Tour of duty
M.I.A. rides Arular's wave and looks for a nice cave to write songs in
Attention rap-video babes: London MC M.I.A. wants you all to be CEOs. On the day we caught up with her, she was tracking a new tune at a studio in London. It's a response to Kanye West's "Gold Digger," and asks questions of hip-hop, wondering: If the main avenue on which women in hip-hop move up involves shaking their asses, who are hip-hop kingpins to critique them when they are doing it well? The working title is "Herb 'n' Money," which, for the first 19 times she mentions it, sounds like "urban money." Turns out, it's supposed to.
"Imagine if there was a female record company down South that funds itself by itself on its own booty," M.I.A. muses. "I wanted to do a song that was like, 'Where would hip-hop be right now, without a girl's butt?' Women haven't actually stepped up and gone, 'Look, this is my fuckin' butt, my fuckin' tits; I decide where the fuckin' money goes.'"
As the It girl of underground music, M.I.A. can wax about female entrepreneurship as much as she wants. Her debut album, Arular, mashes up the developing world's homegrown street beats, video-game sonics and Reebok-trainer culture with engaging personal politics and ample charismatic female attitude. It's been praised and analyzed by critics (online writers, in particular, opt for the four-page analyses) and has sold well enough that it was recently picked up by Interscope for a bigger push in the U.S. and a release in Australia, India and Sri Lanka. M.I.A. will find herself on the road again until November, opening for Gwen Stefani on some dates.
In case you missed it, here's the Cliff's Notes history behind 28-year-old Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam. Born in London in 1976, Maya and her family moved to Sri Lanka, where her father was a Tamil opposition leader in the civil war–ravaged country. Her dad stayed in Sri Lanka, but her mother relocated the rest of the family to rural India, and in 1986 back to one of outer London's rough 'n' tumble housing estates. After studying art at London's St. Martin's College, Maya designed an album cover for Elastica and met opening act Peaches while video documenting the groups on tour. With their encouragement, she went from casual hip-hop fan to making tunes on a 4-track backed by a Roland MC-505 sequencer in 2002. One cut from her demo, "Galang," reworked with producers in the studio, was released in a pressing of 500 in late 2003 and became a smash with DJs. A few months later, M.I.A. signed to XL Recordings, home of the White Stripes, in part because the label office was in her neighborhood. The hype bubbled with 2004 Diplo-collaboration mix-tape Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol. 1 and boiled over with the April 2005 release of Arular, which is nominated for this year's prestigious Mercury Prize.
As it turns out, the press's version might have mangled some subtleties of M.I.A.'s complex tale. She corrects a few things: "When people say that my dad is a Tamil Tiger, for example—which is a big thing, really—it's like he was a part of EROS, which is a different group. The Tigers killed all the other groups off." Her father, Arul Pragasam, is more book-writing intellectual than grenade-slinging guerrilla. Favoring revolutionary imagery and dropping references to the PLO in her lyrics, things have gotten strange for Maya. "The second [misunderstanding] is that people thought I wasn't political enough. People were like, 'She's not actually presenting a revolutionary manifesto that we can do something with.'" Sounds like the Bob Dylan effect.
Despite her star status, Maya has not altered her working method. She hammers out her own beats on the 505 and sings over them, then goes in the studio with tech-savvy producers who add as much or little as needed, and redoes the vocals. Her next album won't be tracked in London or Sri Lanka. "I want to do two months in six countries this year," she says. "I have to wait out my touring through November before I travel off into caves. I'm going to go and live in Cambodia and then Mozambique, Papua New Guinea and then Mongolia. I'm really instinctive. I'll know when I get there what's going on."
M.I.A. plays Metro Wednesday 28. Arular is out now.