Zion I: Sunrise Over Oakland

Don’t check for Oakland duo Zion I, consisting on MC Zion and producer Amp Live, to be all over the radio taking advantage of McDonald’s recent offer to drop pesos for Big Mac mentions. With over 14 years invested in their friendship and three albums collectively recorded, the Bay Area Hip-Hop heads have come to […]

Don’t check for Oakland duo Zion I, consisting on MC Zion and producer Amp Live, to be all over the radio taking advantage of McDonald’s recent offer to drop pesos for Big Mac mentions. With over 14 years invested in their friendship and three albums collectively recorded, the Bay Area Hip-Hop heads have come to keep it pure, often rapping about everything from struggling to keep a love to struggling with race relations in America over Amp’s unconventional production methods.

Having already dropped their debut album Mind Over Matter and their critically acclaimed sophomore attempt Deep Water Slang, which was nominated for a VIBE Magazine “Independent Album of the Year” award, 2005 proves that Zion I is still keeping it live with their third record together, True & Livin’.

A week before the release of that album, MC Zion and Amp Live hooked up with AllHipHop to discuss the appeal of MC/producer records, their induction into the heady Spitkickers crew, and Amp’s comedic curiosity with the McDonald’s Big Mac offer. True and livin’, true indeed.

AllHipHop.com: So, being that this is your third collective album, what have you guys learned along the way from Mind Over Matter, your first album, until now?

Amp Live: Good question. I mean, definitely learned to stay in tune with what’s going on with the fans and also getting to know the business-side. I mean, I think now we know the business better, way, way better than we did when we made Mind Over Matter.

MC Zion: Yeah, and also, learning that the music basically reflects the friendship that cats have, that we have.

AllHipHop.com: How long have you guys known each other?

MC Zion: I think we met in like ’91, so 14 years. Damn! [laughs]

AllHipHop.com: You are the MC and the producer for a whole album. People look at a group like Gang Starr, they have definitely adopted that and made that work. It’s something that really works, because you can tell that you guys work together a lot and that comes through. Why do you think that works so well for you guys?

Amp Live: I think because of the commerciality of Hip-Hop and where it’s gone, it’s more hit driven. All you want is hits on the album, and you just want to choose and just try to have, like, come at people from all angles to make sure the album hits radio the best. I think that sort of changed things. And, the thing is, I think it’s important to have an album with diversity. I think when you have production in-house and you have somebody there who’s constantly doing the music, you’re able to capture a vibe and make the album more equal and together.

MC Zion: And I think that actually makes the music more see-through nowadays, because, like Amp says, there is no consistent vibe on records. Some records, like Illmatic, you had like four producers on there, and the vibe was still thick! But I think that’s a rare occasion when there’s a bunch of producers on the album. And actually, you brought up Gang Starr. We kind of patterned ourselves after that.

AllHipHop.com: It was also reported that you guys fielded some interest prior to this album from some major labels, Def Jam and Sony. How much truth is there to that?

Amp Live: Yeah, yeah. That was more during our last album, Deep Water Slang. This album, too, though, cats was checking us out.

AllHipHop.com: A lot of people look at a major label deal as a bigger budget and everything. Why go independent?

MC Zion: Well, we been through that road before. We been signed to a major. And, from my perspective, it seems like we’re not gangstered out, we’re not thugged out, we’re not what’s happening in the mainstream right now. So, therefore, being on a major label, my experience is that you constantly have to prove yourself. You have to always give them, keep sending them in singles until they like one. And, for us, we’re grown men! We been doing it. I don’t feel like I have to prove myself as an MC. I don’t think Amp has to prove himself as a producer at this point in time. And we have the wherewithal to put out our own records and be successful ‘cause the people around us are also contributing. So, that’s why we just go independent with it.

AllHipHop.com: One of the times when you get a little darker on the album is when you hooked up with Aesop Rock on “Poems 4 Post Modern Decay.” This was one of the most blunt and honest and forthcoming tracks on here. So, what made you want to make that track?

Amp Live: I’ve been wanting to work with Aesop for awhile. I think he’s real interesting. The track came along, and it was a pretty different track so we just thought of an ill collaboration. His name came up, so we pursued him.

MC Zion: And, I think the subject matter is just…that track, the bassline is dark and the whole feeling of the music is kind of foreboding a little bit. And actually, when I wrote that, we were staying in Brooklyn at my homies’ crib, J. Period. We went to New York for a month in May to work on the album. It was just kind of vibing off the scenario and life in modern-day America and how it ain’t all sweet, man, and how a lot of stuff was real foul. And I knew that Aesop would vibe with that.

AllHipHop.com: Speaking of, did you guys hear about that McDonald’s offer, where they’re paying rappers $1-5 to put the Big Mac name in a song?

MC Zion: Yeah, I heard that, man! It’s just ridiculous. I don’t know. I see what they’re doing…

Amp Live: Wait, how much are they paying?

MC Zion: You want to do it?

Amp Live: Nah, nah. You said $1 to $5 though?

MC Zion: If you put “Big Mac” in your record…

AllHipHop.com: Yeah, it’s $1-5, but it’s for every time it gets played on the radio.

MC Zion: So, imagine if somebody like Jigga did that or 50. They just gonna add mad dough. I’m glad I haven’t heard nobody do that yet. But, you know, cats is hungry. People want to make money. People want to eat. People want to be successful in life.

Amp Live: You could say something’s nastier than a Big Mac!

AllHipHop.com: On your track, “Bird’s Eye View,” you personify Hip-Hop and call it a “she.” So I wanted to know, if Hip-Hop was a woman, what would she look like to you guys?

MC Zion: Oh man! Okay, let’s do it up. I think she would have big, large breasts, a big booty. I think she would probably have some kind of natural hairstyle like dreadlocks, or, if she was Latino or Puerto Rican, she would have curly black hair or something like that. And she’d be real beautiful, man.

Amp Live: Yeah. I think right now, she’d be in her upper-20’s, and be sort of like commercial but also a mixture of cultural and commercial. But, I think she’d be very loyal to me…and she’d be ready to have some babies!

AHH: Alright, let’s see. You guys had social activist, Fred Hampton, Jr. on the record. Why’d you want to include him? That’s a real social lesson for people checking this album.

MC ZION: Basically, man, I didn’t even know Fred Hampton, Jr. was really around until my homeboy told me. And basically, he brought him through the studio and was like, “Yo, Fred Hampton, Jr. with me.” I’m a student of the ‘60’s, the Black Power struggle, and I know the legacy of Fred Hampton. So, when I heard Fred Hampton, Jr., it’s just a legacy, it’s a link to that. And so, I just wanted to have the brother on there just to represent that. That struggle is still going today. His father was murdered in Chicago by the F.B.I. or by the police. And that’s his son! He’s continued and done a lot of the same work.

AllHipHop.com: And, off the strength of this record, what would make you guys happy following the release of True and Livin’? I’m sure you guys aren’t holding your breath for a platinum plaque, so what makes it worth it for you?

Amp Live: The feedback from the fans, and it’d be nice for it to sell double what the last album did.

MC Zion: I mean, I think what makes it worth it is being able to do shows and you rocking and you seeing people having a good-ass time, smiling, and getting crazy in the spot. And then, being able to travel all over the world! Meeting all these new people and just bugging out on life. I come home and people are like, “Yo, I’m working a job. You so lucky. You get to travel the world.’ I’m like, ‘Damn, that’s right.” It is a blessing to be able to do this, and it’s all through Hip-Hop.