Zion I concert on Sproul in tune with hip-hop roots

Alex Turney/Staff

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Despite the cooling October air and looming midterms, hundreds of Berkeley students in warm sweaters, beanies and tie-dye clothing crowded Sproul Plaza early Friday evening in eager anticipation of the arrival of the celebrated Zion I hip-hop crew. About 5 p.m., local trap artists DRIPMOB took to the stage, warming up the crowd with their edgy reworks of popular hip-hop tracks. The throbbing bass took hold of the audience, triggering cult dance moves such as “the stanky leg” within a large breakdance circle near the stage. While the focus during the opening act appeared to be on the exaggerated dancing, attention shifted to the stage when the sky grew dark and Zion I arrived.

The Zion I crew, consisting of Oakland natives MC Zumbi and producer AmpLive, has toured worldwide but always returns to its Bay Area roots. The artists’ performance was intimate but energizing, drawing the crowd closer with their powerful lyrics and spacey tracks such as “Float,” a collaboration with electronic music producer Minnesota. Zumbi kept the crowd engaged with his improvised lyrics, which he explained after the show were “how (Zion I) learned to do music … through freestyling.”

Zion I has been on the rise in the melding genres of hip-hop and electronic, releasing tracks with electronic gurus like SBTRKT and Bassnectar. Recently, Zion I toured with reggae rock group Rebelution and reggae artist Matisyahu, experiences that allowed for further development of Zion I’s evolving sound.

“I remember the guys from Rebelution came up to me,” Zumbi said of an experience partying in Tahoe. “They were ultra encouraging … it was so cool to hear other musicians encouraging me from an authentic place.”

Zion I’s performance on campus, presented by ASUC SUPERB, was a free event open to all. “I feel like … every time I leave and come back I love (the Bay Area) even more, because I realize how unique and special it is,” Zumbi said after the performance.

On Oakland’s influence on Zion I’s sound, Zumbi said, “(Oakland) is so diverse. I feed on all that energy … I pull from all the good and the bad.” As we talked, fans scuttled behind the stage to wait to take pictures with Zumbi, who humbly obliged. He seemed unfazed by the interruptions, pleased to meet and hear from students. His down-to-earth outlook is definitely reflected through Zion I’s lyrics, as Zumbi explained that he’s frustrated by the superficiality of most rap music.

“(There are) things in hip-hop that I feel are not being addressed that are important,” he said. “I want to fill in the gaps, (but) not be too cerebral that it’s too static.”

It quickly becomes clear that Zion I, which has been a part of the hip-hop and rap scene since the late 1990s, is both conscious of and concerned about the expansion of rap music. Zumbi noted, “These days, the culture is watered down … it’s not a sub-culture anymore.”

He advises aspiring artists in the genre to “get in tune with what you believe in.” The future of hip-hop looks brighter, though. Zumbi believes there has been a resurgence in recent years of younger artists trying to reclaim something of the older era. “I pray that it evolves beyond that (too),” he said.

On future collaborations, Zion I hopes to work with rapper Andre 3000, Yasiin Bey, the hip-hop recording artist formerly known as Mos Def, or the Swedish electronic group Little Dragon’s vocalist Yukimi Nagano.

The campus crowd was thrilled by Zion I’s performance and proximity — many students lingered after the show to chat and take pictures with the hip-hop duo. It seems Zion I’s success is due to its ability to be incredibly inventive yet accessible — something unprecedented in the realm of spoken music of the present.

Contact Kate Irwin at [email protected].