|Mala: Deep Meditation
As the boss of Deep Medi Musik and co-founder of DMZ, Mark Lawrence is one of the most respected men in the dubstep scene. In advance of his appearance at the Off Centre festival in Amsterdam, RA calls him up to chat 808s, dubplates and soundclashes.
Speak to anyone with an interest in dubstep about their favourite producers, and it's likely that work of Mark Lawrence, AKA Mala, will eventually get mentioned. It wasn't always this way. As with most of the other producers sculpting the sound in its early years, his story begins in the London borough of Croydon, where he visited the now defunct Big Apple record shop to get his musical fix and get the lowdown on developments from scene godfather and store clerk DJ Hatcha.
His passion was a full-time gig. Lawrence was employed as a youth worker, getting kids into music production by day, and burning the candle in his own studio by night, cranking out the tunes that were to announce his presence on the scene in a big way throughout 2004. Following on from the first Digital Mystikz release via Big Apple's in-house label, Mala, Coki and Loefah launched their DMZ record label, with John Peel even picking up on their "B" track on his Radio 1 show, and his listeners giving it enough votes to slip into the year's Festive Fifty at #31. Rephlex were also listening with a keen ear, choosing to showcase the work of all three producers on the second of their Grime compilations. It was at the launch party for the release that Mala made his first ever DJ appearance. His ethic for that show is something that has informed his entire career: Mala cut a full box of his own dubplates especially for the night.
As the label progressed, the trio started to develop their own distinct sounds—Loefah with his minimalist halfstep, Coki's wild mid-range oscillations and Mala's deeper, dread-infused rollers. But while each has undeniably stamped their own individual mark on the dubstep psyche, it's Lawrence who has enjoyed the most crossover success due to his both his consistency and versatility within his own musical sphere.
Lately, the trio's DMZ club night celebrated its fifth birthday with a jam-packed line-up at their spiritual home of Mass in Brixton, and he's also been keeping busy with his Deep Medi Musik imprint, notching up ten singles and a full-length from fellow London producer Silkie throughout 2009. Mala himself is known for a relatively limited amount of releases under his own name, but he'll soon drop another release, Return II Space, on DMZ. He's decided to limit it to vinyl, but it's a rare chance to take home some of the tracks which have long been highlights of his live sets. We caught up recently with Lawrence to talk about his thoughts on unreleased material, the music business and more.
You've been doing quite a bit for Red Bull Music Academy over the last few years. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved with them?
I first got involved with Red Bull in 2007, and I was asked to go and kind of like a talk/lecture/interview, with them in Austria, and ever since then I've done a few more talks and lectures for them. Then in 2008, I did the main Red Bull Music Academy in Barcelona, and this year I was lucky enough to be asked to be involved in the studio.
It was a real privilege to be involved with Red Bull Music Academy, just because of the sheer work ethic and the amount of different people from different places of the world that come together and get creative. It's quite a unique experience for anybody; not just for the people that come as participants. I felt like just as much of a participant as anybody else. It was an amazing two weeks.
Did anything rub off on you from your time in the studio? Maybe some of the equipment they had, or an experience working with someone else?
I really enjoyed using the Roland 808. For me, coming from a Nintendo generation mentality, using a piece of hardware like that is just a totally different approach and a totally different mindset to making and creating sounds. For me, it's just like having a new toy—doing things that I know but in a completely different way. It was really good fun, and just the sound that it has... Everyone knows the 808 sound and many people have sampled the drum sounds from it, buy [sample] packs of it. Nothing's like the real thing.
You and the DMZ crew also took part in their Culture Clash event this year. Obviously you're a big fan of the sound system culture that stems from dub and reggae, but have you ever done anything like this before?
We didn't actually know that it was a clash until about a week before, to be honest with you. We obviously got booked—myself and Coki—and we knew that Goldie had been booked, and we knew that Jazzie B had been booked, and we knew that Trojan had been booked, and it was being billed as a soundclash, but we really thought that it was just the way that it was being billed, because they had four different sounds playing on the same line-up. Then we got an e-mail through saying, "Right, these are the rules of the clash. Round one: you're going to be judged on this, this, this and that; round two it's going to be this; round three, round four... The elimination round is going to be this round, there's going to be a decibel meter recording crowd level response, there's a judge here..." So yeah, it was just mental!
I heard the recordings of the night on the RBMA site. It sounded like Metalheadz would've won by the loudness of their boos at the end, if they were going off the decibel meter.
Obviously the ref's decision is final. I'm happy with the decision. It wasn't about winning or losing for me. It was about being there. It was a real honour to be categorised with the likes of Soul II Soul, Metalheadz and Trojan because these are all to some extent household, established sounds in their own right, and you've got little DMZ which is around for the best part of this decade or whatever... Yeah, it was quite something.
We went in there with the mindset of, "We're just gonna play strictly Digital Mystikz tunes," and that's what we did. Apart from round three, which was the round where we had to play sounds from the other styles, so I played a couple of jungle records, and a couple of recent reggae things, but other than that, everything we played was made by us.
You've done a lot of records that have yet to surface apart from in your sets and a few other select people's. Are they kept unreleased just so that you've got something special for your own performances, or is there another reason why you hold so many tracks back?
I have different principles as far as what I do. I just love the live feeling. I love playing music live, I love that connection with humans, I love people being in a room together being energised and giving and taking energy—that flow and that circulation of energy and vibes, for me, is a special thing. I think that with technology nowadays we're in such a position where people will maybe not be inclined to go out if they can have everything at the click of a button, so for me, it's just my way of just trying to connect with people in the real world.
I'm not trying to harp on about "this is the way it should be done, cut dubplates, da da da da da..." This isn't trying to be an ambassador for anybody. This is just how it works for me, and I guess how I'm trying to keep my sanity, and connect the way that people have always connected, because I think that technology seems to be taking people away from people.
"I don't really like business—I like music."
I was chatting with some of the guys that did Fabric's Elevator Music mix about the erosion of dubplate culture over the past couple of years by new digital DJing software. Even Loefah is using Serato now, right?
Yeah, he is. Serato really works for him, and you can't knock anybody who's... I mean, technology is technology, innit? Some people are going to pick it up, and it's going to work for them, but some people are going to try it and it's not for them, and you've always got to go with what you feel comfortable with. For me, when I listen to music at home, I play it on my record player.
Most of the DMZ records are now quite difficult to find without paying a hefty price. Are the lacquers lost, or is there any other reason why you don't do many more represses when there's obviously such demand for them?
Nothing's lost, but for me personally, it doesn't feel right to keep repressing things that existed in a certain time and space, and have a certain energy that is relevant to a certain period of time, even though they're still relevant now, to some extent, in some people's lives. It's not like a thought out or a devised plan to not press records, and it was never a... This whole thing, this whole development, has never been planned. It's just the way that we've felt most comfortable in doing things.
Going back to the soundclash, it's not like me and Coki were going, "What are we going to do? We're going to play this, this and that." It was just like five-a-side football. We knew who our team was, we turned up with what we had on the day, and you go on for 20 minutes and then come off, then you had a chat and said, "So the next round is... how shall we handle it?" We did it live, there and then, you know? And it's the same with the DMZ record label, the same with the dance.
These things that we've done, they're not thought out and planned—they're experiments. We are just experimenting in the moment and making as it happens, and I guess it's been a benefit for us in a way, because it's led to where we are now. I'm not trying to romanticise vinyl, but at the same time, I like... I don't that think everything should be available all the time just because it can be. Just doing something for the sake of doing it isn't doing it to do it, in my opinion.
It seems like DMZ have quite an anti-hype ethos, what with the minimal amount of promotion that you do, and even going as far as to stop the tracklist for your forthcoming triple-pack surfacing on the internet. Would you rather fans just find out about any new releases when they hit the shops?
It's only my opinion, and obviously it's one way of looking at it and my way isn't gospel—nor is anybody else's way. For me personally, I actually feel quite uncomfortable with selling my music. Something's never quite sat right with that whole thing, so when we first started making records, it was at a time when there wasn't this genre to the extent of what it is now. You couldn't go into a record shop back in 2003/4, even 2005, and say the word "dubstep" and people would know exactly what it was. Now you can go into pretty much anywhere and you mention the word, and some people might have heard it, whether that'll be the more underground stuff, or the commercially successful names.
We started pressing records at a time where it was difficult to sell records, especially with this genre and not having a scene or a name of such, but for me it always felt OK because I would go round the record shops myself and I would sell the records. It wasn't like giving it to... For the first year or two we didn't actually use a distributor to distribute our records. I actually used to do that myself, and doing that, I believe there was no misunderstanding or misrepresentation of where the music was coming from, and for me that has always been an important thing, because I do believe that unfortunately throughout time there has always been an abuse of media.
For example, if a certain record label have a certain record coming out at a certain time, and they scratch backs of certain people at certain radio stations, then there's a probability that that record is gonna to get played. Some people might say that that's business, and that's fair enough. I don't really like business—I like music. For me, trying to get on this whole hype thing, for me that's like propaganda, and I'm not trying to deal with propaganda. I'm not trying to make people believe anything. I'm not trying to make people believe that this is a record that they need to buy, or that this is a record that they should hear. This is really just me expressing what it is I am or what I do, and the fact that people can connect with it and may go out and buy it and own it for themselves to listen to in their kind of comfort, I still to this day don't take it for granted.
It kind of still shocks me the messages that people send me on MySpace, or what people might say to me in the dance. I feel very grateful for people buying my records, and I don't feel like I need to shove it down people's throats or make sure that the whole world knows about it, because in a mad kind of way, it's not that important.
What are your plans for Deep Medi this year?
Five Deep Medi essentials
Kromestar – Surgery
This heavy minimalistic roller from the B-side of Deep Medi Musik's inaugural release made sure that things kicked off with a bang; its bleeps and bass working perfectly in unison to cause some serious damage in the dance.
Mala – Changes
Mala's own debut on the imprint was always going to be a special record, but few expected such a majestically deep pair of tracks from the label head. Both are essential, but the tribal beats, affected choral melody and meaty sub-bass of "Changes" is the one that has enjoyed the most DJ play over the past few years.
Quest – Stand
Out of the new breed of producers coming through on Deep Medi, few have impressed more than Anti Social Entertainment man Quest. The rousing dubwise melancholy of "Stand" shows that dubstep can be delicately deep and still work in the club.
Silkie – The Horizon
Silkie is another member of the Anti Social crew, and while most of his productions are packed with colourful melodic flourishes, this particular track focuses on pure halfstep power, offering an irresistibly grinding groove before floating chords take it to the next level.
Mark Pritchard – Heavy As Stone
While the lumbering beats of flipside "Elephant Dub" may get the subwoofers working a little more, this ex-Global Communication member's hybrid of dubstep, broken beat and jazz is a real aural treat—whether you're out at the club or in the comfort of your own home.
Quest has got releases coming this year, a guy who I signed last year called VIVEK is making a whole heap of stuff, Mizz Beats is writing stuff, quite a lot of the Anti Social guys like Silkie—he's getting an album out. His second album is done, so that'll be out at some point this year. We've got obviously Goth Trad from Japan—I just think that he's got a totally different take on everything, and I'm always really excited about what he's doing. Yeah, I think this year for Medi is about more music, not necessarily stuff at 140, but the artists have been experimenting with a lot of different tempos.
You've been doing some stuff at different tempos as well, I take it?
Yeah, I always write stuff at different tempos anyway. What people hear is the stuff that I normally play, which is all at around 140, but I actually have lots of stuff from over the years that's definitely a lot slower—around 114, stuff at 130—kind of like a broken dub house kind of sound. I was doing this at the same time that I started writing 140 stuff. Both of those tempos—114 and 140—in around 2001/2, when I started writing music in the way that I do now, they just sounded really natural to me, so I've always bounced about between them.
You've also been getting involved with Tate Britain recently. You composed a tune that was inspired by one of Chris Ofili's paintings. You picked quite a dark one compared to most of his work.
Yeah, his stuff is quite bright and colourful and out there, and what I liked about this piece is that you have to pay close attention to it because there's a lot going on beneath the surface. I kind of like the fact that it's all blue that's been used. I like that... I like that minimal shit. It's there, but it's not there if you haven't got time for it. When you give it time, you see it for what it is.
Someone actually said that the way I make music is similar to that, in the sense that my stuff is generally—I think—quite minimal, it's not necessarily got massive build-ups and lots of different colours, but it's a bit subtle, you know? So I felt like I'd kind of connected with his painting is quite a lot of different ways.
The painting was called "Strangers from Paradise," so obviously I called my track the same thing, and then last weekend I went to Tate Britain to play the dubplate which I'd got made of it, and do talks just about the piece of music and why I chose the painting. What happened was when I was asked to do it, it was around the time of the earthquakes in Haiti, so what I decided then was that I'd make this tune, and Chris would then hand-paint artwork for the music, so he's made the sleeve, and that one-off piece of art and music would be auctioned, and the money would go to Haiti. It's amazing to be in a position where I'm able to make some sort of a difference, and hopefully it'll be able to help someone, you know?
In the last five years you've gone from small-time production to being one of the international icons of the dubstep scene. Do you feel pressured at all by that situation? Would you say that it has affected your music making process at all?
It's more difficult for me now to write than it was then, and that's obviously because people's opinion affects how one perceives themselves. That definitely has happened at certain stages of my music being out there. Also, I think that because from experience we start to accumulate knowledge, and I think that there are benefits in gaining knowledge, and I think there is also a downside, which kind of goes unspoken because we all think knowledge is great and we should all get as much knowledge as possible. I don't want to sit there analysing my snare for four hours. "Is the right frequency coming through, and is it compressed, and is it this, and is it this?" I don't want to listen to music as a scientist, stripping it down and listening to every millisecond of sound and every frequency coming out.
When you make music and when you experience the making of music, you acquire these things as you start understanding that adding a bit of compression here or a bit of reverb there can actually enhance the listening experience. There's this very fine line between science and nature. I think, if anything, it's these things that have affected me more when writing music rather than say, reading what somebody has wrote about you, whether that be positive or negative.
What strikes me about your sound is that it's quite minimalist as far as having not many elements in the track, but you manage to create such a full and all-encompassing sound. How exactly go you go about deciding when a tune is finished?
I don't mean to sound too cryptic or anything, but to me, the whole music writing process is a crazy one, because still to this day I feel like a newcomer. For me, I almost use the music to dictate and speak to me about what it needs and what it doesn't need, and by observing and paying close attention to what it actually is—the piece of music or the vibe—it'll tell me that it's finished.
I don't mean that it talks words in my ears. I'm trying to put it in terms that we can understand on an intellectual level, because it's too abstract to put into words. It's an abstract thing—the communication between myself and whatever is being channelled through me to create sound. I don't understand it—I just feel it and I create based upon what I feel, and when I say feel I mean thoughts and emotion.
Words / Richard CarnesPublished / Thursday, 15 April 2010
Photo credits / All photography - Ashes 57