While Zion I are often thrown into the Jansport with a slew of other "underground hip-hop" acts, their producer Amp Live is responsible for some of the more interesting tracks that have floated out of Oakland in recent years, mixing unexpected tempos, live instruments and electronics in with his boom bap. We talked to Amp while on tour behind the Heroes In The City Of Dope LP; you can read up on his production techniques, the hyphy/"light funk" connection, and what it's like to share a studio with Green Day after the jump.
On this tour what is your role on stage?
I’m a DJ and also I make beats live on stage, that’s a big part of our show. So I’ve got like 2 MPCs and a couple CD players and keyboards.
Since the Zion I/Grouch album has been out—I guess its been out long enough for people to sit with it a little—what’s the response been like from your fans?
It’s been very good, the first week’s sales were good, and after about the first week of coming to the shows people were knowing the songs, so it’s a pretty good response.
Have you been getting any feedback from new listeners, especially with cuts like the Mistah FAB song?
Yeah, we’re…Zion I is a pretty interesting group right now because we’re going through a transition, sort of. The last album did very well and some of our songs are starting to pick up on radio so our fanbase is growing, and a song like that helps solidify it.
It was cool to see the FAB song on this record, because it was following the sort of line that was there with “The Bay” from your last album.
That’s the song that’s actually picking up on the radio out of the Bay and I think in San Diego as well, it’s great. It’s been very interesting to see what is happening with that track.
When you saw the new bay acts start to take off, what was your first reaction?
Well I like hyphy music a lot, I produced a lot of hyphy music for artists in the bay. It’s something new, I like the energy of it. The acts that came out, especially at first, were fresh. It was a fresh idea, and even though it had been on the underground tip the artists had a lot of good ideas when they came out so…I really enjoyed it.
As an outsider it’s been cool to see in the Bay how people don’t really try to separate themselves, scenewise. Like the underground dudes and the more mainstream people—it looks like everybody is getting along.
Yeah, people—pretty much. I think the attention that we got on MTV and stuff like that sort of helped unify things a little. But I think within this past year you have really seen that the radio is starting to play more variety and you’re starting to see more artists get a chance to get more light, but you still have to grind. And the Bay has always been diversified, so everybody realizes that out there. Even when Souls of Mischief dropped their first album, Too Short had dropped, E-40 was doing his thing, Digital Underground…all that was going on at the same time even back in the early ‘90s.
Do you feel like Zion I had been pigeonholed as a strictly undeground group?
Well I think it was like that, and with some of the stuff going on now it’s starting to break out of that, so it was a long fight. We just had to keep on pushing. But I think one of the problems I’ve had is that we still have people who have been with us since the beginning, and you know, everything has changed in hip-hop, the terms and the sound and everything. But you still have a lot of people that hold onto our first album. And what you’ve got is “underground,” “backpacking ,” this and that when everything has changed since then. We’ve gone and done bigger records and we’ve changed our sound, we’ve updated. I think you have people that haven’t been paying attention, so when we come up it’s like “oh no that first album is too much this and that” when they haven’t even heard the latest stuff.
Just from a production standpoint, what kind of things did you want to try out for the City of Dope record?
I mean, this album came together pretty quickly. I knew that we wanted to have a different type of sound, one with a lot of emotion that still just hit really hard. A lot of times I would make some of the beats and then [Zion and the Grouch] would write to it and then from that I would come back after they dropped lyrics on it to finish up the beat. That helped me vibe with what they were talking about because we really wanted all the concepts and everything that we talked about in the music to correlate with the vibe of the music. Right now we’re recording new stuff, we’re going to record a Zion I and Grouch live album and we’re going to start our new Zion I album next year, so it’s coming along. We’ve got other projects we’re doing on our label you know, a couple mix cds and beat projects and things like that.
The beats that I’ve gotten into the most are the sort of stranger ones, production wise anyway. Tracks like “So Tall” or your song on the NBA Live soundtrack.
Yeah, we do that. We try not to hold back on the type of styles and type of music because it’s all expression. That type of stuff is for people who like that type of stuff. I like different types of stuff, so people that are feeling me will like that part of our album, people who like the more straightforward hip-hop will like those aspects of our album too so…
Are you still doing any drum n bass?
Yeah, I came out with the DJ Amp Live Electrowonderland Volume 1 and that has got drum n bass tracks from back in the ‘90s to like updated stuff, so, you know we’ve been—we sorta stayed away from that sound, because drum n bass is changing into different types of things. I had a lot of drum n bass fans out there so I wanted to give them something to knock and satisfy those fans that wanted to hear that.
Tell me a little about the tracks you wrote for the recent Goapele record—did you guys work together in the studio or did you have those songs already written?
We definitely worked together, she’s family. I’ve known Goapele for a long time, her studio was actually right next to mine so it made things really convenient. We worked together on that song [“Love Me Right”] and it took awhile, it first started out with just a noise and a beat and then me and my boy Mike Tiger, he’s a musician and a producer, he came through and laced it with some music and we put a bassline on it and all kinds of stuff, so we…that took a little time. We built that together.
Do you think as a producer you have a certain sound that people can come to you for?
I personally don’t see it, but people always tell me that so I just accepted it, I guess I do. I do a lot of different types of stuff so I don’t know how people see it, but they do.
How do they describe it to you?
I really don’t know, honestly. People have said that, they just be like “Oh I knew that was you, I recognized your sound” I haven’t really gotten details on that, so I guess I’m going to start asking to find out. I try to do different types of stuff. Sometimes I do music that I think is hard and it’s not. Some people might think it’s smooth and I’m thinking, well the beat is hard!
What is your studio setup like? Do you still tend to start out with the MPC?
Within the past couple years I’ve started using Logic, so right now I have my MPC 3000, I use Logic, I use a lot of live musicians, live drums, pre-amps, all kinds of stuff.
Live instrumentation the live instrumentation never went out of style in the Bay, even with the super clubby records you can tell “Oh shit! Somebody is actually playing guitar on this.”
Yeah I think especially nowadays, somebody could be doing programming you think is live or vice versa, people are doing all kinds of things now so it’s sort of hard to tell. But I think in general people are using a lot of live music and they tuck it in the beats to fill up voids and stuff, so you probably can’t tell as much. In the Bay though, the sound has definitely changed, like hyphy is definitely the new mob music, and back in the day the mob music used to have those heavy bass lines and really strong funk melodies. Hyphy is basically like light funk with hard drums and just upbeat with a lot of energy.
The crazy thing to me is watching the clubbier and even housier elements sneak in as the BPMs get higher. Like that new Federation single that’s out “18 Dummy” is like a rave song almost.
Yeah it is, it is pretty upbeat, you’re right.
As far as other music is out there, what are you checking for, what do you have on your ipod right now?
On my iPod? Not that much on my iPod. I haven’t updated in awhile. What have I bought…I just bought the new Rick Ross, I just bought the new Jack White project, I forgot what the name of that group is. I’ve been bumping that and Lupe Fiasco. I’ve been listening to a lot of old Led Zeppelin and what else…I don’t know, these past few months I’ve been doing most of my music so I haven’t had a chance. These tours are when we have a chance to listen to a lot of different stuff, whether we bought it or we didn’t.
What were the projects were finishing up before you left on this tour?
Well I was working with this group called Flipsyde, they are signed to Interscope. They are more rock sounding.
How did you link up with them?
They are out in the bay and I linked up with Piper, the rapper, and we just started doing some music and it lead to working with them. The Bay is a small circuit, so once you get out there you really start meeting people then—you know, networking and stuff. You get to meet everybody just about, especially if you are in the scene.
What do the songs sound like that y’all did together?
They sound tight. A lot of guitar, I’m making it a little more hip-hop then the last album. I mean these are just songs we’re doing, I don’t know if they are going to stick or what. It was a really cool vibe, hopefully everything sticks. A lot of people at the label liked the stuff and it seemed like it was going cool. I’m also working with C. Holiday, the singer who sung on our album True and Living. He does like soul and R&B, he’s a really good singer, he sang on that song “The Bay,” that’s him on the chorus.
Where in the Bay Area is your studio?
I’m at Studio 880 in East Oakland.
Do you share that with other artists?
Well, Studio 880 is a big complex. Within that complex you have Green Day, they have a studio there. You have Blackalicious, and then there’s me. It’s a pretty cool vibe there. We all have our individual studios and then they have offices and studios, there’s one big studio for everybody to rent out.
Are there any other artists in particular that you are itching to work with.
Yeah, man sure…I’d love to work with a whole bunch of people. Andre 3000 from Outkast would be tight, Prince, I’d like to eventually do another track with E-40. Do some stuff with Mos Def, T.I., just anybody, I’m open.
What was the track you did with E-40?
It was “Got It” on Goapele’s first album. People like it. It’s a Bay area classic, so I’m really happy about that.