Underground Depth Charge 

The "whatever, whatever" hip-hop of Zion-I.

Amp Live believes audiences are bored with going to shows and "having people yell at them." Lounging on a sofa at his El Cerrito crib, the production half of Zion-I discourses about hip-hop in general and Bay Area hip-hop in particular. "I think people wanna hear good music," he opines, with a slight Texas twang. "They're tired of just hearing anything." In his mind, rap's shortcomings are most obvious when it comes to live performance. "A lot of these shows, they're just long," he says with a shrug. "You can't understand what people are saying."

In other words, jumping onstage lit offa Henny and acting like a damn fool is played-out, pahtna.

This could be one reason why urban genres such as neo-soul and spoken word have gained popularity, while rap music -- especially at the more commercial end of the spectrum -- has chained itself to a predictable wheel. Hip-hop once encompassed a wide stylistic range of expression -- everything from jazz fusion to galactic funk to revolutionary poetry -- whereas today, it tends to be boxed into easily marketable categories.

"As far as the sound, in the '80s, hip-hop was just hip-hop," adds Zion, the MC half of the East Bay duo, putting aside the wholesale slaughter of pixelated police officers in the videogame Grand Theft Auto: Vice City to join the discussion. "It wasn't gangsta, it wasn't conscious, it was just whatever, whatever."

When Amp, Zion, and now-departed third member K-Genius first set up shop in Oakland, they were surrounded by a plethora of grassroots artists and labels putting out albums and making noise. Since moving from Atlanta to Oakland in the late '90s, the members of Zion-I have become mainstays of the East Bay's hip-hop community. They've been written up in both local rags and national publications and probably have done as many shows at local venues as any Bay Area rap group. They've also released two critically acclaimed albums and woven themselves into the region's sociocultural fabric. Zion-I is just as likely to make a guest appearance on neo-soul diva Goapele's album as bilingual rapper Deuce Eclipse's; it's just as liable to perform at a Food Not Bombs benefit in Oakland as headline at a more upscale venue like Slim's.

But after the dot-coms went bust and 9/11 happened, hard times befell the Bay's hip-hop indies and many of them folded. Among the casualties were several local labels with national distribution deals, such as 75 Ark, Stray, and Nu Gruv -- which put out Zion-I's first album, Mind Over Matter.

The group remains proud of its debut effort, whose hit single, the drum-and-bass-ified "Inner Light," pulled off a near-impossible feat: It crossed over to a club-going electronic music audience. Group members blame Nu Gruv's bad marketing plan and general incompetence for Mind Over Matter's disappointing sales, but they say they learned from the experience. "The first album was basically a compilation of everything we made from '96 to the end of '99," Zion says.

As Zion-I prepares to finally release its second album, Deep Water Slang V.2.0, the landscape of Bay Area hip-hop has indeed changed. "When we first came out, it seemed like the underground hip-hop scene came off the gangsta scene, as far as independents getting busy and doing their own thing," Zion says. In the intervening years, especially the last two years, the pace of new underground releases has slowed, he notes.

Still, Zion-I has been quite busy in between albums, creating its own label, Live Up!; an Internet newsletter, Tha North Star; and forging close bonds with the local community. This past summer, Amp Live worked with ghetto youth, teaching production classes at the Mandela Village Center in Oakland. Meanwhile, the group kept its name on people's lips by contributing to other artists' albums -- including a track on Linkin Park's remix album, Reanimation, and another on the local compilation Shame the Devil. Group members also took advantage of the hiatus by remixing and adding new tracks to Deep Water Slang, which originally was scheduled to come out on Nu Gruv in 2002.

With the past firmly behind it, the group's future looks rosy: it licensed its new album to Raptivism, a conscious hip-hop-oriented imprint with national distribution, which may be a better fit than Nu Gruv ever was. While most artists tend to gripe about the lack of major label involvement in the local hip-hop scene, Amp actually sees that as a plus. "People always complain about that," he says, "but I think there don't need to be major labels here, because that would kinda ruin what's going on out here." As far as commercial radio airplay for local artists -- another sore point for the Bay Area hip-hop community -- he points to the recent meeting between community activist groups and KMEL representatives as an encouraging sign of progress, even though there is clearly room for improvement on the station's playlist.

The absence of major-label input certainly didn't keep Zion-I's sound from evolving on Deep Water Slang. Amp's production style fuses elements of innovation and familiarity, containing both a steady dose of boom-bip bass-ics and original-sounding instrumentation. A standout track is the mellow, jazzy "Flow," which combines a hooky chorus voiced by Goapele with ambient, almost New Age-y textures and introspective verses by Zion and guest MC the Grouch. The song uses the negative space between its grooves expertly, allowing the vocals to breathe and making for a soulful, resonant vibe. "Karma," on the other hand, strikes a serious, reflective chord. This song finds Zion relating a poignant, emotionally affecting story of a "little boy" turned into a man-child in the troubled wastelands of the inner city after he acquires a gun. The song's chorus, "Everything you do/comes back to you someday," could easily be referring to Oakland's ghastly 2002 murder statistics, even though Zion says it wasn't specifically inspired by that. Other songs, such as "Warrior's Dance" (featuring Pep Love) and "AEIOU" (featuring Aceyalone), likewise broaden the group's range, with up-tempo electro beats that enter a nightclub-friendly zone without moving completely away from the underground foundation Zion-I built with Mind Over Matter. "It's not like we weren't listening to club music when we did the first album," Zion says by way of explanation. "That was just the sound we had at the time."

Once, to be down with the local scene meant you were expected to eschew anything that wasn't considered grassroots, Zion relates. "People were like, 'If I listen to underground, I don't listen to other forms of hip-hop,'" he says. Yet Zion doesn't automatically equate such "backpack" elitism with having a conscious mentality. "To me, that's kinda ignorant," he says.

Not that the members of Zion-I have issues with being called conscious rappers, mind you. "We've done benefits for Mumia [Abu-Jamal] and No More Prisons," Zion says. "That's something that we believe in and feel. ... It comes out in our music, but I don't think our music is the most highly political." After all, the duo is aware how easily "consciousness" can be perceived as didacticism in the hip-hop world. "We're not trying to be too preachy, not trying to beat people over the head," Zion says.

Zion respects both ends of the hip-hop spectrum: street-identified artists dispensing what he calls "straight game" and purveyors of a more lyrical aesthetic. He speculates that hip-hop's future lies somewhere between the two extremes. Both he and Amp also believe that hip-hop is evolving, even though it may not always seem that way. And staying current and up-to-date is just as important to them as honoring the traditions of bygone eras.

"I've been thinking, there's gonna be another type of music kids will listen to," Amp says. "Hip-hop is gonna grow with us and will be with our generation, but our kids are probably gonna listen to something totally different. Right now, we just can't see that."

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