ZION I True thinkers.
Zion I
w/Opio of Hieroglyphics, H-Bomb, DJ Sabzi
Thurs May 12, Chop Suey, 8 pm, $10.

Anyone who decides to make a hiphop record will either give something to the music or take something from it. Usually, those who do something for hiphop make very little money, and those who have hiphop do something for them make tons of dough. It wasn't always like this. In the past, giving and taking were one and the same thing. Groups who contributed the most (Public Enemy, De La Soul, Run-D.M.C., N.W.A.) reaped the greatest rewards. These days, a group like Bay Area duo Zion I must endure the harsh realities of corporate hiphop. Over the past seven years, Zion I have contributed a significant amount to the art but have seen very little in the way of money and acclaim coming back their way.

Along with West Coast crews like Lootpack, Planet Asia, and Rasco and East Coast crews like Black Star, Company Flow, and Scienz of Life, Zion I helped establish hiphop's underground in the late '90s. Their latest and third CD, True & Livin', is a celebration of that movement and its achievements. The CD features guest appearances from the underground's defining figures (Gift of Gab, Talib Kweli, Aesop Rock), and on every track Zion I's rapper, MC Zion, reinforces the core value of the underground--which, ultimately, is the core b-boy value: "[staying] true and livin' with a youthful vengeance."

The raps of MC Zion and the music of his DJ/producer Amp Live transform the b-boy code into the code of Buddha; ordinary street experiences become extraordinary spiritual experiences. You won't find a hiphop group more committed to matters of the soul than Zion I. And yet they're not preachy or religious. What concerns the duo, as the title of their first single, "Inner Light," implied, is the progression of one's consciousness from darkness to a higher form of awareness, to enlightenment. P.M. Dawn once covered this territory, but they didn't have any of the artistic talent and substance that Zion I has. P.M. Dawn was corny, Zion I is convincing.

MC Zion was born and raised in Philadelphia; Amp Live was born and raised in San Antonio. The two met in a dorm at Morehouse College in the early '90s. MC Zion studied psychology and English literature, and Amp Live was a premed student. In the mid-'90s, they became members of a quartet called Metafour that quickly signed to Tommy Boy. Because of artistic disagreements, the relationship between the established hiphop record label and the unknown foursome came to a dead end. MC Zion and Amp Live relocated to the Bay Area and formed Zion I. From the start, the two connected with the local underground scene (Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Blackalicious), and their first CD, Mind Over Matter, was appropriately named the best hiphop CD of 2000 by the Source magazine.

Zion I's sophomore CD, Deep Water Slang v2.0, was as good as their debut, but it received almost no commercial or critical recognition. In comparison, True & Livin' is getting a lot of press, and many critics consider it to be the duo's best effort yet--an estimation that is not exact. The production on True & Livin' is bigger and better sounding than Zion I's previous works, but as far as the actual content, it doesn't really do anything new. Mind Over Matter, Deep Water Slang v2.0, and True & Livin' are really just one long record that contains a series of very mellow and melodic tracks and True & Livin' is simply consistent. As before, MC Zion gives back with the "knowledge of his raps," which meditate on life, friendship, love, and the city and world he lives in; Amp Live's music is, as always, full of wonder.

What Zion I have really contributed to hiphop is that sense of wonder, though. From the moment the duo arrived in 1998, they have steadily developed a language and sound that express, in hiphop terms, the purest form of amazement at the fact of being alive, being with others, being in and out of love. This is what they have given to the art of hiphop, but because things are the way they are, it is doubtful that this offering will ever be returned.

charles@thestranger.com