Across several biographies, the musical press at large, and in fact throughout the music-related biosphere, Mark Lawrence is usually labelled as a dubstep pioneer. And they’re not wrong, because Mala is a recurring name in many fields—party promotion, production, Djing and A&R—when it comes to documenting the movement. That’s why the fact that he seems oblivious to his musical and media surroundings strikes us as paradoxical. However, if one is familiar with the sound of Digital Mystikz and that of his label Deep Medi, ten minutes in conversation with Lawrence would be enough to realize the two of them constitute the master wall of creativity. Since his first productions with his friend Coki until the recent “Return II Space” (DMZ, 2010), the references to sensorial escapism, mental abstraction and floating sounds remain indelible, arching over the twists and turns of a genre with countless derivatives.
If, in the first DMZ references and the “Anti War Dub” period, the initiation journey led to the roots of creation, to the convulsing, restricting and burning nucleus of the Earth and to hostile introspection, his latest LP goes the other way around the globe. “Return II Space” is more varied and tempered, from a sensorial perspective. It follows the path of the expanding universe -the same drive, but pointed in an opposing direction- towards a strange plane, in a different dimension, reachable only by way of alienation. It’s not a Nirvana, but it might as well be one of the paths leading there. The process sounds like “raelian” dogma, like a lecture by a “fractal hippie”. But from the mouth of our protagonist, it makes much more sense. Because despite an intense spirituality, Mala always finds the time to put his feet on the ground, get a reality check, enjoy earthly existence and, why not, give an interview.Mala - EyezYou gave a lecture once to the Red Bull Music Academy and said that you consider yourself more of a producer than a DJ. Do you feel the same right now?
I feel I should make more music. Some people love their day jobs, and then they might have a glass of wine or a beer or whatever. For me, writing is something necessary to my daily living. When I don’t find myself in the studio for a day or two, I really do miss it.
Even though London will always be the perfect spot for dubstep, you’ve played a lot of international gigs recently. Do you see dubstep growing around the world?
I guess dubstep gets localized, so if you play a party in Germany is definitely different to a party in Barcelona, or someone who’s going to play somewhere like New York. There’s quite different vibes again playing somewhere like San Francisco or Los Angeles. Depending on people’s geographic location, they might have been educated musically in a certain way, that’s why in some parts of the world people slightly lean upon this style. London always had such a diverse music culture, so you could say people in London are spoiled: they have a lot of choice and you always have to keep up with them, to be ahead of time. I don’t really play in London that much. I play more in other countries. So it’s nice for me to be up to take a piece of music that’s maybe a year old and play it - it keeps the music alive. Music doesn’t have to be a quick turnaround thing. Music has grown, and travelled. It’s been an interesting experience. Can you see the enthusiasm that people had in London during the first years of the dubstep in other places now?
That moment in London will never be recreated, but yes definitely, there’s enthusiasm all over the world. There are new producers, new record labels, new promoters and DJs that get into this music every day. There is always new enthusiasm. I think that’s why lots of producers will probably tell you they love playing outside of England, because you go away and there’s a different energy, a different vibe.
Can you tell us your favorite up and coming producers of 2010?
I can’t even tell you about 2010, because I don’t really check out the latest things that come out as I don’t really follow any particular source or media. But you should check out a guy called V.I.V.E.K., he’s on my Deep Medi label, he’s just released an EP, “Feel It”. He writes very good music. And I want to tell you a name of somebody else, but I can’t because I’ve signed some new people to Deep Medi, but until the projects are actually ready to go out, I must try not to talk about them too much. Yeah, just the people on my label, I guess (laugh)… Check them out! I usually don’t do any kind of promotion like that.So you don’t listen to new dubstep tracks on a daily basis…
I haven’t really heard anything recently that is really, really different. The last album that I bought that really blew my mind and I thought was just amazing from the start was the Moderat album. I listened to that album when I was coming back from a festival in Puerto Rico. It was four days of sunshine, chilling on the beach, playing music… And when we drove home, it started to rain: sunset, raining, thunder and stuff. Someone was playing this album on the car. For me that was probably the last album I really, really enjoyed.
Interesting… Which are the weirdest influences we can find in your music?
I’ve been listened to a guy called Jóhann Jóhannsson. He makes… I don’t even know how you would describe it, maybe contemporary classical music. I actually listen to a lot of music without beats, and have done it for a quite long time now. I just found myself gravitating closer towards this music because I found it allows me to go to another space, which is quite liberating.
Why did you start Deep Medi when you already had a label running? You could say that Deep Medi is a platform for upcoming artists, but you’re releasing records on Deep Medi as well, so what distinguishes the label?
I decided to start Deep Medi because I found myself in a position and a situation where I was able to get in touch with people who’d be interested in my music. I just felt it would be great to be able to help. Deep Medi isn’t about owning and controlling people. Deep Medi is about progression, about helping people to develop music. It’s become a family.
Your signings Silkie and Quest are both amazing. How did you find them?
It all started three years, before they had released any music. Quest and Silkie were coming down to the club (to DMZ), and were making some quiet music which I got to hear really early on. At the very first meeting we had, I told them: “I want to invest in you, I want Deep Medi to be your home, and I don’t want you to be releasing just singles, but albums. And they gave me a CD with about… between Quest and Silkie, I think -it sounds ridiculous- like, 40 tracks on there. So I remember just listening to this music in my car while I was driving. And I was like: these guys have albums and albums and albums in them.
You are a defender of the dubplate and vinyl culture. What do you think this era of mp3 consumption?
Technology, to some extend, means convenience. Getting hold of music is becoming more accessible and more convenient. I don’t really buy mp3s, so it’s a world I don’t really understand. I grew up in a different generation. So to me going to buy records still feels good. It reminds me what I did when I was a kid, on my school lunch breaks. I get the digital world, but what it really baffles me about it all is that the quality of music is being compromised: people might have an iPod full of 10,000 MP3s, rather than 5,000 WAVs, which is a better sound quality.
But one thing is the sound’s quality and one different is the music quality. People make more music now than 10 years ago. What does quality means to you?
I used to do youth work. I worked with youngsters from the age from 9 to 19, and I started to run music workshops. I remember designing the questionnaire to ask these youngsters what formats they’re listening to the music on - none of them bought vinyl, none of them got cassettes. Something like 30% bought CDs, and the rest MP3s. Another question was on what hardware do you listen to your music. Most of the youngsters were listening to music mostly on the mobile phones. So you have to think that you have producers trying to recreate music and music’s made for this bandwidth and they only understand music sonically on that bandwidth. So actually this whole culture of this compressed files and bad sound quality, is, to some extent having a knock on effect.
We had the first contact with your music when you started Digital Mystikz - all those heavy bass and reggae influences. What came before that?
Jungle. Jungle music was the first music that made me want to be involved in music. I listened to hardcore and jungle back in ‘92. I remember a stereo bought for Christmas. It was a very confusing time because my parents had separated, and for the first time we were spending Christmas apart. I was with my mum that year; I got the stereo and I went back to my house. I was in my bedroom, just chilling in, and then I listened to some party on the radio. And since that day I have this love for music that I have now. I think I had it in way some before, when I was younger, because I can always remember me and my brothers listening to music. Jumping on the sofa, making up dances… I remember that, when we were kids. Music made me feel different.What music was that?
My mum and dad bought everything from, say like, Gloria Estefan, Trojan Records stuff, Billie Holliday, Dire Straits, Police or Jackson 5. Lots of different music, from my friends at school too, like early dancehall records, but mostly it was hardcore and jungle. I listened to garage… Everything that was in London, everything that was on pirate radio stations. I was very much into house music. Actually, lot of the first records I bought in the mid-90’s were house records.
Deep house, yeah. Stuff that would be played with garage, in the fourth arena of jungle raves. One room would be jungle, one room would be hardcore, one room would be that fast UK techno of the time, and in the fourth arena you probably had hard house and garage. If you go back, music wasn’t as segregated as it is now; techno meant everything with a 4x4 sound. But, for some reason, nowadays everybody is obsessed with putting things in really small boxes instead of in just big one box.
You released three tracks on that “Grime 2” compilation on Rephlex. How was that? It seems like they wanted to push this new sound back in the day, but then forgot about it.
I don’t know what they were thinking. Obviously, they put out the “Grime 1” compilation and then there was “Grime 2”, but I don’t know what they were trying to do. I remember at the time that it was a huge thing for myself and Coki to be invited to give some music to Aphex Twin’s record label. That record release actually went on to be my first gig, because they put on a lounge party at The End in London. And they invited Kode 9, Loefah and myself and we played. So that was actually my first gig as Digital Mystikz as well. It was great! It was that time, and it was 2004: we had one release and we were just hungry we loved music; we were writing loads of music; and we had loads of unsigned music. So for Aphex Twin’s records label to come along and say: “we want three tracks from you,” we were like, “yeaah! Cool!” They were putting them out on records as well, which we loved. There was gonna be artwork, we had to give them a picture and this and that. And then they come back with something… It was a pleasure for us to be part of that. But what they were trying to do with it, I’m not sure… Maybe they just wanted to release a record.
You’re now part of the “Future Bass” compilation in Soul Jazz…
You know what? When the track was out, I didn’t even know it was meant to be part of a compilation.
Really? How do you feel to be part of a genre-making compilation like this? On one hand, the content is sublime and the intentions are noble, but at the same time there’s a bit of marketing spin on it…
I can tell you a funny story about Soul Jazz. In 2004, with the early DMZ records, I would go into Soul Jazz Records with a box of records and say: “Do you want to take some records to sell?” And then they’d listened to my records and said, “Neeeh… I don’t think we can sell that type of music.” It got to DMZ four and I got a phone call, and they were like, “Mala, this is Soul Jazz, well, Sounds of the Universe, we would like to stock your latest record.” So, I went and took a Coki release, “Mood Dub” and “Officer”. I went to up to London, to Soho, and I dropped then a box of records, and by the time I got back to my house in South London, they’d called my phone and left a message saying, “We’ve sold out your record already. Can you bring us another box?” And for me, that was quite a turning point. When I knew that people were actually becoming interested in the music we were doing.
The beginnings are always difficult…
Yes. A lot of people before of that were ignoring us, magazines were saying bad things about it - which is fine. Soul Jazz become very supportive of what we were doing and I think we were actually, me and Coki the first artists they put out. Because originally Soul Jazz were just doing compilations of older music. I always liked Soul Jazz, they have a very good vibe about them. The guy that is Soul Jazz, he’s a really nice guy, very genuine - you can tell he loves music, and loves what he does. And for me, that’s enough for me to wanna give them my music. It’s for the right reasons. I couldn’t care less whether you had a million listeners. If you want something just because apparently it’s in and it’s fashionable, to me that makes no sense them playing my records. I love Soul Jazz, yeah. There are so many horror stories about record companies that don’t pay and Soul Jazz ain’t none of that, ever. They are very efficient in all angles of what they do so it’s a pleasure to work with them.
Let’s talk about “Return II Space”, an important album. You stay true to what Digital Mystizk were doing in 2005/2006, it’s very old school, but it sounds radically new school at the same time. The control and calculation in the sound is mindblowing.
Honestly, I don’t see it in that way. I mean, there are other things that work in the universe that somehow I’m able to transmit or I’m able to connect with because it really is an abstract expression. If I told you I wrote “Return II Space” knowing exactly what I was doing, that would be a completely lie. I don’t plan what I’m doing, I’m a person who goes with feeling. I’m spontaneous. That’s why we don’t have a release sketch for DMZ or for Deep Medi. That’s why records come out in a shop when they come out in a shop, you know? I find living the way the society wants to live is like being in a prison. They don’t want me to be spontaneous, they want everything to be timed and planed and documented and regulated. And that’s not for me.And how do you explain the abstraction, depth and knowledge in the music?
When I started making music, I started to understand that abstractness. When I’m in the studio, I go to other places and dimension. If somebody comes to the studio, he or she would see me at the studio. But where I am in my mind isn’t there. This made me start questioning the human mind, and if it’s possible for the human mind to exist in that stay permanently. Because when you are in that state, you have no desire or need for anything. You don’t need to smoke, you don’t need to drink or eat. You don’t need to pick up the phone and call anybody, you don’t need fun, and you don’t need family…
You reach a nirvana when you are producing.
I don’t even think it’s a nirvana because is not always a place of peace or of joy. It’s an abstract place that is sometimes very dark… and sometimes is very light. I don’t need to know where is even. It’s just exists. I’ve never been connected with dubstep because that sound and that world didn’t exist when I started creating music. When I look back and I see the connections that we made, of course I connect with Skream, Kode9 or Benga, I connect with people like Hatcha or Youngsta… We all started at the same time, and moving forth, we started sharing music. But my journey is something else. I’m totally comfortable with where it takes me. I don’t have to look to other people and go, I wish always doing that or I wish always doing this, or that shouldn’t be happening and this should be happening. I try not to get into that monster because I think that monster is quite destructive. Not necessarily externally, more internally.
“Return II Space” is signed as Digital Mystikz, but it’s you making the music. Your partner Coki isn’t involved. Why is that?
Digital Mystikz is always gonna be Digital Mystikz. Digital Mystikz is a love thing. When we started doing this thing with Coki, everything that we did was Digital Mystikz. But somehow people started to say Mala and Coki. And when I give to somebody a track, “Mala” is written on it, and Coki, when he is giving a track, “Coki” is written on it. So, it wasn’t actually us who wanted to separate things. Promoters put Mala on the flyers instead of Digital Mystikz. That just happens. But “Return II Space” is a Digital Mystikz thing.
Is Loefah currently part of the Digital Mystikz brand as well?
Loefah is DMZ, which is slightly different from Digital Mistykz. But Coki will be the same. If Coki ever does an LP, I’m sure he’s gonna call it the same.
Your music has some distinctive elements: the big echo, the sense of space and, often, the rhetoric of war (or anti-war) in the titles and messages. But “Return II Space” is completely different, it’s almost only about space. Is there a leap from the earthly to a more spiritual level?
I don’t think it’s oppositional to anything, but it’s definitely a contrast. When I look around, all the time I see conflict. I think a lot of people honestly look inside themselves and all they see is issues and conflict. The human condition, at a base level, has devised a plan to these conflicts within us. A conflict can be anything, small and trivial, or “Why should I work today?” That’s maybe why my tracks have, as you say, what are perhaps fairly frequent references to war. That is me thinking about this for the first time. It might be terrible, ‘cos I don’t think about these things.How does other music affect what you make? Sonically, I mean. Do you unconsciously borrow some textures or ideas?
I don’t know, music is too abstract to me. When I’m influenced by music, it’s not always a sonic influence. Sometimes is somebody’s approach or somebody’s attitude, somebody’s philosophy or something that inspires you to do something. You know, when I hear a guy like Theo Parrish speak about music, it puts confidence in you, to go out and do what you want to do without worrying about what people are thinking of you. I remember when I was growing up and I used to listen to a lot of people like Sizzla or Garnett Silk, back in 9’7 or ‘98. He’s very rasta-orientated, but it can be looked upon as black supremacy as well. My mum’s white, blonde hair and blue eyes, I’m from a mixed background. My dad’s Jamaican, my mum’s English. So I’m not at all interested in black supremacy, nor am I in white supremacy. But, it’s the fire, the conviction that he had. When you go in your studio, you can feel this fire.
So the music, the words and the vibe penetrates through the skin.
Beyond the skin, beyond heart, beyond soul, beyond all of that.
That’s the cosmic mind.
That’s what we are in, right? That’s what I’m saying. People would say to me: “Your LP is this, this and that,” and I have to pass it on because it’s beyond all of that. If I sit down and tell you: “Yeah, I take all the credit for it,” then that’s no good. That would be lying. So I try to be honest with what I do. It’s ok not to be in control of things, it’s ok to let things just flow.
Is that your philosophy of life?
Yes. You know, it’s universal energy. I never cared what the people, magazines or the radio were saying about our music, ‘cos I felt I it was a universal sound. The sound could only been made in London, it could have started in London. Through London’s diverse multi-culture, through London’s kind of oppressive energy. 16 million people live in London, even though London is huge, it’s quite a lot of people to live in that kind of space. So, you know, in London I don’t sleep. I can’t sleep. The energy there keeps my mind wired. London is very good to giving you that drive you want to explore. And I think that’s what I call the cosmic energy. Music doesn’t satisfy me in the sense that I finish a piece of music and go: “Ooh, yeah. I’m done. That’s a finished piece of music, oh I’m well pleased.” Whether something gets finished or not is kind of irrelevant. The same when I’m listening to a piece of music: who made it or what type of genre it is, is again irrelevant. Because for me, sound is an amazing opportunity to becoming an explorer. And when you’re an explorer and go on an adventure, you discover. You discover new things. And that’s where my satisfaction is. In the exploration of sound and frequencies. That’s what I love about music.
If you are so unconscious about your music and about the sound, when do you really realize that a track is done?
That’s a nightmare!! Yes, it’s irrelevant but at the same time is relevant because we love to finish the piece of music. I am human. But I try not to let it dominate my decisions. You can always improve things but is improving something making it better? Or is it making it worse? So when I finish a piece of music, I really just try and feel it and that’s all I can do. And sometimes even though it sounds to me unfinished, that is it. I can’t do nothing more with it. That’s the end.
And you never go back to it.
it’s funny, because I was talking about the Soul Jazz story, wasn’t I? And you were talking about the new release, “Don’t Let Me Go”. They actually sent me a master and it was actually an unfinished version, so I wanted to finish it. And then, when I go back to the track to finish it, I couldn’t actually open it up on my computer, some files were corrupted. So I had to use the unfinished version. I couldn’t go back in and make the bassline, I couldn’t edit what was already done. And this was an interesting experience, because when you are forced into the situations, you have to go like, “That’s it, enough is enough.” When you have all the time in the world, you never finish anything. I’ve got so many unfinished pieces of music, it’s unbelievable!
Digital Mystikz - Haunted (Unofficial video)