"...roots are always underground."

When dubstep was celebrating it’s embryonic stages in a claustrophobic cellar in the English capital somewhere, no one would have expected a zeitgeist like this. Not even low frequency master, Mala, who along with the likes of Kode9, Skream, Zed Bias and a number of other luminaries, have pruned and groomed the genre from it’s inception.

The dubstepping demi-god has since gone on to form one of the most significant labels in Deep Medi as well as being half of seminal duo, Digital Mystikz. And oh how the genre has flourished. Be you a Skrillexian or a devotee to the original sound, it’s fair to say that dubstep is slowly becoming a global phenomenon. So much so, that just over a year ago Gilles Peterson invited Mala himself to Cuba. Being challenged to marry the exotic grooves of Havana with the concrete jungles of South London is no easy task yet, the product of that trip, Mala’s first longplayer ‘Mala In Cuba’ has the potential to be another huge milestone in dubstep’s history. As if he needed any more scores on his musical curriculum vitae.

So when Gilles asked you to go out to Cuba, what were your initial thoughts?

My initial thoughts as with a lot of these things is that it was kind of like ‘how does it feel?’ Just based on my experience of Gilles previously – we have a mutual respect for the music that we’ve been involved in over the years – just from the way that he approached me seemed very genuine and an opportunity that I couldn’t past on.

Can you tell me a bit about your journey there and to the place where you settled down in Havana?

I stayed in two different places in Havana; both of them relatively near the sea. You had the Malecón, which is this long road that runs along the coast and one of the hotels was situated opposite that. Havana is an interesting place; a lot of the vehicles are still there from the fifties and sixties. The same with a lot of the buildings and you can imagine that Havana was once a wealthy and very lively city. Not to say that its not buzzing now, but I think Havana was a place where a lot of people would go to enjoy music and live entertainment. It’s amazing that you have these cars from the fifties that sound like tanks when they’re on the road, but in terms of conservation, a place like Cuba uses their resources really well.

How different is the Cuban lifestyle? Is it much more laid back?

The perception of time is very different from London and people don’t work the way we work in London. People seem to be quite free to enjoy friends and family because they only work two days. Whereas, in London, you’re struggling to get a few hours to link up with your people because you have to work all week. In June, it wasn’t even the peak of the year but even the Cubans were saying it was ridiculously hot.

What was your Abdala studio space was like?

There are two main studios in Havana. One’s called Egrem, which is where a lot of the old classics were recorded and it’s more of a recording space than an actual studio, so to speak. I worked over in Abdala and I’ve never been in such a beautiful studio. The main workstation is where we recorded all the musicians and it had a really beautifully treated live recording room that could fit maybe a whole orchestra or a band with choir easily. We had Roberto Fonseca on the keys in the main space and then there would be these other little rooms so the sounds didn’t bleed. It’s a place where you’d probably have to sell your house to own.

Changuito is another Cuban don or legend. He used to play in bands in the seventies as the timbale player in Cuba. He must be in his sixties, maybe a little older, and he just turned up in the studio in a white Kangol cap turned to the side with a pink shirt on and this chain round his neck, with Raybans and a cast on his arm. His son set up the timbales for him and I started playing him stuff at 140bpm and he was totally up for it. He went into the recording room, practiced for a couple minutes and was ready to record. He banged out some of the most amazing grooves that I've ever heard. It was definitely the percussive elements that I had most fun with because they would become the templates for certain grooves. Sometimes I would sample half a bar or I might just leave the percussion running for 16 unquantized just because it sat so right. It was like having your own personalised Cuban sample library. It ended up being about 50GB.

Mala - Cuba Electronic

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Is there much of a club culture out there and how much does it differ from the Plastic People’s of this world?

There’s a couple of clubs in Havana and I went to one, which was interesting. The music was mainly reggaeton and house, with a little bit of hip-hop but people out there tell me that the promoters aren’t really looking for new stuff to get played in the rave. People themselves would love the opportunity to hear something. When I played at a house party there last year, there were maybe 100 people there and I also got asked to play in a massive pavilion and around 2,000 people turned up.

Gilles described you as a perfectionist, but how did you get around to putting a full stop on the album?

After battling myself for many months, it was one of those things where it got to January of this year and I felt like 75% of the album was done. I looked at some of the stuff and it seemed like some of it needed to be rearranged and in all honesty, I lost objectivity. I’d been in it for so long and stepping back was a blessing because it allowed me to see what I was trying to do. It was challenging. I found that when some people came to the studio and I played them some of the records, the very fact that someone else was listening to it made me listen to it with a different ear.

Was there a conscious effort for the project to be able to sit well in both the clubs and at home?

Already there was an expectation, and usually I try to work expectation-free. I felt like I had to up my game because of what I was working for in terms of how the music came out sonically in different environments. Not that it was consciously an effort to make an album for both places, but I just think that with Cuban music itself and the age I'm at, it came quite naturally. It’s still sound system mentality but I do also feel like it’s one of those ones that you could put on in your headphones or just at home. The music will still translate the same.

Is there now a global space for dubstep?

Yeah, I think all music has that. Frequencies are universal and it’s just down to the people shaping the frequencies to be adventurous and creative. It’s very easy to get complacent and stay in your comfort zone. It was a blessing for me to be forced into an unknown where I'm a bit uncomfortable.

It’s just mad to see that this little form of bass music that formed in the early 2000s has gone on to allow people to sell out stadiums. For me, that is amazing to see because I remember when it was in a small room with no more than 100 people. No one was talking about it and the magazines now talking about it were dissing it. It’s funny how things change, but I don’t get too down about people having all this commercial success or whatever. Its just part of the routine. I’m a roots man, and the roots are always underground.

DMZ was like a playground for people to come and experiment. There was no prejudice, and it wasn’t an exclusive dance even though it was very underground. It was a place that was free for all. There was no VIP area with all of that nonsense segregating people from anybody else. It was a whole community of people, united by sound.

I’m pretty gutted about the fact that I missed the birth of dubstep from a personal perspective. I caught a bit of grime, but wasn’t there at the start of dubstep…

It was an interesting time. How old are you now?

20 years of age.

See, I'm 32 now. I went to FWD for the first time when I was about 21 or 22 and put out my first record for DMZ when I was 23. I remember the energy that you have when you’re that age, it’s almost like you can take on the world. Everybody had that mentality, from Kode9 to Skream. It was a lucky time to be in London if you got to experience some of the moments unfold in front of your eyes, because they lead to what’s happening now.

Mala - Calle In F

Words by Errol Anderson

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'Mala In Cuba' is out now.

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