By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
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.
Thursday, Feb. 20
Crown City Rockers open at 9 p.m.
Tickets are $13
Zion I also appears with Sayyadina, Swan, Hanifah, and M.O.S. on Friday, Feb. 21, at the Black Box, 1928 Telegraph (at 19th Street), Oakland. Tickets are $10 before 10 p.m. and $15 after; call (510) 451-1932 or go to www.blackboxoakland.com.
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.