I’ve been seeing this one guy at a lot of shows recently. The first time I saw him, he was wearing cargo shorts with a camouflage print, and he was rocking from heel to toe with his eyes closed in the middle of the dance floor at the nightclub Cielo in downtown New York. No one else was standing; it was just him, his arms akimbo and floating on the tangible low-end basswaves emanating from Cielo’s unbelievable Funktion-One sound system. There were about 25 other people at the club at the time, but we were all sitting around the benches, couches and steps, nodding our heads pensively to the pattering and rumbling rhythms of the latest album by dubstep legend Mala, Mala In Cuba.
There were so few people at the club because it had opened early to allow in a small group for a private listening session. Mala briefly introduced his work and explained that he had traveled down to Cuba with BBC Radio 6 host Gilles Peterson to make an album that seamlessly and brilliantly combined traditional Cuban rhythms with the sounds he pioneered as a member of the U.K. dubstep duo Digital Mystikz. Peterson’s label, Brownswood, released an EP with two of the album’s standout tracks this week.
After the album played all the way through, I met Mala on Cielo’s back patio, where he lit a hand-rolled cigarette and gave me a longer hug than I had expected. Mala is such a good hugger with such genuinely Rastafarian, approachable and easy vibes that I felt a flicker of guilt about my own approach to hugging. Plus, he smelled really nice.
I read a Gilles Peterson quote that this album is “realigning dubstep with soundsystem culture.” Sound system culture is originally a Jamaican thing, right?
Yeah, the roots of it are without a doubt Jamaican.
So why did you choose Cuba to explore sound system culture?
Well, I didn’t choose Cuba.
Gilles chose me to go to Cuba with him. I’ve always felt with the music that I make, there’s always been a sound system element to it. I grew up listening to jungle music, and for me, jungle was music that was heard on a sound system. From jungle we discovered other music—dub music, you know, roots music.
We have all these U.K. sound systems—Channel One, for example. I’ve been very lucky to speak with them on a few occasions when we’ve played some shows together. These guys have been playing sound systems for 32 years. I’m 32 years old. What they’ve been doing is, they’ve been carrying their speakerboxes, they’ve been setting them up, and they’ve been playing their sounds to people for three decades.
For me, when I think about the music that I make, it’s kind of like a continuum of that, because it’s that vibration that I feel. It’s not necessarily about sound; it’s about the message in the sound as well. I don’t know what Gilles was meaning necessarily when he quoted this, because me personally, I never leave the sound system entirely. I feel like any music I make comes with that.
How is sound system culture different in Cuba than in Jamaica or London?
Cuba is different because of the situation. Sound systems don’t exist in Cuba the same way as they exist in Jamaica. Even though they’re very close together, they’re very different. So, in a way, I don’t even know about the sound system culture in Cuba, because the people that I met were musicians. For me, Cuba is about musicians and those people that play the timbale or the congos or the pianos or the tres.
So it’s more about musicians than fooling around with technology as a musical tool? Playing music on a sound system can be kind of like playing an instrument.
Yeah, cuz the technology isn’t there. Don’t get me wrong—people have got computers, people have got midi keyboards, they’ve got their Logic. I’ve seen it, I’ve been to peoples’ houses, and we’ve made tunes together. But it’s not the same as in the Western world. They’re very isolated in some ways there. If someone wants to download an MP3, if the page doesn’t crash out, it takes them about 12 hours to do so.
I know you and Gilles worked in different studios, but did he influence the album at all?
Well basically, Gilles asked me to come with him on this project, and we had no idea what we were gonna do. We just got on a plane and went. The first trip was in January, and it was for me to experience Cuba because I had never been there, so it was like an educational trip, really. On the morning before we were going to the studio, Roberto [Fonseca] and Gilles was having breakfast. The concept come up that what they would do is record traditional Cuban rhythms for me that I would then take home.
I took home about 60 gigs’ worth of the musicians playing for me, and I went home, and I started working on the music that they gave me. There was so much information that it took me a long time to digest it, strip it down and rebuild it.
The second time we went over, I’d worked on some tracks that the musicians played over again. There was two different studios: There was one studio which was where all the musicians was playing, because Gilles was also making an album. So basically, there was two albums being made at the same time. I was in one studio making my music, people would come in and play for me, and then in the other studio they were working on the original rhythms that we made, and they were making songs out of those. What Gilles has done is, basically, he’s brought two different worlds together.
Have you noticed your audience grow or an increased interest in your work since dubstep became a household word?
Does that mean there are two streams of “dubstep”?
I don’t even think there’s two streams; it’s just whole different journeys. The beautiful thing about music is that it is diverse. It’s just one person’s take on manipulating frequencies, and all these different things can exist. Something that is maybe more rave-oriented naturally would appeal to a younger audience. I remember when I was 14, 15, 16 years old—you want to go out and experience clubs and all the sorts of things that come with nightlife. You’re a youngster, so you’ve got that energy, so that music has a place.
When you’re in that, and it’s associated with one thing, at some point you go, “OK, what else is going on? Because they say that this, this, this, this, this, this apparently is all ‘dubstep.’” Over the past, say, three or four years, you see youngsters coming to the dance—they’re digging back to stuff they didn’t hear when it was happening, because a 17-year-old now will hear a record that I made in, say, 2004, and that 17-year-old, he might have been 11 years old then, and he wasn’t even on that then. He was still listening to some pop music or whatever. That’s the beautiful thing about music, and that’s why I haven’t really got a problem with anything. A lot of people talk about this guy being this, and “real” this and “real” that, and I’m not really interested anymore. Everyone’s on their own journey. We’re all blessed in the sense that we all make choices and have to live with our choices, and at the end of the day, time will tell. Time will tell what is.