Energy finds a path.
It creates — or adapts to — a conduit.
The process is a beautiful thing, but it ain’t always pretty.
This is, after all, how people get electrocuted.
But it’s also how they can be galvanized…changed…united with kismet…turned on, for lack of a better term.
One could argue this is precisely what occurred in a New York City hospital room sometime in the mid-1980s when one of the most visionary artists in one of the most visionary scenes in the history of rock n’ roll music — that’d be the hyper evolutionary, boundary-smashing late 80s into mid-90s New York City hardcore-to-post-hardcore blossoming — first found his creative mind plugged into a synergistic power source that would radically shift his path and, ultimately, the paths of countless other sufferers, strivers, and seekers.
Chaka Malik had, alas, looked the other way briefly while watching his younger sister and she’d accidentally sprayed some sort of cleaning product into her eyes. (Sometimes energy-infused destiny asks an innocent bystander to take one for the team — don’t worry, no permanent damage!) To help him deal with his fear and guilt as the doctors did their examinations, the future Burn/Orange 9mm/Ghost Decibels frontman borrowed his mother’s portable radio.
Sure, energy finding a path to a young heart that had already been primed for unorthodoxy by a pair of headphones and his father’s record collection, as epic as it was eclectic, has an easier gig than energy en route digging into the aural canyons of a AOR-bred normie, but…c’mon: We all can agree the jump from underground jazz and Rush to Scratch Acid is a deliciously exhilarating leap off a artistic cliff.
Riveted, Malik’s attention was for primed for a commercial that led him to Crucial Chaos. And hardcore. And Some Records. And his first pilgrimage to see Trip Six and Underdog at CBGBs where the fabric of the normal life we are carefully sold began to truly tear.
“CBs was one of the hottest places I’ve ever been,” Malik tells Decibel. “Around the time I was really there a lot I also worked at a store called Prana Foods. Prana, that’s the light within the breath, right? Oxygen, yeah, but then it’s also something that’s active inside of the oxygen that you could allow into your body that invigorates you. Some people are better at absorbing this substance than others. Most people don’t even know it’s there. A lot of people that get involved with yoga access it through the asana and the pose and the relaxation, they end up getting more pranic energy into their body. You can also find it through exercise, through meditation. And I think that the inside of that that literal pressure cooker CBGBs at that time — the way energy was activated and nourished and channeled in there — was pranic. It brought things to a boil, which in my opinion created fertile ground for very unique music, whether you’re talking about Cro-Mags or Quicksand or Beastie Boys.
“In my mind that transcendence is your ability to bounce,” he continues. “If the cosmic was a trampoline, when you take your arrow and you throw it against the trampoline, how high does it bounce? And how long can you continue to get it to bounce like that? In general, I don’t think a lot of us take art as seriously as is necessary for it to bounce in a way that fulfills true potential. But inside that CBGB pressure cooker, people caught the energy and spirit and shaped it in their own ways. And it was beautiful and powerful. If you’re not listening to what the energy and the spirit of the people are saying, you’re missing the point, right?”
The energy and spirit of Malik’s own work is a powerful example of this: Known primarily as a dancer and skater in the scene, Malik made the jump from observer to participant when he joined forces with Absolution guitarist Gavin Van Vlack for Burn, recording one of the great, most seminal and forward-thinking EPs in the storied history of New York City hardcore. (Not to mention, as we told y’all before, one helluva recent reunion record…)
Then — much as Gorilla Biscuits and Beyond gave way to Quicksand; and Youth of Today gave way to Shelter; and Underdog gave way to Into Another — from the ashes of Burn rose the many-headed beast of Orange 9mm, an amalgamation of sharp, coiled riffs, high-wire act grooves, and Malik’s idiosyncratic lyrics and cadence that existed somewhere in the left field space between early hip-hop, hardcore, and soul.
“I was at the right space when Orange 9 came along,” Malik says. “I had a lot of pranic energy and my horizon for what could potentially happen had expanded. It’s not always that way. A lot of times you have a vision but not the right energy. Or, conversely, a huge amount of energy but no vision. When [guitarist] Chris [Traynor]” — now in Bush! — “and I got together the energy was right, the vision was right, the scene was right, the environment was right. One of our managers at the time, Doc McGhee, would say, ‘Luck is when preparation and opportunity meet.’ And if all we had to do to prepare was completely immerse ourselves in positive energy and music? Well, fuck…count me in! Easy decision.
“Was the energy we had because a riff it an F sharp at just the right time?” he adds. “I don’t fucking know. You allow it to happen. You open the door. You see what comes in. You get fucking stoked. And you welcome it.”
The partnership between Traynor produced two fantastic — if occasionally somewhat schizophrenic — post-hardcore classics, Driver Not Included (1995) and Tragic (1996), and then Traynor bounced to play second guitar in Helmet. After a bit of musical chairs that saw bassist Taylor McLam move to guitar the band released the extraordinarily eclectic Pretend I’m Human in 1999.
Check out an exclusive stream of “Alien” here:
Pretend confounded many fans and critics upon release, but a new deluxe reissue — out June 18; preorder here (U.S.), here (Euro), or here (cassette) — that brings the guitars to the fore make it a perfect ahead-of-its-time candidate for reevaluation.
“I think that whatever we did at the time happened for a reason and I’m thankful for every situation that was involved with that — every person that laid their hands on it to put it together,” Malik confirms. “But I did always feel like the guitars were just too low and it just wasn’t a very impactful sounding record. The aesthetic was leaning towards less rock intensity and, in reality, Orange 9 is more of a rock band than an electronic band. We need the hairy edges. We need that stuff. I know that the reissue has really brought us much closer to where I would have wanted to be.”
At the same time, the remaster has not dulled the heart of the record — which is definitely a following-the-muse, wildly unencumbered piece of refracted rainbow art.
“That’s what I love about art and music,” Malik says. “I love the new. I guess because I learned how to do all this shit by…doing. A cover song just seemed counter to like what my personality in music is. Maybe I should change that. Maybe it’ll help my musicality to learn a crap ton of cover songs. Or just maybe one cover song! But I’ve never approached life like that and I probably won’t start now. That’s what Pretend I’m Human is — a search for the new.”
Malik continues to strive and self-actualize in inspiring and liberated ways: There’s the captivating bedroom pop perfection of his Ghost Decibels. (Good breakdown of his GD influences here.) He’s got a holy-shit-is-this-actually-happening new hardcore band with Greg Bennick of the legendary Trial. A pandemic jam he did with Swim the Current called “Cognitive Dissonance.” A dark, sexy, soul-synth project with Ann Marie Hedonia dubbed Sex Prox-Z.
Oh, right, and then there’s his fascinating and unique take on the podcast form, Eff With Me, wherein Malik chops it up with guests such as his former Orange 9MM bandmate Traynor, Quicksand/Deftones bassist Sergio Vega, and Converge vocalist Jacob Bannon:
In the stop of this expansive, liberated artistic journey, Pretend I’m Human feels less and less like an outlier than a bridge.
“I wholeheartedly believe that you are prophesying in your art, whether you know it or not,” Malik says. “So, for me, listening back to something I’ve done or having a conversation about it like this can be so weirdly fucking enlightening. It’s like going through a box in your parents’ house and finding an object you’d forgotten about but realizing instantly that it helped set you on the path you’re on. So it’s important, in that respect, to look back. It’s like that bumper sticker, ‘How’s My Driving?’ Am I using all that emotional and intellectual wisdom I built up through my life to drive down the right road? It can honestly help to hear how people who weren’t part of the creation process engage with your art — it can help reveal that prophecy, you know?
“So, yeah, there is a bridge there. Around that time I just remember feeling like, ‘Okay, this sounds like shit that I was playing as a 13 years old kid when my dad got us a Korg drum machine and a Casio CZ-3000.’ You know, back when I was fucking around in the nascency of hip hop –when hip hop was still a fun thing and wasn’t being guided into certain areas to sell products or ideas yet. I feel like, Pretend I’m Human sounds like that more than it sounds like anything else to me. But the truth is, I literally was just looking to just put together some lyrics and stuff that would try to just connect with myself.”
Perhaps for this reason, Malik has no regrets about Orange 9MM: It did what it was supposed to do, he believes, and — like everything he pours himself into — it was a quest to create something infused with that pranic energy; something that is not matter but matters. Aesthetically Malik’s works may be wildly different, but as a body of work, nothing is out of character.
“We create our realities,” Malik says. “I firmly believe that. I think a lot of people come either from scenes or intellectual landscapes that don’t seek to create meaning or more fulfilling realities — and their egos and points of view reflect this. You can say what you want about hardcore and cliched lyrics about backstabbing and all that, but it’s always meant something. You can’t deny it. No one gets into hardcore to be who they are or to settle, you know what I mean? They go into that heat, that pressure cooker because they want something more.
“I feel like for me, I live in my head for better or for worse. I always wanted to have peace of mind. You’ll never have peace of mind living in the world, in my opinion. I mean, that’s just true. So, whether I’m doing a hardcore record or a Ghost Decibel record or a Sex Prox-Z song, one of the challenges for me is I’ve just got to get my prana, because I’m just playing with tones that I like and that can allow me to maintain my peace of mind. One of my friends told me Ghost Decibels “sounds like satanic meditation,’ which I found to be funny because I’m not a satanist by any stretch of the word. I’m just looking for positive energy and peace, however it comes.”