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Culture electroclashes
Meet Englandís M.I.A. and the rappers of Brazil and Senegal
BY FRANKLIN SOULTS

It makes a kind of anthropomorphic sense that several print features and at least one TV documentary celebrated hip-hopís 30th anniversary last year. By most measures, hip-hop is at the height of its manhood, dominating sales, downloads, and headlines. And yet the anniversary didnít generate even as much buzz as, say, the concurrent anniversary of the Beatlesí Ed Sullivan debut 40 years ago. Not to knock the greatest rock band of all time, but why should the Beatles get more respect today than hip-hop?

Well, to cap an obvious target like 50 Cent, who has exactly one rap on the 22-cut Menace (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope) thatís worthy of the new albumís production values, letís just say that successful males often fall prey to their own cockiness at the height of their manly prowess. But some strapped critics would go even farther, targeting practically every MC and DJ bounded by the East, West, and South Coasts. One such shooter is Maya Arulpragasam, a new rapper who isnít defined by any coasts.

"It just feels like thereís so much room for it to get experimental," she says, "but it keeps going down the same path all the time, you know? Like, hip-hop can only divide itself into popular hip-hop, conscience hip-hop, underground, whatever. There isnít much of an experimental thing going on. I donít know. It just needs to go in different directions, but I donít think itís going to come out truly hip-hop; it has to come out somewhere else."

Recorded under the name M.I.A., Arulpragasamís debut, Arular (XL), has most definitely come out somewhere else. I spoke with the 28-year-old MC by cell phone as she and Diplo, her Philadelphia DJ, took the tube to her momís flat in London. Diplo cracked a few jokes as M.I.A. talked, but nobody else bothered her on the train or out on the street. Thatís notable because in the American music press, M.I.A. is probably the hottest newcomer of the year, winning rabid attention after her debut single, "Galang," was released last summer, including a November New Yorker profile and glowing reviews for Arular everywhere since.

The reason for the kind press is as simple as a bomb. Maya Arulpragasam does what the Beatles did on Ed Sullivan 40 years ago ó she makes the utterly foreign feel thrillingly familiar. She doesnít sound anything like the Fab Four, of course; her biggest influences are reggae toasters and hip-hop boasters, along with techno, punk, and electroclash postmodernists like her pals Elastica and Peaches. But just as the Beatles were the first among equals in a scene that took a ferry across the Mersey and eventually to Americaís shores, so this 28-year-old rapper is at the forefront of a vibrant scene that she also transcends ó the English hip-hop and dancehall offshoot usually called grime. Its precursor was the Streetsí spare 2002 debut, Original Pirate Material (Vice/Atlantic); that was followed the next year by the definitive grime album, Dizzee Rascalís sparer and far more jagged debut, Boy in da Corner (XL). By now, the scene has become so solid that both Dizzee and the Streets can fit into the line-up of an essential new grime collection, Run the Road (Vice). Yet it makes sense that M.I.A. isnít included ó her tinny, homemade music is just too big for her own scene.

Like Dizzee, M.I.A. uses harsh electronic backing tracks that mince time like a malfunctioning CD player skipping through dancehall and crunk breaks. Like the Streets, she keeps her tempos moderate and her hooks up front, from skip-rope tunelets to a full-blown sample of a 1970s dance classic by Dr. Buzzardís Original Savannah Band ("Sunshowers"). Yet instead of splitting the difference between her two precursors, she straddles it. For all their brilliant immediacy, both the Streets and Dizzee Rascal are boys defining their hood by warily defending it against other boys and the opposite sex. Thatís sexy, but not like M.I.A., who treats sex as an assault weapon, one that might have been used on her if she hadnít seized it first. Her arsenal also includes bombs bigger than any gangstaís gun ("Iím armed and Iím equal"), political hyperbole ("Pull up the people/pull up the poor"), South Asian slang, and hints of Bollywood soundtracks. ó the weapons at the disposal of a refugee who came to England with her family from war-torn Sri Lanka almost two decades go. They left behind Mayaís dad, who had largely abandoned his family to be a leader of the infamous Tamil Tigers. His rebel name: Arular.

This back story could easily result in a left-romantic mire, but Arulpragasam matches an intense background with equally intense smarts and talent. ("Iím proud of my heritage, but I donít support the Tigers.") She made award-winning paintings and documentary films before she was encouraged by Peaches to hole up with a Roland MC-505 Groovebox and create her own sounds. Turning off her phone and not leaving home "for months and months and months," the nascent musician then let her cultural confusion flow like a ragged beat.

"It was really, really mixed up," she explains.. "I was getting influences from every level. Itís like, how do you make connections from seeing people get shot in front of you to, you know, standing there with your best friend in the shop watching Sex in the City? You know what I mean? Thatís what life is. How do you make the connections? How do I walk down the street every day and feel all right about being here? So I just have to find a medium to make everything be a part of what I do."

For years, thatís what hip-hop has been: a potent medium for strident self-assertion that outstrips punk and folk music in its potential for cool clarity. Interesting local variants are as abundant across the globe as the musical references on a rock-en-español album. But Arular could mark the first time one of those has returned to hip-hopís birthplace with a complexity to match the originalís best creations. And that might be just the beginning: "When I was writing my music, I was like, ĎIf I did this, then one day, some kid out of, you know, Bosnia is going to come up and do this shit. If only some kid in Rwanda had a 505, I wonder what heíd write.í "

MAYBE WE ALREADY KNOW. Meet The Rough Guide to Brazilian Hip-Hop (World Music Network) and African Underground Vol 1: Hip-Hop Senegal (Nomadic Wax). The Brazilian disc is from the reigning label in world music, a juggernaut that enjoys the resources to mine every decade and region of a country with a hybrid culture that rivals the USís in size and complexity. The Senegal disc is the inverse: a DIY re-recording of a specific Dakar music scene at a specific time in history. Senegal is also the birthplace of mbalax, a musical style with pan-African if not global appeal. Yet if the native strength of those two cultures informs these two albums, the discsí primary strength is that they put hip-hop first.

The language barrier remains an impediment, of course, but from the Wu-Tang Clan to any given grime cut on Run the Road, plenty of meaningful, affecting hip-hop gets across with fewer specifics than the liner notes for these discs provide. Anyway, The Rough Guide to Brazilian Hip-Hop also includes backwards rapping and nonsense syllables in tracks whose funky flow and tricky musical interplay say plenty. For Americans, the music might spark memories of the bright, upbeat Native Tongues heyday ó Stereo Maracanãís "Onde é que tu tá," for one, is as irresistible as your favorite Pharcyde joint. Yet the liner notes show that the pleasures arenít as easy as American ears might conclude. Instituto & Sabotageís "Dama Teresa" is as smooth as cocoa butter, but Sabotage turns out to have grown up with a gun in his hand, and he made it into the big time only to be shot and killed in 2003. That doesnít make the cut feel false; it makes it feel as complex as life.

No one would underestimate the hardness behind African Underground Vol 1: Hip-Hop Senegal, a bobbing dose of gruff raps delivered in Wolof, French, and English. Producer, label head, and all-around mastermind Ben Herson writes that these tracks have been received in Senegal like the nationís own Soundbombing, a landmark compilation of New York underground rap from the late í90s. And that suggests that Herson, a young Jewish guy from Newton, has himself become one of the heroes of Senegalese hip-hop. With the help of his cousin, Boston producer Dan Cantor, Herson went to Senegal in 2000 to record the artists that he had previously spent months studying for his senior thesis at Hampshire College. His inspiration was the rappersí political message, a protest so powerful, it may have helped push through the 2000 elections that finally broke the country free of one-party rule. For the next year and a half, Herson, Cantor, and other Boston and New York musicians honed a musical backdrop that would do justice to those raps in a way that the original cheap recordings couldnít. The result is something altogether new and gripping, an act of culture straddling as impressive in its small way as M.I.A.ís huge Arular, and one more manifestation of a cultural globalization that isnít just a nicer word for hegemony.


Issue Date: April 1 - 7, 2005
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