September 10, 2012

Son Raw could use a rum punch

“Thank You, I’m just a guy in South-London making tunes.”

They say you should never meet your idols. It’s with this cliché in mind that I first spoke to Mala, possibly the most revered and idolized producer to have emerged out of London for the past decade. While the Internet loves to argue over the path England’s electronic music has taken over the past 10 years, mention Mala and suddenly everyone begins talking (or typing) in hushed tones. Only the late J. Dilla inspires more reverence from beat heads, with both producers exhibiting a dedication verging on mysticism when it comes to their music. If it’s possible to move hearts with a drum machine, this was man is a master of the art.

“My opinion on albums hasn’t changed because I really go on vibe and don’t really plan out things. I’m not the type to come up with a concept and then write tunes around it. I guess some people might do that but it’s not how I work. For me, Mala in Cuba…the concept was already there. The experience was the concept and it framed the creation of these tracks. So it’s not just the album it’s my entire time in Cuba, the Cuban people, Cuban Music, the food… it all comes together. But it wasn’t pre-planned.”

Not words one expects to hear from an artist promoting his official debut. Then again, few artists so revered have gone over 10 years without releasing music digitally for the listening audience. With over a decade of vinyl releases and cherished dubplates, Mala’s legacy has existed outside the mainstream sphere, confounding outsiders while creating the aforementioned cult. Before we spoke, I admit I was hesitant: surely no producer could be so dedicated to quality control as to hold back releases for years, if not indefinitely? Surely this dedication to dubplate culture intersected with the economic incentive to keep tunes exclusive to his DJ sets? Yet through our conversation, what shined through was this very honesty and by the time I hung up the phone, I believed every word. This isn’t a man who needs to build hype through this kind of foresight.

“In a sense it was if I had the world’s greatest Cuban music sample pack. I didn’t play with [the band] because I don’t think I’d be on the level to work with such talented musicians unless I was mixing live as a sort of dub thing. But what the drummer and the percussionist contribute really served as a foundation. Often enough it might be just 4 bars or 1 bar but I’d find that interesting space in that groove and rebuild it from there. We’d record, I’d digest the music and then rebuild it.”

The album is of course, a leap forward for more reasons than it’s digital format. Invited by BBC DJ and music-historian Gilles Peterson to record in Cuba, Mala in Cuba marks a major step away from the basements of South London. The jazz-inflected pianos of the introduction alone let us know that this is completely new experience for the DMZ veteran, but what’s amazing is just how seamlessly the new and the familiar come together.

Not particularly, it affected my thought process somewhat indirectly but when it came down to it, I didn’t think “ah well, we’ll cut the low end because of home listening.” It was still made with sound system culture in mind.

While the underlying rhythms reflect the island’s history and track titles such as “The Tourist” offer nods to their Latin foundations, the album as a whole holds true to DMZ’s soundsystem roots. Congas clash with heavy snares, dark ambiance calls to mind Dubstep classics and electronic bass lines even make an appearance on the ominous album highlight, “The Tunnel.” Far from a world-music jam, Mala in Cuba is a reconstructed beast of an album, one that promises to satisfy thousands of DJs who’ve been waiting on fresh plates from the master.

Sometimes I would keep just the high-hat pattern and that would be enough to spur a whole new direction. Just the feel and the vibe of the rhythms really spurred this project. Because I had all the stems, I could take that one element and then rebuild a track around it. My music is quite dark so often times elements would be used in pieces but there’s one track on the CD where I really let the band loose.

The soul of Mala in Cuba can be found in its rhythms. While mostly sticking to the 140BPM tempo he’s most familiar with, the producer nonetheless made the most of the live band, deconstructing traditional forms, both his and there, until the results were a hybrid of both. Deviating from dance music constraints, the results are equally inspiring: “Como Como” featuring Dreiser & Sexto Sentido creeps at an unorthodox pace, vocal samples floating in the mix, the specter of dub gone island-hopping. Elsewhere, it’s hard to even keep time: album highlight “Ghost” is powerful reminder that above all else, Dubstep brought back rhythmic complexity to electronic music in a decade where 4 on the 4 monotony was the standard.

The darkness just lets people lose their inhibitions, but it’s more for me really. I just feel more comfortable in the dark and it lets me do me. I’ve played a lot of big festivals with lasers and there’s definitely a place for it but my preference is in the dark. I just don’t like when they pair you up with someone doing visuals and it’s like…they’re not even listening to the music!

A few weeks before I heard the album and before we spoke. I caught Mala live with his partner in crime Coki. Whereas too many DJs opt for a maximalist light show, the minimalist lighting contributed immensely to the vibe. In between classics and unreleased gems, we heard glimpses of Cuban horns and dense poly-rhythms. It’s a testament to the quality of the artistry that barely a soul noticed: they just knew they were rocking out to good music.

“I don’t like talking about the future until it’s the present but I will say that I feel extremely lucky and extremely blessed to have worked with Gilles and Roberto Fonseca, Brownswood and Havana Cultura.”

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