Con-Shuss? 

Dope by any other name

SAT 4/24

By now we're familiar with "conscious hip-hop," a term liberally slapped onto every message-spitting schoolmarm with two turntables and a microphone. In reality, though, a conscious MC is someone who is alive and rapping. A dope MC, on the other hand, is someone who can take the language of hip-hop in all kinds of funky directions -- someone who can spit verses over, say, a cowbell, and make it sound like the beat that no other rapper deserves. Whether Zion I's MC Zion and Crown City Rockers' frontman Raashan Ahmad relish the fact that they're shoehorned into the "conscious hip-hop" camp doesn't really matter, because they both sound fresh. If you see either of these guys perform in a packed club, you'll get the beautiful illusion that they're talking only to you. Granted, a lot of underground cats have their single capoeira-headwrap album, which is supposed to be stripped clean of all the braggadocio of mainstream rap. But MC Zion really is on some spiritual next shit.

Case in point: Zion's way of saying "I wanna get with you, girl" is Said it's taboo, for me to show my feelings/Don't you know I'm loving you?/Capisce, released stress at the doormat/Fresh with the raw rap collapse in your format ("Boom Bip"). And you get the sense he really means it, if only because his distinctive, throaty voice is just right for a hip-hop love ballad. In fact, the title of Zion I's 2003 album, Deep Water Slang, elegantly sums up the group's credo: Deep: Extending far down ...Water: Symbolic of human emotion ... Slang: A vocabulary composed of invented and extravagant words.

Crown City is one of those rare groups really capable of getting its jam on and keeping a coherent flow when individual members decide to flaunt their improv jazz chops. Blending the talents of drummer Max, pianist Kat, track-layer Woodstock, and bassist Headnod -- who is also an apparently indefatigable hip-hop producer -- the group is building new, jazzy sounds on the blueprint it laid with One (released in 2001 under the group's former name, Mission:). If a consistently hot live show provides any indication, the Rockers' forthcoming Earthtones promises to be dope.

Technical skills aside, these groups are taking the "conscious" moniker and bringing the funk back into it. They'll have you totally besotted. Zion I and Crown City Rockers perform with DJ Platurn (Oakland Faders) on Saturday at the Shattuck Down Low Lounge, 2284 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. 9:30 p.m., tickets $10. 510-548-1159. -- Rachel Swan

4/24-5/2

Engine-ering

Art by crickets

Cricket Engine Studio and Gallery has been open since 1997, so members of the arts collective decided to look back in pride, hence Cricket Engine: A Brief History, an exhibition of paintings, drawings, metal sculpture, fine woodworking, installations, etc., by current and former colleagues. The show, through May 2 at the gallery (499 Embarcadero, Building #3, on the Oakland waterfront), is throwing a reception this Saturday from 6 to 9 p.m., and is open for viewing Saturdays and Sundays, 12-5 p.m., or by appointment. 510-835-1920. -- Kelly Vance

FRI 4/23

Stop Whining, Start Wining

There's only one surefire way to dull the pain of what Uncle Sham did to you on April 15, and that's that dear, legal demon -- alcohol. Pleasanton vintner Mitchell Katz cordially invites you to Tax Recovery Night at Winecentives (6040 Dougherty Road, Dublin), where, beginning at 6:30 p.m., guests 21 and older can sip champagne, sample attendee-voted wine selections, and finish up with port, all from the Katz line. Light hors d'oeuvres will be provided, but participants are welcome to bring a snack to share. Call 925-829-3222 to reserve; there will be 45 patrons for the first seating, 18 for the second. $10 per person. -- Stefanie Kalem

4/23-4/25

Live Patrons Walking

Hang out on the street in Walnut Creek this weekend without fear of being arrested -- at the 52nd semiannual Walnut Creek Sidewalk Fine Arts Festival . The free art show and street fair, sponsored by the Downtown Business Association, plays host to more than 180 artists, including local painter Donald Ewen, metalsmith and jeweler Jeannie Hayden of Berkeley, and Karen Hale, a paper collagist from Jackson. The fest -- one of the outdoor season's first -- occupies Locust and North Main streets in downtown Walnut Creek all day Friday through Sunday. To learn more about the festivities, call 925-933-6778. -- Kelly Vance

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