The Philly-born Pakistani's first album, Dope Boy Magick, is a wonder to behold.
The band started rehearsing. PO PO played downstairs while Diplo worked in a recording suite above. “That’s the fondest memory I have of the whole beginning,” says Zeb. “It really felt like—he’s just one of the best dudes. No matter what you think about him, you can’t ignore his opinion. That doesn’t mean you have to follow it. But there’s some information in what he thinks that’s powerful. As much as people may want to try and deny him, you can’t.”
Dope Boy Magick is a labor of Zeb’s blood, sweat, tears, tenacity and love. He’s been working on it for three years, in Philly and Los Angeles and spots in between, with various players and collaborators, but mostly brother Shoaib. It’s a gorgeous album—equal parts fierce and ethereal. Though, it might make more sense to say it’s two gorgeous albums. Maybe three.
There are distinct sonic shifts in the album, inevitable perhaps when you consider that, over the course of recording, PO PO went from being Zeb’s band to being Zeb’s project. It’s a breakup album. Only it was the band that broke up. And the result is a schizo album that occupies a lot of aural real estate. It’s all over the map, like nothing you’ve ever heard before, and certainly not from Mad Decent.
“It’s definitely been an uphill battle for us, in terms of getting the fans into it,” says Mad Decent label manager Jasper Goggins of marketing PO PO. “Most [Mad Decent fans] are teenage kids who just want to rave out. But we have a pretty diverse audience, and I think that stems from the fact that Wes’ career is pretty diverse. He does all kinds of stuff, so we do rely on a pretty educated fragment of music lovers as fans.”
Of course, many listeners also come to Mad Decent for an education. In Dope Boy Magick, they’ll get one. Imagine the distorted edge of Bleach-era Nirvana getting chummy with the straight-ahead giddy/sloppy ferocity of the Ramones underneath a soaring Muslim call to prayer. Now add some double violin and a dash of the Middle East from the legendary L. Shankar. And production from Nick Launay, whose records with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Arcade Fire, Nick Cave (all his projects—Birthday Party, Bad Seeds and Grinderman), and Public Image Limited have made him the go-to guy for way-out projects.
“My taste in music still to this day is the more adventurous, anarchistic, go-against-the-rules kind of music,” Launay recently told Sound On Sound magazine. “Those are the bands I choose to work with—the ones that are trying to do something different, trying to get a reaction, trying to make people think.”
PO PO definitely fit the bill. Even in their own label’s tight-knit family.
“It’s been, in some ways, a good introduction for us,” says Zeb. “The odd ducks of Mad Decent, these black sheep, as Wes always calls us, of Mad Decent. It makes people pay attention.”
Pakistani folk music, Bollywood soundtracks—this was the music ingrained in Zeb’s mind from a young age. It was the soundtrack of his life, the music that scored every road trip, every party and every family gathering of his youth. You can hear those influences on Dope Boy, right alongside Zeb’s other influences, like Nirvana and Perry Farrell.
Early reviews have been positive, both from friends and fans. Goggins says many a DJ has given it an enthusiastic thumbs up. Filter gave the album an 82, and says the album offers clues to PO PO’s “vast potential … arena-worthy promise.”
“I love it,” says Naeem Juwan, aka Philly’s Spank Rock, of Dope Boy. “PO PO is my favorite act on Mad Decent right now. It definitely sticks out on the label, but I think it’s the coolest thing they’re putting out. Zeb’s really smart about music. He definitely has a vision and knows what he wants.”
Zeb produced the weirdest track on Spank Rock’s last album, the WTF “DTF DADT.” (The video for “DTF” is worth your time.) In the last year he’s also co-produced “Last Name London” for Trinidad-born, Brooklyn-based R&B style icon-in-the-making Theophilus London, and has served as London’s guitarist on a few globetrotting tours.
“I’m just excited, man,” says London of Dope Boy Magick’s release this week. “[Zeb]’s been waiting for this his whole life. Zeb—no matter what was going on with Mad Decent or his brothers—has always believed in the PO PO project. First time I saw Zeb was at South by Southwest, years ago. We played the same stage at the Fader Fort, and I was so blown away. They were my favorite act. I just thought that they were gonna be one of the biggest bands in the world.”
Dope Boy will definitely flummox listeners who come to it without open ears or minds. There’s a mysticism and ambiguity that lingers throughout the album, a mysteriousness that PO PO exude in everything from their sound to their aesthetic, that requires a long, hard look. Hell, there’s ambiguity in their name.
The term “po-po” has, as you’re well aware, long been slang for the police. But it means different things to different people depending on where you are in the world, and Mad Decent’s reach is nothing if not global. To Germans, “Po Po” means “butt.” In other spots, it means “shit.” To Greeks, it’s what little girls often nickname their vaginas.
“In Pakistani, we say it all the time because that’s what you call your dad’s sister, Po Po,” says Zeb. “My dad would always tell us stories about his sisters and they were legendary women. Po Po, to me, it always describes my aunties. They were all these badass villager women who took care of everyone. A lot of men die young [in Pakistan], they die of violence or sickness, so in my head it has a powerful association with strength, a diva association. But also, phonetically—I started playing with the O’s. It just seemed like a powerful onomatopoeia. It’s percussive. I like that.”
Zeb started “playing with the O’s” visually, too. On any given bit of PO PO merch, the O’s can be represented by anything round with far-reaching, mystical qualities—a sun and earth, or yin/yang and peace symbols.
It’s the yin/yang symbol that suits Zeb and PO PO best. In conversation, Zeb can vacillate wildly between being intensely introspective to casually narcissistic. He can tell you he intends to be the greatest guitar player man has ever known and the “world’s first Middle Eastern sex symbol” without blinking, just after reflecting on some huge lesson the universe whispered to him in a moment of meditating in solitude. In photos, he can look kind or gentle, mean or menacing, without a change in expression.
“Like most musicians, depending on what moment you catch them, their personalities can shift,” says Juwan. “It’s an extremely emotional process, working on something you care about for so long and trying to put it out, working with other people’s egos and ambitions. I’ve seen Zeb in a lot of different moods, but more often than not he’s kind. I think he’s mostly really funny. I think he’s sexy.”
PW's Music Issue 2014