ZION I with GODZILLAH and DJ SI VU PLAY at the Comfort Zone (480 Spadina) tonight (Thursday, July 26). $10. 416-760-3332. Rating: NNNNN
Considering that raw experimentation in hiphop usually goes down as well as an original idea in a P. Diddy song, what Zion I have accomplished is remarkable.
Coming out of the Bay Area's famously open-minded hiphop scene, the duo's heady Mind Over Matter debut mixes up conscious hiphop with cracking drum 'n' bass beats.
It's a soundclash that would seem obvious to most but has been all but ignored by those in the hiphop world. That said, the reception to Zion I from both the grassroots hiphop scene and beyond has bordered on ecstatic.
Backpack-wearing underground fanatics dig Zion I's willingness to play around with the music, while the group's raw skills and devastating live sets get hardcore hiphop heads snapping their necks.
Mind Over Matter hasn't exactly set off a wave of hiphop/drum 'n' bass collaborations, but it has reinforced the idea that the two sounds aren't as far apart as some make them out to be.
"I was amazed at the response to the record," Zion I producer Amp-Live shouts from New York. "There were a couple of people who said they liked us when we stuck with straightforward hiphop, but a lot of other people were down from day one.
"Our first big show, we opened for Rakim and we were warned not to play the jungle stuff, but when we did, people went crazy. These were hardcore hiphop cats, remember.
"People just want to hear good stuff. People are pushing the envelope everywhere. We just did a show with Kardinal, and he's busting out all that dancehall stuff, and then you look at people like OutKast blowing up large. Obviously, that's the exception to the rule, but it still makes people like us feel good."
While respect from your own community is nice, it doesn't exactly keep the lights on. Mind Over Matter is a critical success but not a massive seller, so when Amp-Live starts describing their forthcoming Deep Water Slang album as "more straight-ahead," you have to wonder whether Zion I have sacrificed some of their experimental flair for a more conventional boom-bip sound.
Not to worry.
"We haven't gone soft," MC Zion insists. "This album is just more of a personal thing. On Mind Over Matter we came at it from a real philosophical angle. As hiphop fans, we had a lot to say about the music and what was happening.
"People appreciated that, but after it was done we kind of felt that our own personalities were missing from the record. This record will be about us.
"We both understand that we're not going to sell a million records making music like this, so we might as well make records that make us feel good about ourselves."