Zion I of Oakland leads progressive hip-hop gala

The world of hip-hop is becoming more diverse each day. Rappers are exploring new styles and expanding their palette more so than ever before. From collaborations with artists of different genres, to mixing modern sounds with traditional methods, rappers and M.C.s are shattering the borders of rap stereotypes. Sure, there are still some artists that live by the gangsta code of sex, money and drugs, but deep within the sticky haze are artists with ill beats and untouchable flow that are waiting to be discovered. This Friday, the Fillmore in San Francisco plays host to the Hella Fresh Fest, a hip-hop festival whose  goal is to do just that: expose people to the diversity within the Bay Area’s hip-hop scene.

Headlining the festival is the veteran duo of M.C. Zumbi and DJ AmpLive, better known together as Zion I. With their bombastic beats and slick rhymes, Zion I have been a powerful, prominent act in the Bay’s hip-hop scene for some time now. In a recent interview, Zumbi spoke about the Hella Fresh Fest, hip-hop trends and how the genre can create a connection that brings people together.

Originally known as the Paid in Full Festival, the goal of the Hella Fresh Fest is to unify all styles of hip-hop. “We started the Hella Fresh Fest as a way to bridge the gap we thought existed between street-oriented and traditional hip-hop in the Bay Area,” said Zumbi. “Right now, that gap is much thinner. The game has changed dramatically from where it was five years ago, and lots of lines have been blurred between categories and styles. It’s not the mystique of being untouchable, you have to be more down-to-earth now.”

The diversity of the festival is far from an understatement. While Zion I represents the more independent, uplifting aspect of hip-hop, the Jacka and Husalah will be there to show off the realm of gritty street rap. Los Rakas explore a hybrid of different genres, whereas The Honor Roll Crew will please both electro enthusiasts and rap fans alike. Rounding off with The Jealous Guys and DJ Amen, the festival appears to back Zumbi’s words, promoting a wide spectrum of hip-hop artists.

While festivals such as Hella Fresh showcase the varied areas of hip-hop, many artists are approaching a more D.I.Y. attitude towards marketing. With the Internet, it can be fairly easy to go from unknown rhyme-spitter to viral rap sensation, provided you have the balls to put yourself out there. Using multimedia properly can be an amazing marketing tool, one that Zumbi encourages all artists to take advantage of if they want to get their name out.

At the same time, Zumbi expressed his distaste for artists who rely solely on the same tired mantras of sex, money and drugs that cause people to tune out hip-hop. “It’s too easy and cliche,” remarked the M.C. “Yeah, everybody wants to have a lot of money, good sex and weed. That’s cool for one song, but if your whole record is about how you’re gonna pull my girl, have sex with her after the show and then smoke her out and leave, there isn’t any depth there.”

It can be hard to find rappers who don’t adopt this thug-life style. However, there are plenty of artists such as Atmosphere and Immortal Technique that still create deep verses and meaningful, provocative lines while staying within a particular area of hip-hop. Zumbi said that he tries to emulate a spiritually upbeat mentality throughout his songs. “A lot of my rhymes are things that really happened in my life, or little segments that I take and blow up to make a caricature,” Zumbi recalled. “Sometimes it’s exactly what happened though. From there it’s just a feeling that I have.”

Zumbi also stated how having a wide musical spectrum isn’t a bad thing either. He said that he listens to artists from The Black Keys to MF DOOM to become aware of different things that musicians are trying out, thereby broadening his own style. This belief that the greater the diversity of music you listen to leads to evolving as an artist is one that promotes alliances between artists of different genres, something Zumbi hopes more artists will undertake.

A big part in gaining recognition is having a solid fanbase as well. Zumbi spoke about how the independent acts can have a more dedicated following than major label artists. “There’s guys like Rebelution who I feel are selling more tickets than some major label artists,” said Zumbi. “They aren’t on the radio, which tells me it’s more about a sincere connection with the fans and interacting with them.”

The views and mindsets of Zumbi are ones that hip-hop as a whole is steadily progressing towards. While tomorrow’s Hella Fresh Fest will sure to bring down the house of the Fillmore with ultrasonic beats, the real message is clear: No matter their style, all artists are unified in some way through the universal energy created by music and art.

“It’s about unity and working together, whether you’re preforming, in the crowd or not causing drama. We’re trying to inspire people to collectively work together and come together. We all do different stuff, but we’re really all the same.”

Ian Birnam is the lead music critic.