Changing the True School

Berkeley's Zion I is out to prove that hip hop and drum 'n' bass aren't strange bedfellows

In a simpler time, a few friends could get together, pour all the quirky little sounds and ideas from their daily lives into an eight-track, and come up with an album the whole hip hop community could endorse. De La Soul sampled the Turtles, Grandmaster Flash cut up Blondie tracks, and Run-D.M.C. wrote an ode to their sneakers without anybody questioning their purity or dedication to the “true school.” K Genius, the DJ in Berkeley's Zion I, knew times had changed, but didn't realize how political things had become until he read the review the band's new record Mind Over Matter received in The Source, the most widely read rap magazine.

“The guy gave us three mikes [out of five], which is cool, we didn't expect classic,” he says from the house he shares with the other two members of the group, Zion and Amp Live. “But the only problem is that this dude painted the picture like we were some far-off space group or some shit. It started out 'The Bay has always been known as a place that can bend and twist the culture without worrying about being clowned by its peers.' It's like, are we not hip hop motherfucker? We are hip hop. We were involved in this shit even before rap records came out.”

What threw the reviewer for a loop — writing, as he was, for the notoriously conservative publication — was the handful of drum 'n' bass instrumentals sandwiched between the more straightforward hip hop numbers. Jungle isn't street music, the party line goes. It's not black music, and it definitely isn't something a “hard-core” hip hop group gets mixed up with. Leave that craziness for white kids in camouflage to bug out to at suburban raves. That ignores the facts: The architects of drum 'n' bass were mostly blacks from inner-city London, and the music is constructed out of the very same breakbeats hip hop producers have used from the beginning. The definition of what makes for “legitimate” hip hop has other shortcomings. It excludes even the gold- and diamond-sporting “ghetto superstars” who regularly appear in the cover spreads of the very same magazine.

“People think that if you don't chop your drums up like DJ Premier, you're not real hip hop,” Amp Live, the group's main producer, remarks.

“But the people everyone is up on from the East Coast aren't doing so-called classic shit either,” finishes K Genius. “Like Jay-Z and DMX — they're on some other shit too. So it's like, why y'all trippin' on us?”

They certainly aren't caving to the criticism — they just released the full-length on Ground Control last week and are already working on their next project, an all-drum 'n' bass EP for their label's parent company, local indie conglomerate Nu Gruv Alliance. Since the band strives to present the disparate styles on the same aural canvas — making use of similar drum sounds and synthesizer settings on the songs regardless of the speed of the high-hats — Zion I doesn't feel like a group being pulled apart by two separate music scenes. Most of the time the transition between the styles is so smooth its crowds don't have time to stop and wonder if they should be grooving to the beats of the “other side.”

“Most of the time we get them to flow to it,” K Genius says. “Every now and then you'll see a change in energy. When we played in Detroit — the set was rockin', and then we went into 'Inner Light' and 'Elevation,' which are drum 'n' bass, and I don't think that was really a drum 'n' bass crowd. Don't get me wrong — they didn't dis it, but they just weren't used to it. People stopped for a minute — like, 'Hey, hold on now.' But man, you gotta take your chances.”

Lead MC Zion, originally from the Bay Area, met Amp Live while attending Morehouse College in Atlanta during the early '90s. “We lived in the same freshman dorm,” he recalls. “I peeped this cat the first day I moved in — he was playing pingpong, all cool and shit. He lived across the hall from this other dude I knew, so we all started hanging. We started talking about music, he said he made beats, I was writing raps, and we just formed up.” Along with two other students, they started the group Metafour. Even in those early days, they pulled a few uncommon ingredients off the shelf. Since Amp Live grew up in San Antonio — a hip hop black hole at the time — he started making house music on his cousin's keyboard back in high school. The eclectic Atlanta music scene also impressed the idea on them that hip hop isn't an island unto itself, aesthetically isolated from the rest of the musical universe. That city's also where they first heard drum 'n' bass.

“It's like our spiritual homeland,” Zion relates. “Atlanta's got more of a musical vibe — not that it's not about hip hop, but around here, it's more about a stripped-down beat and rhymes.” A friend who did production work for De La Soul shopped their demo tape to Tommy Boy, and while still undergraduates, Metafour signed a major label record deal. “We got a wack deal, you know, we signed it in his bedroom, no lawyer, we read it over, thought we was hella smart,” Zion says. “We probably recorded three albums for Tommy Boy and each sounded different. After we got signed, it seemed like our egos flared up and we thought we could do anything,” he continues. “Like before we got signed, we just wanted to be dope, but after we got signed, it was like we had a license to do anything. In hindsight, I think the pressure of the industry brought out how young of a group we really were.”

After it became apparent that Tommy Boy had no intentions of actually releasing any of their albums, Metafour dissolved. “After the label deal, one dude moved, and the rest of us stopped kickin' it,” Zion explains. “I had a girl, was smokin' hella bomb, just rhyming — but I was hella mad because I felt like I put hella energy into something that had sizzled before my eyes. Then I started coming over to Amp's house saying we should make music, and he said to wait for [the other members] Supe and Rick, but I was like, 'Rick is in Baltimore and Supe's trippin'.' So he kept making beats and I kept rapping — separately — and finally I said, 'We should make some stuff, these cats aren't even around, I'm getting a headache.' We started doing it, and it was cool because we had a different chemistry.”

The freshly re-inspired Amp Live and Zion enlisted the services of K Genius, who had recently moved to Atlanta after splitting with Sacramento underground veterans Fonke Socialistik. Moving to the East Bay to build a following, the trio made the acquaintance of local MC Rasco (who makes a guest appearance on Mind Over Matter). Rasco passed on some information about TRC, the record distribution service where he was working. Soon after, they arranged a deal with Ground Control, one of TRC's affiliates.

This time around, they picked apart the contract with lawyers, clause by clause; K Genius, even more than the other two, was scrupulous about ensuring everything was airtight. His first group, through circumstances he isn't at liberty to discuss, became involved in the early '90s with the most infamous figure in the industry, Suge Knight. Before they knew it, they found themselves in a world where executives kept gang-affiliated bodyguards. This time around, K Genius was leery about signing anything short of the ideal contract. “It's about as straightforward as I've ever seen a contract. I'm pretty sure it's got some little loopholes in there somewhere,” he laughs, “but we've had it thoroughly checked out, and they seem pretty fair. If we come to them with good ideas and it seems feasible, they're down to put some money behind it. It's cool because they're new to it and we're kinda new to it too, so we're kinda growing together.”

For their first single, they wanted to push beyond the stylistic expectations of an underground Bay Area act. They concocted “Inner Light,” a rolling drum 'n' bass track punctuated with classic hip hop samples that has become the climax of their live set. “We've been through the live instrument thing, the ghetto murder beats thing, the East Coast phase, the West Coast phase,” says Amp Live. “I know things are moving more toward playing instruments again, but also things are getting more computerized, stuff you can dance to. I think the boom-bap era is coming to an end. It's still there, but there's only so much you can do with a 4/4 beat.”

Tags: , , , ,

Related Stories