She's Dancing With Success

M.I.A.'s music, loud and percussive, is loaded with feeling.


September 15, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

She says she loves to dance, and the need to move her hips is the reason for the inventive beats. But underneath the squishy synth lines and concussive international mix of Jamaican dancehall, glints of New York punk, Southern crunk and Baltimore club music, M.I.A. alludes to the political strife and violence that filled her childhood. It's dance music emblazoned with rebellious messages of uplift -- though sometimes the artist, like the most cocksure rapper, needs to let you know that she's not the one to mess with. Her major label debut, Arular, is a highly addictive set of dense dance tracks loaded with percussive, chaotic noise and concrete-cracking beats. Her shimmying vocals and slang-ridden rhymes are often deeply mixed into the chunky productions. Since its release in April, the album has been praised by mainstream press. The Los Angeles Times called it an "unstoppable riot of sound." Rolling Stone said Arular is "one of the year's most remarkable albums."

"It was about not having a formula and not being afraid to go in crazy directions," says M.I.A., who plays Washington's 9:30 Club Wednesday night. She's calling from a tour stop in New York City. "I didn't care about what producers wanted and what made it good. I was open to producers who were up to the big challenge. I really like dancing and if [the music] can make me dance, I love it."

Yes, the CD is ideal for clubs. But a closer listen to Arular reveals brilliant layers -- colorful, disparate elements thrown together to make a distinct and sometimes unsettling sound. The dizzying musical ride -- the peaks, valleys, numerous twists and turns -- is reflective of her interesting past.

Born Maya Arulpragasam 28 years ago in London, M.I.A. spent her early years in war-torn Sri Lanka. She didn't see her father, a devout and active separatist as part of the Tamil rebellion, during most of that time in her parents' native country. She remembers dodging bullets from the Sinhalese majority. When her family returned to London before she was to enter junior high school, life stabilized a bit.

"Coming from Sri Lanka, you can become so addicted to drama that when things are great you don't know how to deal with it," M.I.A. says. "It's like looking for trouble. In art, you look for a world where you can tap that without getting in jail."

In her teens, the performer found solace in hip-hop, particularly the militant sounds of Public Enemy. But she wasn't interested in becoming a musician initially. Instead, she pursued visual art. M.I.A later did photography and graphics for Elastica's sophomore album, 2000's The Menace. She also traveled with the alternative British pop band, shooting a documentary of its tour that year.

It was while on the road with the band that the artist befriended Peaches, Elastica's opening act. The electronica star introduced the young graphic artist to the Roland MC-505, a beat sequencer. M.I.A. pondered a career change. In 2002, she put her camera down to concentrate on music.

"When I came to landing [the Roland], I figured out that Peaches had done everything there was to do on it," M.I.A. says. "So I wanted the music to be really hard."

In 2004, she crafted her first song: "Galang," Jamaican slang for "go on." The single, which also appears on Arular, was first released on a mixtape and eventually generated heat in London clubs. She collaborated with Philadelphia DJ-producer Diplo on Online Piracy Funds Terrorism Vol. 1, a mixtape that had the underground international music scene abuzz last year. The major labels soon came knocking, and M.I.A. signed with Interscope earlier this year.

About the defiant, visceral sound of her music, the performer says, "I need to feel. This world is so geared up to make things so safe and sterile. I needed to find a way to keep things feeling the way they do in life. ... With this album, I needed to feel different things like I'm in the jungle, the Caribbean. Humans need rhythm."

Although, the dark-eyed beauty has yet to break onto mainstream radio or MTV with her brutal mix, M.I.A. says she's fine with floating under the radar.

"I'm on the cusp now," she says. "And I'm savoring it. It's nice to be in the making. You can shake up the industry without getting bored."

Check out M.I.A. at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. N.W. in Washington, Wednesday night at 7:30. Tickets are $20. For more information, visit

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