Sometimes, someone comes along whose art fulfills a need in people. Sometimes somebody’s story is also one in which people invest, because it represents a possibility. Mala’s art and his story combine both of these.
I was introduced to him in 2005. After several months where he and Kode9 encouraged me in following the surging bass movement that is now fully established as dubstep, I interviewed him for a feature [published in the now sadly defunct Plan B Magazine] that I wanted to capture the very special emotions of the time. Mala was, along with Loefah and Coki, one third of DMZ, a club night and label whose sounds and ethos pushed and defined that evolutionary moment (he and Coki both record and play out as Digital Mystikz).
Earlier this year Mala put out a vinyl-only album, Return II Space, which captures everything that is Mala. His unique tones, both dread and dreamy, open a space for the mind to explore. With the way that dubstep has evolved both as a sound and as a scene in mind, I realised as I was transcribing this interview that the high regard in which people hold him is not simply due to the way that his music allows the mind to transcend daily pressure, but that he has sustained an ability to create and be creative that a lot of people - perhaps most of us - only ever aspire to. But I also found out it’s not something that he hasn’t had to struggle for.
The interview began by discussing that he’s recently moved studio to somewhere quieter, and how the extensive travelling he’s done since 2007 (when dubstep really became an industry) and running his label Deep Medi (an outlet for another generation of dubstep artists to DMZ) have affected his ability to create, in terms of time, focus, energy, and a sense of responsibility to the artists on the label.
When were all the tracks on the album built - some of them are a few years old aren’t they? Is it all stuff you’ve been doing over the past few years?
Yeah. I mastered all of the record at the same time, and it just kind of came to me at the time because I was conscious I hadn’t released anything in 2009. I released two records actually - I released ‘Level 9’ on Hyperdub and I released ‘Sinners’ on Ringo - but I didn’t release on Deep Medi or DMZ. Actually, I’m not sure if there were any DMZ releases in 2009, maybe one Coki thing. But I was just conscious that I hadn’t released any music, and I was frustrated about it as well. And I’d been so busy just doing shows, having a label with a handful of artists - that takes some management as well, and obviously it’s time consuming, and you can’t do everything. And unfortunately releasing my own music kind of got neglected I guess. So when I got to the end of 2009 I was like, ‘Right, I’m going to master a load of records I want to come out in 2010,’ and then when I was like ‘You know what, I’m going put them together.’ And then slowly it kind of formed in my head, and it just felt right to release a collection of 12”s basically.
So it wasn’t a plan to put together an album then?
No, no. As usual for myself, it’s always generally a last minute thing.
The tracks on the album have stuck to the sound that you had from the beginning but pursued your own creative identity, when dubstep as a whole has grown in quite a different direction. Has that been something that’s hard to sustain?
You mean about my sound?
Yeah. Has it been natural to you to stick to your sound, when there’s been so much else going on around you?
Yeah. I can’t do anything else. Obviously, all these things, you look at what’s going on and you look at the state of affairs today, you see that some sounds and some producers are now playing on different platforms, maybe to bigger platforms, maybe to smaller platforms - everything’s always changing. And if you are somebody who focuses on what other people do too much, inevitably that might be your downfall.
For me, it’s not really that what’s going on around me is a struggle, it’s the fact that I’ve been writing music for a decade or something now. If you write music every day for a decade, at some point that creativity has to come from somewhere, that energy has to come from somewhere. Just like if you paint, whatever you do, if you’re an athlete and your passion is to run. Eventually it takes its toll, where you need to clear your head and you need that space just to reenergise and refresh. And because I’m addicted to being in the studio and mucking around with frequencies, the desire for me to be in there is really strong, every day. And I find if I have to be on the road for a couple of days and I haven’t got my laptop to like tinker about on some tunes with, I just don’t feel right. I need to be in the studio a lot.
Going back to 2006-2007 - things, especially DMZ, took off so quickly, did it feel like a shock to the system? And how does it feel when you look back at it now, is it just like, wow?
Yeah definitely, you look back at it with some sort of disbelief. Because it’s been so consistent, it’s not that I’ve forgotten what happened then, but it feels like such a long time ago. So much has happened in between. You have to remember that we hadn’t just started writing music in 2006, we’d been writing since ’99 or something. And it was in 2003 when Big Apple and Hatcha said to me and Coki, ‘Yeah we’re feeling this stuff,’ and started cutting our tunes and playing our tunes. And then a couple of months later we managed to get Loefah to take his tunes down there as well, and he was feeling Loefah’s tunes, and then we got a Digital Mystikz release.
So when Big Apple closed down, [that] was why we started up DMZ really. Because we’d just had our first release and were hungry to release another record, and there was no outlet, we weren’t interested in majors or whatever. Nobody was interested back then anyway, it was about doing it yourself. So we’re talking about six, seven years ago, and I just remember I had a real fire in my stomach then. Where I was just like, ‘I don’t care. I’ll play my sound, after anybody, against anybody, before anybody’. And I was like, ‘I don’t care, I don’t want no help from nobody, I don’t wanna sign my music to no labels…’ It was really just like, ‘This is what we’re doing, this is DMZ, this is what we’re about.’
‘Cus back in 2003 I was 23 years old, I’m 30 years old now. I’m even politer to myself now! Back then it was more raw, and the music was more raw. It wasn’t so defined and it was still a massive experiment. When I look back on it, I look on it with pure fondness. It was such a massive part of life, where it really kind of set me off on a path [to] where I am now. I can’t imagine doing anything else, or it turning out any other way. Even back then a lot of the magazines and a lot of people wanted to slate what a load of us were doing. All of the man them back then - Kode 9, Skream, Benga - you know ‘cus you were there yourself, you saw what these people were doing. It was just a dark room, big soundsystem, pure heavy dubs. And that was really what the focus was. And that, for me, is what’s sad and different about now, is that the focus seems to be about fashion, and it seems to be about a lot of other things.
Yeah, I remember when you used to be able to go to DMZ in a tracksuit. Well obviously you can go in a tracksuit now, but…
Yeah, back then there was none of that, it just didn’t exist, and it’s partly because the music was so underground and that’s just what happens. Things from the underground start inspiring other genres, which it did. […] That for me is what the difference is now, it’s partly become fashionable and with fashion it’s dangerous, because I ain’t wearing the same jumper as when I was 18 years old. Fashion’s a difficult thing and I’m not interested in fashion, I’m interested in music. I don’t really see it, it just goes over your head.
Does that interest from outside create a pressure to be… does it make it harder to keep to your own musical identity?
I’m an old man…
Haha, no you’re not!
Alright, I’m not. But maybe if I was 21, or 18, I’d be trying to do something else. But I tried to do something else when I was young, and something else has led me to this, where I am now.
You mean you tried to do something else musically when you were young?
We did! And my experience is, because of my mentality back then, that rawness, that mentality of ‘this is what we’re about and what we’re gonna do’ - that’s stayed with me. Because for me, in a mad kind of way, it’s not like it paid off like I’m driving round in this, and you see me everywhere. After a decade of writing music I’m still writing music, I’m still releasing records, I’m still able to play shows. So in a strange kind of way that path allows me to carry on doing whatever I’m doing, ‘til wherever the future may take me… I don’t know, ‘cus for me personally, any time I try and do something that ain’t really me, it causes a conflict. And then it stops and it doesn’t ever get any further than just a thought or an idea.
So now, I just knock that out of my head, I don’t try and do those things. Like, what I write and listen to are two totally different things. […] I find sometimes in the studio -like maybe yourself when you’re writing or whatever - sometimes in your mind you’ve got this real elaborate idea of this is how this is going to be, and you can’t make it go that way, and you’re constantly battling, battling, battling. If you take a step back and go, ‘hang on a second what actually is it?’, without any other kind of preconceptions or ideas or dreams or anything in your mind, just look at it for what it actually is, it kind of allows you to go, ‘Ah, okay, it isn’t that kind of tune, it’s this kind of tune’. It’s about being honest with yourself. That’s what I’ve found over the years, it’s when I’m being honest with myself that [I] feel most comfortable and it doesn’t really matter whether anybody else likes it or not.
So all the tunes on the album, they all sound like you but they do have a distinct identity as well. Did you select from a wide… ummm… I was about to say database, but that’s kind of the wrong word!
Well you could say that, there’s a lot of data on my machine.
So what was the choosing process like?
I think I mentioned in an interview years ago, dubplates are operated a bit like an A&R man. You cut your dubplate and play your dubplate in a dance and you get a first hand reaction of what a track does. Then when you’ve done that for a year with a certain tune, and you’ve seen the response in different places, you can determine whether you want to release that record or not. […] I don’t really listen to my music when I’ve made it, it’s done and it was a moment in time and you move on from that. ‘Cus you’re always on to… [For] most producers or most creative people there’s probably always something unfinished, there’s always something new to do, there’s always that new groove to search for.
So me putting together Return II Space was just tracks I looked back on and I was like, ‘Oh I wish I’d released that.’ It was kind of like a combination of how I… Remembering how certain times, I can still remember certain people’s faces when they say, ‘Oh, that tune that you made’...So I kind of put it together based on memory and feeling really. […] It was mad, ‘cus even to the very, very last minute, when the record was just about to be manufactured, I kept thinking of new ideas and shit…
What, like musical ones?
No, not musical ones, ‘cus that would have taken too much. Ideally, I would have liked to have put one more plate in there. I would have liked to have four records in there, but I left it way too long before I come up with that idea. But just little bits of artwork and stuff.
So are you gonna put the other two tracks out?
Umm… probably! But they might not be in another LP like this, it might just be normal 12”s. I haven’t decided yet. My next release is most likely going to come on Deep Medi now, I’m just about to master that. ‘Cus I haven’t put out a record on Medi for over a year as well now. And I’ve just done a record for Soul Jazz as well, which is with Four Tet.
He seems like a really nice guy.
Yeah the brief moments we had together he did, and I like his music as well, so it’s another privilege to share a 12” with him. And I feel grateful that Soul Jazz are still feeling what I’m doing, and they want to put out my music. Yeah, to be honest with you Melissa, this thing just still constantly surprises me all the time, you know.
The people that you hook up with through music?
Just music in general for me, when I listen to music and how I create music. It’s such a weird and abstract process that I don’t understand at all. It’s just something that I do and I’ve been doing it for [what] feels like such a long time now, it’s just natural to me to kind of do it, even though I don’t understand it. And I kind of like not understanding it, ‘cus it makes it… It’s not me, that’s what I’m basically trying to say. Some other energy’s working.
Uh-huh. Do you ever feel like, especially when you listen to stuff that’s old, that you’re estranged from it?
Yeah, for sure. I sometimes go back and open up an old file for a tune that I’ve made. Say I was to open up ‘Bury Da Bwoy’ or something, and look at how I made the tune, it kind of looks a little bit alien. I don’t know why I would have selected those sounds, what I was necessarily thinking or what vibe I was on, you know - and I certainly can’t make tunes that sound like that now. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing I guess is personal opinion. But in a mad kind of way, I’ve always spoken about I feel like I’m learning and I feel like a newcomer in the studio all the time. And as much as that’s frustrating - ‘cus sometimes you want to know exactly how to get what you want, and there’s certain things you learn that you develop over time - that feeling of not knowing, and not understanding, I kind of like that in a way, because with that comes a bit of a freedom.
How do you mean, that you have to keep exploring?
When there’s knowledge of something, I guess you have to ask yourself, ‘Is that knowledge complete?’. And then if you have a full understanding of something - meaning you know everything there is to know - to me that feels like it could get a little bit boring. Because you would know all the possibilities, you would just click your fingers and it would just be there. For me it’s about the doing, it’s not really about the end product, in a funny kind of way. For me the enjoyment is just being in the studio for 16 hours just in a beat, in a zone, you know. You don’t pick up the phone and you don’t eat no food and you don’t drink no drink, you’re just awake somewhere else, physically you’re there in your mind but you’re locked into a different dimension. And that, for me, that’s what I’m talking about that I don’t understand about this music thing. When I’m making music it often can take me to that place that’s a different dimension. That’s the freedom that I’m talking about.
So we can expect you to carry on for as long as you can pursue it?
Yeah I’d love to, whether it gets released or whether it ends up as a totally different thing. I’ve never stopped writing music since I started, I write music pretty much every day, unless like I said I don’t have any of my machines with me. But even then, like I say, when you experience different countries you’re being influenced by people, the sounds, the environment, nature. In a way to me everything’s music, everything’s a frequency, you know?
Have you read Kode9’s book [Steve Goodman’s Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear]?
Some of it, yes. I was very lucky, he gave me a copy of his book. Yeah, very interesting.
It’s really opened up my mind to thinking about frequencies being around all the time.
Yeah, everything’s frequencies. Light’s measured in frequency as well, and the human mind is only capable of picking up a certain bandwidth of light frequency, that’s why you can’t see ultraviolet or infrared, you know what I mean? Other animals are able to see in these other bandwidths you know. It’s interesting ‘cus… Yeah, I’m going off onto a totally different path now.
Yeah, it’s easy to go off on another path when you start thinking about that.
Yeah well, that’s what I’m usually doing (starts laughing) Melissa! Yeah, you know, ‘cus the obvious is obvious, innit. And what I’m interested in is what’s unknown. That’s why I think I do love music and I love creating music. I never have an idea of what I’m going to create when I sit down and write. And when somebody sends you music and you press play and you don’t know what’s going to happen - that’s what I love about music.
The title of the album kind of captures that as well…
Yeah I think so. Because space is the ultimate unknown.
I guess so.
Is that not why you chose it then?
Return II Space is… I wrote that tune ‘Return II Space’ and it was talking about - you know what I was saying when you do a lot of shows, and sometimes it breaks up that flow in the studio. That was just about me trying to return to my space, you know.
Yeah. Well I hope you’re pleased with it, because you should be.
More thoughts and words from Melissa Bradshaw can be found at her blog, Decks And The City.