A journey into sound with Mala
photo credit to Good stuff
When I think of Mala, I think of the deep echoing legacy of dub music over the electronic bass scene. Mala’s legacy is one of an avid explorer. He never agreed with the dubstep tag, his sound is not quite jazz, or world-music, and his extremely open, friendly and firm personality speaks throughout his releases.
As an artist, producer, label owner and promoter, most people know him from Digital Mystikz, Deep Medi & the DMZ clubbing nights he puts on. The whole scene and community around him is organic, profound and honest. As a builder he always took risks but the results never disappointed, they always stunned.
He’s forever in debt to jungle music that he claims as his foundation, while his releases with Coki & Loefah are pure genius; take for example Anti-War Dub, a song that became an anthem for a movement and a generation. The “unconventional” bass music releases with Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label, the Mala in Cuba and Mirrors are really close to my heart and soul.
| You are an explorer of cultures, having grown in London’s Brixton neighborhood, touring all over the world, engaging South American and Caribbean communities. Could you please share with us some of your experience with all these societies and people?
Well let’s start with London. It has always been a melting pot for lots of things. It has been multicultural for a very, very long time. It was the result of all those different cultures and people from all around the world bringing parts of their home, culture and beliefs to it. Growing up in London was always like that. That diversity I think helps create openness and a challenge which you need to move forward. You obviously need a common ground for everyone to come together. That gives strength for a community to grow. For me, the way that I feel, my community of peers and mates, they breathe life to me. There would be nothing without all those other producers and Djs that are making music. I remember the DMZ nights. Artists were making music the whole month for that night, and on the day of the dance they would go and cut the dubplates. Later that night you’d hear so much new music and it would be so inspiring that you just go home and is about being better than anyone else; I don’t really look at music as competitive, but there was a motivation that came about in that community. It was very healthy in those times, I think what makes community unhealthy is too much business that interrupts some of the honesty. That becomes negative and people start talking in a negative way, and it ultimately spreads. For me, with Deep Medi, I just keep focusing on the things I really love. Just because someone from another country is making a particular sound which people are calling dubstep, but doesn’t fall in line with what the origins of the sound are, doesn’t make that any less creative, or any less important. Ultimately everybody is living their life and trying to do their thing. Who am I to judge?
If somebody else has been inspired by us go for it! If they want to take it, and sample it, twist it, then so be it. It is what it is. It’s just music, vibes, energy and life, that takes you to different places.
I’ve been to Peru five times now. I’ve been there with my kids, my whole family, and we all loved it. Aside from the musicians there, the people want to show you the best things about their countries, the best food, sights, monuments, all, so that you get brought in a nice way.
There is a Peruvian band called Nova Lima, they play Afro-Peruvian music, and even when their producer was on the road in another country, he would leave me the key under the mat so I can go in the studio and use it. This is someone who I’ve met only once or twice before. In London that shit don’t happen. In the USA either. Unique things like that happened there. In Cuba I was invited in people’s homes and eating their food, listening to their stories. Because the history of Cuba, you might have misconceptions about the life there, but most of the people are happy. Ok, everybody would like more money, but who doesn’t? The only complaint that I’ve heard often is that they don’t get to travel more. I also performed there, I played in house parties where police turned up and you paid them off and stuff. I also played in one of the main parks in Havana at an outdoor event, people making big fires and dancing around them. I played for 2 hours. Again, you can tell that people were very interested and curious about the style of music that I was playing. I didn’t go there and played them my Cuba album, I went and played the way that I do. For me these experiences are very important, to go into that frontline, to experiment with new ears. That’s how we’ve started with the strange music that we were making. We never imagined that somebody would listen to it, but we took the risk and shared it with people, we started a label and put our own parties. We all had to work hard and put our money where our mouth was. We were taking the opportunity to provide a platform for ourselves and anybody that wanted to be involved. Those early days in DMZ, it wasn’t about just Loefah, Coki, Pokes and myself, it was about all the other producers, Djs, journalists and photographers that were writing and covering the scene. Some of them are working now for huge publications, some of them started their own business. It was a playground, a place to experiment for a lot of different people and when I look back on it, that’s the thing I find most pleasing. It wasn’t just us and our music, it was about unity and people coming together.
I remember, Left Leg Out and playing it to Loefah and he was like “I dunno man”. He wasn’t really feeling it. I didn’t play it for a year, because my people weren’t really on it, but then, one set, I decided to play it and now it is what it is. Therefore, I always say focus on the things that give energy and give you energy, on what you want to do.
photo credit to Orson Sieverding
| How did your journey into music started? Do you remember a key moment?
I didn’t study music in a traditional sense. But from a very young age I listened to music and I remember having some records brought to me as a kid and saving a lot of pocket money to go and buy certain records. In the mid-late eighties, I was into collecting on my own. When I was about 12 years I received a stereo for Christmas and this is when I discovered pirate radio stations, back in ’92. This encounter changed the way that I listened to music and how I began to approach it after. They used to play a lot of hardcore jungle music, those years were ’92 to ’94, and that was instrumental for me in terms of exploring. The whole sampling culture and mixing of so many genres: you had a bit from some jazz records, hip-pop records, rare grooves, dub and reggae LP’s. That scene and sound opened my mind towards loads of new music. I used to follow that naturally, hear the samples and then go buy the record where it came from.
I feel like I can’t listen to music any different than that now. The sense of wonder and discovery, this is what a music lover is searching for. I always enjoy going to festivals and listen to other people playing music, I’m not there analyzing their performance or the mixdown of their songs, I’m just enjoying it. It’s always about the vibe. It’s the same in the studio, more about the feeling than what you do technically. Of course, if you are technically developed and matured, then I think that will allow you greater opportunity to enhance, translate and communicate your expression, your creativity, to create a connection. But I also think you can create a connection with your hands, as much as using your voice to create a vibe.
Take for example Truth, I met them ten years ago, and they’ve been releasing music on my label for nearly a decade now. I witnessed their development, evolution and explorations. Sometimes, as a record label, it’s important to emphasis on that, for me, we are not set to release bangers or things like that. We release music because it contains something which has a certain vibe, a specific sound, very hard to put into words. It switches on my imagination and triggers empathy, I want to watch and feel where these people, the producers are going. When you worked with someone for ten years, you got a batch of tunes coming in sounding sick, sometimes they send a bunch of tunes that you just love, but they’re not really for your style of playing. Working with artists you would still might want to release those records, maybe it’s for an EP, or album that goes into
an experimental direction. Again, for me it’s just about being open minded in life in general and especially when it comes to creativity, my own or other people’s music.
| Do you consider your latest two albums distinct from the ones in the past? Did Gilles Peterson with his label, Brownswood, reached out for you to experiment with Caribbean local sound there? Is it something you want to pursue in the future again?
It was random. I think it was November when I got a message from Gilles. I’ve seen and heard him, but we never spoke in person. He called and said “I have an idea about a project, I would love to have you involved. Want to meet up and discuss this?” I went and met him in a small pub in East London where he told me about his idea. I have been very militant in my approach you know. Quiet and reserved. Most of my music releases have been on my own labels, keeping it intimate. Over the years I’ve been offered numerous opportunities for different projects and deals and have constantly kept doing my own thing. But there was something about Giles’s history, about the music he always played. He, as a person, and his proposal seemed extremely genuine, so I couldn’t refuse. “Let’s just go for it.” We never really knew what we were going to make, but in January we had our first trip to Cuba for a week. We recorded with some of the players he brought on, some of the people from Buena Vista Social Club, whom I met there as well. I ended up doing a lot of recordings. We were supposed to just scout out for some musicians and record on the return trip. He was already doing a project called Havana Cultura, he had some sessions with musicians there. A meet and greet trip turned into a 5 hours session. It was great. I felt completely out of my depth but sometimes we must do this to grow. We must challenge ourselves to feel uncomfortable, you know?
| What is the story behind writing Noches Suenos? That tune is pure finesse.
Well, that was, again, some sort of accident. But some things in life are really meant to happen like that. After a long day in the studio I was in my hotel room and I started to work on a beat. I made a loop and took it to the studio the next day. Danay Suarez was recording the whole day in some other room but at night she came and recorded the vocals for this loop. She chose that particular beat. It was a weird obscure synthesizer melody that I made on top. She took it and came the next day when she literally did two takes, just like that. It really was extraordinary. It was interesting because it was the last song that I’d finished when I was making the album. It was very difficult to finish because, as I said, I am not classically trained and my synthesizer that she was following, was slightly off tune, which is fine when everything else is harmonically in place to fit with that. As was her singing. She sang to what she was listening to. When I tried to finish the song, building some chords to allow it to progress, nothing moved. I put it to bed, worked on other songs. Months and months passed, and I kept trying different things. Literally I took away everything, tried to rebuild it and nothing seemed to work. I was working with a friend at a later stage in the project, because I lost a lot of objectivity to what I’d done, and I was like 80 % done and I couldn’t listen to anything anymore. I was done with it. My bredrin came, so he can engineer while I could sit in the back smoke my joint and say “Right, this is working. You can take that out.”
In the studio I don’t work with people, I’m on my own so when that happens you are not only the engineer you are the writer, the player, you are the arranger, the mixer. Doing one track is enough, trying to do an album is a whole other mind game. We were at the fourth session of Noches Suenos and it dawned on us. “Hold on a second.” I originally took out the original synthesizer when rebuilding it. It was no longer needed, she had filled that space with her vocals. But without remembering that original melody we were lost. She was singing out of key to that original tune. Basically, we remade the tune around her vocal. It was a nightmare, but it was worth it in the end. I was very happy with it. When I collaborate with people I feel it’s the most important thing. I have a lot of respect for all the musicians I’ve worked with, for all the love, the energy, the scores as well as the music they gave me.
This was happening on the second trip to Cuba. It was very clear that the music I was making was a little bit outside of the parameters that the Havana Cultura people were expecting. Giles was like, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll make an album and keep them recording, you’ll go your way and do whatever you want to do.” He gave me that freedom.
That was a real challenge to me, having to think about the responsibility to others. Moving on from producing alone, the relaxation of producing by myself, to collaborating with real musicians. Of course, I am very privileged that people talk about me and my music, about DMZ and Deep Medi the way that they do. At the same time, in my head, I am not a dubstep producer or Dj, in my mind I just make music, for me this is natural, to experiment like this.
Gilles Peterson and Mala // photo credit to Worldwide FM dfksdj
| As a promoter how do you feel when you meet new and young artists? Is their music always reflected in their personalities? How do you work with them?
Yeah man. I can give a few examples. I’ve been working with Commodo for six or seven years now and I remember speaking to him on the beach in Barbados when my son was about nine months. I was trying to not be at work, to be on the first holiday after my son was born, I know it was January 2011. I remember calling him from the beach and telling him “I love your music, there is so much there. Let’s try and work out a couple of releases”. And all these years later, watching Commodo grow and the exceptional music he does today, it’s a sense of pride. He has always had a drive to experiment and explore. Some of his stuff is more downtempo, not 140. I loved to release that. People tend to think that we release only dubstep, but I always say, send me everything that you’re doing. It’s important to me and it is my responsibility as a label to encourage these avenues that they want to explore but they might not have the confidence to do that.
Swindle is a great example of that. When I met him he had loads of music. He had a lot of bangers actually. He was making that kind of grime musical vibe, but he just thought that I wanted the bangers. Then suddenly, he started sending me these jazzy things. The man was into George Clinton and that funk thing. When I heard his jazz direction I really knew we had to put them out. His song “If I was a superhero” for example, it doesn’t sound like anything before that. He was again unsure of that record. It was my responsibility to say: “If you don’t do this bro, in five years time some other youngster comes and starts putting all these keys and jazz chords into this 140 stuff, and you will kick yourself, cause you are doing it now. Let’s do it!” And then, very kindly, at the end of the credits of Long Live the Jazz he writes Mala said “Do the Jazz!”.
To me that’s my responsibility, if I am not able to detect their nature call, to try and help them have a long career, then I am not doing the right thing.
I believe longevity comes when you try to find what it is that you do. When you try to be something else you are not, that is short lived. You will run out of ideas going out like that. Being you is endless. I am not saying it’s not hard and challenging, but you will keep going. So, I always encourage people out of their comfort zones. There is the wrong way to go at it too. I don’t go: “You know what bro, house music is the lick at the moment… so I think you should go and write a load of house tunes. Go and experiment with house or go and do this or that.” That’s not appropriate! We have to tune-in to subtle differences.
| What about new things coming up on Deep Medi?
Yes. Egoless. He’s got a release coming out. He never had one on Deep Medi, so I’m very excited about that. (Egoless released this month Empire of Dirt)
He’s an incredible producer from Croatia. He’s done a number of records before on different labels, he’s actually been doing loads of different things, not just 140 stuff. He’s a very accomplished producer but working with us I hope we can embark on a new journey together. We always go for vinyl, we are obsessed with pressing our releases. There isn’t one that we didn’t.
It’s just our history, we come from a time when we went out and bought records on wax. I still play and cut dubplates, for me this is the natural and optimal way of playing my style of music. Yes, I think my style sounds better when played on a system that can handle it! The message and narrative in the music is the same. I remember a few years back there was a lot of discussions about the music format, people saying don’t play mp3 or don’t play on cdj or laptop, but ultimately it all goes down to the connection! So, the philosophy is everybody has the format that makes sense for him. I know I just still play and manufacture vinyl and I can’t ignore my heritage.
| How do you balance family with the musician life?
Music and my family coexist. I don’t have a choice. I’ve got two children, a boy and a girl, and they are near me when I work in my home studio. They’ve been coming in the studio since they were born. For anybody that has children I think it’s important that you bring them in your environment. I know I am not forcing them to listen to a particular style or genre, but music is always there, their mother is also very creative. We come in a very alternative household. A family with strong music ties.
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