Underground frontman Gregory “Shock G” Jacobs, and most recently, Zion-I’s Steve “Zumbi” Gaines. Of the three, Zumbi’s passing was the most unexpected: On Aug. 13, the Oakland native tragically died at Berkeley’s Alta Bates hospital, under mysterious circumstances

A memorial celebration for Zumbi was planned for Sunday, Aug. 22, at Brooklyn Basin’s Township Commons on Oakland’s waterfront. Event organizers were overwhelmed by the community response. According to Zion-I’s manager Rob Collins, approximately 2,000 to 3,000 people were expected to attend. This raised health concerns given the delta variant’s spread in the community, so the event was moved to a virtual platform (Sway’s Universe) and live-streamed from the Hieroglyphics complex in East Oakland. 

It was a fitting tribute to Zumbi’s contributions over the years, highlighted by guest appearances from a cast of characters who were part of the Zion-I story: emcees Deuce Eclipse and The Grouch, singers Goapele, Michael Marshall, and Codany Holiday, pianist/emcee Kev Choice, and producer/co-collaborator Amp Live. The celebration, in front of a large mural of Gaines and an array of candles and flowers, kicked off with an invocation by Audiopharmacy’s Love Cruz and a song by Goapele. The format was a career retrospective in reverse chronology ending with a set encompassing Zion I’s first two albums by DJ J Period, who flew in from New York for the occasion. At its peak, more than 1,000 people watched live, filling up the comments section with affirmations of Zion-I’s music and its effect on them, or simply typing in “Z.”

“This is for Zumbi, my brother. This is what he would have wanted,” said Amp Live, who was clearly moved by the proceedings.

From a listener’s perspective, traversing two decades of music in two hours highlighted what made Zion-I so special: “Zumbi ain’t had one weak verse,” Kev Choice said about Gaines’ lyrical strength. Consistency and quality of material and a dedication to being different is a through-line of the Zion-I catalog, connecting the esoteric verses of 2018’s Bluenile with 2001’s Revolution, on which Zumbi states his intention to “step into the party, gotta build a pyramid.” What he built during his career was a body of work that stacks up like limestone bricks. Zion-I stands out among the hundreds and hundreds of hip-hop groups active during those years.

Gaines’ charisma, conscious lyrics and spiritual affirmations propelled Zion-I from the group’s earliest days

Gaines was a dynamic presence in Bay Area hip-hop for more than 20 years. He has now become an ancestor. Amidst all the outpourings from fellow artists and community members on social media, many of whom considered Gaines a close friend, a picture has emerged of a man lionized as one of the Bay’s most-consistent and respected rap lyricists, as well as a highly thoughtful, compassionate individual who practiced martial arts, studied metaphysics and spiritual texts, and who was a caring father who leaves behind three children. Gaines created a prolific catalog of songs as a rapper, matched in terms of artistic output only by Bay Area legends E-40, Too Short, and Mac Dre. His career arc took him from underground anonymity to national acclaim.

This year marked the 20th anniversary of Zion-I’s debut album, Mind Over Matter. A reunion tour with Amp Live had reportedly been booked and was slated to play Oakland’s New Parish in November. That tour won’t happen now, but the milestone does present a perfect opportunity to look back at Zion-I’s music and cultural impact through the years.

Jorge Guererro, AKA Deuce Eclipse, first met Gaines when both were freshmen at Concord’s De La Salle High School. “We just kinda knew, you know, we were going to know each other throughout our lives,” said Guererro.

The two quickly bonded over a shared love of hip-hop. They’d discuss rappers and songs they liked, Guerrero said. The two were new to the school and the area, which became another point of congruence. “We had so many things in common, you know, we were in an unknown area. We had to deal with a lot of racism. Socially we had to stick together. We were both from other places. All of our friends were transplants from other parts of [the Bay Area], you know, Oakland, San Francisco.” 

Guerrero had been rapping since the sixth grade. Gaines wasn’t an emcee yet when they met, but he was aspiring to write his own raps. “One day he gave me a paper and he was like, ‘Hey, I wrote this, tell me what you think.’ And I’ll never forget it because the first line was like, ‘I drop bombs.’ I remember reading and going, ‘You know, this is pretty good, man. This is dope.’ Ever since that day he started writing. We’d be over at my house freestyling after school every day, you know. My little sister would be in the room looking at us like we were crazy.” 

Zion-I first rose to prominence in the late 90s, emerging as a crowd favorite at Collective Soul, an underground hip-hop night held at Berkeley’s La Peña Cultural Center. In a 1998 performance opening up for the group Organic Creations, Zion-I performed three songs, ending with what would become their first official single, the drum-and-bass-infused Inner Light. Even at that early stage of his career, Gaines’ charisma and stage presence were evident, as was his predilection for conscious lyrics and spiritual affirmations. 

Naru Kwina, who formed Organic Creations and booked the night at La Peña, recalls that time well. “The beautiful thing about La Peña is you didn’t have to pay any money up front to get that spot. They took percentages of the door. So it was a win-win for anybody who wanted to put on a show.” 

The venue had previously showcased a monthly performance called “Underground Survivors,” hosted by the Mystik Journeymen, and was known as a meeting place for young activists. It was a safe space for the community at a time when there were few live venues in the East Bay that consistently booked underground hip-hop. 

“I personally never saw any fights or violence or anything like that,” Kwina said. “It was all love, every time.” 

Gaines was able to freestyle entire shows, demonstrating a mastery of showmanship and improvisation. “And he played with the band Omaya for a while,” said Kwina, referring to the San Francisco Latin, hip-hop, and soul group. “He would freestyle their whole show and never miss a beat, which was incredible. There’s some great freestylers out there, but he could adapt to any music. Any style, fast, slow. I mean, it was ridiculous.”

DJ True Justice, who would later go on to become Zion-I’s booking agent, recalls the first time he heard the group. “Zion-I landed on the scene in the mid nineties. At that time I didn’t know that Steve was from the Bay Area. I just knew that there was this group and they were making a lot of noise.” He remembers buying a compilation with an early Zion-I song on it, and then going to see a show at La Peña where Zion-I were performing that song. He and Gaines eventually struck up a friendship after being on the same flight for a gig in Portland.

Another live recording from Collective Soul finds Zion-I freestyling along with Company of Prophets over live instrumentation by the 808 Band. During his verse, Gaines mentions the “lotus posture,” a reference to the Eastern spiritual philosophies and practices that made him somewhat unique within Bay Area hip-hop. Though the freestyle is brief, it nevertheless received an energetic crowd response. 

Zion-I’s conscious hip-hop was groundbreaking, but sometimes ignored by the mainstream

Zion-I’s reputation for off-the-chain live performance became a hallmark of their career. Michael O’Connor, owner of the New Parish, hosted the band at his former venue, the Justice League, on numerous occasions at the onset of their ascent.

“My earliest memory of them was in the late ’90s, early 2000s at Justice League. Zion-I was really in the early, early stages of having been formed,” said O’Connor. “It was clear that they were getting better and better quickly, and they put a lot of emphasis on their live show.”

Many years later while opening up for Brooklyn rap duo Blackstar (Mos Def and Talib Kweli) at Oakland’s Fox Theater during a 2010 show, Zion-I upstaged the headliners with a far more energetic and engaging performance. For anyone present that night, it was a testament to Zion-I’s strength. Like an underdog NBA squad who knocks out a playoff-bound team, they were not gonna be outdone on their home turf. 

For years, Zion-I’s live shows featured a freestyle segment with Guerrero, who would go back and forth with Gaines and his brother D.U.S.T., seemingly for hours. Often, they’d invite other rappers on stage. 

“At some point if there’s MCs in the house, you know, we liked to rock the live beat or an instrumental and bring them up and just let them shine, you know, let them get whatever they got on their chest out,” said Guerrero. “It was like a really entertaining mixture of a lot of different things. I’d be rapping on songs, I’d be backing them up on sides. We’d be freestyling and mixing it all together, making something really live on the spot.”

After putting out Inner Light as their first single, Zion-I signed to record label Nu Gruv Alliance. Publicist Nicole Balin recalls being in the Nu Gruv office with label honcho Bill Baren listening to their first taste of what would become the Mind Over Matter album, a song called Trippin’. “I remember Bill Baren and I high-fived each other because it was like, ‘This is gonna be good.’ Like, if this is just even a taste of what’s going to be coming on this album. So anyway, it was really exciting.”

Balin felt Mind Over Matter was an important hip-hop album, not because of its commercial potential, but more because of its substance. Zion-I “were not doing what was selling big at that time,” she said. “It was conscious hip hop. Backpack hip-hop, by definition. Amp was doing beats that were kind of on the line between hip hop and an EDM. That was experimental.”

In some quarters, Balin said, Zion-I was perceived as “soft” because they weren’t adopting the hard-edged themes and sounds of gangsta rap and its Bay Area variants, mobb music and turf rap. “Steve was a principled man and was not deterred by that,” she said. “He would have rather gone that route and loose a fan base or not sell as much, but be able to be proud of his work.” 

Following the departure of DJ K-Genius in 2002, Zion-I became a duo. Their artistic approach was alchemical, balancing Gaines’ commitment to keeping the hip-hop artform fertile with Amp Live’s penchant for sonic experimentation.

Beginning with their second album, 2003’s Deep Water Slang v2.0, the group added new dimensions to their sound, further exploring electro and ambient textures, and atypical, sometimes exotic-sounding, instrumentation, including actual instruments played by actual musicians: upright and electric bass, live drums, piano, fuzztone guitar, and flute, along with familiar elements like electronic drums, 808 beats, turntables, and synth waves. Gaines is even credited with playing the berimbau, a capoeira instrument, on one of the album’s tracks. Features with female vocalists Susie Suh (Fingerpaint) and Goapele (Flow) further differentiated Zion-I from typical rap groups. They could be aggressive and braggadocious, but also mellow or emotional, like the ying-yang symbol, personified.

“There’s the music, which was conscious, spiritual, or whatever,” Balin says, “but Gaines also was very much rooted in his community. And so whether it was Too Short or Mistah F.A.B. or literally the community of Oakland, he, as a human, was completely connected. What he would always say to me is that he wanted everyone to hear his message.”

Although Mind Over Matter was nominated by The Source magazine—at the time the hip-hop equivalent of Rolling Stone—for Best Independent Album, later albums weren’t as eagerly received by the music industry. The group was so different from whatever trend du jour was being pushed at the time, Balin said they often encountered resistance.

“It’s interesting after that first album how difficult it was to get Zion-I, or anybody for that matter in that category, any sort of notice from The Source or any other [mainstream publication],” she said. 

Despite the artistry of albums like 2005’s True & Livin’, 2008’s The Takeover, 2010’s Atomic Clock, and 2012’s Shadowboxing, mainstream media attention was focused elsewhere. The stonewalled response Balin said she received while trying to promote The Takeover and its lead single, the house music-esque Antenna, was a big reason why she stopped being a full-time music publicist, she said. The great irony of the situation was that Zion-I’s career ended up outlasting the shelf life of most, if not all, of the hip-hop publications that mostly ignored them. A few of continue to publish, but now only online, cranking out tabloidish clickbait far removed from their former glory.

One exception to this shunning was 2005’s The Bay remix, which placed Zumbi alongside the then-current hyphy movement’s top emcees: The Team, Casual, San Quinn, and Turf Talk. The song received some local radio play and was frequently included in hyphy mixtapes. That year, Zion-I also released perhaps the only conscious hyphy anthem, Don’t Lose Your Head, which featured iconic Bay Area rapper Too Short. 

However, Balin said, it was still a challenging time for Zion-I. “The climate was changing and they weren’t in that thing. Zion-I was like we’re going to continue to make music with messages that weren’t just categorically or sonically straight hip-hop.”

Gaines never stopped creating, releasing news tracks as recently as July

In retrospect, Zion-I’s musical versatility and lyrical dexterity created a fluid aesthetic that greatly contributed to their longevity, as the group reinvented and reimagined itself several times, remaining relevant to the Bay Area community and their true fans over several generations and eras in hip-hop. Their prolificness extended to collaborations. Both on their projects and as featured artists on other people’s songs, Zion-I was a connective tissue linking an array of diverse artists: Talib Kweli, The Jacka, Black Thought, Matisyahu, Bassnectar, Del the Funky Homosapien, Linkin Park, Ty, Crown City Rockers, J-Boogie’s Dubtronic Science, Rebelution, Latyrx, Goapele, Guru, Ise Lyfe, Kev Choice, Triple Threat DJs, TD Camp, Anomolies, Locksmith, Sa-Roc, and Planet Asia, just to name a few. 

“We worked with J-Boogie,” Guerrero said. “That was a really cool release because I got a lot of love when it came out and people liked to hear us on the same track.” The music upholds the “dubtronic” vibe with a reggae dancehall feel, as Gaines and Guererro go back and forth, riffing verbal critiques of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

After featuring Living Legends emcee The Grouch on 2000’s’s well-received Silly Puddy and the aforementioned Flow, Zion-I went on to record two full-length collaborations, 2006’s Heroes In the City of Dope, and 2011’s Heroes In The Healing of the Nation, which presented opportunities for additional collaborations like Journey to Forever featuring Mystic. Both records stand the test of time in terms of their conceptual content and complex subject matter, yet both were hard to place in a radio or magazine format: there was no hip-hop equivalent of Live 105 that could have supported their alternative vision. 

Amp Live left the group in 2015 to pursue other projects, but Gaines soldiered on, working with new producers and continuing to tour. His adaptability allowed him to glide effortlessly over seemingly any beat. Zion-I’s late-period output finds Zumbi further refining his spiritual aspects, while at the same time continuing to develop his capabilities and skills as an emcee. Guerrero is featured on Gods Illa, the lead single from 2016’s Labyrinth, along with singer Viveca Hawkins. The song’s video combines live performance footage with scenes of the Zion-I crew chilling at the beach; on the song’s first verse, Gaines promises to “celebrate life ‘til I’m gone.”

The final studio album released prior to his death, 2018’s Ritual Mystik, contains song titles like Abyssinia, Bluenile, Meditation, and Kali Yuga. On that last track, Gaines raps a verse that now stands as a pretty appropriate self-eulogy:

No need for validation

Ancestors were poets and griots

Climb high in the sky using tree tops

Galactical orb is what we plot

When we rock, eyes rise up

Another video from the album for the song Calm Down, exemplifies how far Zion-I were able to stretch their meagre budgets into high-concept execution. The video depicts inner-city kids being chased on their bicycles by suspicious figures in a car wearing masks of U.S. presidents Trump, Lincoln, Nixon and Reagan. There’s tension as the kids are pursued, but the fear transforms to triumph as they multiply in number and surround the menacing vehicle. A panoramic aerial drone shot shows Zumbi on the roof of the car, arms extended, as the bicycles encircle the radius. The image is a striking visual metaphor for the transformation Gaines affected over the last 20 years, a hip-hop journey that took him from initiate to avatar. 

True Justice served as Zion-I’s booking agent in 2019, and while Gaines switched to the Empire agency the next year, Justice said he still looked out for his friend.  

“He introduced me to the agency and told them like, ‘Yo True Justice is a really good guy. He’s really good at booking. He’s built relationships with a lot of people around the country.’ So basically he brought me in the fold instead of saying, ‘Yo, I got a new book booking agency, peace.’” 

By all accounts, Gaines never stopped working, right up to his death. In 2020, he teamed up with lyrical heavyweights Sa-Roc and Locksmith for End Times, a musing on the apocalyptic anxiety inspired by the pandemic. He also dropped The Most High, a soulful affirmation featuring singer Shirena Parker that harkens back to 2003’s Flow. He followed that up with Try and Try, a duet with three-time Grammy-winning singer Fantastic Negrito, released on his own Mind Over Matter imprint. While Negrito urges listeners to “respect your neighbors and be glad you got friends,” Gaines proclaims, “My rhythm is a church that I walk with.” 

In February, Gaines released 2 Eyez, and in July he dropped Back to Life, featuring Deuce Eclipse and produced by Vin Roc. 

Guerrero said there are many unreleased Zion-I projects he’s featured on that will eventually see the light of day. These include Espiritu Yangu, an album produced by DJ Twelvz, the group’s tour DJ, and a yet-to-be titled, long-awaited collaboration with J-Boogie.

“We would just go to the studio, us three and just hammer out whatever we needed, despite what was going on in the world,” said Guerrero about the pandemic work sessions. “It was during the time where the sky was orange one day in the studio because of the smoke. And we were just talking like, man, this world is so different right now. You know what I’m saying? I just remember Oakland was literally orange, even the air, it was a trip. And we were just talking after the studio for a minute, like we always did just about how the world is so different now than when we were younger, coming up.” 

There was a “common thread” that held Zion-I’s music together throughout their catalog, Guerrero said. The combination of Zumbi and Amp Live were reminiscent of Guru and DJ Premier of Gangstarr, high praise indeed. 

“I would be hard pressed to find a rapper that I personally knew who lived as closely to what you see in his art,”  the veteran hip-hop scribe Adisa Banjoko said of Gaines. Banjoko, who featured Zion-I on a 2015 edition of his Bishop Chronicles podcast, notes that he and Gaines were able to build not just around a shared love of hip-hop culture, but shared principles, including intentional fatherhood and martial arts practice and philosophies. “He was into Tai Chi. He was into Qi Gong. The references, some of the stuff he mentions in his songs, he got from life.” 

Ahead of his time, Gaines’ music will continue to reach new audiences

The grief the Bay Area’s feeling right now, Banjoko said, comes from not just losing a rapper, but from losing a genuine person who was an integral part of the community. “One of the last things that we talked about doing was organizing a gathering of Black martial artists throughout the Bay to decide how we were going to help the hood beyond what we knew how to do as fighters. Like that was like part of my last conversation with him.”

If Gaines was here right now, Guerrero said, he would most like to talk to him about the spiritual parts of life. “We would do what we always do. It all leads to the creator. You know, our conversations at one point, they all just lead to the creator and the spirit and the soul and like life and how, what part you play in this, in this crazy game of life. That’s what I would be talking to him about.”

“Steve helped me to push to be a better man,” The Grouch said during Sunday’s livestream tribute. “He was a bright light and that’s evident.” Though there have been intense rivalries between local hip-hop crews, when Gaines and The Grouch got together to make music, “it became all love.”

“I’m hurt. I’m crushed. Zumbi, you’re here right now,” he said.

If there’s a coda to the story of Zumbi, it’s that his music will receive new listens and new appreciation and, in essence, live on forever. While rappers come and rappers go, there will never be another quite like him. At the end of the day, Steve Gaines wasn’t just a rapper. First and foremost, he was—to paraphrase a 2012 Zion-I song and video—a human being.