M.I.A has already broken through with unprecedented success in America playing sold out shows in New York and the SXSW festival. With her mash-up of bhangra, ragga, hip hop and electro being the most groundbreaking fusion since Missy Elliot arrived on the scene it's not hard to see why.
The daughter of a Tamil fighter ( The Tamil's being a revolutionary organisation of more than 10,000 members trying to gain independence from the Sinhalese population), she grew up in hiding across Sri Lanka and India, moving at a moments notice to avoid a very real death threat, before settling in the UK. Struggling to fit in she retreated into her shell before going to St Martin's College, which led to a chance meeting with Elastica's Justine Frischman. It was to be a meeting that took her Stateside (in a documentary making capacity at the time) where she hooked up with producers Diplo, Richard X and Pulp's Steve Mackey for the debut album proper "Arular" on XL Records.
Now signed to Interscope there is talk of working with internationally renowned producers (the fact that Dr Dre is signed to Interscope suggests that he could well be "that" big name producer). Designer Magazine's Editor Alex McCann caught up with Maya Arulpragasam aka M.I.A aka Missing in Acton.
Q: You've been getting a lot of recognition Stateside, but MTV Base Spanking New is the first major mainstream props you've got over in the UK. How does it feel to be part of a new urban underground?
A: Even though tonight I'm doing stuff with the kids doing grime and da da da daa, it's nice that when we all slot together it's not that we're all doing the same music. There are subtle differences and I think it's gonna get weirder. I think when you put all five of us together tonight you can sense that it's going to be new music and they better be ready for it.
Q: The album "Arular" is steeped in memories of your father and your fathers influence, the title itself is taken from your fathers moniker
A: Yeah. In the beginning I did it as a way of finding him. There were lots of reasons, but it kept mounting up and it seemed that that word had so much affect on my life. My mates were like did you know that your dads name when you spell it "A and then rular" it says a ruler - kind of was he that much of an egomaniac? But it was a Sri Lankan word and that's why he's got it, the name. I thought if I use it for the album he would find it on the internet. I always imagined there would be so much of it on the internet he'd go, who's that girl, and find out who I am. It worked because I know that he knows about and I got a message saying, "please change the title of the album". On one hand I did find him and on the other he asked me to change the name.
Q: How was it for you when you got that simple but forceful message from your estranged father?
A: It was really mad because it was the day before the Tsunami and then after that I heard that his entire house had been swamped and all the computers had gone. I haven't really heard from him since then. I know he's all right and everything, but he's moved somewhere else. It's kind of mad. It's too much to deal with, like I kind of wished it upon myself to find him and then I did by naming my album that name...but to deal with the actual reality is really heavy. Unless you've actually got time to actually sit down and work through all of that and to actually have time to go and see him and stuff. I feel like I can't open that can of worms right now. At least I should wait until I get off tour.
Q: Did you know for sure that when you named the title "Arular" he would get in contact?
A: I just wished that theory worked at the time. I was like imagine if that's how you lived. I was like why not make the product and then make it useful for your personal life by literally making it work for you. Then it actually worked and it worked so quickly, I was like "shit, that's just amazing!!!". It's really hard to explain because I really wasn't expecting it to come through, but it did, and now I have to deal with it.
Q: The album came out in the States about 2 months before it came out in the UK. How was it when it blow up for you over there?
A: When I sensed it and I kept coming back to England and saying I don't know how to put it to y'all, it ain't Lemar or Jamelia but it's doing all right over there. Everyone kept saying, "You're tired, go and have a lie down, it's a figment of your imagination". And then more people started coming out from England and seeing it for themselves. It's interesting yer know. America's so vast and it's so big and people in England just can't be bothered with this or that. I think a lot of American's relate to my album because it's about politics and it's such a featured thing over there right now. You know, in England, politics or anything heavy is something you brush under the carpet and not talk about because it's not cool. I mean I can't think of any bands coming out of England now that are putting their necks on the line to say something or stand up for something. I think that's really what they really appreciate about it over there, the fact that it's someone being really ballsy coming out of England.
Q: That's the thing - we haven't got a British equivalent of Public Enemy or Dead Prez?
A: It won't happen. It's a different mentality I think. In the beginning a lot of people were like "This gal's got such a big mouth. Who the f**k is she?", and then in America it was like your mouth is not big enough. You need to shout louder!!! It was nice to have somewhere where you worked really bolshy, but my songs are not really about dissing an individual. It's on a different level and talking about subjects that are not really covered on normal albums.
Q: I guess it helps with the sound of the album - it doesn't sound American, it doesn't sound British. It doesn't sound as if it's from a particular place.
A: It just that that's what I am. I was like coming Sri Lanka and then I lived in England and then there was a lot of stuff that I was doing in America. I've got family in America so I used to go out and stay there quite a lot. I knew how the underground and street culture worked. I grew up with hip-hop and stuff. It has to be real and if you're an artist it has to be a reflection of your life that you've lived and your opinions and how they work with society today to make them relevant.
Q: Those early days where you never stayed in one village for long must have influenced you. The fact that you never felt settled because of the need to keep moving because the connection with your father must have had a profound affect on your life?
A: It was all right. In the beginning I didn't really think too much about it. It was just so practical - get up, go now and we live for another year. When I came to England that was really frustrating and that was the hardest bit. Because when you're in Sri Lanka and India there was always the option you were going to go to England. By the time somebody tracked our birth certificates down and sorted things out we tried four or five times to leave our village, but the bus would get stopped and people would get killed or they'd bomb the road. Then we had to wait for someone else to come up with a new plan how to get out by boat and so many different things. That's all you cared about - how to get out? It became a game, fine if they can't get me on land then I'm gonna try plane.
Q: How was it for you in England when you first moved over from Sri Lanka? How did you fit in?
A: In England we really had to start from scratch and build our life again because this was our home. We had to build ourselves from this working class council estate f**ked up position. That was a different scenario.
I didn't speak English so I played dumb for ages. And then I turned dumb. In Sri Lanka when you do maths as a 10 year old I was already doing the equivalent of A-Level maths. They're so full on and into that kind of stuff. When I came here everybody assumed that I was really thick because I didn't know English. Then you find other things to do that make you feel like you can relate. Learning English was just like a nightmare. It took us about two years when I thought I'm not going to these stupid dumb classes, because they used to take me and my sister in a van during school hours and put us in this weird institute with other refugee kids and special needs kids. We'd learn English like we were 2 years old.
It's kind of why "Banana Skit" is on the album because it's taking the piss of what I used to have to go through. After that it was fine though because I found hip-hop and I was off. I learnt a lot of English through hip-hop because it was like someone's saying something with some force. When you've had such a dramatic full on life and then to come to a country where everyone went "little darling". I was so shocked because it was like I used to get beat in Sri Lanka and I've been stabbed by pens by teachers for getting one word wrong out of a hundred. You come to England and when people are teaching they're so nice, it just made me feel really stupid.
Q: It must have been a lot more relaxed when you went to St Martins College to study art?
A: St Martins was a totally different story. I'd been in America at that point and I was hanging out with bands. Over there you'd walk down the street and get hit on all the time and the party's I was getting invited to. I got completely sucked into that lifestyle, missed clearing and universities. So when I got back I had nowhere to go for further education and St Martins was one of those things that popped in my brain. I really wanted to go there so I just kept ringing everyday and hustling my way onto the cause through emotional blackmail. It was at St Martins that was the first time I'd met like what being privileged or wealthy was. I'm not saying that everyone at St Martin's was well off, but a lot of people had the luxury to come there, yer know what I mean.
Q: St Martins was the starting point for the music in many ways - meeting Justine Frischmann from Elastica, going on tour with them in a filming capacity and then meeting Peaches. Do you feel your life would have been very different if you hadn't gone to St Martins?
A: Before then I was really involved in being in London. I was moving from council flat to council flat. That was my lifestyle. I went from Mitcham to Brixton to Hounslow and then East London in Brick Lane and I got to know every single underground gang. I'd go and hang out with the Trinny's in Brixton and the indian pakistani's in Hounslow.
St Martin's was the first time I met like white people in London who were actually from another world. They'd look at me and go what are you wearing, you know when I'd come into college with a mini-skirt and wearing my total ragga clothes. They used to be so unaware of the life that I had, that I found their life really interesting. It taught me a lot and it took me into a whole other world of London with fashion and art. It was really amazing, but I was like shit how do I fit into it?
The first thing I did for Justine was the tour video and then I got the cover art and graphics soon after that. I went over to the States with Elastica and was filming the show every night, Peaches was the support act over there, and by the time I got off tour I went a bit mad. I didn't know what to because I just knew I had to do something meaningful. For me to be just a really good filmmaker wasn't enough. It had to be a good filmmaker who made a film about "this" that did something. So I went out to Sri Lanka and tried to make a film there, but left music behind, and after that I came back and got asked to spend a week with someone who had a 4 track in their house. When they left for the day I was really bored and that was really the first time I'd sat down and tried to make sense of my music.
Q: What was there first music you made and the first steps you took to achieve that?
A: I got the Roland 505, which Peaches uses, and I just pressed all the buttons. On the American album there's a skit on there called "Freedom Skit". That was one of the first beats I wrote and "The MIA Bonus Track" was one of the first songs I wrote. I was writing lots of little bits and my friends would come home at night, I'd play it to them and it would be like where have you been. I think just having someone say that it was good enough, I was like lets give it a go. I've got to thank my mates for leaving me alone that day or my life might have been very different.
Q: It's just these little instances that add up isn't it?
A: I've always lived my life like that because you never know when anything's going to happen. You have to draw from what's going around you all the time. For you to just be happy with where you are you've got to make it resourceful as to how you live. I thought rather than just bitching about being in that house alone or watching TV, I'd try and do something. I was just completely obsessed and couldn't do anything else after. It changed my life.
Q: How did you hook up with all the collaborators on the album, Steve Mackey from Pulp, Richard X and Diplo?
A: I wrote for 2 or 3 months and when I wrote enough songs I was happy with I started asking around for producers. One of the first ones I tried to get in touch with was Roots Manuva and Sage from Bugz In The Attic, but Roots Manuva I couldn't find some reason and Sage thought I sounded too pop to be doing broken beat. I couldn't believe it and I just left his club night with my tail between my legs and started looking for new people. And then I found Steve Mackey and it was like, I have to work with this guy, so my mates pooled together some money so I could fly out and see him. In the end he gave me some free studio time to work on the tracks.
Q: Is there anyone else you'd like to work with or have you found your dream team?
A: I'm still putting them together. I want to go out to Brazil and do some collaboration's out there because they're meant to be doing some amazing stuff. And I want to be doing some straight up hip hop stuff because at the moment i'm getting loads of offers in and I haven't chosen my camp yet. I think it's good to keep writing all the time because it's not as if all your creativity comes in a two week block in the middle of September. It's random when you get that feeling so it's nice to sit down and work on stuff so you don't have to pick things out of thin air.
Q: He's just done the new Public Enemy album. You should work with Paris on the Guerilla Funk label. What do you think?
A: Everyone tells me that I should work with Paris. He's on Wall Street and is a part-time financial advisor, which I think is really amazing. I think it's genius that he's sussed it out, that he can rap and then give financial advise to his people because they need help with money. It's quite true.
Q: I always say it's like Missy Elliot times a hundred. For people who haven't heard your music how would you describe it?
A: It's like a walking mix tape. It's like a mix tape except you get it from one artist rather than 20 artists on one tape. When I first started I thought journalists would come up with a name, but no-one has.
"Arular" is out now on XL / Beggars Banquet
M.I.A tours the UK in June
For more info and full dates
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PORCUPINE TREE VS M.I.A
Following Steven Wilsons announcement he'd like to work with M.I.A, Designer Magazine sent out a request for bootleggers to mash-up the classic prog rock of Porcupine Tree with M.I.A's electro ragga vocals. Here's the first results (and look out for more to be added to the list as the results come ine
Aggro1 - MIA (Galang) Vs Porcupine Tree (3) - Click Right Mouse and Save Target Here For The Direct Link
* Designer Magazine say's "A sublime trippy drugged up mantra which perfect for a shroomed up night of madness"