Interview: Mala

The music of our heart is roots music, music which recalls history because without the knowledge of history you can’t determine your own destiny” is a little fragment of the words that are spoken over Mala’s “New Life Baby Paris”, sampled from the introduction to the 1978 debut of Misty In Roots. Looking back on the prolific work that Misty in Roots have established for themselves, the Southall-based roots and reggae outfit is widely acclaimed for opening doors to a new eclecticism of taste and staying faithful to their original ethos and everlasting musical style. This ideology resonates no differently in what South London’s Digital Mystikz have embodied over the last decade. A little over seven years ago, long-time friends Mala and Coki, together with Loefah and Sgt. Pokes, set up a label and bi-monthly event in Brixton named after their shared production moniker DMZ. The dances started out as honest and organic gatherings where descriptive and confining genres weren’t adamantly advertised on the flyer, but rather the names of the people who were there to help attendees discover a new sound. “Come meditate on bass weight” embodied the event’s maxim and the directive for the DJs playing the night was, and still is, to come down and play what they like. That’s what co-founder Mark Lawrence, known as Mala, has been doing faithfully ever since: he continues to relay his emotions in musical ways and he creates based upon what he feels.

The first two releases on DMZ, “Twisup” (DMZ001) and “Dubsession” (DMZ002), were brought into existence by Coki and Mala as Digital Mystikz with Loefah. Their third release consisted of Mala’s “Da Wrath Souljahz VIP Mix” with another VIP of “Twisup” by Loefah on the B-side, resulting in the first official solo release Lawrence put out. In the following years Mala carefully built up a back catalogue of immemorial records, both on DMZ  and on his own label Deep Medi Musik as well as a handful of others. And then of course there is a great number of dubplates he has created: tracks pressed on wax in small numbers that probably won’t ever see the light, yet manage to maintain their incredible strength through their scarcity. It’s no exaggeration to state that Mala is accountable for a lion’s share of classics in the 140BPM junction and the rise of the lower frequencies and its musical branches in UK music.  Considering the constant innovative spirits of Mala’s sounds, it’s only fitting that BBC’s Gilles Peterson approached him to collaborate on his Havana Cultura project, an international effort initiated by Peterson to showcase contemporary Cuban music. Lawrence himself has described the album as a challenging experience, the much-anticipated result of which has taken shape as the “Mala in Cuba” album that was released through Brownswood Recordings last week. We had the marked opportunity to speak with Mala on the recording of this album, the thought processes behind it and some of his treasured memories from his past.

Stream: Mala – Cuba Electronic (Brownswood Recordings)

Before you went to Cuba, you knew little about their music and culture and you deliberately kept it that way until you arrived there. To what extent did you want to remain loyal to Gilles Peterson’s “Havana in Cultura” series, was your record a conscious installment in Gilles’ series or somewhat different? “I think it was a little bit different, to be honest with you. I think the original plan for it was it to be an installment but very quickly, once I was in the studio in Cuba, it became very clear that I wouldn’t be making an album in that kind of frame. It’s just not what I do. I really love the albums that Gilles has put out on Havana Cultura. I think they’re great, they really do represent some of the musicians that come up through Cuba. However, I’m from a total different place from that. The way that I see and feel music is pretty abstract and I don’t really feel any guideline other than what I feel when I’m writing. It quickly became a second part of the project because initially we were going to go over there and make one album. Gilles was going to do an album with musicians and then I was going to do an album as well, so one album became two and the two are very different.”

You’ve always used samples in your own music. How was it to not be limited to existing samples, but instead to actually be inserted into a context where everything that surrounds you can be used and even manipulated for the cause of your own music; to actually be there, and see the music being created in front of you? “Roberto Fonseca and his band are phenomenal musicians. Basically, what happened was that on the morning we were going to record.. We really had no idea what we were going to do when we got to there so Roberto and Gilles were like, why don’t we play Mala some traditional Cuban rhythms? Then from that I could understand something about Cuban music. I asked them to play the rhythms at the tempo I like to write music at and we just went from there. As you say, really seeing them create these grooves at the tempo that I like just in front of me, as I was hearing it straightaway I was really getting these vibes and ideas of how I’d like to work with certain grooves. Or I might just hear the congas playing – I couldn’t wait to be able to use the congas! It was really, really exciting. I never worked in this capacity before so for me it was just a totally new experience. In the past I’ve worked heavily with using samples but not so much with drum grooves and such. I used to program all my drums myself and I worked with samples as well as a lot of my own composition of melodies and stuff. But here I was going to Cuba,  recording my own sample library. I came home with fifty gigabytes of music played  for me by amazing musicians, it was a very lucky situation to find myself in. I really give credit to the musicians because they were very open and giving, and they would try and do anything that you asked them to do. It was really nice.” When you came home with all this music and started composing songs, did you treat these parts any differently than you have in the past where you worked with inspiring samples taken from other records? “Not in a technical way. Maybe actually listening to them felt different because I’d already experienced them happening in front of me. It’s almost as if I wanted to treat them better than I would with just a sample that you get off some CD pack. I don’t know, I’ve sampled a lot of stuff off old records. You take a drum from this record and then that from somewhere else, but I don’t think it was too different. I think it was different in the sense that it was all live with acoustic instruments, all unprocessed. Nothing had been compressed. There was a slight re-cue that we had done on the desk when it was being recorded because everything was recorded onto tape, but the real underlayer of the whole album is live musicians playing. Whether or not the actual finished track sounds like that is in a way irrelevant because the whole process for me was about layering. Constant layers and layers and layers of vibes, and the essence of each track was the Cuban musicians playing. I basically built on top of that.”

You’ve used vocal samples in the past but this time you got to work with singers on the spot which I imagine must’ve been very exciting. Could you speak a little bit about the track you with Danay Suarez?  How did that collaboration come about? “Of course. François Renié from Havana Cultura took me to a club in Havana called The Tunnel and on the way home from there he was playing this hip-hop track in the car. All I could remember on this hip-hop track were the hi-hats patterns and soon as I got back to the hotel I thought to myself, “I gotta remember the hi-hat pattern” and I tried to remember and recreate it. I built a beat based on this hi-hat pattern and then I took it to the studio the next day to work on it some more. Danay walked in the studio and she was like “I need that beat”. I gave it to her and the next night she came to the studio and she had written a song for it. We recorded it there and then. She recorded over the demo track and it was one of those ones that kind of just came about, really. It was meant to be. However, what you hear now isn’t what it sounded like when she sung on it at all. Nothing like it! It was crazy because I had a synthesizer part going on in the track, it sounded like (sings). Haha, yeah anyway – it doesn’t matter whether I sing it or not because it doesn’t sound like anything what you just heard. I actually detuned this synthesizer, so when she went to sing in key she actually sung in a detuned key to match the synthesizer. I went home with all the parts and I started trying to build this track and every time I wanted to play something on it like a bassline or a chord or some melodies to go with it, nothing would fit. You could only get one note and say something else because you’d be like “Hang on a second!” It took me ages to discover what was going on.

At the beginning of this year I lost a bit of my objectivity, I made so much music for it. I invited a guy named Simbad to come to work on the album with me and we finished it together. The rest of the album had been mixed and we knew that this track with Danay was the last one that we would finish because it was an absolute nightmare to work with. But because of what she’s singing and what she’s talking about and how she sounds we really wanted to have this on the album. She sounds amazing. I can’t tell you how many different studio sessions I spent working on that track. There was this one particular session where I was on it for about four hours and we were both looking at eachother, going like “What is going on? This is impossible!” Haha, because you know, we didn’t even change the drum structure. You start changing the hi-hats and the snares to see if it’s the beat that’s dead so you got to change the beat and just make a whole new track. And thank God that Simbad is a classically trained musician. He understands music in that capacity whereas I don’t. And it wasn’t until he’d been working on it as well for several hours and he goes: “Everything is out of tune!” It was basically impossible because when you would listen to it,  nothing was out of tune because it was all in the same tune but it was actually detuned. We basically had to then detune all the synthesizers and replay everything. Everything we wanted to play had to be detuned to meet her voice. We didn’t want to tune her voice to an actual key, because once you start messing with vocals that way that isn’t the one.  We wanted to keep her voice as natural and pure as possible. Nothing like that auto tune nonsense, haha. It was an actual nightmare to finish it!”

Stream: Como Como feat. Dreiser & Sexto Sentido (Brownswood Recordings)

There is another track on the album that has these beautiful vocals on it – “Como Como” featuring Dreiser & Sexto Sentido. These vocals are recurring over the “Havana In Cultura” series. Can you tell us a little bit about your take on it? “I didn’t even hear the other versions! I didn’t hear the finished album of Gilles until it was out in the shops and I’d already had my track, it was already there. It was only until I played the track to Simbad, who had produced and mixed down the album of Gilles as well, when he told me he had the rest of the parts of it. These were the female vocals so we added them in later on. I had three parts of this track originally and they all sounded very different. It was that real lazy kind of groove that I felt within the song, the vocals for me really carried it through. They’re so strong. Again, it’s a bit of an abstract process for me.” Another track that really stands out to me in particular is “Curfew”. It starts off idyllic, sounding like something people will recognize as Latin music but it swiftly shifts into a more alarming state. “I remember writing this one while I was in Cuba and I guess that in my mind I wanted to do something which was almost like them rolling into me, because that’s how I felt about the project. They were giving me so much music and I wanted to transform and manipulate what they’d given me into meeting my world so to speak. I think that track probably represents that in a way where it starts off with a traditional Cuban vibe, that night time Cuba. Everything is kind of nice and you can feel the sunshine. It switches, it gets a little bit dread and it’s a little bit more serious: I guess that is the curfew. Your time was done, that was it. You had the short bit at the front and it changes. It’s not really an experience I had in Cuba in a physical way that represents that track as such. I think it was more like me wanting to go from their vibe onto mine.”

Stream: Mala – Curfew (Brownswood Recordings)

While you were in Cuba, you were isolated from the world that you knew but surrounded by a complete new culture. Was being cut-off from the world that you usually know while making music particularly  inspiring or overwhelming, or a little bit of both? “Yeah, it was kind of all of those things really. I think whenever you’re isolated from what you know, especially in a particular country or a situation, it’s human instinct to start looking for things that you find familiar in unfamiliar territory. Often those things come about in people or certain landmarks. I was very lucky that the people I who was working with, even though I just met them, felt like brothers and sisters to me so it was kind of cool to be away from what I knew. I find it very refreshing and I’m very lucky I’ve traveled many places. I think when you travel and you come out of your zone, you also leave behind quite a lot of baggage. We accumulate when we live in certain environments for a period of time. We become products of our environment to some extent and unless you break out the mold now and then you get stuck in your ways. Going to new countries is a very nice way to expand your mind and to challenge yourself in your own thoughts and beliefs. Going to Cuba definitely did that, as it is when I go to Holland or to America, or to New-Zealand or Japan. It’s a similar thing when one travels. You know, when you go on holiday and get off a plane and for some reason the sky looks bluer and the air smells better, and you just generally think everything is better because you’re going on a holiday? In a mad kind of way I’ve been very lucky to experience life like that for the past seven years or so. Most weeks I get off a plane and I arrive in this new place where I’m just like, “Wow, where is this?” I really feel grateful for these opportunities because I think as a person it keeps me open. Open to new experiences, open to meet new people and to connect with new people. I guess that’s what I mean when I say that in foreign or alien environments we naturally search for things that look or feel familiar. It definitely was overwhelming and it was inspiring, and it was nerve-wrecking and challenging. Yeah, I felt like an alien. I felt inferior to the musicians I was working with but sometimes you have to feel comfortable with being uncomfortable, and that’s part of life.”

How was it to be disconnected from the digital and personal contact with the music you’re familiar with and the people you’re commonly supported byDo you think this isolation enhanced your experience and ideas of an artist? “It wasn’t necessarily a really pleasurable experience. It was challenging. But I think in order to grow and to learn about oneself you have to be put into these challenging situations. That’s pretty much why I took Gilles’ offer to go to Cuba with him. I knew it was something that was going to be completely different to anything I’d done previously. There’s some risks we have to take in life that are necessary for growth and this was one of these risks that I had to take. Regardless of the outcome, I had to go with it because it felt right to go with it. I think it has definitely, definitely done something to me as a producer and as a person. I would love to work with musicians more in the future and that wasn’t something I was never necessarily interested in doing previously. So yeah, it was definitely good to be away from my normal familiar environment.”

Stream: Lee Scratch Perry vs Digital Mystikz – Like The Way You Should (On-U Sound)

This solitude reminds me of DMZ a little, from a different perspective at least. You guys don’t have too much to do with the internet as everything happens physically, in terms of putting out music and playing the tracks out and such. Do you think that disconnection from the internet contributes to a creative atmosphere? “Quite possibly. There’s two sides to everything, isn’t there? I think the internet can be massively inspiring and insightful. But sometimes there’s only so much information you can process in a certain period of time. All the information that is available to us through the internet, there’s no human being in this world that can ever process only a fraction of a percentage of the information that’s out there. (pauses) I’m trying to think what is useful about it other than all this information. Some of the information is pure nonsense and other information could be bonafide truth. A lot of the time we don’t know if it’s either or. In a way, the internet is just another perspective on reality which I think can both enhance and stop creation. It’s about knowing yourself as an individual as to how to strike that balance. We all get consumed by being on the internet. If you hang around it long enough you’ll be on that shit all day. The whole day will be gone and all you’ve done is being online, you know? Battering out e-mails, checking out Facebook, bussing YouTube, then go from YouTube to this and that. The next minute it’s dinner time, haha. You’re like, “Damn, I just had breakfast and I’m still in my pajamas.” It’s like all things in life. You just have to know what’s healthy for you. Some people want to be in their pajamas all day but me, I like to get out and about. ”

Your familiarized audience is used to a certain sound from you. Was it ever challenging to present your experience of Cuban music in a completely different context, did you try to present in a certain way or were you ever worried about mistranslation? “I wasn’t worried about it. I probably was worrying about it while I was making the record: not worrying about what people would think about it but I was worrying about if I would actually be able to finish it. For me when I finish a piece of music and I’m ready to play it to somebody, I’m at ease with it. I’ve got peace with it and that’s why I can share it. I can  only share my music when I’m completely happy with how it’s sounding. In that respect I think we can only do what we do, and we try it to do it to the best of our ability. If the current of my existing audience can’t stand it then that’s going to be something that happens. Obviously, it’s not something I hope or wish that happens but as I say, in the most unselfish way, I write music for myself because it’s about trying to express and trying to translate experiences and emotions and feelings that I have about a particular time in my life. Just because I write music and I have an audience, I never ever expect that the pieces of music that I make will connect with other people. I don’t think like that, I always write music and give thanks that I’ve been able to finish it. If somebody else likes it and connects to it I give thanks for that as well. It’s not something that is a given because you have an X amount of audience and you had this many releases.. It wasn’t something that I worried about to be honest with you. As I said, I was more worried I wouldn’t be able to finish the album!”

Stream: Digital Mystikz – Lean Forward (DMZ012)

You mentioned that your experience in Cuba has had a huge influence on how you think and your general perspective on music. In what way has working there and making music there changed the way you approach music on the whole, if it did at all? “Yeah, I think it will and I think it has. You know the optical illusions that you have and you look at it at first and it’s lots of colours and different shapes and patterns? If you make your eyes go cross-eyed a little bit or if you focus for it long enough all of a sudden you see the image in this illusion. That is what this project was like for me, really. It was just totally random. “ Let’s go Cuba, Mala.. Do you want to go Cuba with me to make an album?” “Okay, I never saw this coming but alright, let’s go!” Even when we were on the plane out there we had no idea who we were going to work with or how we were going to come about making this record. If you just keep with it, stick with it and all of a sudden things become very clear. That was what it was like for me: I stuck with it and regardless of whether it made sense at certain points on the road, I was unphased by that as most of life doesn’t make sense to me. We keep trusting that you end up where you’re supposed to be and somehow we got at the end of it, and I think I’ll always have this experience affect how I approach music in the future. ”

As you say, delving into other cultures and visiting new countries teaches you new things about life  and often helps you to appreciate what is already known to you more. What would you say is is London’s strength after you’ve seen so much of the rest of the world? “Looking at how things have developed in this music that they call dubstep now.. when you see how that word and that style of music has gone from being in a small place, in a few underground clubs in London, to transformed artists who can now sell out stadiums. For me, London is a place when growing up, it was always a challenge. My parents worked very hard for what we had so I always see it that you have to work very hard in London. Nothing came for free. And because England is an island, I always felt like I wanted to get out. I felt trapped, so to speak. When you feel trapped and you feel like your environment is difficult, somehow I channeled all that energy into making music. I think many people did that. When you’re growing up, you know what it’s like.. in Amsterdam, you have a little bit of water and canals and all that, but where we were at you didn’t see no water. You’d have to go down to the great, dirty Thames river or go down to Brighton which was the closest coast. Everything was gray: the sky was gray because the weather is shit most of the time. The concrete and the floor is gray, the buildings look gray.  I think about London and the music that we developed, and by we I mean a handful of people: from Kode9 to Skream, to Chef to Plastician to Benga to Coki and Loefah and the rest of them guys. When I look back at it, this music could’ve only really started off in London. With the history that London has, with jungle music and soundsystem music from when the Jamaicans came over to England in the ‘50s and the ‘60s. London has that Caribbean influence and culture. The words United Kingdom, the country is what it is for whatever reason.

There’s a lot of opportunity in London as well. If you want to make something of yourself, you can do that in London. London’s got these types of opportunities for people. Especially in terms of the music scenes and all that,  there is so much that has come out of the UK over the past couple of decades so for me going around the world it makes me realize and appreciate London from that respect. It almost made me rebel against its system, to find and experience something that is more colourful. It’s interesting, I could probably talk about this for a while, because London is also very colourful: it’s a very multicultural place. I’m mixed-race. My dad is Jamaican and my mom is English and I was never subjected to any type of racism as a kid when I was growing up. In my area you would have African people as well as Caribbean people, Asian people and Eastern European people. There was a whole heap of different folks where I grew up, you never really saw colour, creed or nationality as an issue. They were your friends from  whatever country and that was cool, you didn’t really batter an eyelid. It’s not like that everywhere in the world. I don’t know, there’s many good things about London. I could probably talk about it over and over and over, really! I’m sure there’s many more things why London is great but those are the ones that just come to mind.”

Stream: Digital Mystikz – Livin’ Different (DMZ017)

This might be a somewhat complex question to answer as your music is very personal to you but I was wondering which one of the tracks that you released before this record came out is dearest to you, and why? “Interesting.. I’m not sure. I’m not even sure if I like my music like that, if that makes sense? “Livin’ Different” is a track that comes to mind. When I’m making music in the studio, a track comes about by me seeing colours, shapes and patterns and certain textures in thin air, basically. I see it but I don’t see it, it’s not there physically but it’s there in the mind’s eye so to speak. When I start using one sound, that one particular sound will make me pick out the one that comes after and so on.  When I make music, that’s not really me making music – the music is almost writing itself. When it gets to the point where a piece of music is finished, that’s generally when you can’t really add no more to it. When you’re a painter for example, you start out with a white piece of paper, there’s only so much paint and colour you can put on the page before it becomes a mess. When it’s finished even then I sometimes don’t really understand what the track is or what it’s about. It’s often that once you share that piece of music with people, that’s when it starts really living. Then it really doesn’t got anything to do with me anymore. That’s got to do with the listener and how they perceive it, how they share it and pass it on and what they say about it. It’s a very difficult to answer, to be honest.

“Neverland” for example, I made that track on Valentine’s Day back in 2004. I remember when my good friend Steph, she’s one of my closest friends, she popped over to the studio that night and I don’t think any of us got any Valentine’s cards that day. Not that we were depressed or nothing like that. I was just in my studio as I always was. In the car, as I was dropping her home. My studio used to be at Pokes’ house years and years ago and Pokes was out with his girlfriend at the time, anyway. My friend had a mad night.. there was a bus crash that happened that night. She was going to get on that bus but she didn’t, she missed it so she had to jump in a taxi. The taxi went past the bus and the bus had turned over, that was the bus that she should’ve been on. Yeah, so it’s strange like that and it’s not that it necessarily relates to the track “Neverland” but I can totally remember that moment and that day when I made it. Again, I wrote it in one nightly session in the studio and that track was done. It wasn’t until ages afterwards that I started sharing it with people and then it takes a certain life. I don’t know, once I make them I don’t really listen to them other than playing them out because most of what I need from it is the process of the doing it.”

Stream: Mala – Neverland (DMZ005)

Is it any different with your new record? The older tracks you made, though people listen to them anywhere, were best brought out in a space with a proper sound system. There runs a different atmosphere through this record, is it meant to be played out? “In terms of its design, sonically, it’s still soundsystem music. If you’re listening to stuff I made in 2004 or 2005 – I’m a thirty two year old man now! I’m not in my mid-twenties anymore so I’ve got a different energy. Actually, the more music that I write the less is like that. I never thought the music I made was dance music anyway but somehow someone decided to start dancing to it, haha. It was crazy to see that happen. Definitely, as I’m getting older I feel like the music that I’m writing seems to be more for listening to it rather than playing it out in a club and raving to it in that capacity. I definitely think that this album is like that. A lot more people who wouldn’t particularly connect with my music, people that are maybe twice my age said “I really love the album, I put it on at home and it’s really relaxing.” It’s kind of strange that it’s connecting different people. I think the fact that the record has some Cuban vibe in there, it maybe sounds familiar to people. The piano or something, it draws people in in a different way. It wasn’t intentional but it’s definitely how it has came out.”

What are your plans for your other projects, such as Deep Medi and DMZ, in the coming year? Is there anything that you can tell us about? “We’ve mastered the next DMZ record which is about to be released at some point but I’m not going to tell anyone what it is yet! I’m going to release something too and there’s going to be a Deep Medi as well. I think it’s nice to surprise everybody at once. I’m doing something with Deep Medi. There’s a lot of stuff going on with the label. We’ve got Swindle’s release and another record, Quest, Silkie, Commodo, Dub Mechanics.. we got a handful of good records that are coming out on Deep Medi this year. We might get one more album out but we’re just deciding whether we’re going to put it out in the next couple of months or if we’re leaving it until the beginning of next year. It’s a really nice album, this album.” And what about System, any new dates for that and how has it been so far? “We’ll be doing another session this November, the thirtieth. That’s the date for the next one. It has been really nice, actually. Again, it’s been another challenge because I had never owned my own sound system before and it puts a whole new angle on putting on a dance. You don’t just turn up with your records and play, you’ve got to bring your sound system and you got to build the sound system up, tune up the sound system so it sounds right and you got to keep your eye on the system all night while you’re playing as you want to keep it sounding right. It’s a whole new science and a  way at looking at playing music to people. It’s been great working with V.I.V.E.K and Googs on this project and I’ve been very lucky. Many people have already asked if we want to take the system on tour so that’s something that we’re thinking of maybe doing next year. We’re also developing a way to present the album to people in a live capacity and we’ll hopefully be working with some of the original musicians on the record, bring them over and perform with them.” How did the idea of a live show come about? And can you give a little bit away or will it be a surprise? “Yes, you’re just going to have to wait, haha! To be honest, I finished the album which was a challenge in itself and I wanted to put it to bed. And Gilles and Simon at Brownswood they told me  “You gotta do this live, you gotta do this live!”, and I was like “No!!!” but somehow.. This whole project has been about trying out new shit so I was like, let’s just give it a go.”

Stream: Mala – Level Nine (Hyperdub)

When was the last time you really danced? “Oh dear, that’s a difficult one. I don’t remember what I did last week, let alone last Summer! Let me think, it would’ve been to some music obviously. I’m trying to think where I went, where I would’ve been where I heard something that made me dance.  Oh, I’ll tell you, I was with my family in France. It was at Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Festival and my son, he just loves music. He really likes roots music. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those people that likes to take their kids to festivals amongst all the mad people! During the day Channel One were playing and there was going to be a conscious vibe with good energy so me and my son and my missus were shooking out to Channel One on the beach. There’s some really great pictures of my son, actually. I must’ve put his finger up in the air when one of the tunes came in and he started doing it back to me, it was great, haha! That Channel One sound, yeah. ”

Soraya Brouwer

LONDON VIA AMSTERDAM - Soundcloud & Instagram

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