Since their last collaborations in “Silly Puddy” and “Flow,” we all anticipated the moment when Zion I and The Grouch would reunite for a full length album. The most recent artistry in “Heroes in the City of Dope” based on the Too $hort track “City of Dope” a.k.a. Oakland, calls attention to the unification of Zion I, made up of Producer Amp Live and MC Zion, and The Grouch, one of the founding members of the infamous Living Legends Crew. As prominent names in the progression of Bay Area underground hip hop, the merging of the two brings together opposite sides of the spectrum, collectively, into a union of music that simply supports conscious hip hop, awareness, and sheds light to urban living.
Aside from the Amp Live’s production throughout most of the album, the multiplicity of auditory exploration comes from the featured tracks from the likes of other sources. As a Jack of all trades, The Grouch introduces his own production skills in “Open the Door.” With its slow, deep organ sounds the track creates an almost eerie feeling with the high pitched childlike voice in the chorus to “open the door.” Establishing some additional Living Legends influence, the ever so popular Eligh produces “Lift Me Up” and features rocker Martin Luther. It is put together as a smooth track which instills the appreciation for the past, present, and future as MC Zion’s digitized voice sings the chorus of “It’s so unusual/’Cause I feel so fly today/It’s something beautiful/Lifts me up I fly away. “Heroes in the City of Dope” also features another Bay Area favorite with Crown City Rocker’s Headnodic in “Train and Planes.” With references to the Bay Area’s public transportation, you hear the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) conductor’s voice in the background with the next stop for San Francisco/Daly City. MC Zion and the Grouch make it known that regardless of where they’re traveling, there’s only one place to call home…the Bay. That’s what I’m talking about.
Alongside the assortment of production, the array of featured guests on “Heroes in the City of Dope” is no joke. Jurassic 5’s Chali 2na commences the track “Too Much” and shows the greed and immorality within the masses when money becomes involved as we “all chase the buck.” Featured on many past tracks with Zion I, the multitalented MC, singer, and producer Deuce Eclipse comes alive in the chorus with his singing in Spanish on “10 Fingers, 10 Toes, 10lbs., 10oz.” Over a light, acoustic guitar The Grouch professes his unmatched love and devotion for his new baby girl, Rio.
One of the more choice tracks of the album, “Make U Fly,” endures as an ode to all of the women who have touched the lives of Zion I and The Grouch such as their mothers, daughters, and lovers. The track features Canadian singer-songwriter Esthero who is naturally featured on many tracks that follow the same resonance of jazz, soul, and hip hop, providing that hint of femininity and soul for the chorus.
“SMACK” features DJ Platurn who brings us back to our hip hop roots in this reminiscent track packed full of samples from Too $hort’s “City of Dope” to Rodney O and Joe Cooley’s “Everlasting Bass.” With the funk influenced track with repetitive horns and heavy bass, MC Zion and The Grouch rap about the obstacles faced in the “city of dope.”
Of course, a Bay Area album wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t incorporate some type of hyphy movement. Bay Area hyphy music is often associated as is crunk music in the South and a cameo from Oakland emcee Mistah FAB is a perfect example of this. Unlike the usual Zion I production with their drum n’ bass and electronic sounds, Amp Live embraces the hyphy Bay Area tonality which is so highly accepted up in Nor Cal. Even with this change, “Hit’em” puts the all the rookie emcees in their places and “Bad Lands” discusses the obliviousness of those who have never lived a life filled with complexity and violence as MC Zion and The Grouch says:
“Tumbleweeds and twisted tales
These the bad lands where the angels fail
Make money try to stop the fear
If you think it aint real you ain’t been here It aint about the past
Let’s talk about present and future
What do you do
With your power
Going dumb’s not really a movement
You’re really going dumb
Look at the shit they play on the radio
And they got the nerve to wonder why rappers keep dying in the streets
Stop looking at 2pac and Biggie in the magazines
Until you understand the significance of why they died…
Try to get out of here
Leave these bad lands behind
Get in touch with my spirit, my body, and mind
‘Cause I’m divine
And if no one every told you you were
You are and that’s it”
Zion I and The Grouch will always remain as some of my most favorite artists in the Bay Area underground hip hop scene as they represent my own roots of being born and raised up in Nor Cal. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the album I can’t help but feel like I was drawn into unfamiliar territory of more mainstream music. I looked forward to Amp Live’s signature abstract drum n’ bass and electronic beats that were non existent in this album as I found myself to be quickly uninterested of the redundant hyphy beats. I suppose I can push this aside for now because I know the capabilities of Zion I and The Grouch otherwise. Something that has remained unchanged is that individually, each has their own style and intelligent lyricism, with Zion’s smooth and metaphoric lyricism and The Grouch’s more concise and direct expression, while together they feed off each others strength in their artistry to become a single divine intervention in the “city of dope.”