To call Zion I an underground hip-hop group would be selling it short. The Bay Area duo – MC Zion and deejay/producer Amp Live – has always mixed elements of jazz, blues and electronica into the sound. And whereas other hip-hop groups are glorifying the bling era, Zion I has always steered away from that. Zion and Amp always come bearing a message, but in the two-and-a-half years since the release of Deep Water Slang V2.0, America has gone down the shitter. With True and Livin’, the members of Zion I have done what Marvin Gaye with What’s Goin’ On? and what Sly Stone did with There’s a Riot Goin’ On: make an album in which their outrage for the modern world can be felt and comprehended in the music itself.
The album’s intro and outro contain sound collages from the speeches of civil rights leader Fred Hampton, and “Doin’ My Thang” keeps a sedated groove that is similar to A Tribe Called Quest’s early releases. MC Zion gives a shout to his stomping grounds with “The Bay,” a track infused with some Southern-fried soul harmonies, and the duo shows the true grit of hardships of urban living on “Luv.” Amp Live shines with a taste of the experimental techno production that made his group’s 2000 debut, Mind Over Matter, so vividly perplexing, and he shows off his turntable bravado on “Rockin’.”
The guests on True and Livin’ comprise an A-list of underground hip-hop in its own right. Talib Kweli grabs the mike on “Temperature” and Aesop Rock lends his twisted and clever skills to “Poems 4 Post-Modern Decay.” Del tha Funkee Homosapien steps in with his trademark intelligent humor on “What U Hear” and fellow Bay Area veteran Gift of Gab provides “Stranger in my Home” with his … gift of gab.
But just like Gaye and Stone did, Zion and Amp don’t point fingers. Instead they offer progressive messages of how people can better themselves. The gospel-meets-spiritual “Oh Lawd” is so uplifting it made me want to scream hallelujah. That, coupled with beats that feature elements of music from around the world (classical, gypsy, flamenco, electric guitars) and live instruments, makes it clear: In the world of hip-hop, the members of Zion I are true Renaissance men.