Meditate On Bass Weight:
How Mala Became Dubstep’s Countercultural North Star

Words: Son Raw

Dubstep, even at its most subterranean, created icons. FWD>> at Plastic People may have taken place in a small room lit by a single red bulb, but the shadows cast by DJs behind the booth were long, and the intensity of the music pumping out of the subs made even little-known selectors look like giants controlling elemental forces. Yet even when listed next to names like Skream, Benga, Hatcha, Youngsta and Loefah, Digital Mystikz’s Mala stands out. With his mane of unruly dreadlocks swinging and low-key mannerisms giving way to high-energy mixing of the scene’s most exclusive dubs, Mala came to embody dubstep in its purest form: a dark, heavy, jazzy continuation of not only jungle and garage, but also roots reggae and dub, as well as Detroit techno and the deepest side of house.

Musically, this expressed itself in uncompromising dancefloor heaters, custom-designed for maximum impact on England’s very best soundsystems. Aesthetically, he stood apart from the (unfair) stereotype of the tracksuited, nightbus-taking dubstep head, embodying the urban shaman evoked by the words Digital Mystikz, his group’s namesake. With dubstep’s initial explosion long past, Mala’s combination of uncompromised musical vision and spiritual vision may not have conquered the world quite like the genre’s most commercial efforts, but it has become a guiding light for artists in the genre’s underground sphere, taking it to spaces even he might not have predicted.

And yet, it almost didn’t happen.

After a teenage football career with FC Millwall didn’t pan out, Mala’s earliest attempts at music are a classic tale as old as the music industry: boy makes tune, gets burned by the bright light of showbusiness, but bounces back, discovering his true artistic self in the process. For Mala, that initial, uncomfortable brush with fame came in the form of “Whadda We Like”, a high-gloss single/video epitomising the peak of UK garage’s pre-grime, emcee-led moment. It’s not bad: lead vocalist Onyx Stone carries the tune, the skippy 2-step beat could fit nicely in a retro set today, and the visual features plenty of acrobatic street dancing. Mala, then known as MC Malibu, however, looks incredibly out of place and uncomfortable playing the music industry game. It’s an experience he later described as a turning point in his career, the moment he realised he needed to be himself and to succeed or fail on his own terms.

Thankfully, London’s music scene was about to provide a far more welcoming environment for a producer with a passion for authenticity and deep musical connection. By late 2002, garage’s champagne-soaked excess was on its way out, a victim of economic recession, over-policing, and an old guard wary of the next generation’s musical innovations. Most immediately, this changing of the guard expressed itself through young emcees barring out on pirate radio, but simultaneously, a scene was forming around Croydon DJ Hatcha’s sets at FWD>>, which favoured dark, highly percussive takes on the 2-step sound. A fellow South London native himself, Mala’s earliest production—both solo and with long-time partner in Digital Mystikz, Coki—fit this new paradigm perfectly, marrying expansive empty space to thunderous low-end and unexpectedly muscular rhythms. By the time The Mystikz partnered up with fellow producer Loefah and MC Sgt Pokes to form the DMZ club night and label, dubstep’s aesthetic had coalesced around their combination of militant musical purity, darkened motifs reflecting decaying urban life, and an almost religious desire to “meditate on bassweight.”

Though dubstep would go through countless sonic changes over the next few years, and Mala himself would exhibit significant artistic growth through his collaborations with Cuban and Peruvian musicians on a pair of solo LPs, it’s the image he cultivated through DMZ and Digital Mystikz that’s become a shorthand for dubstep’s underground origins, particularly when contrasted with the perceived shallowness of the American EDM acts that hijacked the scene. The symbolism evoked by Mala playing carefully-cut dubplates to a rapturous crowd of purists even persists in places completely divorced from the genre’s origins. In North American dubstep strongholds—like Denver and British Columbia, places far removed spatially and culturally from the unique South London roads evoked by DMZ’s catalogue—Mala’s dreads and pacifism have long provided an entry-point for outsiders to discover dubstep, helping spread the sound to alternative festivals and clubs.

It’s a bit ironic that Mala would inspire communities of hippies just as removed from the genre’s origins as Skrillex’s candy ravers, but it’s impossible to deny the listeners he brought into the scene’s love for dubstep’s deeper and more meditative side, particularly given they’ve helped keep the scene afloat during its leanest years. Even today, as the UK dubstep community is once again expanding and finding its place amidst the post-pandemic clubbing landscape, the sheer variety of people interested in the genre and willing to explore its more experimental side owes much to Mala’s work as the movement’s ambassador.

Of course, none of that would matter if the music didn’t stand the test of time, but with Mala’s classic vinyl catalogue currently benefiting from an extensive re-mastering and re-issue campaign to streaming services, it’s evident that the tunes sound better than ever. Previously wax-only singles such as “Neverland” are absolute monsters in pristine digital quality, with each rhythmic element EQ’d for maximum impact. Given that latecomers to Mala’s music have mostly experienced early DMZ material via vinyl rips, YouTube uploads, mixes, or hazy memories from late-night DJ sets, there’s never been a better time to explore the music that has become the foundation for practically every underground dubstep track that came after it.

It may be ironic that Mala’s rejection of garage’s shameless marketing would lead him to become just as iconic as 2-step’s champagne aesthetic, but it’s also a perfect example of how staying true to one’s self and refusing to compromise can lead artists to find their own definition of success. By sticking true to his guns, not only did Mala forge his own path, he also opened it to countless other listeners who might not have given dubstep a chance. Though I do still wonder what an emceeing career would have sounded like.

Posted on July 21, 2022