The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Instant Expert: MIA

Written by: Jimmy Hitt, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageIn the first in an ongoing series, CC2K Music Editor Jimmy Hitt breaks down everything you need to know about a band, so you can fully appreciate both the artist, and the art. In this installment, Jimmy becomes the MFWIC, and teaches about M.I.A.


Who:     Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam is the woman behind the sexually ambiguous moniker M.I.A .  As one can probably discern from her recent Pitchfork interview, Arulpragasam holds deeply conflicted, culturally and politically charged notions about herself and her music.  Much of her bizarre animosity springs from her father, Arul Pragasam AKA Arular (also the title of her first album), a Sri Lankan freedom fighter, or as we call them in the States, a terrorist.   Pragasam's devotion to the Tamil Tiger movement in Sri Lanka effectively disbanded his family, leaving Arulpragasam's mother to flee the country, settling in Southern India and eventually in London, where she discovered hip hop radio and immersed herself in the arts, becoming an accomplished graphic designer.   Through design work with bands like Peaches and Elastica, Arulpragasam developed an affinity for synth modulators and studio work in general, leading her to create a few well-received demo tracks, like "Gallang", which appears on her first album, Arular.  Through contacts like Diplo—a well known club DJ who helped produce a few tracks for M.I.A.'s burgeoning music project—eventually she had enough material to release Piracy Funds Terrorism, an early mix tape that made its rounds in 2004, generating incredible buzz and paving the way for the critically acclaimed Arular, which appeared in 2005.

What:    In essence, M.I.A. produces dance tracks that lean toward the grime genre but also incorporate elements of world music, reggae, American hip hop, and techno.   The result, asyou can see below, is an intense mash-up of original electronic beats, sampling, and found sounds, as M.I.A. has been known to use everything from the Rocky theme song to cash registers to flesh out her music.  All of this would surely be well-received by the underground electronic fans, but it's M.I.A.'s amazing propensity for vocal variation and, quite frankly, imitation, that raises her tracks to new levels.   Her voice tends to rest in the range of a sing-songy rap reminiscent of early 90s American rap artists, but leaning closer towards the actual tracks she sings and raps over.   One of the most outstanding elements of her work is that she not only records original vocals and music, but she does each exceedingly well, creating a unique fusion of sounds that only rarely seem stilted or contrived.   Lately, as seen on her 2007 sophomore album Kala, she has largely ditched the awkward samples of songs like "Sunshowers" in favor of much subtler cover samples and homage.   The most obvious instances of this include her cover/sample of The Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?", a song that CC2K fans will no doubt recall from the finale of Fight Club—which she incorporates into "20 Dollar", and the liberal lifting of the main guitar riff from The Clash's "Straight to Hell".  Juxtaposed with gun noises and cash registers, the latter sample proves to be the most effective of them all, which not only reminds the listener of Vietnam-tinged "Straight to Hell" lyrics, but also transcends the source music to create something vital and new.   In the end, that's exactly what M.I.A. does best. 

Where:    While M.I.A. works mainly out of London, her friendships with numerous international artists has seen her jet to the US, Liberia, South India, and elsewhere to collab with top artists like Three Six Mafia and Timbaland.   Her new album, Kala, is especially guest friendly, though never overtly so.  Because of her ties to Sri Lankan fighting forces, however, and her oft-incendiary lyrics—"Like PLO we no surrendo"—her ability to travel, especially into the US, has often been impeded or completely denied.   Regardless, M.I.A. performs all over the world, most often in Europe, The UK, Canada and the US. 

When:  Having produced records over just a 4 year period, it's pretty easy to jump onto the M.I.A. train and still act like you were down from day one.  Piracy Funds Terrorism was released in 2003, and her sophomore LP, Kala, doesn't officially drop until August 20th in the UK (although it was leaked several weeks ago).

Why:     It would seem that while M.I.A. obviously loves to get asses shaking, her politically charged lyrics would invite one to speculate that her street cred mandates a "power to the people" ethics code.   See "Pull Up the People" off of Arular or the line "I put people on the map who never seen a map" from "20 Dollar" on Kala for just a brief sample of her politics.  Still, without a purely political track on the level of the most famous 60s anthems or even a "Straight to Hell", which is one of the most amazing political songs, lyrically, of our time, much of her political spewing can come across as trite and unnecessary.   Luckily, she buries most of it beneath her beats and heavily processed vocals, so if no one said anything, you might not even notice it.  Her music is fun first, agenda second…thank God.

Recommendation:          Pick up Arular  or Piracy for an easy background, and definitely listen to Kala ASAP for some of the years finest tracks and one of the best overall albums in recent memory.   Then, roll your windows down and tune your amp to 11.  Turn heads, make friends, and so forth.

Author: Jimmy Hitt, CC2K Staff Writer

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