Lights On For Safety is an album title that has been floating around rapper Zach Maloof's consciousness for a decade, originally as an acoustic folk album title, now excavated from old notes and re-appropriated to christen Maloof's (aka OG Willikers) new hip-hop album, out July 11. The phrase's original meaning has long dissipated, and now whatever significance it carries is the cumulative weight of having stuck around long enough to absorb transformation. The same could be said for most of the objects that have lasted in Maloof's orbit throughout his dramatic musical evolution.
The RaRa Room, where I met Maloof, started out as a teenage band practice room during his pop-punk days, lasted through the singer-songwriter folk rock era of his early 20s, and now serves as the de facto hub of Outstanding Citizens Collective, the Santa Fe hip-hop collective in which OG now raps. It's also where he hosts RaRa Room Radio, a local music podcast. The room is "a shrine to local independent music and comic book nerdness," Maloof says. Sure enough, past show flyers paper the walls, and when he pulls open a file cabinet full of titles, he cautions: "You would think these are records, but they're comic books." He's scavenged studio parts from his many gigs in Santa Fe's music world.
The album produces the same sensation that time has been compiled into one composite object. It sounds like a saga of personal growth, but its would-be streamlined narrative progression is made disjointed—and more interesting—by Maloof's many collaborators. Lights On boasts over 20, and genre and sound oscillate from track to track based on who's featured. Four tracks in the middle of the album are heavily influenced by Amazonian musicians, friends and family Maloof met while traveling through Peru. He is reluctant to call the album spiritual for fear of coming off as moralizing, but on certain songs it becomes impossible to deny, and some of the album's most clever, compelling moments come out of artists bringing their particular spiritual roots in conversation with hip-hop traditions.
In "Toma," an ode to Mother Earth, Santa Fe-based artist Asliani raps: "She opens the road / For us to put down that heavy load / Con esta madre, I have yet to commune / But I sense she may be calling to me soon … Madre, ven a mi and show me how to make it rain." Legun, a producer on the album, is a water protector from Kewa Pueblo. The collaborators feel like a part of Maloof's personal narrative because they are; the album is as much a product of Outstanding Citizens Collective as it is a solo project. "I've never done anything by myself," Maloof tells me, despite recording, mixing and mastering the album alone.
Outstanding Citizens (minus the "Collective") began in 2008 with four local rappers: Wolfman Jack, Benzo, Fluid and Symmetry. OG Willikers was in a rap group called State of the Mingo that would often play alongside Outstanding Citizens. In 2015, Maloof met the graffiti artist Wonky, who had recently moved back to Santa Fe from Texas. Maloof was working his day job at the Draft Station when he overheard Wonky talking about hip-hop. The two became fast friends. Around the same time, members of Outstanding Citizens were discussing the possibility of forming a collective, and Maloof brought Wonky into the seam. In January 2017, over 20 potential collaborators gathered in the RaRa Room to launch plans and an Instagram account.
"We decided to call it the Outstanding Citizens Collective, which made it much bigger, wider, vaster—a concept instead of it just being a rap group," Maloof explains. This broader definition allowed for the inclusion of DJs and visual artists. It also meant less squabbling over "small-town stuff" and more collaboration across projects.
"We're all solo artists," Maloof continues. "It goes, 'What can you do for the collective, and what can the collective do for you?' We're not here to make anyone's career; we're here to support people's careers—sometimes it's a record label. For [Wonky], we threw an art opening and we were his art management. Now it's my turn; the support is circling around me now."
Wonky designed the album cover for Lights On For Safety, a street sign surrounded by his alternatingly swoopy and geometric lettering and abstract graphics. He usually uses markers or spray paint for his work, a style that's rarely found in Santa Fe's galleries. "[Street art] is not big here at all," Wonky says. "You might find some stuff at a pop art gallery, or here and there you'll see something and think, 'Oh, that's kinda flavor.' Keep Contemporary is the only spot that's showing some dope stuff."
The unsanctioned scene, though, is vast, according to Wonky. "Santa Fe is a graffiti hub. A lot of people don't know that," he says. "If you pay attention to little stickers, you'll see shit from all over the place. So-and-so's in town … and abandoned shit out in the middle of New Mexico. There's a massive graffiti culture, but none of it's professional."
Wonky and OG cite similar dilemmas for hip-hop and graffiti in the local scene. "If you want to be a gigging musician," OG says, "You have to play alt.country, Americana, cover band stuff—that's the only way to make money. It's the same with art." Wonky puts it more bluntly, saying, "Everyone's looking for a painting of a mesa or some shit."
What venues did support Outstanding Citizens Collective have mostly closed; they were regulars at the Underground, where Wonky used to do live art and sell decorated lighters and stickers while musicians performed.
OG looks back on this time affectionately. "Basement dive bar, a little grungy," he remembers. "Run by this dude Johnny Pink. Slicked-back hair, leather jacket, crass, didn't drink. Loved him. Hated hip-hop but loved us. It was more communal. If anything we'd just be rapping to each other." This era comes through in OG's music. On the song "What I Do It For," he raps, "It's easy to frown when you play a show with no crowd / You say nobody must like hip-hop in this town."
"But for me, the most exciting time for the [collective] was when we started growing out of there. When we played Meow Wolf and the entire place was packed. We knew who went where and where to stand," he says. "People are getting older here. We don't have time to just be fucking around anymore. [Wonky and I] are two of the only members who don't have kids."
Maloof's July 11 album release, featuring Outstanding Citizens Collective members Fluid, Benzo, Anthonius Monk and Fred Been Stoned, also launches the collective's first tour. The members hope to spearhead community engagement programs in the next year, like youth workshops and mentorship programming.
"I don't see big money in my future," Maloof says, "Just satisfaction that even if I quit tomorrow—or let's say after the tour—I won't feel like I never tried."