The creative landscape is changing. Technologies like Pro Tools, the iPod, and peer-to-peer networks have become mainstream in the digital age, creating a wild frontier of sorts in music. Independent artists can reach mass audiences once forbidden to them. These technologies are fostering the rise of “semiotic democracy”—where more and more people are no longer passive consumers of mass media, but active participants in creating culture. Cops vs Lawyers, Issue 3

الاثنين، أيار ٠٢، ٢٠٠٥

Zion I

By Folklore

Smoking herb certainly alleviates the burden of transcribing a lengthy interview, but it does nothing for writing witty opening lines. Good music gets us through these moments, and Bay Area denizens Zion I–producer Amp Live and emcee Zion–have returned to offer your ears some inspiration in the form of True & Livin’, their third full-length effort.

More significantly, it’s the first album released exclusively through their own label, Live Up, submerging their deep water slang further into both financial and record pools. Amp says, “We were able to work with a couple of people from the first label and put a together a tight infrastructure, so this album, True & Livin’, came off our own label. This is a big project.”

Time management may be a remedial class for detention-prone high schoolers, but it’s also a life lesson that aspiring professionals (musicians or otherwise) should enroll in.

“We had a hectic schedule this year,” recounts Zion. “We went from being in the studio almost every day, to goin’ on tour, to comin’ back, to bein’ back in the studio, to goin’ back out, to bein’ in the studio again to mix and master. And it’s like we really didn’t have too much of a break. With other albums before, Mind Over Matter took like four years to make and Deep Water Slang took about two-and-a-half [to] three years to make; this album took one year. So it’s basically takin’ all of your emotional experiences, takin’ photographs of how you feel, and then tryin’ to compile them and put ‘em together in a presentable way.”

A quick flip through the Zion I photo album illustrates the effort involved in creating and sustaining their career. While a knee-high Amp Live was playing drums and piano for his church and developing beats in San Antonio, Texas, Zion’s formative years were spent memorizing the lyrics to “The Message” and “Sucka DJ’s” in Philly. In 1991, they met while attending Morehouse College in a pre-Southernplayalistic ATL. The two added two other members, the sum of which comprised their first group Metafour. Though inked to Tommy Boy, Amp & Zion opted to split and chase the sun west.

“From the Metafour days till now, I think the real difference is that we just know more about the business,” says Zion. “And we’re more concerned about makin’ things happen correctly, ‘cause back then we didn’t know shit, and we thought we did. We thought all you had to do was make a good record and make a dope video. That’s what I thought the extent of doing music was, and at this point we understand marketing and promotional tools, and promotion in radio and all the different factors that come into it.”

Nu Gruv Alliance released Zion I’s first album, Mind Over Matter in 2000 to substantial acclaim. Deep Water Slang followed in 2003 on Live Up/Raptivism, but failed to propel them across the multi-demographic divide.

“Mind Over Matter and Deep Water Slang came out on different labels, and those projects didn’t necessarily go as well as they should’ve,” says Amp. “So when we had the opportunity, we wanted to have all control over our product.”

Independent success requires not only control of the product, but control of the live crowd as well. The tour hustle pushed them onstage amongst the inimitable Kool Keith, the lung-capacious Lyrics Born, the funky human Del, the three plugs De La Soul, the misnomered Jurassic 5, the mighty Mos Def, and the legendary Roots crew. Zion I has also been billed on the MTV2/Mountain Dew Circuit Breakout tour for the past two years.

This allowed them time to develop an album that truly reflects their current living situation.

“With this album, we wanted to purvey the true sense of hip-hop and what it is to us as individuals, without pretense, without gimmicks” says Zion. “This is how we live, this is our daily experience of life. And hip-hop is our life, so this is our offering. It’s artwork that’s true, and it’s a living work, it’s a body of work because we live it and we give it to people so they can experience it. It’s just true art for art’s sake for people to enjoy and get a good vibe from.”

The artists that Zion I recruited to assist them in crafting True & Livin’ are of the same ilk: genuine. The Gift of Gab, Del, Aesop Rock, Talib Kweli, and Fred Hampton Jr.; each lend their respective voices and visions.

“We wanted to have something with like a different flavor,” explains Amp. “The emcees we have on this album are really tight and professional, so we up our game to make sure the music was good enough to match with them.”

The music’s always been good, albeit different, but it’s the variety of sound that gives Amp’s beats distinction. From Mind Over Matter’s drum-n-bass influenced percussion to Deep Water Slang’s synth-funk basslines, his technique remains simply his.

“I think with Deep Water Slang I used more live instrumentation in terms of like keyboard and that type of stuff, but on this album it’s more like drums, guitar, bass–like the real basic type of stuff, not as much synthesizer stuff,” says Amp. “So it’s just a different type of approach.”

Zion’s approach remains true to himself, rooted in his surroundings, as exhibited on “The Bay”: We hardly get the love ‘cause we close to L.A. / we got our own slang, but everybody took it…

While artists like Too Short, E40, Paris, Hieroglyphics, and Living Legends have created various aspects of substance, swagger, slang, and sales, they’ve been oft-overlooked as innovators.

“One of the main things we feel is that bein’ from the Bay Area like we had a lot of shine in the early ‘90s through maybe the mid-’90s, and after that attention was definitely taken away from the Bay,” says Zion. “New York and L.A. definitely (and Atlanta now) are hubs of music, but I think it’s pretty well known that the Bay Area’s a place where there’s always been a lot of creativity and progressive thought. But still, right now we’re definitely not getting as many spins or people aren’t getting signed out of the Bay.”

Though might take a minute to develop into financial success, the independent route develops character and a strong work ethic that might otherwise never come into fruition.

“There’s young guys comin’ up, there’s older dudes who have more knowledge, and it’s like I think that music is all about learning to master yourself, to communicate your life experience so somebody else can feel you,” says Zion. “I don’t think you’d ever really master that, I think it’s a continual process. So it’s a blessing, but it’s hard work too… You have to kinda go inside yourself and find that space, and learn what it takes to make dope art.”