Zion I: Bringing the Underground to UCI

Urban Arts Festival’s revival last quarter featured underground hip hop duo Zion I, a refreshing taste in comparison to the second and third helpings of Lil Wayne and Jay Z that we are constantly fed on the radio. Originally from the bay area, Emcee Zumbi and DJ AmpLive made waves in the industry with their conscious rap lyrics and fresh beats, currently touring and leaving their influential mark on UCI. ASUCI is continuing the trend of bringing the underground to the mainstream by putting on their first paid concert featuring rapper Common, Cool Kids and B.O.B., at the Bren Events Center this upcoming Thursday, April 1.  Perhaps an unusual choice for our UCI campus, Common, like Zion I, found his success as an underground artist in the rap game in the early ’90s. More than 20 years later, Common has become an international success, releasing eight albums and starring in several films such as “American Gangster” alongside Denzel Washington.

As I sit down with Zion I’s disc jockey AmpLive, we discuss this intriguing evolution of hip-hop, its place in mainstream today, and his personal journey that led him to our very own Aldrich Park.

New University: How did you get your start into hip-hop and DJ-ing?

DJ AmpLive: Basically, me and Zumbi met in the early ’90s in Atlanta, we were both freshman at Morehouse College. I was DJ-ing in my room making beats, and Zumbi was rhyming. We stayed in the same dorm and became friends and eventually started making music together. We started a group called Metaphor with two other guys, and that’s how we got off the ground.

NU:  How would you define Zion I’s sound?

AmpLive: It’s definitely diversified with a strong street bass, but also eclectic — it’s always music that hits but that has an emotion to it. We draw inspiration from our surroundings, the community, politics and just life. We can talk about hardcore community activism and then talk about how beautiful women are.

NU:  Could you tell us about your current tour with Rebelution and Soldier?

AmpLive: Yes, this has been one of the best tours we’ve been on. They were both reggae groups and we opened up the entire tour. The crowd was different but because the groups had a hip-hop base they also appreciated our sound so it was a good blend. The whole tour was 90 percent sold out playing at House of Blues-sized venues. It was really fun.

NU:  What did you guys think when UCI asked Zion I to perform at our campus?

AmpLive: Oh it’s tight, it’s always great performing at colleges because the fans and students are always open. We did a show here a couple of years ago and we had a lot of support so it’s always fun to come out. We always can’t wait to come out again.

NU: Recently the University of California has been dealing with a lot of strains from tuition hikes and budget cuts, and there’s been a surge of student activism. Is Zion I aware of these student movements and how do you think hip-hop can be a gateway for such activism?

AmpLive: We are definitely aware of what’s been happening to the UC campuses, and we always support movement for positive change. I think its whack how they are increasing tuition for students and it’s funny because they cut the stuff that really counts first in this country. They’re probably not going to be cutting athletics anytime soon or from our entertainment industry. It would be nice if the movement wasn’t seeing so much violence and if the cops weren’t being as violent to its students. I think that hip-hop plays a bass in this movement because the past two or three generations grew up on hip-hop music so it’s the music that the youth listens to and is inspired by. It’s a part of our lives; it’s a part of us.

NU: What are your thoughts on underground music and the music industry as a whole?

AmpLive: I feel like the music industry as a whole is going underground, no matter what genre of music you listen to be it rock, electronica, hip-hop. No matter if it’s a big song on the radio or a song by an unknown artist, people want good music and will find a way to access it [on the internet]. Underground music, the term, is changing. Right now, it’s almost becoming one with mainstream and independent music because people will go to see an artist that doesn’t necessarily have a song on the radio and not go to a concert by a big mainstream artist. Regardless, you have to have good music. Just because you are signed to a label doesn’t mean you are going to be large — you have the Lil Waynes, Lady Gagas, Jay-Zs, they are at the top of the pyramid. But that’s it, there’s only room for one or two.

With underground music increasingly becoming synonymous with the mainstream thanks to our internet culture, artists like Zion I and Common are expanding their reach as artists to even our campus. ASUCI presents Common, Cool Kids and B.O.B. is selling tickets for $37.50 (the first 1,000 discounted tickets have been sold out), the first concert of its kind that promises to be a musical landmark event on our campus.