|Amp Live and Zion of Zion I|
Hip-hop auteur Amp Live takes the lessons of San Antonio to the Bay Area
When acclaimed hip-hop producer Amp Live - the beatsmith half of the Bay Area recording duo Zion I - attended San Antonio's Clark High School in the late '80s, he was torn between several musical worlds.
"I'd be living on the North Side of town, so I'd hear a lot of U2, the Cure, and techno stuff," Amp recalls. "Then I'd go to church on Sunday and be with my other friends, and it'd be all hip-hop, gospel, and soul music. Then you'd hear all these different rhythms around town."
As one of underground hip-hop's premier sonic architects, Amp has become identified with a boundless musical curiosity, a willingness to leap from funk to dancehall to techno breakbeats. He is quick to point out that his San Antonio upbringing played a huge role in shaping his catholic tastes.
"Now I listen to just about anything that I think is tight," he says. "I listen to a lot of electronic music, to a lot of rock, hip-hop, country, classical. I think sometimes on our albums, you can hear those different influences."
Zion I's new album, Deep Water Slang, marks a confident development of the themes the duo explored on their 2000 debut, Mind Over Matter. Amp's rubbery beats and strategically placed sound effects merged with Zion's high-pitched delivery to create a novel sound that was streetwise, but artsy; equal parts social consciousness and get-your-freak-on woofer rumbling.
Mind's highlight, "Koncrete Jungle," was a convincing, new-millennium answer to Stevie Wonder's 1973 classic "Living for the City," with Zion rapping: "Ain't it a pity that you hate this city/but the way that you feel ain't no big deal/you've got to survive." Amp's ability to flesh out his cohort's ideas was best demonstrated on "Fools Gold," in which he unleashed a wild collage of soundbites that mention money, fused by some wicked scratching.
Amp took his first tentative steps as a hip-hop producer during his sophomore year at Clark, thanks to a piece of equipment purchased by his father, Dr. Richard Anderson. "My father plays jazz piano, and he plays in church," Amp says. "He was always into keyboards and stuff, so one day he bought a sampler. I just took it to my room and started messing with it. From then, it was on."
The teen hip-hop aficionado would concoct beats for his friends, eventually learning to mimic the dance music he heard on the radio. But it was all small-time stuff, done for his own amusement, until he enrolled at Morehouse College in Atlanta, in the fall of 1991.
"I had really never left Texas or lived anywhere else," he says. "So when I went to Atlanta, I was meeting people from all over the country and other people who did music that we weren't even hearing in San Antonio. It was just a totally new world. My freshman year - half the year - I didn't have my keyboard because I didn't think I was really going to need it.
"I hooked up with some friends, and cats were rapping and stuff, so I said, 'I do beats back home.' They didn't believe me, so I brought my keyboard back. From then on, it was on."
One of the friends Amp hooked up with was an aspiring MC who went by the name of Zion. They were dorm-mates as freshmen, and they quickly formed the nucleus of a quartet called Metafour. By end of their sophomore year at Morehouse, the group was signed to heavyweight rap label, Tommy Boy Records. While Amp looks back on the Tommy Boy years as a valuable growing experience, in which he was able to work in high-dollar studios and observe the techniques of skilled producers like Dallas Austin and Spearhead X, he said the label pressed the group to move in a more commerical direction and "we were so young and naïve, we'd do it, and we ended up changing our whole sound."
After graduating from college, Zion moved to the Bay Area, where he played his new friends some of the cuts he and Amp had been working on. He reported back to Amp that the NoCal hip-hop scene was perfect for them. Amp quickly followed his friend to Oakland.
"The Bay Area in general is a real creative melting pot for groups," Amp says. "The reason is that there's a scene that supports the artists. It's geared for artists who are starting from ground zero and building up. There aren't really any major labels out here, so the scene has sort of been untapped."
The group's label, Ground Control, pushed Zion I to make its sophomore release more straightforward and accessible than Mind. But when the label went out of business, Amp and Zion saw it as an opportunity to fine tune some of the material and explore some bold aural territory. They ended up with a record that leans heavily on live instrumentation and employs very little sampling.
Meanwhile, Amp's cache among rock fans went up last year when the members of Linkin Park asked him to reshape the track "Place for My Head," for the band's 2002 remix album, Reanimation. "I actually listen to a lot of rock music," Amp says. "I'm open to just about any type of music. The main reason is because of the way I grew up in San Antonio." •