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Chi Cheng, longtime bassist for the Deftones, passed away April 14 at the age of 42 from complications resulting from a 2008 auto accident. Cheng—who held down the low-end for the Deftones since co-founding the group in 1988 up until his accident—had been in a coma since and spent his remaining years fighting for his life. After showing progress by slightly moving his hands and legs in 2012, Cheng was able to leave the hospital and continue the recovery process at his home.
Leading the way with chameleonic bass tones and rhythms, Chi Cheng set the table for his band. His 4-string repertoire ranged from the slithery, bouncy electronica in tracks like “Wax and Wane” and “Lucky You” to the crisp, propelling runs in “Rx Queen” and “Dai the Flu.” His stamp was felt most in his core Deftones recipe of distorted avalanche on post-grunge metal juggernauts like “One Weak,” “My Own Summer (Shove It),” and “Change (House of Flies).”
The Deftones started out in the late ’80s as a raw collection of metalheads with panache for bop-and-weave rhythms. The group’s 1995 debut, Adrenaline, was quickly recognized as a pillar of the resulting nu-metal wave that followed in the late ’90s with bands like System of a Down, Glassjaw, Snot, Linkin Park, and many more. But just as that scene was forged, Chi and company looked across the pond for inspiration. With 1997’s Around the Fur and 2000’s White Pony still holding one foot firmly in their aggressive roots, Cheng added celestial parts à la The Smiths’ Andy Rourke and the Cure’s Simon Gallup in lush, somber songs like “Mascara” and the ghostly “Digital Bath.” Moving deeper into the 2000s, the band collectively spread its wings even further with the heavier, My Bloody Valentine-esque “Minerva” on 2003’s Deftones, and the radio-friendly, delay-warped “Cherry Waves” from 2006’s Saturday Night Wrist.
Much like his pocket-placement in the band, Cheng approached gear with an old-school mentality. No matter how many strings, effects, and overdubs guitarist Stephen Carpenter used, Cheng held the fort down with 4-string Fender P basses played with his fingers—occasionally using fretless models on White Pony—through Ampeg SVT-2 Pro heads and really only used a Tech 21 SansAmp GT2 for extra balls.
Pushing himself beyond the Deftones, Cheng released a spoken-word album, The Bamboo Parachute, showcasing his poetry in 2000. And further broadening his artistic reach, Cheng—a big follower of Buddhism, Taoism, and Shamanism—started his own community service project in his hometown of Sacramento aiming to help homeless citizens develop their talents in music, art, and other positive outlets.
At the time of Cheng’s accident, the Deftones were working on Eros, which was shelved due to the tragedy. The band pushed on, recruiting longtime friend and musical contemporary Sergio Vega (Quicksand) to play on 2010’s Diamond Eyes and 2012’s Koi No Yokan. Whether Eros sees the light of day or not, the stoic 4-string romper leaves a legacy of bass grooves that encapsulate everything that was invigorating and right with heavy music in the diluted Y Generation.