LIFE IS FOR LIVING
There are few more important figures in the history of British bass-driven music than Mala. One half of Digital Mystikz and co-founder of the DMZ nights, Mala is one of the Croydon originals who built a sound that would go on to conquer the world. Mala’s sub-bass saturated, deeply tribal grooves helped lay the template for what would come to be known as dubstep, and despite the fame and success that has come his way in the intervening decade, the south-London born producer has never faltered from a path of distilled integrity.
With his long dreadlocks and commitment to cutting dubplates for every set, Mala evokes and embodies the spirit and passion of soundsystem culture for a whole new generation. Since his first release with Coki as Digital Mystikz for the Big Apple label back in 2004 and the subsequent establishment of the DMZ label and later his own Deep Medi Muzik imprint, Mala’s sound has always been something to feel as much as to hear, striking deep into your chest and stirring your soul with its hypnotic, meditative roll.
With such passion and unwavering focus on his craft, Mala has built a near fanatical fan base, happy to spend hundreds of pounds on his early vinyl releases and chattering constantly on message boards about his unreleased dubs and future projects. As such, when news broke earlier this year that Mala had been in Cuba recording with musicians for his first album project proper, that chatter went into overdrive at the prospect.
Renowned as much for the intricate percussion that decorates and drives every one of his productions as for the depth of his basslines, the prospect of Mala working with the famously gifted musicians for which Cuba is famed had everyone salivating - and quite rightly so.
With that album, entitled ‘Mala In Cuba’, set for release in September on Giles Peterson’s Brownswood label, we at Trap knew the time had come to track Mala down for a front-cover feature we’ve wanted since our very first issue. Now living in Belgium with his expectant long-term partner and two-year-old son, Trap ventured over to St Pancras to meet Mala from the Eurostar as he arrived back in the capital to play at that evening’s ill-fated Bloc at the London Pleasure Gardens.
Just a few hours before his set with Coki later that night, we leap into the waiting car of Trap’s favourite photographer and personal friend of Mala, Ashes57, and venture out into the Friday afternoon rush hour towards East London.
After numerous stops for photographs and with the traffic intensifying, Mala jumps in the back of the car; we stick our Dictaphone on and begin one of the deepest, most eloquent interviews we’ve yet had the pleasure to print.
“I got contacted by Giles Peterson at the end of 2010,” Mala begins when asked to explain how a dubstep producer from South London ended up in Cuba working on an album for one of world music’s chief exponents. “He’d been working on a project called ‘Havana Cultura’, where he’d been going to Cuba to work with Cuban musicians. He’d made a couple of compilations in previous years, but this time he wanted to go back and do something different. For some reason he decided he’d take me out there with him to make an album…”
You say ‘for some reason’, but did you not already have a working relationship with Giles, or know him personally?
“No; I’d met Giles a couple of years before, just through music, but nothing too in depth. I did ask him, ‘Out of everybody you could take to Cuba, why me?’ He said he’d always admired the percussion in my tunes, the sense of groove, and with my Jamaican roots – my dad is from Jamaica – he thought it would be an interesting combination.
“I didn’t jump at the chance, I’m quite cautious with things. I’ve been offered all sorts of opportunities over the years, business wise and musically, but I’m not always interested, it doesn’t always feel right. But this seemed like a genuine offer and something I was curious about. So, cautiously, I said ‘Yeah’. There was no real concept other than to go to Cuba and see what happened. The plan was to go first in January 2011, for an educational, a field day for me; where I’d go to Cuba and learn about Cuban culture and music. I was very honest with Giles and told him ‘I don’t know anything about Cuba or Cuban music.’
“That first trip ended up being the creation of the concept. That was to work with Roberto Fonseca and his band, and to record a number of traditional Cuban rhythms; from Cha Cha Cha to Merengue to Conga to Mambo. Roberto was on the piano with his drummer, a conga player and someone on the double bass – that was the main band. I came home with 60GB of music from that first trip; the band playing Cuban rhythms for me at 140bpm. I asked them to write some crazy time signatures too, just out of curiosity really. These guys are phenomenal; they spend two minutes practicing the rhythm on the tempo and that’s it, they’re ready to record a five-minute jam.”
As someone that had never been to Cuba before and knew little of its culture, what were your impressions of the place?
“The spirit of the people, the history of the nation and the country had such an effect on me. It’s such a different place to anywhere else in the world I’ve been. The first thing I noticed is, they’re not plagued with consumerism – you don’t go into a shop and see Hello or OK magazine and some idiot talking about what diet they’re doing. None of that nonsense, no celebrity culture, no consumerism. It just doesn’t exist there. It’s very refreshing and it creates a different mentality in the people.”
And do you feel that mentality rubbed off on you and the album? It’s different to anything you’ve done before…
“In many ways it is, working with live musicians and being asked to create music and an album for somebody. Writing an album has always been something I didn’t really want to get involved in, because it’s quite stressful on one’s mind.”
It becomes like a job?
“No. It doesn’t become like a job, getting up, putting on a shirt and tie to go sit in an office and do something you hate every day. It’s definitely not a job like that. But it does become and take a different discipline, which I had to work at. It wasn’t an easy task, creating music never is for me, though.
“Writing music was easier for me ten years ago than now, maybe that’s due to acquiring knowledge over time and experience; we feel we gain knowledge of things, so should be a better level than where we were in the past, you know? When I make music, I want make something that’s both interesting and challenging for myself, I don’t want to make the same record twice. So yeah, it was hard work and it was definitely the biggest challenge I’ve faced so far musically.”
“i tore myself to bits”
You stretched yourself?
“Of course, man. I tore myself to bits. You get to a point where you can’t stand yourself, you hate yourself, lose all self confidence. It took me a year to write and there were definitely times when I couldn’t listen to it and left it for a couple of months. And the thing is with writing music; it’s like a maze. You’ve got all these different shapes and layers and colours and ideas and emotions and you try to make sense of it in some abstract way. You try to piece it together, and then there’s this maze created of how you’ve got to the place you’re at with your piece of music. So if you then go away from it, you have to get back into your maze.
“Doing that with just one track for me is very challenging, but to do that with an album’s worth of music, and for the album to be coherent and not just a collection of tracks; like ‘Return To Space’, that was just me releasing six records that I’d made over a period of years. It wasn’t really an album as such. But this was something that’s meant to be a listening from start to finish. I don’t think it’s a concept album, but the concept is that this is my interpretation and expression of what I experienced while in Cuba, not just the music but the country and the people too.”
And the genre that you’ve employed through which to express that – would you call it dubstep?
“I’ve never really called my music dubstep. Obviously, what I’ve done has been called that, people say that is what I do. The reason why I’ve always refrained from calling my music anything is because I find it mentally limiting. If I tell myself I’m this or that type of producer, then, when I sit down in the studio, sometimes thoughts manifest and that’s what you end up becoming. I write music according to how I feel, to what’s going on in my environment, and my environment isn’t dubstep.
“So while as much as it’s great, everything that’s been said about DMZ and Deep Medi, I’m very grateful and feel very privileged and honoured that people regard us in the way that they do, when it comes to this genre of music, but I don’t like to limit myself to any one genre. Even though the music I make fits a certain sound or tempo.
“It’s interesting, because I listen to someone like Jah Shaka for example. Now I’m sure someone like him is open-minded when it comes to music, like a lot of musicians are. For me, I like to listen to music that feels conscious, especially when there’s words involved. But when it comes to instrumental music, there are no boundaries, because we interpret sound and frequency as an abstract; you take it how it is for you, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything in particular. But when you go and hear Jah Shaka play, he’s not gonna be playing a drum & bass set or a house set; he plays his sound. And this is how I sort of see my sound.”
“When you explore, you discover”
You’ve just mentioned Jah Shaka, and your dad is Jamaican – has soundsystem culture been the big influence on you that it appears to have been?
“No, not really. I didn’t grow up listening to that stuff. If anything, I tell my dad about soundsystems. My mum and dad listened to a lot of different music, I didn’t grow up around that, my dad’s not Rasta or anything like that, he’s not a sound man. So I heard as much Michael Jackson, Dire Straits or Whitney Houston as anything. It wasn’t until I started listening to jungle in the early 90s and finding my own direction musically that I stumbled across these things. Obviously, every home plays Bob Marley at some point, but finding Lee Perry, Augustus Pablo and King Tubby – they were things that I discovered on my own. And from those things you find out about the UK soundsystems; Jah Shaka, Channel One, Aba Shanti-I. This was all my own doing.
“I’m the oldest of my brothers, I have an older sister but she wasn’t into the music like me, so I didn’t get any music from her. I was like the discoverer, you know, and that’s how I felt about writing music; it’s not a set thing. It’s not even about finishing music for me; it’s a continuous journey that happens whether you’re creating or listening to music. It’s about exploring frequencies and new vibrations. When you explore, you discover and for me that’s where the joy is in writing music; that discovery of something you’ve never come across before. And that’s why I don’t want to limit myself by saying I’m this or that guy, making this or that genre. I don’t limit myself.”
Music is much more than just a sound to you, then? It’s a feeling?
“I’m not a musician; you ask me to hum the note of C to you, I’ll be humming a B-flat. I don’t understand music in that way, I just feel it. And to me, you don’t need to understand it; if you feel it, you feel it and that’s all that’s important. Don’t get me wrong; if you have a musical understanding in terms of theory, it will enhance your creation. Just because you understand something, that doesn’t take away the feeling. For me, I was never educated that way in music; I was always playing football when I was a youngster, that’s all I was interested in. I was at Millwall for seven years, that’s what I was gonna do. And then I got into listening to jungle and the next minute I know me Pokes and Coki are MCing at jungle raves when we’re like 14 years old! From there, we met Loefah when I was about 15 and we all just linked up on this music vibe. There were so many parties we used to go to together, the four of us. So when the whole DMZ thing came about, it just became an extension of what we were doing in our bedrooms.”
But you weren’t playing jungle by the time you started DMZ… it was a new sound completely. What was the music of the day missing to you that made you feel you wanted to create something new?
“It wasn’t that I felt like there was anything necessarily missing. I’d been listening to jungle for a long time. The Metalheadz thing came around, that was sick – the parties in Camden, the Grand Jams at Hanover Grand. They were ridiculous man. It was just underground, good soundsystems, hardcore music. I used to listen to a lot of house music as well, from about 1995, I used to buy a lot of house records. And I used to really like all the late-90s garage stuff too, but then that all got a bit off-key, too much business got involved, people stopped making certain types of tunes and everything got a bit more mainstream. I just think there wasn’t really anything that had gripped me like jungle music had gripped me.
“So when I looked at the music I was making then, it kind of made sense, cause there was the jungle influence, the roots and reggae, the dub influence, there was house going on, the early garage stuff. When I started writing music, all I knew was the bassline had to be big, because of the music I’d grown up with. But I wasn’t feeling drum & bass at that stage, I’d stopped following the scene a long time before.
“I really don’t know how it came about if I’m honest with you – just right time, right place, right frequency. It just naturally felt right to really strip it down; everything felt at that time like it was getting faster and building up and up. At that point, I wasn’t looking to rave it up in my bedroom after a day at work, so the music really was a meditation. I’d come in, exercise on the tunes, release my shit, the stress from the day. That was just the sound that came out.”
“one man’s pot of gold is another man’s trash can”
At those early DMZ dances, the music really was that mash-up and hybrid of influences that you’ve discussed. But that’s something dubstep has lost now as it’s become more and more commercial…
“Well, I think everything happens that way. Whether you’re in a relationship, or you’re talking about music, art photography. If people don’t take it on themselves to maintain integrity and discipline in their work and they start allowing themselves to be influenced from within the scene that they are in, things always will change.
“I don’t want to say that it’s bad the way things are now you know, because one man’s pot of gold is another man’s trash can, but I feel I’m still able to do what I’ve always done. That’s not to say it’s easy because most people want to live comfortably and music is a world that will offer you every type of temptation – from money to drugs to women. Seriously, the higher up the ladder you go, the more popular you get and all those things are there for you. For free. So it takes one’s character or nature to resist. Everyone makes their choices in life. And you have to live with your choices. So sometimes you have to be careful what you choose, because sometimes the grass isn’t always greener.”
And the younger generation of dubstep producers? Deep Medi isn’t afraid to sign up new artists that are pushing the sound you still believe in, but it’s so easy to dismiss the newer dubstep sound that’s pushed elsewhere as a barrage of soulless noise. Do you ever feel disheartened by what the genre has come to mean to so many?
“If I don’t really like something, I’m not gonna give my energy to it. So it doesn’t really dishearten me; people say, ‘It’s so noisy, bro this, bro that.’ I’m sure you could just be putting your energy somewhere else if you’re not really feeling it. But yeah, Deep Medi, we’ve got a lot of stuff coming out- we had the Goth Trad album earlier this year, VIVEK still going strong, Commodo, Swindle’s got another release coming, he’s making some great music; he really is a musician. Still now, I feel very grateful and privileged to have these musicians around me; they’ve given me a lot of energy over the years to keep doing what I’m doing. A lot of the guys are younger than me; it’s nice to have that as you get older; it’s not that you lose the fire, but the fire burns differently.
“I was 23 when I released my first record and we started DMZ. The fire we had, that’s the reason we did it; we didn’t wanna sign no records to no labels, weren’t interested in nobody doing nothing for us. We used to distribute the records ourselves, going round London with a box of records and dropping them off to the shops in person. That was the fire I had then, so it’s nice to be around it again now. It all goes round, it’s all energy and it’s about giving and taking.”
But you still have fire for the future though? What does it hold for Mala?
“After this Cuba project… You know when you do something or see something that you never saw before, and you just can’t ever not see it that way again? it’s been that kind of thing for me. As I said, it tore me open, and I had to rebuild myself so to speak. I can never go back to how I was before; I’ve definitely got new ideas for what I want to do for a future project, which I never had before. I definitely want to write another album after this one; just for the sheer headache, and for the adventure, man. It’s been a crazy year, obviously I have family as well, so juggling family life and being on the road and running a label, making your own tunes, it’s mental, but life is for living.”
Words: Jon Cook
‘Mala In Cuba’ is out now on Brownswood.