From Plastic People to producing records in Peru. Mala's (Mark Lawrence) story might be one with UK roots, but his head is one with an increasingly global perspective.
It would make sense, perhaps, to suppose that in the decade of experimentation since dubstep's peak producers like Mala have found a new lease of life. That free from the confines of a "scene" he, along with the likes of Peverelist and Pinch, has discovered new models for dark instrumentation. To suppose that, however, would be a mistake. Mala was never trapped in the first place. "I feel very privileged and honoured that people talk about me the way they do relating to dubstep," he tells me, "but in my own mind I've never just been that." That ethos has never been more present than on Mirrors, his latest full length on Gilles Peterson's Brownswood Recordings. For the album, Mala traveled to Peru to record there, building relationships with local artists and joining the dots between Croydon and Lima. In his words, "It would have been grossly inappropriate to have gone in and dictated. Instead it was about asking people to show me."
We are sitting in the basement of Brownswood Recordings. Beams of Friday morning sunlight that have broken through paste the walls of records around us, and on the floor in front of him is a bag stuffed with records of his own. We are here to discuss his life in music, and to listen to the tracks and albums he counts as the most personally important to him. Across the two hours we spend together, palming through records and retreading his career, Mala offers an insight into the music, movements and moments that have defined a UK pioneer.
THUMP: What was the first record you ever owned?
Mala: It's bad. Do you know "Mickey" by Tony Basil? It's a full on 80s pop song. My mum bought it for me. I must have been two years old. I must have danced to it and enjoyed it, as you do when you're a toddler. I've still got the record somewhere—my mum wrote on it "Mark's record" and the date.
Did you parents inform a lot of the music you listened to?
I don't remember my mum and dad playing a lot of music around the house when I was growing up. Some of my friends' dads would get all their records out on a Sunday and play them through a proper soundsystem—I never really had that type of day at my house. That said my mum and dad's old record collection spans everything from old Michael Jackson, to Stevie Wonder, to other stuff on Motown, to Trojan Records, then to Dire Straits and the Police. In my house I guess I grew up with a mixed range.
What music first got you really inspired?
Christmas '92 I got a hi-fi stereo. We were at my nan's and I remember taking the stereo back to Norwood in South London, tuning it, then hearing this mad hardcore breakbeat. That was me. I was hooked straightaway. That jungle sound, it transformed me straight away. It was like all other music started to fall away and my taste started to hone in much more. It sounded so alien, but at the same time I felt so connected to it.
What's a good example of an early jungle record that was important to you?
Embee releasing on Splash Recordings. "Niceness" in 1994. These were the tunes. It was jungle that made me pick up the pen and start writing lyrics, cos me Pokes and Coki all used to MC, and this was when we were at school.
What happened to your MCing?
As time went on I got involved MCing under-18 parties. The first person I ever MC'd for professionally was Kenny Ken. I ended up MCing for the likes of Nicky Blackmarket, Micky Finn, Jumpin Jack Frost, Randall, at a very young age. It was then that I got booked to play at a garage rave—this is skipping forward, 1997, 98. As a result of being in that scene I met people, we made a track together, got signed to EMI, did the whole music video major label bullshit.
Really? I had no idea!
Yeah, we were signed for a one single deal, but it crashed. At the time I thought, this is it, I'm going to get paid, get a house for my mum. At that age I didn't feel like I was compromising who I was. I was 20 years old, the girls looked good, so at the time it felt amazing. My then manager and the A&R spoke to me once after it was released. Because it didn't go into the top 20 as they'd expected—it went into the top 40—they cut ties. For a 20 year old that's quite harsh. That properly knocked the wind out of me, and it happened around the time garage was slowing down. I had to go back to normal work, having spent nearly a year touring in a Space Cruiser with a PlayStation in the back. To come from that hype, that expectation, telling all your peers, all your friends, your family. To have that happen, it was devastating. But looking back, it's the best thing that could have happened. It's why I became so independent, it's what led to DMZ, Deep Medi. I understand the music business is music and business, but when you work with people, especially youngsters, who have dreams, you have to take care of them.
That's a lot to process at that age. Was there a record that changed your perspective about what music could mean?
At that time I'd also listened to an album by a guy called Nitin Sawhney, called Beyond the Skin. If you were to tell me I could only take away one album, that's the one I would take. I think it's a fantastic record. I probably take time twice a year, every year since I first heard it, to play it in full. I got invited to do a session with him and I don't think he believed me when I told him how much I loved his music, until I started singing all the lyrics. One of my favourite records from that album is called "Tides" and another, with such a heavy mood, is a track called "Anthem Without a Nation".
I notice you've also brought some Ruff Sqwad with you.
I bought this when it came out. Ruff 1A and Ruff 1B, the first Ruff Squad release, "Pied Piper". I had a look for this on eBay the other day and it's going for about £600. It's one of the rarest I've got. Probably only about 500 of these were pressed. I remember buying it at Blackmarket records.
That level of rarity must be true of a lot of records you produced—is it fair to say dubstep encouraged that culture of exclusivity through dubplates?
That was our education. Pirate radio station, nobody would say the name of the tune, but only that DJ would be playing it. Going to raves, going to Metalheadz. Going back to the soundsystem culture, it was just ingrained in me as part of that lineage. More than that though I didn't want to be misrepresented. Coming off the back of the EMI thing, people had treated my dreams like they were throwaway, so this I kept very close. I listened to everybody's sets, and not everybody's sets I felt suited my music. I know some people were offended by it, cos I got some very interesting phone calls. I was never obligated. We were militant.
How much did grime and dubstep overlap in those early days?
Everything we were doing was running side by side with the whole grime thing. Funnily enough my first international show was with Skepta, Jammer, Logan Sama, that was in 04, 05. They weren't really overlapping—we did have the same agent if I remember correctly—but they were very much doing their thing, and we were doing our thing. It was more of a mutual respect: "this is London, and this is all going on in London".
What records inspired your perspectives of London?
Roots Manuva, Run Come Save Me. He was a Londoner, talking reality in a time where everything was about entertainment and fantasy. You need someone like Roots Manuva to come down with the real talk. You'd get into his record because the beats were sick but then the lyrics and the content had so much to give. I'd read the sleeves when I was making music, and with Roots Manuva I'd read that he was writing and producing everything himself. That was so inspiring.
Do you have any records here that you've sampled somewhere?
Misty in Roots, Live at the Counter Eurovision. It's a live recording from 1979. If you listen to a record of mine called "New Life", this is where I got the sample from. I was very lucky that John Peel was the first person on the BBC to play my music and I was once invited to his home where I got to look through his records, he had something ridiculous like 110,000 and they are all archived. His wife cooked this wonderful food for us and I remember there was this hand-stitched plaque on the wall that had this opening speech on it.
From what we've discussed and what you've played me, it seems that relationships and guidance are really important to your music. Is that true of your most recent efforts with Gilles and Brownswood?
The Cuba record—Mala In Cuba—was very much Gilles' vision. Despite having not really recorded for anyone else in the past, knowing Gilles and his approach it was an offer I couldn't refuse. But the Peru record, they just said: do you want to do another one? I'd always wanted to go to Peru, I felt like this was the time.
I can hear listening to the album—Mirrors—that the landscape of Peru has had a profound effect on you.
It's a very powerful land, I think it's to do with the Amazon. Somewhere that ancient, that alive. You sit at the top of Machu Picchu and the whole place just resonates. It's very difficult to explain, no picture or documentary could give you a sense of what it's like to sit up there—and I was sitting there with my partner and my two kids. It took me deeply internal. The place was a mirror. I was looking out but getting a reflection back.