The Philly-born Pakistani's first album, Dope Boy Magick, is a wonder to behold.
“He’s a phenomenal, lovely, Pakistani giant,” says London. “One of my good friends, just a very loving guy. The most loyal, thoughtful … we’ve traveled all over the world together—from Australia to Johannesburg to Paris, on a vigorous album schedule. He’s just good with people. Once he was sitting next to this old lady on the plane and she told him all her problems, and he just listened and talked it out. We’ve given him this name, Dr. Z, ’cause he just could talk about problems and sort it out, you know what I’m saying?”
Christ, Muhammad, mysticism, symbolism: These things take up a good deal of space in Zeb’s mind. But he also spends ample time on the lighter side of life: hip-hop, basketball, women, drugs, women, fashion, women. He’s as intense talking the Koran as he is about the time he masturbated during an earthquake. Call it the duality of Zeb: half-yin/yang, half-Ying Yang Twins.
The title Dope Boy Magick serves both sides of his outsized personality. The “Magick” is a nod to the spiritual realm. The title also happens to be a cheeky nod to Atlanta rapper Yung Joc’s song of the same name. It’s a cautious wink to Zeb’s battle over the years with actual dope too. He’s candid about the time he’s spent battling heroin. It’s part of the reason the album’s taken so long. He likes to think he’s kicked it. “Heroin is like a bear trap,” he says. “You can get away, but you lose a leg.”
He still partakes in many other substances that alter his consciousness.
The Ying Yang Twins side of Zeb’s dual nature is all Philly. The introspective, spiritual side comes from somewhere else. To paraphrase N’awlins rapper Juvenile—an artist the lighter side of Zeb no doubt loves—he get it from his mama.
“You think you are the champions now? DO YOU THINK YOU ARE THE ONES WHO IS FLYING THE PLANE?!?”
-An angry Dr. Mubarika Malik, circa 1999
Zeb knew he and his brothers were in deep trouble for the Project X-style bash they’d thrown while his parents were away, because his father raised his voice, something he never did. What’s more, he wasn’t making any sense.
“You think you are the champions now?” the usually genteel Dr. Mubarika Malik, DDS, asked his three boys, whose confusion he mistook for smugness, which only served to ramp up his anger all the more. “DO YOU THINK YOU ARE THE ONES WHO IS FLYING THE PLANE?!?”
“He was so pissed he was losing his mind,” says Zeb, remembering that time back in high school. “He was making no sense. He was trying to say, ‘Oh, you think you’re sooo smart,’ but couldn’t get it out right. It was like he forgot how to speak English.”
Zeb’s father was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania’s dental program in the 1970s. He opened a practice soon after graduating with others of his ilk, Pakistani immigrants hoping to build a better life through whitening teeth in the World’s Greatest Democracy. He eventually opened an office of his own in North Philly at 22nd Street between Cambria and Indiana, which his family lived above until Zeb was 7. The Good Doctor still works out of that office today.
Inside the practice, it was the American dream. Outside its walls, the American nightmare. It was the ’80s, and the crack epidemic was in full swing.
“I remember crack heads throwing themselves on top of our car,” says Zeb of his early childhood. “I remember people sleeping in the hallway and on the staircase leading up to our apartment. I remember sometimes they’d knock on our door late at night, and would try to talk my mom into opening the door.”
The practice grew, and it wasn’t long before Malik moved his family, which was also growing, to Haverford Township.
Once there, he enlisted his kids—his Muslim kids—into Catholic school, in hope of equipping them with the best possible education. Zeb’s time at St. Aloyisius and S.s. Colman-John Neumann left a permanent impression. He loved the idea of Jesus, a “zombie savior.” Crucifixes. Holy water. Eating the body. Drinking the blood. It was all very black metal and it all appealed to him.
“The story of Jesus resonates with me more than anything,” he says. He liked the idea of a peaceful Christ. In Christianity, there were no calls to arms. No fatwas placed on the heads of those who dare speak ill of the prophet. No Dutch director was ever stabbed for making a movie criticizing the treatment of women in Christian culture. “All that turned me off to Islam,” says Zeb.
Eventually, the Brothers Malik ended up at Lower Merion, where Zeb, already sprouted, played senior basketball. “I was a legendary loser,” he says of his time on the pine. “An epic benchwarmer.” All the while, God was present in the home.
“My earliest memories, ever since I was a baby, was that everything my parents do, they do for God,” says Zeb. “They’ve never wavered from that once. And as a kid I grew up completely faithful and believing in God. And Islam basically teaches us that Christianity is right too, and that we’re all brothers, that Islam is the next step, but that Jesus is one of the prophets. My parents have always stressed that it’s important to remember that America’s great because they’ll never stop you from believing what you believe.”
After 9/11, America sure tried. Zeb recognized a visible shift in attitude toward him on the streets of Philly after the Towers fell. An anger. People began to yell. And it continued for years. Still happens sometimes.
It was especially bad in the early days of PO PO, when three imposing Pakis on stage was just too much for some. At a show in Asbury Park, N.J., a man snatched the microphone from Zeb and demanded to be told what he was singing about. “My brother is a motherfucking Army Ranger!” the man yelled before Zeb could answer, “Love.”
The ire of those around him made him look inward, to the faith he was raised in, with new eyes. He thought about his mother and his father, and their unconditional, unbridled love. These were the most peaceful, loving people he’d ever known and ever would. They were not the monsters America now obsessed over and feared.
PW's Music Issue 2014