Hip-Hop shows, at their base, are usually only going to be as good as their crowds. With rock bands and other performers who play in large venues, just the sheer numbers will create an energetic atmosphere, and with pop songs, sing-a-longs easily get fans into the performance. With hip-hop, however, there are few performers who truly know all the words to their own rhymes. Often, performers will cut songs short in order to do just snippets of more popular songs. And the music is such that it requires energy from what is usually a smaller crowd, and the smaller the crowd, the harder it is to convince people to really sell out and get into it.
By these standards, the shows I have seen of Zion I have been some of the most varied in terms of audience enthusiasm and demographics of crowds. I’ve seen an incredible Zion I performance at the Fillmore where a truly live hip-hop crowd that knew their work was into it and the concert was amazing. But then I saw them a few years ago doing a back to school concert at UCLA. The venue was too large, there weren’t enough people there and the stage was set up in a way that allowed for almost no fan interaction. The people who were there mostly didn’t know the music, so what was an amazing set list got very little in the way of crowd appreciation.
On Saturday night at the Grand Ballroom, The Mighty Underdogs opened, and considering they’re made up of Gift of Gab from Blackalicious and Lateef the Truth Speaker from Latryx, they got short attention from most of the crowd. They were excellent though, bringing a speed of delivery that is difficult for most to imagine, and Gift of Gab’s ability to increase speed while maintaining a level of coherency in his diction was showcased in my second opportunity to see him do “Alphabet Aerobics” live.
And when they got to the stage, Zion I got another odd turnout in the form of what looked more like a high school dance than a hip-hop show. The majority of the people there were girls between the ages of 14 and 17. Watching them run enthusiastically during set changes to find a cigarette they could puff on was hilarious in and of itself. And what can you expect from this group other than that they’ll know the singles and their favorite songs, but won’t have the depth of knowledge of Zion I’s catalog to truly appreciate and buy into the set.
And that’s unfortunate considering that I view Zion I to be one of the hardest working live acts in hip-hop and true masters of their craft. AmpLive and Zumbi consistently work in both old favorites and new tracks, while also remembering the art of the true freestyle, with both of them taking turns improvising on either lyrics or beats. On stage, Amp becomes a grand marshal, moving the set seamlessly from one track to the next, and adding flairs through the use of a live sample and drum machine.
Zumbi (formerly Zion) is lyrically on point in all of his songs, never skipping a lyric or word, demonstrating just how well-prepared he is. Not two songs into the set he’s already worked up a sweat from interacting with the crowd, bouncing to Amp’s work and delivering the verses with an intensity and accuracy often missing in live shows. Furthermore, the performance never sounds like a canned delivery of studio albums. Zumbi’s expressions and tempo changes accentuate portions of the lyrics he finds to be important and each live show I’ve seen brings that feeling of song alteration.
In this show, the group was joined on stage by Codany Holiday, the soul singer who has crossed genres to work with AmpLive on his Rainydayz Remixes album of Radiohead’s In Rainbows. In concert, Holiday brings an energy and passion to his singing that fits right in with Zion I’s delivery and adds a soulful and musical depth to the songs. In some parts taking chorus and in other parts just adding background vocals, Holiday showed an impressive range in his pitches and was so obviously into the performance that his vocals soared and provided an excellent balance between Amp’s steady and polished hand and Zumbi’s raw energy.
For any hip-hop fan, Zion I is not a group to be missed in their studio albums or live performances, especially when the quality of the audience matches the quality of their music. Set list standouts from Saturday night included “The Drill,” “City of Dope,” “Fingerpaint,” “Silly Putty,” and three tracks off of their January release The Take Over, “Juicy Juice,” “Feel Brand New” and “Antenna.” They also mentioned onstage that the new album will include Brother Ali and Devin the Dude. It drops January 27th, 2009.