ZION I, ONE BE LO at the Kathedral (651 Queen West), Wednesday (June 1). $15. 416-870-8000, 416-504-0744. Rating: NNNNN
Oakland, California, underground hiphop duo Zion I have just released their third album, True & Livin' (LiveUp), their first on their own label and their toughest-sounding record yet. It's still not a collection of club bangers but may be more satisfying to those who found their previous work too weird and too mellow.
Producer Amp Live's (Anthony Anderson) beats are still too unique and futuristic to fit in the conservative side of orthodox underground hiphop, while Zion's (Stephen Gaines) lyrics are too conscious and political to make sense on mainstream urban radio. This time around there aren't any drum 'n' bass references (Anderson has satisfied that urge with some solo d 'n' b releases), but taking their place are folk and country influences mixed up with old-school electro sounds.
"We sat down a year and a half ago and decided that we wanted this album to have a more raw vibe, more sample-based," explains man of few words Anderson as he enjoys yet another sunny California day.
"I wanted to concentrate more on songwriting and becoming more focused on getting my point across," Gaines says of his lyrical approach. "The last album was more scattered, because I was going through a really crazy relationship at the time and the studio was a place to vent and get all that out."
They've got a few high-profile (in an underground way) guests this time around. Talib Kweli, Aesop Rock, Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Gift of Gab all stop in to drop some verses on the usual underground themes. Despite their independent status, political lyrics and earthy production sound, Zion I don't make as stark a division between indie-hop and jiggy as many of their contemporaries.
"Biggie, Jay Z, Eminem - they were all underground when they started. I'm old school. I grew up with hiphop, when people were just dropping their shit however they could, and to me that's still what's happening," Gaines explains.
True & Livin' has no odes to Cristal and Benz, and there are more than a few songs about the state of hiphop, but that doesn't make it a preachy or depressing album. Within the politics there's an underlying optimism, and the beats bounce hard.
"I do what I love. I play shows and meet people I've helped through some of our songs. I like to have fun; there's enough fear and anger in the world," says Gaines. "For me, music has always been a joyous thing, a way of opening up to the possibilities. Life is hard, so you have to look for the light, and balance the two sides."