Beat Construction: Mala in Cuba

Photographer Teddy Fitzhugh
September 06, 2012

Dubstep pioneer Mala recorded his lastest album, out September 11th on Brownswood Recordings, in Cuba. Find an exclusive stream of the LP below, followed by Daniel Arnold's story on how it came together from FADER #82, which will be on stands in October.

Cuba is the last place Digital Mystikz co-founder Mala would have picked to record. His first trip there was a blind stab, taken only to indulge the hunch of influential UK radio mainstay Gilles Peterson, who was out to play matchmaker and mine new sounds for his label, Brownswood Recordings. In Peterson’s mind, Cuba’s heavy politics and defiant positivity made the country’s music perfectly suited to Mala, an influential pioneer of dubstep, whose music up until now has all been steeped in crushing Jamaican bass.

Mala knew little of Cuban culture, but the producer didn’t think twice before signing on to make a record blending his style with the island’s jaunty trademark timba music. The resulting album, Mala in Cuba, will be his first full-length after innumerable 12-inch singles and a world of DJ gigs. Digital Mystikz released their first single in 2004, and in the eight years since, the 32-year-old Brit has become a seasoned traveler, having dusted turntables with his waist-long dreads in 69 countries. Now, after the commercialization of dubstep, the genre he helped kick start, he’s willing to venture to new places. “I like to be free from what I know,” Mala says. “That’s when real living happens. I’m not a planning type of person.” As it turns out, Cuba’s not a planning type of place either.

In Havana, as Mala quickly learned, “you can just stick your hand up in the road, jump in the car with someone and tell them where you want to go.” And so, Mala rolled with Cubans, met their mothers and made a point of seeing how they lived. Connecting immediately with what seemed to be a national kindred spirit, he threw a house party with a full blast sound system in a residential basement one Tuesday night, and happened upon the trumpet slayer who put the muscle into album standout “Calle F.” Not long after, during a studio session, a 70-year-old timbalero called Changuito came in wearing a plaster cast, and spiced the strictly digital producer’s stew with a flurry of taut, hand-beaten rhythms that went minutes without repeating. “Their shit was so tight,” Mala recalls of his collaborators. “There’s no editing, no cut and paste. That’s where the swagger comes in.”

After two fruitful extended stays in the first half of 2011, he packed his overloaded laptop and flew home with a head full of unprocessed experiences, fading reggaeton hi-hat patterns and more potential directions than he knew what to do with. Despite the charge of those improvised electric sets, cohesive songs did not present themselves. “At times I didn’t think I would be able to complete the project,” he says, with the fatigue of many dissatisfied nights spent matching tempos and decoding odd tunings. “It was a total breakdown. I had to build the music and myself up from scratch.”

What he built isn’t quite Cuban, nor is it exactly Digital Mystikz-style dubstep. Mala’s familiar industrial edge now comes tucked under angelic vocals and sentimental piano loops. The music maintains a coldness, despite the Cuban heat, but his familiar wintry minimalism has been hotboxed with street noise and cooking smells. Mala has never sounded so bright; Cuba has never sounded so gloomy. “When I listen to the record now, I understand more about my time in Cuba than when I was deep in it,” Mala says. “The experience of visiting these countries and meeting the people, that’s worth more than anything. It doesn’t get much realer than this.”

At the moment, reality for Mala means bracing himself for the record’s release and the birth of his second child. “I’m a bit of a self-punisher,” he says, “but you grow up and you go on your adventure.” And, with Cuba conquered and new senses awakened, he is already plotting his next step as dubstep’s self-appointed world ambassador. “I want to go around to different countries capturing people’s energy,” he says. “There are still so many dimensions left to discover at this tempo. I’m just getting started, bro.”

From The Collection:

Beat Construction
Beat Construction: Mala in Cuba