Back in the early '90s, music constructed out of the breakbeat branched into two distinct factions: hip-hop and drum and bass. Separated by the Atlantic from their stateside counterparts and responding to their own socioeconomic conditions, British drum and bass producers bred a different kind of animal altogether -- twice as fast, considerably more disjointed, and, most baffling for traditional hip-hoppers, not built around the lyrical cadence of an MC. A few years after drum and bass had become established as its own species, a handful of liberal-minded artists in both camps attempted a few crossover singles, the overwhelming majority of which revealed an embarrassing ignorance of the other side's art.
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Zion I, a three-member group from Berkeley, California, has managed perhaps the most compelling reconciliation to date of the two distant cousins on its debut album, Mind Over Matter. While only three out of the 21 tracks feature the double-time tempos of drum and bass, they constitute some of the album's most memorable cuts. Producer Amp Live understands the unique stylistic demands of both realms, so his drum and bass beats don't come off as just sped-up hip-hop. Nor do his hip-hop instrumentals smack of a strained attempt at hard-core. In fact, "Critical," a head-nodder reminiscent of DJ Premier's classic chopped loops, has been burning up the underground mix-tape and college radio circuit for the past few months. A single doesn't worm its way into such notoriously purist circles without paying more than lip service to the almighty boom-bap.
The group's other secret weapon is lead MC Zion, whose smooth and steady voice melts as easily into the 90-beats-per-minute range as in the 180. Even more refreshing than the variety of rhythms he raps over is the consistently positive message of his lyrics. Where one lyricist might propose a weapon as a solution to a tight situation, Zion advocates meditation. A quick scan of the track titles -- "Revolution," "Fools Gold," "Elevation," "Inner Light" -- will dispel any stereotypes that the West is all guns, gangsters, and gin and juice. Mind Over Matter easily stands out as one of the most inviting and diverse hip-hop albums of the year.