Label of the Month: DEEP MEDi
Label of the Month: DEEP MEDiJune 7, 2021
As DEEP MEDi MUSIK celebrates its 15th anniversary, Sean Beeby chats with founder Mala to chart the origins and evolution of the label so far.
Since its inception in the white-hot epicentre of dubstep’s explosion, and through the many genre mutations and globalisation of the sound that followed, DEEP MEDi has quietly carved its own evolutionary path, while providing a home for the many kaleidoscopic strands of soundsystem music. Over 130 releases and 15 years later, it has captured some of the more daring and singular moments of a musical phenomenon in motion.
There’s a deep sense of community to DEEP MEDi, with a personal connection between label and artist that is central to its operation. In order to trace the label’s ancestry, we need to start with the scene and sound from which it sprung, and the community that nurtured DEEP MEDi founder Mala and many others in the very beginning.
Mala was part of a community of foundational dubstep artists frequenting the now near-mythical Big Apple Records in Croydon, just outside of London’s southern reaches. Initially making tunes as Digital Mystikz with fellow dubstep producer Coki, they formed the mighty DMZ label with longtime friend Loefah in 2004. In hindsight, it’s still remarkable that such a small hub in Croydon created such a powerhouse array of names, including Skream, Benga, Artwork and El-B, whose diverse trajectories would sprawl out like a solar system.
“That happens with community, you know — authentic, genuine community,” Mala says. “It was just a very healthy, innovative vibration happening. We were all in a similar place, and I think that encouragement that you got when a track dropped or went off created a perfect kind of breeding ground for growth — real growth.”
An emergent sound took shape, one that blended shards of jungle’s dystopian tension, the spacious delays of digital dub, and the ghostly three-note melodies of grime. The off-beat syncopation of dark garage championed by the likes of Horsepower Productions and Benny Ill was pared back to a half-time 140 BPM head-nod. Sub-bass was elevated to centre stage, becoming the sound’s unique and vital energy source.
Often repurposing the juggernaut output and low-end reach of dub sound systems for their DMZ nights, the music not only sounded gigantic, but felt resoundingly physical. The simple introduction of a sub note in a track became its most thrilling element. Word spread via speaker stacks, pirate radio airwaves and modem connections. From 2005 onwards, the world very much began to take notice.
“I remember going up to Soul Jazz records with DMZ001 and DMZ002, and they were reluctant to take them as they didn’t really know where to put them on the shelves. With DMZ004 I went in with a box of 30, and by the time I got back to Croydon half an hour later they’d left a message on the phone asking me to bring another box as they’d sold out. That then, was the moment where I realised things are different.”
With Mala soon touring constantly and receiving a wealth of unreleased music from friends and beyond, he founded the DEEP MEDi label in 2006 to share this output alongside his own. The first few records were initially a sonic extension of the bass-focused, dread-led DMZ sound. Early standouts include the seminal “Changes” by Mala himself and Loefah’s “Disco Rekah,” both cuts which had heavy dancefloor circulation. Often leading releases with a dancefloor track on the A-side, Mala started to introduce the deeper side of the artist’s vision on the B-side.
Long-time friend Tunnidge was brought onboard to design the now iconic artwork. Those roughly scrawled floating heads made a MEDi record instantly recognisable on store shelves. Mala wanted them to “be a bit mutated, kind of like an alter ego or a caricature of the artist,” he recalls.
Alongside genre classics like Mala’s own “Alicia” and Martyn’s “Broken Heart” remix, many artists were experimenting with broader palettes at 140 BPM. The cavernous space between the beats was being coloured with more musical approaches; the DMZ dread replaced with more emotive tones. The combination of dubstep’s low-swung tempo and its formidable framework of drums and sub allowed artists to explore the more atmospheric side, without fear of losing dancefloor impact.
As an artist working in the more considered, spacious and atmospheric end of dubstep, Mala naturally gravitated towards this style with DEEP MEDi. Quest, Silkie, and Kromestar from production and DJ collective Antisocial were fellow London scene heads, and became key components of this exploration on the label’s early output.
“Quest was very much on a journey with his early productions, making these incredibly beautiful, deep, emotional, meaningful rollers,” Mala says. “They were coming with chord progressions and real musicality.”
Silkie would become a permanent fixture in the label’s catalogue, too. Since meeting Mala in the early FWD>> days around 2003, between 2008 and this year’s Panorama LP, he accrued the most releases of all artists involved. Given their long standing connection, there’s a level of creative freedom and trust that exists between him and Mala. “I’m allowed to take full artistic control of the music, from the tracklist down to who we master with,” Silkie remarks. “It’s a blessing for an artist.”
The label’s discography would come to reflect the international hum of the dubstep movement as it seeped out across continents. Initially meeting via Myspace, Tokyo-based producer Goth-Trad made his label debut with “Cut End” in 2007 and went on to become a staple artist for the label.
He was a seasoned musician and producer way before his DEEP MEDi work, with a back catalogue full of expertly crafted tracks infused with a sense of dystopian chaos.
“He used to make a style of music called ‘mad rave’ and you can hear how he started going towards what he makes now,” Mala says. “He was always into industrial, noise, ambient — somehow he merged all of this together to create this tight, kind of futuristic frequency that we know now.”
As dubstep turned heads across disparate scenes, the label would house some of the genre’s many cross-pollinations too. Calibre was one of many drum and bass producers to experiment at 140 BPM, given that the genres share such a strong sonic lineage. “He’s one of the realest people I’ve met. Very genuine and down to earth,” Mala says. “He had about 600 of his own tracks in a folder. I was honored to be able to release a few of those 140 BPM ones on DEEP MEDi.”
One of the more unique artists to emerge out of dubstep’s ether was James Blake, who would also craft one of DEEP MEDi’s most eccentric moments. Mala recalls the time Blake handed him a demo CD outside a jerk chicken van at 6am after a DMZ night in Brixton in 2006. Shortly afterwards, Blake sent an email containing two remixes of Mala’s tunes.
His Harmonimix remix of Mala’s “Changes” morphed the original into one of Blake’s signature, colourfully discordant anti-bangers, complete with glockenspiels and ominous brass sections. It remained on dubplate in the hands of a precious few before finally being released on DEEP MEDi in 2013.
“That’s the brilliance of James Blake. Look where it goes from an arrangement point of view — the composition is phenomenal. I’ve played that track in big festivals as well as smaller, intimate venues and it never fails to amaze me how it gets people,” Mala recounts. “Obviously there’s this huge buildup in the intro and then the drop, which isn’t really a drop at all as it’s so minimal, but people are just losing their minds, screaming!”
Like all good record labels, DEEP MEDi has long served as a physical amalgamation of Mala’s music taste. Records like the smoky, downtempo poptronica of “A Taste Of Struggle” or the technicolour funk of Swindle’s Long Live The Jazz LP showcased a willingness to transcend apparent genre restrictions.
“For me, the wonderful thing about having a record label is that you’re free to release the music that you genuinely love. I don’t think I could run a label any other way,” Mala says. In fact, the Swindle record has become one of the label’s most sought after releases on the second-hand market, having come into existence with a bit of A&R inspiration on Mala’s behalf.
“The man was all about funk and jazz — things like Parliament, George Clinton — but he’d been trying to make music to maybe fit in a certain space,” he says. “In putting out a record like that, you’re encouraging them to be their true selves.”
While DEEP MEDi released music from a number of high-profile artists, including Skream, Roni Size, Mark Pritchard, and Pinch, it also nurtured a stable of younger practitioners keen to make their own unique imprint on the sound over the years. Kahn, Truth, and Gantz are among those who joined DEEP MEDi’s roster early in their careers and have blossomed under Mala’s guidance. “Not everybody was lucky enough to come into something when there was nothing there,” Mala says.
Having released his first record with the label in 2011, Commodo is one such artist, and one who encapsulates the label’s open-ended approach to bass music. 2013’s Space Cash EP posits grime motifs, crystalline hip-hop synths and atmospheric techno across three bass-heavy, club-focused tracks.
Istanbul-based artist Gantz’s work is even further out there. On the title track of 2016’s Witch Blues EP, a shuffling, organic beat snakes around a wonderfully detuned harp melody, marking one of the most abstract and psychedelic moments in the label’s discography. Much of the EP is tilted more towards the otherworldly wonkiness of an early Lapalux record than a traditional dubstep release.
That’s not to say DEEP MEDi has abandoned dancefloor pursuits. It was in 2016 while playing a boat party off the coast of Croatia with one of the young label cohorts, Kahn, that Mala came across what would be one of the label’s most vital and successful tracks.
Sir Spyro’s spitfire grime tune “Topper Top” got a few rewinds when Kahn played it that day on the boat. Mala sent an email about the track over to Spyro’s manager, unaware that they had long been swapping tracks, “Topper Top” included, with DEEP MEDi’s label manager. Soon after, it was locked in for release.
For an artist who would normally test out tracks on dubplate over a number of months, it was an unusually swift process. But Mala had seen enough within minutes. It became one of the biggest bass tracks of the year.
At one point during our chat, Mala’s son enters his home studio looking for a copy of a forthcoming DEEP MEDi record. The aesthetic of the label was switched up after 100 releases, so this record came in a sleeve of black and white fractal shapes, with free colouring pens included in the first 50 releases “to give kids something to do for half an hour during lockdown,” Mala says. It’s a sweet moment, and also one which poignantly demonstrates just how much things have changed over the last 15 years. Dubstep has grown up, in more ways than one.
If there’s a common thread to trace all the way back to those heady days in 2006, it’s the warm low-end frequencies which provide a life force on each release. Whether they’re dancefloor ammunition or for horizontal home listening, a flickering flame of creative ingenuity from dubstep’s formative days is embedded in every record.
Mala himself had made a conscious effort to take time away from touring at the end of 2019 to focus on studio projects, including scoring documentaries and an array of other pursuits far removed from the dancefloor. He had inadvertently prepared for a year at home before Covid hit anyway. With a label release schedule lined up way into 2022 it seems that there’s many more moments and connections to be crystallised into DEEP MEDi records yet.
“That’s where I find most joy in what I do. Exploring new textures, new frequencies, new messages and stories and how I can present those to the audience.”