We caught up with the legendary Mala, co-founder of dubstep progenitor DMZ and the superb Deep Medi label, at the listening party for his much-hyped new album, Mala In Cuba. In this extensive interview, Mala talks inspiration, Cuban rap, Gilles Peterson, and culture clash exclusively with Inverted Audio.
How did the concept for the album come about?
Well basically Gilles Peterson had been working on Havana Cultura, a project in Cuba, I think he’d done it the previous 2 years, you can go and check out the Havana culture, listen to the albums they’ve made and stuff, and then, this is in 2010, he was thinking about what projects he wanted to do for 2011, and for some strange reason he decided that he’d ask me to go with him.
Did you have a relationship before?
Only through music, I’d met him on numerous occasions, I’d done a podcast for him, I’d done his BBC Radio 1 show one time, he’d been playing some of my music on his radio shows, I know he’d been down to DMZ a couple of times years ago as well. So you know, we knew each other in that capacity. And then he just asked me if I’d like to come along with him, and we planned to take our first trip in January 2011, and I told him very straightforwardly I knew nothing about Cuba, I knew nothing about Cuban music…I don’t know what he saw, I don’t know why he decided to pick me but I agreed, and January 2011 was our first trip. It was more of an educational trip, me just really getting a sense of Cuba, getting an idea of what the place was like, meeting some of the musicians, hearing some of the music in its environment, but we ended up recording most of the album there on that trip.
Your parts as well?
Not my parts, but what the musicians recorded for me, cus we were working with a guy called Roberto Fonseca and his band, and Gilles and him were having breakfast on the morning when I was supposed to come and meet the band. What they had in mind was that they would record traditional Cuban rhythms for me, then I would take those rhythms home and try to start twisting them up in my style, and that’s when I went home with a hard drive of the music they had recorded for me. All the parts were separate, so Roberto Fonseca was on the piano, I had all of his stems, then I had the drummer, I had all of his stems separate: I had the hi-hats, cymbal, snare drum, kick drum, all as separate parts, and everything was recorded onto tape. Obviously I had the conga player and the contrabass player as well, and then everything was recorded onto tape, studer tape, then it would be slightly EQd on an SSL desk, you know, these types of recording desks that cost the same amount as peoples’ houses. The famous SSL, it’s a famous English company that make mixing desks, and y’know, known for its compressors and its EQs – I’d never been in a recording studio so nice, you know what I mean?
In terms of being in Cuba, how much of the culture itself do you reckon influenced what was made, as well as the music you heard?
It’s interesting because maybe when you listen to the album it’ll make more sense, what I’m gonna say, as much music as I was given, and as much as the musicians gave me musically, I actually feel like I was more inspired by peoples’ spirit and peoples’ energy and what they spoke to me about, and just the general vibration of Cuba itself and just being in Havana. Because I really did strip down the parts that they gave me, and on some tracks I maybe used a total of ten seconds out of a four minute groove. Sometimes I would just use half a bar of a drum loop. Then I would go back and I would find other little parts of the track or keys. So, more than the music I think it was people, my experience with them, what they had to talk about, and you know when you talk to someone who’s Cuban, whose parents are Cuban, whose grandparents are Cuban, you’re not just speaking to them, you’re speaking to their history as well, you know what I’m sayin?
So immersion was important?
For me it always is about feeling, I’m not a musician in that way. I watch Roberto Fonseca play, or listen to what they were playing, and these guys can tell you when something is fractionally out of tune. I’m just used to making beats and bass, a heavy bassline, and, like, really basic keys, you know what I’m sayin, but these guys are coming in with deep chord structures and things like that, and I wanted to come in and have some of that in the project as well. I didn’t want to make a Cuban record, I’m not Cuban, so I couldn’t go in there and try make anything like Buena Vista Social Club, it wouldn’t come off. So when I was questioning myself about the process of what I would be doing, it’s like “what am I gonna do?” Well, I have to be me, I have to do it my way, and at first I was like, I wanna make a Cuban record, because I wanna use all this music the Cubans have given me, but at the same time, I’m not Cuban, I’m half Jamaican, half English, so that’s what it was. I brought my stuff to them, and they gave me something.
And that’s something else I wanted to ask you – when you had this huge amount of amazing recordings, were you looking for something that would suit the palette of what you were used to working with?
Cuban music is all about rhythm, they’ve got hundreds and hundreds of different rhythms, they’ve got like marenge, cha cha cha, salsa, rumba, mambo, loads and loads of rhythms! So when you got the drummer and the percussionist doing those rhythms, that’s me all over! I want something that isn’t just 4/4…
…yeah, cus when you get inside those interesting patterns, when you transfer that interesting pattern onto something that I do, it totally transforms. I was thinking they’re loops, or they’re grooves, probably cutting them at places that aren’t like bar one or finishing at the end of four bars or something, I might be starting at bar three and then finishing somewhere else. So my lack of understanding in a way benefited me, because I was very free just to take what they’d given me,and put it into my own context.
Were they playing at your speed?
I asked them to… 140BPM
Did you find at all that the sound produced was very busy and frenetic? Because a lot of your stuff is very spacious?
On some tracks they would play at a different tempo, because it got too hectic. But with musicians of that calibre, I think they can play at any tempo.
A lot of your stuff that I’ve listened to has been very concerned with space, quite heady and cerebral, and I would imagine that the Cuban stuff was pretty mad in comparison?
Yeah, if you listen to something like ‘Lean Forward’ for example, which is quite heavily percussive; it’s just about getting that balance right, you never really know what it is, but I would just take bits and bits and bits and, you know, music always sort of builds itself in a way. I think it’s a different-sounding record. At the same time, I definitely… People’s feedback so far has been that you can definitely tell it’s me.
Absolutely. I wanted to ask you about when the American guitarist Ry Cooder went to Cuba to record “Buena Vista Social Club…”
…It was all done through interpreters, nobody there spoke English. Cooder had a great quote: “Musicians understand each other through means other than speaking” – how did you find you related to the other musicians?
Same. Roberto Fonseca can speak English, a lot of Cubans there don’t speak great English, but it really doesn’t matter. You know, I’m not gonna go into it too much, cus some people are private… But I had a very interesting conversation, not really with words, with a guy called Silvito, from a Cuban hip hop group called Los Aldeanos. And we played some music to each other, and I played him some music from the album, and another rapper, a guy called Barbaro, who’s like an up-and-coming Cuban rapper, he just won an award out there, for best newcomer, and I was playing them tracks from my Cuban album and straight away they were just spitting on it, spitting on it, spitting on it…
Really? I’d love to hear it!
(Mala takes out his iPhone, finds a video of a Cuban rapper freestyling over his beat…)
His names Barbaro, [we’re] just in someone’s house, jamming. I put on the record for some of the Cubans, I wanted to know what they thought of it. This is Silvito, and these are serious brothers, you hear me. When you check out Los Aldeanos, when you hear what they’re talking about… these guys have got five million hits on Youtube. This is Cuba: staying in your hotel; getting shown around by some tourist guide, it’s all good, but you wanna go outside, you wanna travel and meet the people.
How do you think internet culture has affected the dance scene? Is it good, bad, or maybe just neutral?
Not good or bad, it’s just what is. It’s got benefits because people in places like Venezuela for example… when I went to Venezuela I did a talk there. A couple of years ago I did a lecture and played a show there. And they were saying to me, “please sell your music properly on mp3 because we can’t buy records out here, we can only download illegally from the internet.” So technology has those benefits, where [music] can reach a wider audience. But also technology makes us lazy, because nowadays what we’ll do is cram 10,000 songs on our iphones at mp3 quality. But mp3 quality strips out so much dynamic quality from music compared to a wav. file or a CD. But we don’t think about these things, we just hear the music and it’s fine. But actually what’s it’s doing, slowly, listening to mp3s in the way we do, I think it’s actually affecting people’s ability to hear, over a long period of time, subtly. In 10-20 years time if everyone just listens to mp3s, the whole understanding of dynamic range and sonic depth will change.
But that’s already happened, I read a report about this scientist who played all his students mp3 quality music and then vinyl quality music, and they all preferred the mp3 sound, they felt they understood it better.
Yes, so it’s already happened. I think technology and the internet is all great, but it does come at a cost if you’re not careful, because there are always two sides to any story.
When you were in Cuba, did you find there was any comparison between the way music works to the way dubstep came from south London and it was a community effort?
I’m not sure, I wasn’t there long enough.
You said before that you haven’t really seen the same thing anywhere else apart from south London or Croydon.
That’s true. It’s more to do with the people and their energy and what they talk about. Clubs there are the same, they’ve still got clubs. People go out, have a drink, the guys want to pull the girls. You’ve got those types of clubs there. But you also can go into a little bar and you’ll hear a couple of musicians playing, but in terms of how localised it is, I’m not sure really.
They really seem to have a social club-type atmosphere, even if you compare that to soundsystems in Jamaica. Was there a correlation between those ideas, where the community comes out to play music together?
When I last went to Cuba, a couple of months ago, I was asked to go by the British embassy. They were doing ‘Brittania in Cuba’ for the Queen’s jubilee week. The first time I played in Cuba was the year before, and it was just one of the guys set up a house party for me to play at. Gilles (Peterson) was there as well, actually. We played at this house party, a hundred people in this house all jamming. Now, when I went back this time, everyone was saying “people are coming out to see you, it’s gonna be massive, word on the street is there’s this guy from London who’s playing this sound, ‘dubstep’.” It was in a park, surrounded by streets and buildings, and there must have been about 2500 people there. All ages, from little kids to older people. Things move differently, when not so much comes in there, something gets out and it spreads across the whole city. I don’t know how it moves, but people have more time for themselves there, they don’t have to work seven days a week like we do in London just to put a roof over our heads. Things are done differently there.
In terms of genre, back in the day things like house and techno were much more strict labels, but terms like dubstep and bass music are much vaguer and apply to a broader range of music. What do you think is the direction that the concept of genre is going in? Is it becoming irrelevant?
For me, genre was always irrelevant anyway, I don’t compartmentalise. Obviously I understand that a drum and bass tune isn’t a folk tune, and something that’s jazz-orientated isn’t anything else. But at the end of the day it comes down to – beyond genre, beyond words, beyond the format – it doesn’t really matter if it’s vinyl or mp3 or laptop or CD. Ultimately when we look beyond these things, I ask myself, “what is going on? Do I still feel it? Do I still hear the message?” And ultimately if I can still feel it, the message is still being translated, I couldn’t care less what you wanna call it. I think over the years I’ve militantly ingrained that in myself so I don’t put things in these boxes. At the same time, when I play music and make music, you only hear one style. Maybe that’s a contradiction: I enjoy listening to all music, but when I’m playing my music, this is what style I’m playing. I try not to define it myself. When we started doing this music, that genre wasn’t there. So we didn’t have that to follow, it was inspired by other things that were going on, and this is what’s come about for a handful of different people. To concentrate and confine myself within a genre like dubstep doesn’t make any sense in my mind, because it didn’t exist. It’s just a limitation, you know.
So do you feel that the dubstep label has restricted you?
No, I don’t think so. That can’t restrict you, you restrict yourself and I’m very lucky, I’ve played alongside people like Theo Parrish or Francois K or Maurice Van Oswald – I don’t just play at these dubstep parties where kids with glowsticks run around; or even just where there’s people on a dub thing, I’ve been lucky to be invited to play with many different types of people from many different styles of music. I think to me, that kind of confirms my own perspective of self that I’m not confined to doing just one thing, even though this is what I do.
It’s developed, aside from dubstep developing in lots of different ways, to varying degrees of merit; your own stuff has developed a lot, even up to the point where this record is completely unlike anything that you’ve done before. Do you feel that being immersed in that culture, being around those musicians is going to change the way you work now?
Definitely. You know when you get an optical illusion, and at first it’s just loads of little pictures and you can’t make sense of it, and all of a sudden you just focus and you stay with it and all of a sudden you can see a dolphin. That kind of thing happened to me with this project; I was just making tunes, putting shit together, and thinking “where is this going? Am I doing the musicians justice? Is Gilles going to be happy with it?” Because all of these things I never have to think about before, because I’ve just made music in my own way. But when you get asked to write a piece of music for somebody, and you’re using the music of other musicians as well, all of a sudden there are other factors coming in. You’ve got all these thoughts and you’re just staying with it, and at some point it just clicked and I was just like “Ok. This is the approach; this is how I’ll get this done.” And I don’t think I can ever go back to seeing the way that I used to before; I can always see that dolphin now. Now I’m sure it’s about going and finding something else which I don’t understand and working with that and seeing another approach to that.
That must be such an exciting way of doing it, an amazing way to think about it; you suddenly just get a bigger picture of everything. You hadn’t really thought it out before and do you reckon something to do with that might have been the sense of responsibility to the musicians?
Definitely. It pushed me to places which I’ve purposely avoided going. I’ve never wanted to write an album, I wasn’t interested because it’s just a complete headfuck. It’s a complete mental nightmare. I remember sending Gilles and Simon at Brownswood an email in January this year saying “Look guys, I’m really sorry, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do this.” This album, I just totally had to strip everything down. I had to take everything that I thought I knew about making tunes, and I had to rebuild not just the material that they gave me, but also rebuild myself in a way to come to a new point with a new understanding and a new vision and a new way of doing things. Making music is like creating a maze, you make this maze and you’ve got to almost get yourself out of it. Doing it for one track is fine, but then when you’re making an album’s worth… I made about 25-30 tracks over all (smiles). And most people moan at me because I never put out any music. But I want to give people music that it feels like I’ve been on a journey with, and it feels like these are not just similar tunes, because I’m arriving at a new destination when I’ve gone through all of that. So this was just totally new arrivals, arriving at each new point, and it’s bless because you’re open but at the same time it’s really confusing. It was definitely a huge challenge to finish this project and get out of the maze. Perseverance, you know.
To pick up on something you said before, that doing this album has really changed your process; to hear all that music, and that you want to go out and experiment and adventure again, and try something unknown. So do you think that your experience here will significantly change your future output?
It has to. There’s no question.
Before we go, can you name a few Cuban recording artists that you can recommend?
Listen to Roberto Fonseca, listen to Danay Suarez, and listen to Los Aldeanos…Danay SuarezMalaRoberto FonsecaBrownswood RecordingsDMZSeptember 2012BassCubanDubstep