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Mala: 'I remember coming back from my nan’s house and tuning into pirate radio stations'

One-half of dubstep progenitors Digital Mystikz, Mala is a bass-heavyweight with an exhaustive, world-spanning record collection. We find out what's in store for Soundwave 2016

One half of pioneering dubstep duo Digital Mystikz, producer, DJ, and label owner Mala is a bastion of London’s bass-culture. Mark Lawrence stuck it out through dubstep’s early days, pumping out wobbly anthems alongside fellow UK artists like Coki, Caspa and Benga – often credited with bringing dubstep to the fore of popular dance music. So, you could forgive a little arrogance on his part (by this logic, he’s partially responsible for Skrillex) but Mala is as modest as they come. And he doesn’t have much time to bask in the limelight. While working on his own material (he’s just released his latest record Mirrors), he runs two record labels and hosts regular, rapturously received London club nights.

The world first met Mala in the early noughties as one half of Digital Mystikz, the production duo whose intoxicating sound caught the imagination of party-goers and revered DJs alike (Radio 1’s John Peel was one of their earliest champions). DMZ – their label and bimonthly Brixton club night – came a few years later. Soon, he set up Deep Medi Musik, his own, determinedly international and independently-minded label.

Ahead of his intense summer schedule, we spoke to Mala about dubplates, why he won’t put a label on his music, and what we can expect from him at Soundwave 2016.

What was your first introduction to music, and when did you start spinning tunes?

I discovered music when I got a hi-fi player for Christmas in 1992. I remember coming back from my nan’s house and tuning into pirate radio stations – that’s how I came across hard-core jungle, and that led to my fascination with music and I really wanted to get involved. I’d write lyrics and MC with my friends, and that turned into buying a turntable and records, which progressed into DJing, which progressed into buying software and making music – so it’s something I’ve done since before I was a teenager.

What led you specifically to dubstep? Pretty unique choice, back then…

It was always something I did for my own pleasure – but then, me, Coki and Pokes had reputations as MCs back in the day, because we’d play at house parties and under 18 club nights. I didn’t foresee this success, but it was always something I felt really passionate about – it was never about other people, it was about indulging myself and my imagination in the studio.

In the past you’ve resisted stamping a dubstep label on your music – do you stand by that?  

Other people can label my music as anything they want. But I personally don’t refer to myself as a dubstep producer – because I don’t want to limit my capacity to imagine; when we tell ourselves things, true or false, we can very quickly convince ourselves of them, and having pre-conceived concepts or ideas in the studio can be damaging.

So I don’t say it because I want to disassociate myself with dubstep – I love dubstep, and I actually feel privileged that people say what they say about me. 

You’re in charge of two record labels – what do you look for in a musician? What really makes you want to work with someone?

It’s always the music. The music will speak for itself. All I know is that when I hear it, it always feels how all the other music I signed has felt. It’s not to do with an emotional reaction or its technical level – it’s just a pure feeling I have inside me that tells me a piece of music needs to be heard. I never have to road test a record and see how people respond – I know instantly if I’m going to release a record or not.

So, no regrets?

Definitely not. No way. That’s the beautiful thing about having my own label: I have the freedom to take risks and challenge my audience. For instance, I put out some stuff by Old Apparatus, and I’m sure that was challenging for the core Medi audience – people probably wondered what I was doing. But I guess I feel a sense of duty, to explore and create a challenging environment for people that listen to music.

Your Mala in Cuba album saw you travel to Havana to record. Was it as much fun as it sounds?

Yes. I got a call from Giles Peterson out of the blue asking to meet, so we met at a pub in east London – over a pint of Guinness he told me about this crazy idea: he wanted to take a handful of producers (although it ended up just being me) to Cuba to record.

I’d never recorded for other labels, so I had to sleep on it. But it was Giles Peterson, and it was an opportunity I couldn’t ignore. Giles is an incredible guy – that enthusiasm, passion and ear he has for music. And Cuba is an amazing place to experience.

And your follow-up album is centred around travelling and being on the road…

Mirrors [released earlier this month] is inspired by Peru – I travelled around Lima, Cusco and the Sacred Valley. The local music – the folk, the percussionists, the Andean singers – is amazing; it’s all about rhythm, and I related to it instantly.

You’re playing Soundwave this summer… Are you a festival or a club kind of guy?

It all depends on the sound systems at the festivals – in a club you can get away with a lot more. I’ve always tried to champion good sound systems.

But I don’t have a festival bag and a club bag: I play what I play. I love playing a mix to festival crowds: there’s old stuff that most of them will know, and new stuff that none of them will have heard.

Which artists should be on our radar at Soundwave?

I saw Craig Charles at Womad festival and he played a really great, really mixed set, so watching him will be good fun. These festivals never fail to give me the same thrill they did when I was 16.

What does Mala bring to the festival?

Heavy dubplates, exclusive dubplates – people know what to expect. I want to turn it up and get down to some real low end energy.

 

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