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Whether it’s working with Cuban musicians, nurturing exciting new bass talent or holding true to the analogue sound at System, the night he runs with Vivek, there’s a reason DMZ founder Mala is the most respected figure in dubstep
Words: Joe Muggs
The night Mixmag heads to System, the night’s co-founder and figurehead Mala isn’t there. And he’s not the only thing missing. System has no light show, no DJ booth, no CDJs, no second room, no VIP or even a backstage area. It doesn’t have a swanky interior or a hip location: tucked away way up in north London, it could be mistaken for a community centre or working men’s club. There’s no big name DJ hype (the line-up isn’t announced beforehand), no queues snaking round the block, no hipster fashion parade; no-one is tweeting in the middle of the dancefloor or taking pictures of each other, and there’s no gaggle of people networking at the bar.
It does, though, have two key attractions that render everything else irrelevant. Ask anyone why they’re there and you’ll hear the same two things again and again: “the sound” and “the vibe”. This might sound self-evident – they’re things every club should have – but here, the difference between the average club experience and the real deal becomes clear. There are people here who have driven in packed cars from Manchester, or taken a 10-hour coach trip from Paris or Rotterdam just for this one night, and as soon as you’re in the thick of it, in the middle of the floor at System, you instantly see why.
The soundsystem – all analogue, hand built by Vivek Sharma aka V.I.V.E.K. and carefully tuned by he and Mala for the acoustics of the venue – is like nothing else you’ve heard: never punishing or deafening, but delivering the heaviest of bass music with unbelievable power, warmth and finesse, as though every molecule in your body is being massaged and loosened up. And though the music may get dark, the atmosphere is as friendly as it comes: the air is hot and fragrant, and 400-odd hipsters, hood rats, wide-boys, nerds, pill-monkeys, earnest space cadets, students and even teens are all jumbled together with no one tribe or age group defining the crowd, and not an ounce of attitude anywhere.
It is, says Vivek, because it’s set up out of love. “I built this soundsystem,” he says, “because I’ve played around the world and always felt it wasn’t quite right. I wanted to make the tracks sound how they should sound, and people realise that. They don’t come to hear the latest or most hype tracks, and they don’t come to hear mixing; they come to hear tunes they love sounding different to how they do anywhere else. It’s not about being ‘the new FWD>>’ or ‘the new DMZ’ or anything else, it’s just about giving respect to the music and giving the people what they deserve.” The weekend before System, sitting with Mala in a Paris cafe before a listening party for his new album ‘Mala In Cuba’, he tells a similar story. “When Vivek said he was building a system and asked if I wanted to come in I said ‘course!’ he recalls. “I’d played in this place and that place, and they’re all set up for digital now, but I wanted to have the real thing: an analogue signal all the way from the dubplate to the speakers.” He tells us of long conversations with soundsystem veterans Iration Steppas in Leeds and Mikey Dread of Channel One in Jamaica, of paying respect to elders and earning knowledge, all of which has gone into System, “because it’s worth taking time to build things right.”
That could be Mala’s motto. In his years as a lynch-pin of the dubstep scene (though he’ll never use the word of his own music), he’s worked outside the structures of hype and next-big-things to create legendary music, labels and events and to build many musical careers beyond just his own. The DMZ night in Brixton he built with his Digital Mystikz partner Coki plus Loefah and MC Sergeant Pokes – though now on indefinite hiatus as the crew pinball around the world gigging – has already gone down in clubbing history, as has the label of the same name.
And now, a decade on from the very first Digital Mystikz 12”s, Mala is ready to release ‘Mala In Cuba’ his first album proper (‘Return II Space’ was essentially a vinyl compilation of his biggest dubplates) on Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label, while his own Deep Medi Muzik imprint, having built steadily over six years and 60 plus releases, is going into overdrive.
Mala’s naturally positive demeanour has always been tempered by an intense seriousness, and combined with a wariness of the press and publicity in general, this may have led to him being portrayed as more scholar than party person in the past. But anyone who has ever seen him DJ or run into him at a festival with bottle of rum in hand knows that this is a long way from the full picture, and today there’s no doubting his ebullience. The 32-year-old’s chiselled features are lit up with a constant smile, his long dreads swing as he talks animatedly and he even seems on the verge of bursting out laughing at various points, as though he almost can’t believe the successes and opportunities he and his friends are enjoying. Those friends are never far from his mind, it seems. Whether it’s his old mate Coki (“he makes the hardest, maddest music in this style – I can’t believe people can think I’m only about ‘deep’ or ‘dubby’ tunes when I play his tracks in my sets”), legendary Cuban musicians like pianist Roberto Fonseca, or French co-producer Simbad who he’s been working with in the last year, Mala is always quick to give credit to others, to appreciate their individuality and what he has learned from them. Of the Cuban adventure, he says, “When you hear something that could only have come from Cuba – in fact, could only have come from Roberto Fonseca – it sharpens you up; you realise you can’t think in generalities any more, you have to deal with this one thing for what it is. You can’t go back from that.”
His whole story is couched in terms of mentorship and mutual respect. Among many others, he has long supported Mixmag favourites Quest and Silkie via Deep Medi, providing a stable core for their sprawling Anti Social Entertainment collective and nurturing them as album artists ready to grow in all directions from the dubstep scene (Quest’s forthcoming album will feature rappers, real string sections and more) –and they in turn have taken the younger, even more musically radical, Swindle under their wing, bringing him in to the Anti Social and Deep Medi family. More broadly, it’s a rare British dubstep name who wouldn’t credit appearing at DMZ as a major stepping stone to their success, and the near universal respect for its ethos and family atmosphere is unmatched in clubland.
But Mala doesn’t see himself as an elder statesman, looking in turn to those who’ve been around the block a few more times, whether that’s Gilles Peterson, Mikey Dread or his New York friends, disco/house veteran François K and Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee, for inspiration and support. “People say to me, ‘oh, you’ve done this and this and this, these are your great achievements’ – but I don’t look at it that way,” he says. “I see people twenty, thirty years deep in music, and look to them for what the next step might be. This Cuba thing – I always worked on my own in the studio, never thought in terms of albums, never thought I’d work closely with musicians, but when Gilles asked me in on this project I said yes because it was him and it felt right. And because of that I’m already thinking of the next project and feeling that, yes, maybe the time’s right to start expanding this music with real musicians and with other rhythms and influences.” System clearly shares Mala’s steady-as-she goes approach. Certainly, people may go thirty flavours of brock wild when Vivek drops a dub like Coki’s batshit-mental ‘On Board’ (he pulls it up and gets on the mic to say, “Honestly, I don’t know what goes through Coki’s head,” before dropping the needle at the start again), or when guest Amit finishes his set of trademark half-step d’n’b rhythms with the tear-out jungle classic ‘Babylon’ by Splash. But it’s all ebb and flow: for every furious moment of leaping around, there are lulls in which the crowd blissfully bathes in the long intros or evolving bass tones of deeper tunes – and instead of building towards a peak, the cheerful energy is just the same at 3.30am as it was at midnight. “It’s like low-GI foods,” laughs Vivek; “we’re all about slow release energy that sustains you for longer. This is sweet potato music!”
But make no mistake, this isn’t worthy “deep dubstep” as opposed to the commercial, ravey strains. Mala’s quick to respect the drive and musicianship of a Flux Pavilion or a Rusko, and just as at DMZ there’s a pleasing rowdiness to System’s good vibes, and a raw power to the sound that keeps it from being a haven for chinstrokers. Likewise, though Deep Medi might release super-deep head-nod tracks by Pinch, or floaty-light melodic confections by Finnish band Clouds, there are also darker-than-dark bangers by the likes of Distance, Skream, Tunnidge and Japanese stalwart Goth-Trad. And the ‘Cuba’ album is the antidote to polite world music fusions – it may be rippling with Fonseca’s piano licks and hypnotic percussion, but every track has a fearsome weight that’s designed for System’s sound, not for swanky bars. You can take the boy out of South London...
Around 2am Vivek takes the mic again. “Guess who I’m talking to!” he yells, then holds up his phone so Mala, who’s in the USA, can hear the wild cheers of recognition. This is a different kind of appreciation to the usual DJ adulation; the crowd don’t mind that Mala isn’t there, they’re just happy to be participating in and contributing to the atmosphere that he, Vivek and all their extended network have built. He may be endlessly touring, he may now live in Belgium, but here in the dark, smoky, resonant spaces of London is where Mala’s roots are, and it’s from spaces like this that the endless originality of everything he does has grown. Feeling pretentious as ever, Mixmag texts him to ask if he’s ever heard the quote from the visionary poet and artist William Blake: “I must create a system, or forever be enslav’d by another man’s”. Immediately he replies: “Thanks for sharing... it couldn’t be put any clearer!
‘Mala In Cuba’ is out September 10 on Brownswood