Zion’s Zenith

A sold-out Fillmore spectacular signals Zion-I's long-deserved moment of glory.

When, exactly, did Zion-I become world-beaters? How about midnight on Friday, September 16, when the beloved hip-hop crew leapt onstage at the Fillmore and launched into “It’s My Thing,” kicking off one of the tightest, most satisfying rap shows the storied venue has ever seen. It didn’t take much imagination to picture the ghosts of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin doing the thizz dance and going dumb along with the other 1,100 or so folks in the building and feeling themselves that night, especially with the dense musk of medical-grade marijuana rising up to the rafters, ensuring contact highs even for nonsmokers.

Zion-I’s headlining spot, following opening sets by a plethora of game-saturated Bay Area hip-hop all-stars, was a display of both passion and precision. For the group, which rose from the underground seven years ago to become one of the region’s most respected acts — both live and on record, as this year’s True & Livin’ has moved more than fifteen thousand units independently in four months — the Fillmore gig was a complete validation of all that hard work. To raise the roof at such a legendary concert hall brought the group full circle from its early shows at Berkeley’s La Peña, now-legendary affairs that were much less official, but no less ecstatic.

Arranged onstage like a military unit, producer Amp Live (on sampler and drum machine) and DJ Worldwise (on turntables) manned the rearground, while emcees Zion, D.U.S.T., and extended family members Deuce Eclipse and the Grouch roamed the frontline, microphones in hand, spraying lyrical ammunition to the delighted masses of hoodies ‘n’ hotties.

“Is you wit’ me?” Zion asked, segueing into “The Drill,” a favorite from 2003’s Deep Water Slang. It was clearly a rhetorical question. The call-and-response segment — always a good indication of a rap crowd’s enthusiasm — was particularly fierce. I like it, I love it, the multitudes shouted in unison at the emcees’ urgings. Later, a rapid-fire freestyle segment left jaws gaping, and the boom-bip factor was ridiculous, with Amp extending and remixing songs on the fly, injecting spontaneous beats into the mix.

“I’m really feeling this,” Oakland diva Jennifer Johns declared as Zion-I tore into “Fingerpaint” and its When the mind is great/Then the soul creates refrain. “The Bay shit is hot right now.”

Indeed, the entire night was an outpouring of Bay Luv. First came DJ sets from Phatrick and Treat U Nice that concentrated heavily on local classics: “Life Is Too $hort,” “I Got Five on It,” “Pimp of the Year,” “Don’t Give Me No Bammer Weed,” “’93 ‘Til Infinity,” and on and on. Next, warm-up sets by the Attik and Mistah F.A.B., followed by the “Look, ma, we’re hella dope musicians” shtick of perennial crowd-pleasers Crown City Rockers. Then an intensity-accelerating set by Oakland ridahs the Team — the trio of Kaz Kyzer, Clyde Carson, and Main Mannish did the damn thing, easily winning over an unfamiliar audience and threatening to steal Zion-I’s thunder with a combination of formidable stage presence and ear-splitting bass. That Zion-I wasn’t overshadowed is just another indication of how good the group has gotten at taking the energy of a live show to a higher level, regardless of how high the bar is set.

“It’s sick,” an excited Zion admitted from their dressing room before the performance, musing on the thrill of selling out the Fillmore. “We planned it with that in mind for sure, but to have it actually happen … feel me?” Meanwhile, the stoic Amp Live appeared to be meditating: “It’s been a long time coming,” he eventually allowed. Contrasting Amp’s monklike serenity, Rob C., who manages Zion’s own Live Up Records, was a whirlwind of constant motion, escorting VIPs backstage, attending to last-minute details, and fielding a flurry of cell-phone calls.

In fact, the entire backstage area was a picture of controlled chaos, as video crews and Ruckus magazine reps milled about with local artists and a large number of hangers-on. The scene looked, for all intents and purposes, as if a contingent from the ‘hood had taken over the area usually reserved for the likes of David Gray, 311, and Coldplay. But though the motley crew looked rowdy, the vibe was peaceful — no drama whatsoever. Everyone was there to pay homage. Along with the Federation (ghetto-fabulous authors of “Hyphy”), Bay Area OG B-Legit, aka “The Savage,” was on hand to witness the event. “It’s good to see the younger generation come up,” explained B-Legeezy, an instrumental figure in the rise of the Bay rap movement a decade ago. “I’m here to make sure these dudes do it right.”

Camped out near the stage, Turf Talk — personifying B-Legit’s younger generation — appeared to be taking notes on each performance. Although he has earned a rep as somewhat of a savage himself, the up-and-coming emcee had nothing but accolades for everybody. “We need all the heat we can get from the West,” he declared, before taking the opportunity, in true hustler fashion, to promote his own material: “‘Cause I know my shit is hot.”

Although the night clearly belonged to Zion-I (who utterly transcended the “backpack rap” stigma by presiding over such a diverse bill), there was plenty of heat to go around. The finale — a live rendition of the anthemic single “The Bay” featuring F.A.B, Clyde Carson, Turf Talk, and Pep Love — demonstrated the kind of unity often talked about, but rarely witnessed on a local level. It was, as Crown City’s Raashan Ahmad announced at one point, “a beautiful night in hip-hop,” and hopefully, a harbinger of more Bay Luv to come.

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