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Zion I 

Hip hop's hope for uniting the underground and the streets

Wednesday, Oct 19 2005
On a warm Indian summer night, I wind my way through East Oakland's Jingle Town neighborhood and pull into Studio 880, a labyrinthine complex that's home to a video editing company, a graphic design firm, and recording studios where local luminaries such as Green Day, Smashmouth, and Chris Isaak have laid down tracks. I'm here to spend some time in a much smaller room with a much smaller group, Oakland rap duo Zion I, aka MC Zion and producer Amp Live. They've got a recording session planned for tonight, and they're just getting started as I walk in.

The studio is, in a word, cozy. Considering the countless hours the group spends here, the lived-in vibe comes as no surprise. Posters and framed albums adorn the walls and a huge shelf holds a few thousand more records, snippets of which may someday find their way into one of Amp's half-dozen keyboards or the two computers at his disposal. Amp sits in a swiveling chair, surrounded by said technology.

In the front corner of the studio, Zion plops down on a well-worn futon and starts penning lyrics. The athletic master of ceremonies wears his hair in a corona of 6-inch dreads, framing a face handsome enough to win the group more than its fair share of female fans. He has a laid-back demeanor that hints at a deep knowledge of self gleaned from years of introspection; when he rhymes about Buddha, he's as likely to be referencing the god as the bud. His inimitable voice resides at the intersection of Q-Tip and Eazy E -- heavy on the treble, but with just the right amount of rasp.

Amp's voice is harder to describe, if only because it's rarely heard. Unlike Zion, the producer, who is as lanky as he is laconic, wears his hair close-cropped and seems most at ease when he's crafting beats. The last person to arrive is the Grouch, a sleepy-eyed bay-to-L.A. transplant who has garnered fans across the globe from his work with the Living Legends. The Grouch has made cameo appearances on all three Zion I albums; tonight, the trio begins work on a collaborative full-length.

Amp loads up the sound files for the session on his MPC-3000 sampler/drum machine and Motif keyboard, gliding effortlessly between tweaking the track, checking the Internet, and answering phone calls. He brings the sounds in one at a time, first the impossibly hard kick drum, then a dirty handclap where the snare should go. He layers a pulsating keyboard riff akin to a muted steel drum and then brings in the song's chorus, a jarring minor-chord progression of ersatz horns played on the Motif. Finally, he loads the vocal sample, a simple "1, 2, 3, 4" count-off. Over the years, he's made it almost impossible to define a "typical Amp Live beat." He shuffles between funky sample-based sounds and hard, keyboard-driven parts, like the one that will play uninterrupted for the next 15 minutes, as Zion and the Grouch scribble down lyrics.

It's a track that would sound right at home under the gravel-voiced rhymes of Keak Da Sneak, the street-wise Oakland MC credited with inventing slang like "what it do," "hyphy" (a synonym for rowdy), and "fo' sheezy." This turns out to be significant: This beat will be recorded over by two MCs who'd rather rhyme about the state of the union than the state of the 'hood.

The bay's underground, or conscious, hip hop scene is characterized by artists like Blackalicious, Lyrics Born, Crown City Rockers, Hieroglyphics, and Zion I. What separates these acts from their counterparts in what has been termed the "New Bay" movement is, more than any other factor, their lyrical content, which often idealizes hip hop's golden era (roughly 1986 to 1996) and decries the rampant materialism of so-called commercial rap. An underground MC is likely to rhyme about his love for what he considers "real hip hop."

On the flip side of the same record is the New Bay, a recent renaissance that includes older artists like the aforementioned Keak Da Sneak and that is led by newcomers like Frontline, Federation, the Team, and Turf Talk. A New Bay MC doesn't give a good goddamn about who your favorite rapper was in 1987, and is more likely to rhyme about poppin' pills and pickin' up "rippers," the New Bay word for hos.

While no New Bay artists have achieved nationwide acclaim, several are enjoying unprecedented local success and massive exposure through regional radio stations like KMEL. Zion I has been all but left out of the movement. But while Zion and Amp aren't looking to jump on any bandwagons, they did record a remix recently that featured Turf Talk, Clyde Carson of the Team, Casual, and San Quinn. "We did a song called 'The Bay' and we thought, 'Well, let's try to do something with it, maybe get it on the radio,'" Amp explains. "I'd already [made beats for] Keak Da Sneak, the Team, San Quinn, Dope Game ... I mean, we all work together and have relationships, so why not try to do a song?"

The song was, in part, an effort to change the way the group is perceived. Zion explains: "We're tryin' to reach out and do different things to put ourselves in different places so people can't compartmentalize us so quickly. I grew up with hip hop when it was all different styles, but it was all hip hop music. It wasn't separated by the color of the people who listened to it."

Instead of segregating, the two hip-hoppers would rather integrate. And at a Fillmore show they headlined in September, they did just that, mixing their fans with New Bay fans. They invited fellow underground artists Crown City Rockers to perform, but also extended the invitation to Oakland's Mistah F.A.B. and the Team.

"We wanted to do something that hadn't been done," says Zion. "We experience the schism directly between -- whatever you wanna call it, gangsta versus conscious rap -- so we were attackin' that. I think other people would like our music if they think it's OK to like it. At that show, everybody brought their own fans, and they were all vibin' off every group. It's music, you know? It was cool to see kids wavin' their hands, then when the next group got on, kids were doin' the thizz dance and goin' dumb -- those are unique expressions of Bay Area hip hop, and independent cats, conscious cats, can't exclude that either. It's all one thing."

Zion I's role as the bridge between these two scenes isn't just about expanding its fans' musical tastes -- there are complex race issues at stake, too. "Since it's 'conscious' -- that means black people won't like it as much? You're implying something negative," explains Zion. "I had kids coming up to me saying, 'Man, I don't listen to Nas. That shit is weak. Jay-Z is fuckin' weak.' These are some of my favorite cats! Then they say, 'You guys are intellectual. You're underground, independent.' I know everyone has their opinions about what they like, that's natural, but what's disconcerting is when you start really analyzing and creating a reason why you like this and why that is not good, but underneath it are these racial overtones that you're not even aware of."

As heard on last spring's True & Livin' (released on the duo's own Live Up Records), Zion I has grown tremendously in its seven years as a group. Amp's production is as creative as ever, ranging from minimal to lush, soul to hip hop; he goes so far as to layer a bluegrass fiddle and a country banjo over a techno rhythm on "So Tall." And Amp can make beats that meld perfectly with those of his New Bay contemporaries, which means that, if Zion I wanted to, it could tap into a whole new base of fans. All it would take is for Zion to channel his inner thug and pen a few verses about bangin' in his 5XL white T-shirt, but the MC has his limits.

"Certainly, there's some of the streets [in our music] -- that's where we're at -- but it's not totally sunken down in that," he clarifies. "It's not all street-oriented, puffin' blunts and drinkin', squattin' down on East 14th. It's not all super-turf-related; it's a little bit mental. I just feel like people gotta hear key terms to relate to. They gotta hear 'ho,' they gotta hear 'scraper' [East Bay slang for an old car], which is cool. But when it gets to 'bitch' and 'nigga,' I can't do all that. I'm not gonna act for the mike."

"How much does a brain weigh?" Zion asks, looking up from his notebook of rhymes. When no one offers an answer, he laughs and walks out the door. A few minutes later, he returns and announces, "Between 1.5 and 3 pounds."

With this newfound knowledge, the MCs wrap up their verses and turn their attention to the hook for tonight's track, a task that proves to be somewhat difficult. The hook, which incorporates the "1, 2, 3, 4" vocal sample, calls for something fairly minimal from the rappers.

Zion jokes that, with a beat this hard, people probably want to hear him shout, "What it do?" over and over on the chorus, a thought that makes the Grouch laugh and bashfully add, "Man, I can't say that!"

The Grouch offers his idea for the hook: a complex chorus that deals with hip hop's universal and populist appeal. There's dissent. "The chorus should be hella simple, more broken down," argues Amp; Zion agrees.

"I never write hooks like this," protests the Grouch. Still, he pushes through his momentary writer's block and dives back into his notepad.

There is more back-and-forth, but it never devolves into an argument; no one's integrity is impugned, and no musical morals are compromised. The Grouch, still apprehensive, offers up a basic hook that incorporates the count-off. The result is a chorus that's equal parts underground (having been penned by a literal Living Legend of the scene) and New Bay (thanks to Amp's club-friendly beat). All that's left now is for Zion to weigh in.

He listens intently, thinks for a moment, and proclaims, "I like that hook. It sounds cool. It's like, it's just a rap song, but it sounds good."

About The Author

Ross Viator


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