Zion I

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

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.

MC Zion beseeches those in the crowd to 
throw their hands in the air and wave them 
as if they just don't care.
MC Zion beseeches those in the crowd to throw their hands in the air and wave them as if they just don't care.
MC Zion beseeches those in the crowd to 
throw their hands in the air and wave them 
as if they just don't care.
MC Zion beseeches those in the crowd to throw their hands in the air and wave them as if they just don't care.

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."

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