To see what the fuss is about, since the guy is revered as the wise man on the mountain by a lot of UK dance producers, I watched Mala's Red Bull Music Academy lecture recently. It's a great watch, a whole hour in which interesting questions are put to a thoughtful producer in front of a broad audience. And for sure, Mala's integrity and conscientiousness are extraordinary and admirable. However, I found some of the positions he was taking puzzling and frustrating, which prevented me from getting sucked into the mystique.
First of all, and I'm sure this has been argued extensively already, but it bears repeating: naming something does not necessarily limit your ability to understand it. This is very much the historian in me asserting that everything is a part of history and situated in a context that helps explain it. Therefore understanding a work involves understanding the connections between it and its environment. I think an audience should be trusted to do this without facing insinuations that they are somehow diluting the purity of the way they listen to music. Giving something a name does not automatically reduce the intensity of your experience of it. Music can be thought about as well as felt, and there is value to both pursuits.
Plus I smell hubris whenever an artist declares that their work cannot be 'put in a box' or defined in relation to other works. Implicit in the claim that a work is indefinable is the suggestion that all that other stuff that has a name is somehow stale and inferior. Mala is probably aware of the genre = generic trap, and explicitly laments the fact that any music is pigeon-holed by the media machine. But even without its nefarious influence, how are people to talk about the music scene they are part of? Common sense demands that they refer to it by some term. If the artists involved themselves are unwilling to provide one, others will.* That may be the underlining problem: your product is being defined and disseminated without your control. But this is an inevitability Mala is aware of: music takes on a life of its own. Once you put it out there, to some extent it stops being yours. And your audience has given it a name. Nothing strange about that.
[*Interesting in this respect the contrast with grime, where Wot Do U Call It? generated a bunch of names (sub low, 8 bar), and where Wiley actually tried to stamp his own brand on the music (eski beat). But once a consensus term was established everyone fell into line, including Wiley, who has started calling himself the King Of Grime (with some justice).]
If anything, I would say loyalty to a cultural legacy that imposes a very rigid and inflexible distribution model for your work (dubplates, pirate radio, limited runs of vinyl) encourages it to be put in a box whatever it sounds like. Signalling your respect for a certain tradition by emulating its rituals clearly marks you off and encourages others to form certain very clear associations. Compare this to the relative anonymity of an MP3 streamed or downloaded from the internet, which (if you're lucky) may come with the name of an album and a small image of its front cover. There is less to latch onto, fewer associations you can make, when you are exposed to music in this way.
To me vinyl looks cumbersome and expensive. True, when I have seen a favourite album in that big package I think I've glimpsed some of what vinyl-fetishists find so alluring about the format. But I'm also suspicious of those feelings, since I have this idea that music should be able to stand alone without needing the material around it to have an effect.* So the only argument for vinyl that makes sense to me is the quality of sound it produces, and as I'm not enough of an audiophile to really appreciate the difference vinyl makes, I'm happy to leave it aside for cheaper alternatives.
[*This can be construed as naïveté on my part, since there is a context to the consumption of music as well as the production of it, which can have a pretty huge impact on your appreciation of that music. And actually the format in which that music is presented (a record, a cassette) can be seen as a feeble attempt to exert some kind of control over that experience. But that control is weak. Other factors (taste, emotional state, the weather) exert a much stronger influence, I would argue.]
I'm going on about vinyl not because I want people to stop buying it, only to point out why I don't. In fact one of the things that I really value about labels that put out vinyl is that the effort and expense required means that releases are few and well thought out (unlike MP3-centred scenes like glo-fi or hip hop where there is a staggering amount of material to trawl through). I'm lucky in that most uk dance labels (incl. favourites like Butterz and Hessle) give their audience a choice of format. It's the restriction of choice that I find frustrating.
And it is an impotent kind of frustration, since I realise that creators can and should be able to present their work in whatever way they think best. All I can do is point out that consciously limiting your output to a certain format doesn't strike me as a particularly open and welcoming attitude to have. This comes out more forcefully in an interview with Loefah, where he identifies vinyl-buyers as the real 'hardcore' – the audience his label Swamp81 is targeting. Which I think is wrong-headed, in that buying vinyl may correlate with a certain respect for music, but not absolutely so. This means you may not be reaching some of the 'hardcore' who for whatever reason don't buy records.*
[*I wouldn't say I identify with Loefah's 'hardcore', btw. I'm more of a skittish dilettante when it comes to dubstep and its offshoots. My allegiance to grime is firmer, not least because I admire its expansionist drive.]
More generally, there is something cliquey about the 'this is for the people that know' declarations, and something precious about the 'we are not looking for attention' assurances. Why would you want to limit the exposure to your work to those that 'deserve' it? This was brought out for me in Mala's repeated insistence that the seminal Haunted / Anti War Dub release will never be repressed, in the face of one questioner who was clearly eager to have a copy. I think there is something unwholesomely inward-looking about the preference to protect and buttress the value of your record for the people that already own it, as opposed to allowing new people to attach a value to it as well.*
[*Not to mention the kind of market distortions and unsavoury speculative behaviour you get when you restrict supply in this way.]
Should repeat again that Mala seems to me like an upstanding fellow, and he's responsible for beautiful things like 'Forgive' and 'Misty Winter', which automatically earn generous measures of my respect. I'm aware that launching what amounts to a series of cloaked ad hominems at him is not the best way of showing that, but I would stress that my rambling is less about Mala and more about myself, specifically why I can't buy into his point of view despite liking some of his work. And the work is good – that new Cuba album sounds primed for summer...