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Expensive Tastes 

Rap duo Zion I can't stop being innovative, no matter what the costs

Wednesday, Feb 12 2003
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Much to their alarm, the members of Zion I are watching their triumphant set shrink to the size of a footnote. An hour ago, producer Amp Live and MC Zion had completed the monumental task of winning over a roomful of rowdy Kool Keith fans with a distinct barrage of futuristic beats and polished rhymes. They'd left the stage at Slim's feeling that they were finally primed to get their due.

But when Keith fails to take the stage in a timely fashion, the crowd begins to resemble a mob, chanting his name in increasingly ugly tones. Rumors circulate that the rapper got arrested or simply went shopping (neither of which ever gets confirmed). Finally, chaos erupts, and people snatch merchandise from the stands and posters from the walls. Amp and Zion watch in dismay. Without spitting one rhyme, Keith has upstaged them, erasing any thought of how they had swayed the crowd.

Momentum-killing mishaps have been common for the local act. But truth be told, no one but Zion I -- not Kool Keith, not even shady record executives and herd-mentality consumers -- can shoulder the blame for the pair's low profile. Like one of Amp Live's tweaked-out samples, the duo is caught in a loop: Each time it sets out to create a commercially viable rap album, it winds up squandering sales potential in favor of breaking new ground. Ironically, in the bling-bling culture of today's hip hop, such costly decisions show Zion I has truly expensive tastes.

The habit can be traced to the twosome's days at Atlanta's Morehouse College, where they met as freshmen Anthony Anderson (Amp) and Steve Gaines (Zion) in 1991. After a year of recording raps in Amp's dorm room, the pair formed the group Metafour with two friends, and were quickly signed to a production deal with Tommy Boy Records, home of platinum-selling acts De La Soul and Naughty by Nature. As it turned out, however, the label was far more interested in making the group sound marketable than in appreciating its unique charms.

In the living room of the little pink house they rent in El Cerrito, Amp and Zion recall their first batch of songs and the pattern it set up. "We were pretty innovative -- we took a lot of '80s loops that Puffy [Combs] started using, like, three or four years later," Amp claims, glancing around the tidy space with a restless energy. "Unfortunately, the first EP we turned in, the label thought it was a little too far out. Eventually, we got so tired of them telling us they didn't like our music that we just did some commercial-sounding stuff."

But even though the group came up with new material for the label, the executives were still unimpressed. "So we finally started making stuff that we just wanted to make," Zion says. "It's a cycle of letting yourself go, pulling yourself back in."

Amp and Zion were let go by Tommy Boy, and eventually pulled away from their other bandmates. Their major-label experience did teach them to keep one eye on the marketplace, though they never would learn to give it their full attention. Instead, the pair balanced the need to pursue hip hop trends with their compulsion to set them. In a mid-'90s market full of gritty funk loops, Amp worked on producing soundscapes as smooth and synthetic as polyester sheets, while Zion wrote virtuous lyrics that predated backpacker acts by half a decade. Finally, in 1997 the inevitable happened: Amp and Zion moved to the Bay Area, ground zero for independent musicians and open-minded listeners.

Two years later, the duo released Mind Over Matter, an album that made up in fanfare what it lacked in fan numbers. (SoundScan lists its total sales at 17,000 copies, although the group puts the number at closer to 25,000.) Cutting hip hop with occasional drum 'n' bass beats, Amp turned heads with his eclectic production style, while Zion filled them with intelligent wordplay. Through numerous live appearances at San Francisco clubs like Justice League and Storyville, the group cultivated a loyal local following. Mainstream success seemed inevitable when The Source named Mind Over Matter "Best of the Independents" in 2000's year-end issue. Unfortunately, the inclusion of even a little drum 'n' bass on a rap record proved too much for provincial fans, who went so far as to claim that the entire album wasn't really hip hop.

The accusation stung, and the lackluster sales helped it stick. "We did feel like the first album, a lot of cats fronted on it, like, 'That's drum 'n' bass, that's not hip hop, and it sounds too soft,'" Zion recalls. But Amp blames the label, Nu Gruv Alliance, for lending weight to that minority opinion, explaining that "they owed money to the spot that was printing up the album, and also to the distribution company, so they stopped pressing up the album, and stores stopped receiving it when people still wanted it."

Finger-pointing aside, Zion I had a reputation to salvage. The situation began to feel a lot like when Tommy Boy had insisted the duo's instincts were wrong. And indeed, the musicians nearly fell into the same trap, privately agreeing that their next project should include the kind of no-frills rap that would win back orthodox audiences.

For a while, Zion I stuck to the plan. When Amp's sonic ideas strayed too far from the mainstream, Zion would tell him to rein it in. For his part, Amp encouraged Zion to slow his occasionally rapid-fire vocals down to a medium tempo and concentrate on finding a "tight pocket," or key rhythm, for delivering simple rhymes.

The results formed Deep Water Slang, the act's apparent sophomore release. But several months after Nu Gruv released the 2001 single "Boom Bip" -- which featured hypnotic reversed beats and steady, clever lyrics -- the label folded. And just to prove that bad news comes in threes, Amp and Zion's landlord doubled the rent on their Berkeley apartment, forcing them to leave, and Zion watched his parents go through a nasty divorce.

The sudden combination of personal and professional pitfalls took the act's sound in new directions. Zion penned several fresh songs, with more pointed and emotional lyrics. For "Karma" he compared media coverage of the Columbine tragedy to a rash of Hunters Point killings, rapping, "Why you all upset when it sacked your home?/ When it was at mine everything was just fine." And on "Sorry," he offered his most naked verses to date, directly addressing his parents' split, and then apologizing to every ex-girlfriend he ever let down. While Mind Over Matter emphasized the mental over the physical, celebrating urban culture and self-esteem, the new tracks aimed straight for the heart.

"In terms of content [now], what I try to do is pay attention to what my heart is trying to say," Zion explains. Apart from writing his lyrics, his heart also reads his folks' divorce as a cautionary tale against selling out. "To me, life is more about getting happy with yourself -- whether you're a broke rapper or a lawyer -- as opposed to having the house with the white picket fence but being unhappy, so you're cheating on your wife, and you get a divorce, and your kid grows up mad, and there's resentment."

Meanwhile, Amp grew restless sitting on a batch of tracks that he felt had bland production. Like a gearhead locked in a shed with a carburetor, he broke the album down to its nuts and bolts and built it back up again. As the year of waiting for a new label crawled along, he brought in live instrumentation -- a first for the band -- as well as sitar samples and, yes, the occasional drum 'n' bass beat.

Ultimately, Zion proved game for the makeover. Although the two had set out to make a more conventional-sounding album, Zion recalls, "When we basically finished it, we were like, 'Man, we need to make some ill shit. This is a little too standard.' It was a little boring listening to us like that."

They added a pair of genre-bending slow numbers, "Fingerpaints" and "One More Thing," and remade "Flow" with vocal additions from MC Grouch and local siren Goapele -- all three tracks featuring live guitars, drums, and keys. Those songs, plus a dancehall reggae beat on "AEIOU" and what Amp calls "a little more flavor everywhere," made Deep Water Slang v2.0 every bit as brash as Zion I's debut -- and a little deeper and more polished.

As for the duo's chances at mainstream acceptance, hip hop minds seem to have opened, judging by the success of genre-pushing acts like Outkast, the Roots, and the Neptunes. Plus, Zion I should benefit from the yearlong buzz preceding Deep Water, bolstered by the Kool Keith tour (which finished smoothly) and other recent live appearances.

But whether or not the public is ready to catch up with Zion I's style, what's most important is that Amp and Zion finally understand what they do best. "I guess we've never been standard-bearers," Amp concedes. "We prefer to push the envelope."

The revelation should ultimately satisfy both the twosome and their fans. And all it cost, really, was one white picket fence.

About The Author

Greg Doherty

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