Mark Lawrence, aka Mala, is a household name within the genre of dubstep. The DJ and producer is ½ of Digital Mystikz, a production duo between himself and Coki, as well as the owner of his label Deep Medi Musik. Soon after Mala and Coki joined forces, the producers branched out and launched the DMZ night together with Loefah and Sg Pokes. This was the first time dubstep was played and shared on a larger and more widespread platform.
The DMZ night was central to the scene. Dubstep shifted from making a regional impact in and around London to making serious dents in sound system culture worldwide. As well as pioneering his own tracks, and Coki’s, Loefah’s and Pokes’, Mala wanted to showcase other production talents that he thought could add to the variety and open-endedness of the dubstep culture. The Deep Medi label was born in 2006 and has since released dozens of dubstep classics by artists such as Pinch, Quest, K Man, Kahn, and Goth-Trad. Egoless’s ‘Empire of Dirt’ track, which has been largely anticipated for a general release since being played in clubs from late last year, has also recently dropped on the Deep Medi label. Endless classics are being added to the Deep Medi name.
Mala champions music that brings about meditative atmospheres, warmth and emotion. He is open to a large range of music styles through his label; he wants to cater to individual music tastes and personal mindsets. Things are never black and white for this producer.
I sat down with Mala to talk about his approach to creating music, the experiences and memories that he’s amassed over the years, and his upcoming performances at Outlook and Dimensions next month.
Your story begins in Croydon. What was the music scene like back then, and what were you into growing up?
I had my first real love for music when I began discovering jungle music in the early 90s just through listening to pirate radio stations. That expanded my mind and my curiosity as to what music can feel like and what music can do. I was lucky because we had two or three really good record shops in the Croydon area that used to sell both the hardcore & jungle drum and bass, house and garage. One of those is obviously Big Apple Records which became fundamental to the start of my career with the junglistics and dubstep music.
But yeah, it was just growing up listening to that music. There was a number of well-known jungle and drum and bass DJs that were from the surrounding area. You had Grooverider who was, you know, a huge inspiration to me back when I was a teenager. I still look up to him now. And then also another DJ that we used to listen to back then, also from the local area, was a guy called Bailey, who used to be a metalheadz DJ.
There was house, there was garage, there was everything. There was always something going on not too far from where I grew up, whether that be house parties and people playing, through the local clubs, or going into central London that’s only a fifteen-minute train journey. You never felt out of the loop with anything growing up.
Do you think that’s changed a lot now, with people approaching music differently to how they would have back then? Could you maybe say that it used to be more personal?
Yeah, hm, I don’t know. It’s hard to say whether or not it’s more personal or maybe purely it’s because we live in different times. Just because someone getting into music today goes onto Soundcloud or Mixcloud or Spotify, and streams a new piece of music from a new artist they’ve never heard before, does that make them feel differently to how it felt for me getting on a bus with my pocket-money that I had saved up, going to a record shop and buying a record? I don’t know whether that feels differently although I can see that the approach is different. Perhaps the feeling that one gets from the experience of discovering new music is still the same, but still, that I don’t know.
I just think we live in different worlds. It’s quite hard to compare.
Yeah, I get that, but now you’re living in this world so you also consume new music in the same way someone just starting out might. You can compare your experience back then to your experience now and then see whether you get the same feeling from music.
Yeah, ultimately when you discover something new you either feel it or you don’t. Music just takes you. I don’t really think it matters so much about the format. I think there is a certain amount of dedication that it used to take to go to a record shop and all of those things. But then again, there were also more record shops available. There were more places available where you could order records or cassette tapes or CDs online, or through the post and magazines.
Again, I can say how it feels for me but it would have to be me being a 12-year-old going on the internet for the first time by myself and discovering new music myself that way, you know?
How did Digital Mystikz come about?
Coki and I knew each other from school, and we were always into similar music. As we got older we started making music. We actually bought our equipment – that we wrote some of the songs that people know from us – we bought all of that pretty much at the same time, as well as the same PC. We went to the same place and bought the same speakers and the same mixing decks. We always felt that the Digital Mystikz was two people but with one sound, kind of like a unity, you know?
That unity expanded to DMZ which was with Loefah and SG Pokes. We were all friends for a very long time and it was just an extension of what we were doing in our bedrooms and house parties. We were fortunate enough to provide a platform that allowed people to engage not just with the music that we were making or the music we were into but a handful of other producers and DJs as well.
When you were working on your tracks for Digital Mystikz, was that a collaboration and like you said unity or did you guys work at a one-by-one basis?
Yeah, we would be in the studio together but a lot of the time, and as much as it was about the unity and the collaboration, it was in a way a collaboration of mind and a collaboration of spirit and energy and focus. That allowed us to have reference points as well as the crucial criticism which is needed whenever you’re doing anything and you want to progress.
We felt comfortable to be on our own journey knowing that we had the support from our crew so to speak because that’s how we felt at that time.
Do you find it hard, I guess because from the way you’re speaking it seems like a lot of this is quite internal and spiritual for you, do you find it hard to talk about these things because it’s hard to put into words that feeling?
Sometimes. I think perhaps because I’m older now I’m able to reflect easier. I’ve been with these things for many years. I’ve been playing music in clubs since I was 14 years old. I’ve known Coki since I was 11, Loefah since I was about 15. I’ve known Pokes the same. Everything is from childhood.
My music career has been quite long, from teenage years till now. I’m 38 years old. I think over the years I’ve learned how to articulate my thoughts and my feelings better, and able to understand a lot more things about myself now then I did when I was in my 20s.
But again, I don’t talk about spirit or spirituality in like a religious sense because I think that’s for one to discover for themselves. I don’t think my music is such-a such-a style or has a specific type of energy that makes people think a certain way. If you’re like-minded or if your mindset is of a certain way, then I think that’s what you will take from things that you engage with and experience in life. Somebody that goes for a walk in the woods at a particular time and with a particular mindset might take that walk to be a certain meditation and they might say ‘the trees are speaking to me’ and ‘nature helps heal me’. Somebody who necessarily isn’t of that mindset and goes for the same walk in the woods might find it quite boring and won’t be able to wait till they’re out because they’re just not tuned in to that type of frequency.
Back then ‘dubstep’ didn’t exist, and it was after the word was invented that your style of music fit into that category. Is that quite tough, having a word coined for a genre of music and being placed in that, especially if you’re so open-minded about approaching music?
Not really, if someone wants to label you something… it’s like if someone was to call you a name, it doesn’t define you. Your works define you, your actions define you, so the fact that the music that we were making was called ‘dubstep’, which at that time was a word that was new to everybody… like, Distance and Kode 9 and Coki and Loefah and a handful of other people, you know, all of these different types of styles, they were given a common connection in a way.
Maybe that helped solidify our connection with each other and allowed us to develop and grow. There was definitely a benefit of the music that we were making being called something, but I never was that fussed about what it was called. I was never like ‘well now that it’s called dubstep I’m a dubstep producer’. That wasn’t my mindset and it isn’t my mindset now even though of course people associate me with the genre of dubstep. I wouldn’t be able to separate myself from it even if I wanted to, not that I do want to. I feel very grateful and very privileged that people talk about me the way that they do with regards to this music and my contribution to it all. But at the same time, when I’m in the studio sitting down I’m not thinking ‘I’m a dubstep producer so I’m gonna make a dubstep track’. That’s kind of what I mean in that respect.
The ‘dubstep’ scene, you said you had a massive contribution to the scene, so what do you think you did right?
I don’t think there is a wrong or a right, there just is, you know?
I guess what I’m trying to figure out is what you think you did back then that led to you having such an impact.
I don’t know if there was… there was never a formula, there was no master-plan. We were just very passionate and very militant about our approach to what we were doing. I talk about ‘we’ because it was… even now my mindset isn’t just for myself. When I go and play a show today I hope that I can play in the best possible way that allows my set and everything that’s associated with me and my label to help someone else in another label get booked, you know?
Back then, making the music that we did, we never had an idea that it would have an impact the way that it did to the listeners that were in the dances listening. Everything had a knock-on effect, and it was about taking that risk and also using your initiative. The fact that we had some music that was being played by just two or three people at that time, and it was getting the response it did… the record label which we were signed to (which was Big Apple Records) closed down after our first release. We took the risk and worked over-time to set up our own label. There was only one dance happening consistently at that time, so we took the risk and worked more and put our money where our mouth was, so to speak, and put on our own dance. This then provided a platform not only for the music that we were making but for other artists and other DJs that were also making music and playing similar styles of music as well.
As a result of that, and having our label as well which was an outlet for our own music, I was getting sent so much other music from other people. It wasn’t just from the UK but places from Japan and stuff like this, so this was a thing for me where I thought ‘actually, if I can help people stop working 9-5 jobs and do something that they feel passionately about, maybe somehow it makes the world a bit of a better place.’ I was doing youth-work at the time and helping people who have problems at home, have experienced domestic violence, have had trouble with the police and things like that. My mentality was always about building something and progression, and not about ownership and controlling people. I wanted to give people a platform where they could develop and grow. That’s why I started the Deep Medi record label, because I was getting sent so much music.
Again, it wasn’t like I sat down and was like right, if I do A, B, and C then I’ll get to D. It was just doing one thing, it clicking and making another thing click, and as you go on through life, you just keep adding these parts of yourself that you’ve unlocked that then allow you to grow, progress and once again unlock other things within yourself and your environment.
I don’t know what I did right or what I did wrong. All I know is that I loved it to my core and still do, and do everything that I can to keep elevating. It’s kind of as simple as that really.
The reason I asked you is because I thought you’d say it was because you loved what you did and enjoyed making music and wanted people to enjoy it too in their own way.
It was definitely an enjoyment but it was really a life. I used to go to work and come home from work, where I was living at the time… I was living in a house that I grew up in all my life, and the bedroom that I had was so tiny that I could almost touch my hands either sides of the walls. I had no space so I actually got rid of my bed so that I could put my music stuff in the room. I used to bring a cover from the mattress of a futon to put on the floor and sleep on.
I’d get up at 7o’clock, get ready, go to work, leave for work at 8, go do a full 9-5, get home, have some food, then I’d be making beats. It wasn’t like my life was so much fun and this was an enjoyment and it was like let’s just see what happens. This was I needed to do to exercise the things that I wasn’t happy with in my life, as well as experiment with something that I did understand but I just more-so deeply felt it. I had to create music. And I think the close people around me at that time also felt the same way.
Would you change anything about that at all?
No, of course not.
So do you think those are hardships that helped you get to where you are and do as well as you did?
I guess everything about my upbringing, from my parents and the way that they were disciplined with me, and the fact that I saw both of my parents working hard to earn and put food on the table and a roof over our heads, all of these things add to it. This is what you see as a kid, so of course naturally, when it came to me I had no excuse to bum around as a teenager. I was working from the age of 12 doing paper-rounds so I could have a little bit extra on the weekend.
Even with my first job, I was working in a shoe-shop. My hourly rate was £1.89p on a part-time. At the end of the day, you’re lucky if you get about twelve quid. Obviously, your environment definitely helps install certain things in you. At the same time, I’m a father of two kids and I also have to see the world for what it is today. The fact that everything is immediate, the fact that they can go and watch a whole series of cartoons on Netflix and I used to have to wait for Saturday morning to see the next one the week after, all of those things make a difference.
So yeah, passion and hard work and determination and struggle always add to character. The person that always gets given something generally finds it very hard when they don’t get what they want. That was the same 30 years ago, but it’s just that there’s so much available today.
How would you describe your career trajectory?
Oh, I don’t know. It’s just that thing again where you do one thing and it presents opportunities for another thing. I certainly couldn’t be doing the things that I am doing now 10 years ago just because I didn’t have the experience for it. Many years ago I was told ‘if it’s in your heart then you’ll always do it’, and I think it’s important that, even when things are hard and the cycle is down, you’ve gotta remember that you’ve still got to maintain within yourself. That’s when the resilience comes into play. When everything isn’t all rosy, you’ve got to maintain your discipline and still be in the studio and making beats and all the rest of it.
I think it’s really hard to say how my career has been. There definitely have been key moments that have happened. Doing things like Dubstep Warz and things like that: that set a certain tone, you know? Had we had not done Dubstep Warz maybe there would have been a load of people that never got introduced to the music. And because people got introduced to the music, that opens up opportunities and then you take them and you just keep going. Like I said, it’s about maintaining even when it’s difficult.
It’s not always going to be easy. Having two kids and still trying to maintain a healthy music career is really really challenging. And unless you have kids, you can’t even begin to understand the demand. I know many people that had children and as a result of it they had to slow down a little bit with the producing and the DJ work. That in itself, when you stop doing something… especially in the music industry which is absolutely brutal and unforgiving… don’t be misled by anything other than that.
We all know what it’s like for the football players playing football for England right now. Everybody is singing for them. Had my guy Dier not scored that penalty in that game... you get what I’m saying? It’s the same thing. If you don’t make a song that anybody really likes, people don’t give a shit. If you stop playing DJ sets for whatever reason, there’s another DJ that’s gonna play music, so people will go and hear that.
In that respect, you have to maintain. You’ve only got yourself to maintain yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re part of a crew or a record label, you have to be the person who motivates and drives you. That in itself is really demanding, exhausting and challenging. I admire anybody who decides that they want to get into the music industry and give it a go.
I know for a fact that this is who I am and what I am supposed to be doing with my life. I didn’t just stumble across it, like, I know that this is my path. In that respect, even with all of the struggles and the complications, I have to keep doing it because this is my path. So many beautiful things and connections have been made as a result of the music, not just my own connections but people that have maybe come together while music is being heard.
Yeah, music having an impact on people’s lives.
Mm. The feedback that I’ve had from people… it’s really quite touching what some people say about the music and how it’s affected them. I don’t take it for granted and I don’t think it’s some form of light entertainment for the weekend. I think music can run much deeper than that.
You’ve been all around the world with your music. Do you have any memorable moments? And would you say that people from different countries react differently to your music?
Not really. I think people that are into a certain style of music have similarities in the frequency that they exist in, that’s why people like the music. Of course, there are social, cultural and economic differences, but ultimately when people come together to express themselves or let go on the weekend or get into a music meditation or whatever it does for them, they all get down the same way you know?
I’ve had lots of wonderful memories over the years, it’s hard to pinpoint. The early years were great memories where I was with my close friends who I grew up with and we felt that we could take on the world with our music. We just went for it. We knew that this type of music wasn’t being played anywhere else in the world because it wasn’t. It was a fact. You could only hear that music at that place. That was a really special kind of feeling, and seeing how people grew and developed and how their journeys projected, that was amazing to see.
And then playing at some festivals or some places for the first time… like Dimensions and Outlook, for example, I’ve been all of them with my own stages. Seeing how those things have grown… It’s been amazing going to play in places like South Africa or the first time I ever went to New Zealand or even the fact that I’ve been going to Japan for 10 years, just again the amazing people that I’ve met there and the amazing experiences I’ve had.
It’s really really difficult to pinpoint one specific thing. Like, playing at Francois K’s night called Deep Space in New York, and Theo Paris playing after me – he was a hero of mine and finally getting to meet him and being able to connect is amazing. And growing up and listening to people like Ray Keith and Groove Rider, all these people were here. Finally, over the years getting to meet them and know them a bit and speak to them outside of music, these are the things that I feel very grateful for. These are the things that are precious to me. It’s a lot of hard work, and I don’t feel like I’ve finished yet, but I feel very grateful for everything that has happened.
Amazing. So do you take inspiration from your life for your music? Is that a conscious effort you make?
Not anymore. I think when I was younger maybe there would be things that were much more immediate in terms of inspiration, but again I think I’ve walked this path for such a long time now, it’s just literally who I am. I live and breathe the life that I live. I don’t mean that in some sort of superficial way or in a far-out hippie kind of concept, but I haven’t done anything else for most of my adult life. I’ve just made and played music, and worked with people and helped people progress through my record labels.
I’m always constantly inspired. You know you listen to the new J Cole album that got released a couple months ago, you listen to it and go ‘aah’ this is some great music and you’d be inspired by that. But then you might go and hear somebody’s show… who did I hear recently? We did a Deep Medi night at Fabric recently and I played after Commodo, and again just listening to Commodo play. I’m fortunate that I get to listen to these guys play quite often but hearing him play a set just before I’m about to play inspires you to go on and, again, keep your level high. That’s what it’s about, isn’t it?
I think the people that we work with and the environment that we surround ourselves with, it should help us elevate, and we should help them elevate.
When you said that through your label you want to help people progress and continuously improve, what kind of advice do you give them?
I think people just know that I like them and they can call me anytime to discuss anything that they want. My important role having a label is actually to try and understand what it is about a producer that’s really them.
Some producers might send you music that they think is great for the clubs or great for the label or great for me, but it might not be 100% them. I try to listen to all of the music that gets sent to me, and over a period of time you develop a relationship with the producers that you work with and you maybe start to understand a little bit about the music that they like as well as their character. And then within the music you can maybe start identifying the parts that are really them. I think it’s my role to encourage that and to give that confidence because usually when we’re really being ourselves and bearing our soles on the line, that’s when we feel most vulnerable.
I think it’s about offering a place where people feel safe to be themselves. I don’t see myself offering advice about doing it a certain kind of way or using a compressor on that sound… that’s for them to discover. Artists have to discover what type of music they’re going to make. Like I said, it’s about identifying what’s really them and trying to empower them to be confident in who and what that is.
Yeah. When you talk about creating music, you call it ‘writing’ music. Do you think writing music is similar to writing words? Do you also go through a draft, edit, rephrase kind of process of refining?
Yeah, of course, for sure. A part of the creation is just like the vibe, you know, where you’re in your element and you’re doing what just comes naturally. And then part of progressing and development and learning from the experiences is going on to enhance and refine that expression.
So around the time that ‘dubstep’ was coined, you coined the ‘DMZ sound’. Did that sound have distinctive traits, or was there a gap in the market for that sound that made it come about?
Hm, I think when you’re in it it’s very hard to see it that way. We never sat down and went ‘right there’s a gap in the market so let’s fill it’. It’s just what was natural. Jungle and drum & bass music seemed to be accelerating in pace, garage music wasn’t doing much anymore, and house and techno had been around and was still in the scene. All of these things obviously influence us if we’re listening to them, listening to dancehall, listening to reggae, to ragga, to hip-hop. It was just natural that this was the style of music that followed.
The DMZ Sound was myself, Coki and Loefah. That’s the DMZ Sound. There isn’t one DMZ Sound even though there is only one DMZ Sound. You can hear that back then on the records that we released or the old dubplates that were made. I think as well that a reason for why that came about was because we didn’t just come through with one or two tunes. We came through, you know? [Laughs] You can just have a release or work with a label, but we came through with the dance, with the label, with the tunes, you get what I’m saying. And back then when I was playing, in the early days I was only playing mine and Coki’s tunes. Loefah was only playing DMZ tunes, Coki was only playing DMZ tunes. OK, they might drop the odd one from Skream or the odd one from Benga or Code 9, but predominantly all of my sets back then were… the first set I ever played was exclusively Digital Mystikz tracks.
Do you think your music connects people as part of the meditation and communal process of listening to music?
I don’t know about that but I think all music connects people. I think it connects like-minded people. You can just look at the 90s hip-hop scene or whatever, the artists would wear a lot of similar clothes and have a similar style of videos, so there comes with it trends and waves and frequencies and people just get on these frequencies because they feel like it connects with them.
Definitely, the music that I play connects people. I don’t necessarily know if it connects them for a spiritual reason or anything like that, again that’s a conversation that you would have to have with the people listening to the music.
Then with your labels subtitle, ‘come meditate in bass weight’, the word ‘meditation’… do you not think that is spiritual?
Well, it depends how you perceive the word meditate. For me, meditation is when you allow yourself to be still, and when you try and still your mind and just focus on being in one space. Not thinking about the past or the future, that sort of thing. So for me, I used to meditate when I made music purely because I was just there doing that thing. It would bring me a calmness; it would bring me peace of mind. It did offer me a way to exercise my demons and release all of my loves and my joys and all of my passions and my fears, so that for me was what the meditation was. It wasn’t let’s all get in a room, sit cross-legged and chant something. For me, that wasn’t what the meditation was about, whereas for some people they might meditate. I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way at all, but that’s just not how I would define meditation.
Well have you spoken to Coki and Loefah about that then, if it’s a subtitle…?
I didn’t need to! When things are supposed to be then they just are, you know? We went with it because that’s what it was supposed to mean to all of us. If there was something that wasn’t right then someone would have said ‘nah, that’s not running’. But that’s not what it was, so…
The internet has helped with the expansion and popularity of dubstep and has also led to people streaming more online and going digital. What are your thoughts on having vinyl vs. online, in the sense of actually listening and playing music?
To be honest for you, in a way I’m kind of trapped in different worlds because I grew up buying and playing vinyl because the other things didn’t exist when I started, definitely not in the extent that they are today. But going back to it, if someone’s playing a CDJ set or a laptop-set, well ultimately it’s about the experience and the feelings that people have whilst listening to the music or playing the music.
I think people enjoy seeing artists play records. It’s a common compliment that I get often from people, especially in places like America. People are like ‘awh man it’s so dope that you’re still playing vinyl, we don’t see it no more.’ But I think for me and my music and my journey, it makes sense that I still play vinyl. I still personally love it and I think people kind of expect that from me. I think people might be surprised or disappointed if they didn’t see me play records. That’s not why I continue… trust me I’ve thought about playing that way, leaving the records at home and jumping on the plane with a rucksack, my CDs and a USB in my pocket for convenience, for sure.
I have CDJs at home and I know how to use them and all that, but playing music, again, is like my mindset. I need that moment where I turn around and look through my record box – that’s how I think about my set, that’s how I think about what records gonna come next, you know? It’s just partly who I am and I think if I was to change that, which I might do one day, for now it’s important that I can still… you know I’m of that age where I can also remind people of how it used to be done in a way. Not to say that it was better back then, but me coming in from my generation to this new generation, I can say to the youngers ‘this is how I used to play and this is how it sounds’. They can dig it and enjoy but it doesn’t mean that it’s better or worse. It’s just my way.
Who are some new producers and artists that you’re liking right now?
Ah too many. I get asked this all the time and I never say, there are too many good producers. I play lots of tracks that aren’t on Deep Medi, obviously the guys that I work with, I love what they do and that’s why I work with them.
I just think that all over there’s a lot of good music, whether it be 140, dubstep, or whether it be someone like Children of Zeus, or Kamal Williams who released an album earlier this year on Brownswood. I like a lot of different music, as you would expect somebody my age to.
Aha! And I have a feeling you’ll hate this question, but where do you think the future of dubstep is going?
I’ve got no idea. I never knew where it was going 10-15 years ago, you get what I’m saying. And now it’s ended up here, but where is here? Here is here for me, but it might not be here for someone else. There’s a lot of people that fell out of love with dubstep. There’s also a lot of people that after falling out of dubstep are going ‘ah actually I’m feeling the music again’. Things are always changing. It’s as much of a unity and a unified journey for the human collective as it is an individual journey.
It’s just important to surround yourself with people that are full of love and support, who are also not afraid to tell you straight and help you grow.
What is the difference between Outlook and Dimensions from an artist’s perspective?
Dimensions is musically very different because it’s really house and techno based, so there’s a different audience there. Obviously, Outlook is older, and it’s mainly for people who are into dubstep, drum and bass or sound system music. As a teenager, I think you might grow up thinking ‘yeah when I hit 18 I’m gonna go Outlook Festival’, I think it’s become a thing.
And again, I feel so fortunate that I’ve been able to be part of both the festival’s journeys, and they’re both so great. Both in the same locations with the same sound systems, they offer a lot to people who love music.
What do you have prepared for the boat party takeover?
Just a lot of dub-plates, a lot of dubplates… we all get on the back, there’ll be like 6 or 7 of us on the boat all playing two tracks each, just a big free-for-all kind of thing.
Mad. Would you say that each year, after you’ve had the boat party, you reflect and think I did so and so different and this or that has improved from when we did it last year?
Yeah, there’s definitely boats that are better than other boats. There have been times when literally I can’t play any records because the plates are skipping so much. This happens all of the time, just generally throughout the club world. Different clubs, different situations. Sometimes you go back to the same club expecting a really solid experience because you had one last time to then find that someone’s mashed up the equipment or whatever, so you always notice a difference. You know, we’re professionals so we just get on with it. [Laughs]
Written by: Marianna Mukhametzyanova