Mala & SubDub: Celebrating 19 Years of Underground Sound System Culture
As clubbing tour-de-force SubDub celebrates its 19th year, we reflect with legendary Dubstep producer, DJ and founder of Deep Medi Records, Mala, about the event’s grassroots origins, present nightlife and uncertain future. This seminal Leeds based night offers veteran students, freshers and musically educated locals a chance to experience the city’s rich Caribbean heritage alongside all the big names in reggae, dub, drum & bass, dancehall, dubstep and jungle – played through one of the UK’s best known soundsystems.
WAY BACK WHEN: A SUBDUB HISTORY
Back in ’98 two ravers – Mark Salford and Simon Scott – sought to reinvigorate increasingly gentrified club culture with an alternative injection of dub reggae. In classic Northern style, this project would have to be inclusive, attracting students and locals alike, and showcase the myriad of innovative new genres emerging from the reggae and roots they both loved. Pairing up with trio Mark Iration, Sammy Dread and Dennis Rootikal of Bradford’s disbanded ‘Dub Me Crazy’, they introduced the infamous, heavyweight Iration Steppas Soundsystem into the mix. The group set up at what is now called Wire club; and according to Leeds folklore, the full force of the speaker stack smashed glass bottles behind the bar.
Spurred on by international attention, bigger crowds and headliners such as Lee Scratch Perry, Congo Natty, Shy FX and Goldie, SubDub made the choice to move to pastures new. They settled upon what is now known as its spiritual home, “The heart of the British Afro Caribbean community”: the West Indian Centre. This community centre, draped in wall hangings, army netting and with Chapeltown regulars serving up £2.50 red stripes, embodied the thrown together, hedonistic vibe so many of its revellers craved. The venue was comprised of two separate rooms; the first sticking to classic dub and reggae and the latter characterised of hard, bassy offshoots and subgenres. Through this space the SubDub tribe have rightfully earned their place as forerunners of the clubbing scene; taking their earth-shattering bass over to Croatian festival Outlook since its inception over 10 years ago. The Iration Steppas also continue to travel across Europe and the US, showcasing the SubDub sound with as much passion as ever.
A MEET UP WITH MALA
Kindly laughing off an offer of a cocktail, Mala’s softly spoken, genuine and heartfelt conversation style is intimately engaging. In a budding DJ demographic of brash ego-centrism, he is markedly refreshing, standing for the principles from which his music originated: community and sharing the love. All the same, it’s hard not to approach him with reverence. Dubstep was the sound of our early teenage years: its influence can be heard in everything from US chart to the darkest of underground wub-based beats. Mala, although barely out of his thirties, is one of its greatest and oldest pioneers.
Mala joined the SubDub team in 2005 when he and Coki graced the line-up at the West Indian Centre. Salford had heard of the duo Digital Mystikz and was intrigued by their sub bass heavy, minimalistic take on classic dub in early tracks such as Anti War Dub and Earth Run A Red. “We caught the megabus up from London. That first night was a mad session; we were loving it. DJ Rusko was there with us too. The crowd was great and everyone stayed until after the lights had come up, packed right up to the front.”
This original feel good vibe has lasted for over ten years – Mala’s name almost synonymous with the event itself – as he’s returned time and time again to deliver the same quality sets, “I’ve never played at any other night at Leeds – I wouldn’t want to. SubDub has been like home for me.”
Whilst Mala is grounded in the London scene through his renowned club DMZ, Leeds still carries a special reminiscence, “Leeds is friendly; it’s open. You see girls in the crowd at SubDub who have come on their own because it’s not scary or threatening. London’s different in that way, as it’s obviously so much bigger and feels less safe to come alone. In that way, I guess it’s a little spoilt.”
Undeniably London has the monopoly on the club culture, but SubDub is a challenge to such centrism. It’s a welcome breath fresh of fresh air in an overpriced and saturated market built almost exclusively on House music: an affordable (tickets start at £10) and accessible onslaught of sound – ear buds provided for free on the door! Dub music has somewhat unsurprisingly found its home in the North of England; an area well known for its warmth and community. Certainly, this event must be doing something right to attract Mala back year after year? “I love the Iration Sound – coming to play on a real roots sound system, we proved back in 2005 that Dubstep works in that context. A community space with real, grassroots vibes – that’s what it’s all about.”
The music itself embodies the historical power of British reggae: a tangible melding between afro-Caribbean and White middle and working class communities. SubDub is the home of students and Leeds residents, Londoners and Northerners, all coming together for the love of wub. Hessle Audio are one such testament to the SubDub influence and legacy. Inspired by regular raves at both SubDub and DMZ, and named after the numerous ‘Hessle’ streets in Hyde Park, the record label (founded by Ben UFO, Pearson Sound and Pangaea) has produced and some of the most cutting-edge tracks of recent years. “I’m sad to have missed them this weekend,” says Mala. “To see people being inspired in that way, the way that we ourselves were inspired to make music through sound system culture, is such a blessing. Every year we get new batches of students and new impressions to make”.
SUBDUB WEEKENDER 2017
This year the SubDub three-day weekender took place at the art gallery Freedom Mills. A change in backdrop spells out a new era for SubDub but with rumours of noise complaints and crack-down legislation – the likes of which briefly toppled London’s hall of rave Fabric – the prospective years look a tad uncertain. The West Indian Centre characterised the DIY ethos that the SubDub collective holds dear, bound up in nearly two decades of memorable nights. As Mala explains, “19 years … You can’t recreate that. There’s an energy that is stored in spaces. It’s not so easy to just pack that up and carry it over to a new venue.”
Despite initial reservations, upon arriving at Freedom Mills, I’m impressed. The space has a grungy, basement feel which works well with the atmospheric, pounding bass and rhythmic spitting of the MC. The dissonant sound of Dubstep was made for dark, enclosed venues like this one: stone walls reverberate with the sluggish bmp, and it’s as packed as ever. It’s more polished than the centre, and something of the down-to-Earth, ragtag feel is missing, but the fundamentals are ever present; the stage is decked out with sofas and the crew crack jokes and spur on each other’s sets. The Deep Medi collective deliver consistent old-time favourites and new releases, keeping the playlist diverse and upbeat with a combination of their own records and other staple tunes from across the dub canon. Most of the crowd is clustered around the looming Iration speakers rather than facing the front, opting to embrace the music over indulging the celebrity presence. This mantra is temporarily dropped when Mala takes to the decks – as the MC announces his name the audience explodes. Easily the biggest tune of the night is Jack Sparrow’s Where Am I, a tightly coiled production from a Deep Medi member, played by Mala himself. This is the second night of the three day festival with Hessle Audio celebrating their 10 year Anniversary the night before, but the energy levels are peaking. Some hard-core attendees come for the Friday, Saturday and Sunday, not wanting to miss a single set, and it’s easy to understand their unfaltering drive.
A HAZY FUTURE?
Whilst Dubstep’s heyday was barely a decade ago, genres like Grime have quickly become more popular with younger ravers and within the mainstream. To this, Mala has an uplifting response, “They told us Dubstep was dead”. He shrugs and grins, “We just cracked on and kept making music. And we’re not going to stop.” Mala’s particularity, his refusal to sell out and cash in, has been an essential and consistent part of his work. It’s added refinement to his productions, and through Deep Medi – which this year brings out its 100th record – he is continuing to prove his relevance and passion. Mala’s independent albums Mala in Cuba and Circles, both critically acclaimed, give credit to Cuban and Peruvian roots music. Both are performed with a live band on tour, standing as a testament to Mala’s ability to bring new and engaging variant twists to the usual decks & soundsystem setup:
“I still feel the same as I did when I was 18 – new music is constantly coming through; it keeps me on my toes. Everyone in this community encourages and drives each other. If you really love something, you don’t have to try it’s just in your heart but you have to be ready for it when it comes along. Music, so much music – that’s what’s always on the cards for me. It’s a platform for people to progress, especially in the roots community where you look for the positive and overcome struggle.”
It’s this code of adaptability to cater and work with the new and unexpected, coupled with its faithful crowds, which will keep SubDub alive and thriving. On increasingly gentrified high-streets and arising out of the ashes of “Broken Britain”, I’m eager to see how this massive presence in the UK underground scene will adapt. Personally, as my final year at Leeds draws to close, I hope to pass the baton on to the next generation of SubDubers who should place the night high on their student-clubbing bucket list.
Written by Hannah Pezzack
Interview by Hannah Pezzack & Kristian Birch-Hurst