Buzzing in the Bassbin

M.I.A. is blowing up in New York, but will she go pop?

If you haven't heard the music of Maya Arulpragasam, you aren't alone. But visit any online music-geek mecca, like the MP3 post Fluxblog (www.fluxblog.org) or the tempest-in-a-text-post board ILM (I Love Music) (ilx.wh3rd.net), and you'll be smacked with the feeling of missing out.

As the definitive word-of-fingers sensation, her debut album, Arular, revises Warhol's fifteen-minutes-of-celebrity rhetoric. Now location is of the essence. A brave new soul for our insular world, 27-year-old Arulpragasam, or M.I.A., can be in more than fifteen places (or 15,000 Websites) at any given time.

As Simon Reynolds pointed out in "Piracy Funds What?" -- his recent examination of Arulpragasam and Arular published in the February 23 issue of the Village Voice -- part of it is that she is a "veritable vortex of discourse." Much has been made of her upbringing as a Tamil minority in civil-war-torn Sri Lanka: Her father's involvement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant group the U.S. government has deemed terrorist, her family's eventual migration to England as refugees; and her education at London's Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.

The hybridized sounds of Maya Arulpragasam speak truth to power
David Titlow
The hybridized sounds of Maya Arulpragasam speak truth to power

Arulpragasam's sound itself is all over the place. A beat-driven, in-your-face hash of Western urban music and globe-spanning rural folk traditions, it has ignited extensive analytical debates and, as in Reynolds's piece, ethical discussions regarding appropriation. Reynolds backhands Arulpragasam by pointing out her "great taste in Other People's Music," a critique that trailed Madonna as she romped through the East Village to downtown clubs, gay balls, hip-hop spots, and French discos. Arulpragasam combines this signifying nature with globetrotting wanderlust. Her beats burst in air and borrow from Brazilian favela funk (by way of Miami bass by way of New York electro) ("Bucky Done Gun"), Jamaican dancehall ("Galang"), and Indian bhangra ("Amazon").

Such is the way of a true pop provocateur,whose every brash move can be picked apart or digested for enlightenment and sport alike. Arulpragasam's voice, a sort of sing-song jump-rope call, begs response, if not for its quality, then certainly for its politics. In his own Village Voice article "Burning Bright," Robert Christgau points out that her pre-Arular visual art, a now-heavily scrutinized product of her time spent at Saint Martin's that presents snipers, tanks, and, yes, tigers in a Day-Glo, stenciled spray-paint aesthetic, are "images, not propaganda." That's also an apt description for her words. Arulpragasam merely paints lyrical pictures of a "guerrilla gettin' trained up," of shotguns getting down during the party that is "Galang," and of a young girl who offers "anything you want" for the price of ten dollars.

Arulpragasam's unwillingness to dictate is key to her appeal -- politics are personable for someone who says her goal is just to "talk to people." Overachiever that she is, Arulpragasam buzzes so loud with her words and sound that it's no wonder external hype machines joined in the chorus. Major labels have begun singing along to the tune of a bidding war. Though XL planned to release the album on February 22, and even sent out promos in December (hence its online availability and examination), Interscope swooped in, signed Arulpragasam to a multi-album deal, took over the release of Arular, and pushed it back to March 22.

"They were like, öIf we heard any of your beats before, we would have paid anything to buy them,'" says Arulpragasam via phone after a late February gig in Glasgow. "People usually say, öIt needs a bit of polishing, it's a bit rough around the edges.' This is the first time they were like, öNo, it's perfect. Just carry on doing what you do.'"

Though Arulpragasam laces her language with self-awareness, she also squirms when her music's called "pop." She says she still doesn't know how to write songs (she started experimenting with music-making about three years ago) and offers apologetically, "I can't help the way it comes out catchy." She's unsure about how she'll fare in the pop-as-popular sphere, but admits that Interscope offers at least the possibility of exposure to U.S. commercial outlets. In typical feet-on-the-ground fashion, though, she says she isn't reaching for the stars.

"I still have my broken four-track in front of me, and two bags of teas sitting next to a broken kettle," claims Arulpragasam. "I haven't washed my hair for four days. I don't know what [stardom] means."

If she isn't sure how she'd look in pop-star fabric, she at least hypothesized about it on last year's Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol. 1, a self-released mix assembled with Philadelphia's Diplo, one-half of the mash-up-happy DJ team Hollertronix. The disc incorporated Arular a cappellas and pop sounds snatched from the likes of Ciara, the Bangles, the Clipse, the Eurythmics, and Jay-Z.

"Her music doesn't exactly fit anywhere," says Diplo from the road in Europe (he's Arulpragasam's touring DJ). "In the UK people didn't know what was up with it, and in the U.S. I thought it would just be [taken as] weird British pop music. I thought I'd just put it in some sort of context."

Arulpragasam sounded so natural against these familiar beats that XL helpfully sent out copies to journalists. Though Diplo says he aimed for "kids in the street," and handed out Piracy at shows, the disc moved hundreds of copies indoors at New York record store Turntable Lab, according to its manager who calls himself the Bogman. The result of this exposure (and file sharing, of course) helped the disc come in at number 23 on Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop critics poll, a remarkable placing for a nonlabel release.

But along with the praise came some rumblings about Arulpragasam's intentions. Craig Willingham, who saw two shipments (totaling about 250 copies) of Piracy move quickly as music manager of Mondo Kim's in New York (the only other retailer Diplo says he provided with copies), says it's a "boutique" counterpart of the many other mix tapes he stocks.

"Piracy Funds Terrorism has more of an album approach," he says. "Mix tapes are more driven by the street scene, and they thrive on competition between MCs and DJs. Piracy is about setting the context for how M.I.A., Diplo, and her management want her to be viewed."

In the wake of the more leftfield Arular, Piracy is best seen as an introduction to Arulpragasam's versatility and her ability to enhance whatever surrounds her. British pop-head producer Richard X, who offered his services to Arulpragasam soon after her first twelve-inch, "Galang," made joyful, idiosyncratic noise as a white label in 2003, and who ended up co-producing Arular, says this kind of musical distortion defines Arulpragasam.

"People were probably disappointed if they thought an M.I.A. mix tape would be really militant, really grimy," says Richard X from London during a phone interview. "Maybe they get depressed when Salt-N-Pepa come in, but that's Maya. That's what she is: surprising. She can get away with anything, I think."

And that comes from practice. Arulpragasam says that during her younger years in London, in a bid to fit in somewhere, anywhere, she fluttered through various scenes. In a way, Arular is the wringing out of a cultural sponge, "a refugee thing," as she calls it, and a portrait of transience right down to the way her voice doesn't quite sing, but also rarely settles on staccato, melodic stasis. She calls her flagrant borrowing "a good thing," reasoning that it offers greater awareness of musical worlds that might be ignored otherwise.

"The idea of her not being authentic is snobbish," says Richard X. "This is what good music is all about -- taking bits from different places."

When Arulpragasam says, "Pull up the people" on Arular's "Pull Up the People," she answers herself with "Pull up the poor." But her reach doesn't stop there. She may claim otherwise, but her music's populist, something-for-everyone intent definitely makes it pop, even if it never grazes the Top 40. Though there's a chance Arulpragasam will integrate in the relatively open-minded world of R&B radio, her work and philosophy contrast with the inherent globalism of her would-be contemporaries, namely Madonna, who early in the Eighties declared to her already-adoring American audience that she wanted "to rule the world." Twenty years later, Arulpragasam just wants pieces of it.

"Now I'm really getting into the game," she says, armed with her major-label deal. "Now I'm really going to have an opportunity to shake things up."

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