A no-holds-barred conversation with the rebel rap goddess.
Interview by Rob Kenner (@boomshots)
Last seen gliding through the Saudi Arabian desert on the fender of a white Beemer rolling on two wheels, the bad girl of your dreams—or your nightmares, depending which side of the bed you sleep on—is back and badder than ever. You remember M.I.A. How could you forget the time she busted shots on “Paper Planes” and raided the world’s cash registers with perhaps the unlikeliest pop hit in Billboard history? Her former DJ/boyfriend Diplo looped up a moody sample from “Straight To Hell” by The Clash—a tune about the children of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam—and Maya sprinkled it with a sweet seductive singsong “some some some a some we murder/some a some we let go.” The largely overlooked album cut blew up off The Pineapple Express soundtrack and soon grew so hot that every rapper on the planet seemed compelled to freestyle over it. Then Kanye West decided to loop up the loop and create “Swagga Like Us.” Fast forward to the 2009 Grammy Awards, and there was M.I.A., nine months pregnant with her new fiancee’s baby, rocking the mic alongside Ye, Jay Z, Lil Wayne, and T.I. Not bad for somebody who grew up between Sri Lanka, India, and London's council estates, and whose futuristic dance records are packed with punk rock attitude and incendiary political agitpop.
Small wonder, then, that Madonna called M.I.A. “a badass.” Or that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange described her as “the most courageous woman working in…” before his Skype chat at her recent NYC concert crackled. But you get the idea—and maybe it’s best not to box her in. Maya Arulpragasm goes by many names, and the Sri Lankan refugee turned art school student turned videographer and designer is now internationally (in)famous as a rapper and rabble-rouser. On her latest album she refers to herself as both a "female Slick Rick" and a "lady of rage with an afro puff." These days she’s also a single mom (the engagement to Benjamin Bronfman was called off) who designs her own album art and occasionally collaborates with the House of Versace when she's not waxing philosophical about the vagaries of spirituality and technology.
Last November she gave a two-hour lecture at MoMA's PS1 dome in Queens, New York during which she plugged three laptop computers (one for each of her three previous albums) into a giant projector screen and clicked around at random—a courageous act if ever there was one—while explaining how she first fell in love with, and then grew to loathe, the Internet. (Turns out her constant criticism of the Sri Lankan governmnt has earned her a few enemies with cyberstalking skills.) That same day she explained how a Google epiphany led to her discovery of Matangi, a Hindu warrior goddess devoted to music, truth, and the 'hood, thus sowing the seeds of her fourth album. Interscope Records finally released Matangi—an eclectic blend of global beats, witty wordplay, meditative mantas, and incendiary rhetoric—earlier this week after she threatened to leak it on Twitter.
The first time I interviewed M.I.A. was in 2005 after she performed on a showcase for emerging artists at the intimate NYC club SOBs, sharing the bill with the reggae singer I-Wayne. We spoke about dancehall and hip-hop and blending global grooves. This was long before she earned a reputation for doing stuff like putting New York Times reporters on blast. Since then she's performed at the 2012 Superbowl halftime show, where she flipped the bird to an estimated audience of 111.3 million, upstaging both Madonna and Nicki Minaj and earning herself a $1.5 million lawsuit from the NFL. She has confronted this latest conflict with the sort of unflappable attitude you might expect from the daughter of a Tamil Tiger. Shortly before her latest record hit the streets, she sipped a cup of lavender mint tea and took a New York minute to stop and reflect before diving back into the whirlwind.
I enjoyed your laptop expose at PS1.
That was one of the most courageous things I’ve ever seen, for someone to plug their laptop into a giant screen projector and start clicking around...
I know. I have nothin’ to hide…
That was total transparency. But you did say, “There might be stuff on here.”
I’m sure there was. But nothing weird.
That was almost a year ago. Right after Hurricane Sandy.
Yes, yeah. It was that week, wasn’t it?
You spoke then about how you fell back in love with the Internet and you discovered the title of the album on Google.
Yes. I hated the Internet. I mean I still have this thing abou it—with all good reasons.
Yeah, there were some creepy things you described about the manipulation of data.
Yeah, things that are now mainstream news and it’s everywhere now. And it’s ongoing. Basically losing our liberties… Leaving a very negative way to look at it. And then when I was in India and searching for this particular color...
It was a green color, wasn’t it?
Yeah, and when I came across it, for some reason we were just filming, because I had a FlipCam and I was documenting it. We were sticking shit up on the wall making art, and we were talking about stuff and filming it so I didn’t forget. So we have that precise moment where it happens... And we were like, "Oh my God, she’s like a Hindu goddess." And we were like, "Whoah, she fights for freedom of speech and truth and things like that," which sounds like a superhero. And then we figured out that her mantra was “aim,” which is M.I.A. backwards. And she represents the hood because her dad is an untouchable. And so she lives with the people that are, like, ostracized or marginalized in society.
Wait a minute, your dad can be an untouchable and you can be a goddess? How is that?
Well he was an untouchable and his name was Sage Matanga, and he was the first guy to get enlightened without… Because the way Hinduism was set up, when you’re reading the mythology and stuff, the rules of it is that you have to be reborn again and again and again—you know, because they believe in reincarnation. And every time you're reborn, you have to, like, overcome Maya. And once you overcome the Maya you get born again at a higher level. So basically there’s like levels to being, reaching spiritual enlightenment. You could get born in an animal, what’s the word?
I discovered this concept and I was like, "Wow this is like 5,000 years old. It’s not even a modern concept." No one needed the Internet to come up with that. Nobody needed Twitter... They don’t need a toaster to write this concept. And they wrote something where it puts emphasis on the importance of words, truth, and music. And the power in music.
Not in animal form. But man can have the instinct of an animal. The basic thing is that when you have your chakras, you can relate the concepts to each chakra. So when you’re, like, really animalistic, then it goes to your tummy and then you become a little more compassionate. Then it goes to your heart, and you’re more like connected and evolved and emotional. Then it goes to your head, where you become more spiritually aware. And then it goes to the bit at the top, which is your enlightenment bit, and that’s kind of where the idea of the halo comes from, because it’s people who can access the space above their head. So reincarnation works in the same process. If you are instinctive and animalistic and stuff as a person, then you will easily give into desires of the material world. They can push your buttons and you will respond accordingly. And so if you get trapped by that, then you stay on that level.
It’s like a computer game—actually that explains it better—you get stuck in a level for a long time, and you have to keep redoing it. And so Sage Matanga basically broke all the levels, got to the top, cracked the game without restarting. Because Brahmins in Hinduism are elitists. They are like the corporations of today. They basically acquire the right to own knowledge and spread knowledge and preserve knowledge. They document and they protect and they keep it and they use it however they want. And to be a Brahmin you can only be born to it. They think it’s a gift when you’re born a Brahmin. And they’re the ones that owned temples, you know, so they can own how the information went out. It’s sort of similar to like extremely rich people today who acquire the church or the information within it.
So anyway, Sage Matanga wasn’t a Brahmin and he overcame that. So he got given a gift of goddess. She was reborn to him and she was already a goddess of music and she always represented the hood and the untouchables and people that lived in the ghetto. The untouchables had their special neighborhoods and nobody else went there. They were like dirty people because their jobs were to clean streets. They were hunters, they cleaned animals, meat, corpses. They were funeral people who worked in cremation grounds. So they had the worst jobs that society could have. And nobody talked to them and they were basically like the dirty people on the planet. So she liked representing them because of her dad, but also because, in that zone is where you can tell the nature of pollution and how environments get polluted. Because she is the goddess of music and spoken word, she fights to keep the frequencies clear, unpolluted. She finds a way to study the levels of pollution by living in a very dirty place.
Reminds me of that Lauryn Hill lyric, "It takes one drop of purity to clean a cesspool."
It’s the same way as, like, today I can go to like a slum in Bombay or a slum in Jamaica or Brazil, and I will hear the same insane song. Like, a really shit song that we don’t know how it became No. 1. We don’t know why they say the things they’re saying. Nobody in the hood relates to it, this display of crap, but that is the song that gets played. When you go to the poorest places in the world, you hear the worst songs. And then you go, "Wow these people naturally make amazing songs. Their shit is not on the radio. What they have in the radio is like not even the best that America can offer or the best that fuckin’ Russia can offer or wherever. It’s like the lowest common denominator song." You know what I mean? It’s not even the good stuff.
But as you said, ghettos are special neighborhoods. They can be blessed, creative places where people put together their own sound systems and plug them into lamp pots.
Yes. And this story definitely did make me understand it better. You know, I had a different relationship to it before because I was a hard girl who grew up on an estate, blah blah blah. You had to really go out of your way to find your scene when I was growing up. And you know people were really protective about it. That’s not the case anymore, because places get gentrified really quickly. And things that people owned, they don’t own it anymore. The culture's not theirs anymore. And that’s really sad because that’s why the ghettos were special, because they were insular. And they knew that the world didn’t cater to them, and they had to cater to themselves. And they created these things, but now it’s not possible. And it’s really really hard because the scene cannot have enough oxygen to breathe in order to develop and grow. It gets accessed really quickly, and blown up too quickly with the Internet. Before you could exist stylistically without seeing a whole bunch of shit that’s on there now. Even with the Internet, if you want to send an MP3 to your mate down the street, you can just do that without seeing an ad or without seeing a story about Miley Cyrus. Now it’s really hard. Even if you’re that one percent of the population on the planet that can think for yourself, it’s really hard for you. And if you’re super stylish and you have very exquisite taste in everything, you still can’t go through an hour of click time without at least 80% of the information coming at you being about shit you don’t care about.
Things we didn’t choose get pushed at us.
Yeah right, so it’s really hard to exist in their little zones like they used to. When I was growing up, in the hood or wherever, your identity was so important. How you chose your artists and who you were into and stuff—your style came from that shit. All this was super important. And today, I find that you can’t tell the fans apart. Like, a fan of an underground band who’s into this dark, goth thing looks exactly the same as a Gaga fan. So it’s really hard to identify them culturally. They can’t sustain their identity through fashion, let alone through music.
This album has taken a while to come out, and you've spoken about conflicts with the label. Is this the album that you wanted to make?
Mmm—it took a little bit longer than I wanted it to. But it’s a really weird one because it wasn’t just like party, party, party. It’s very difficult to make a record that wasn’t like dance music, EDM, you know, like, this pounding thing. I wanted it to be really balanced. And what it’s ended up being—because you never know what you’re going to make, It will just do its thing—and what it’s ended up becoming is just a showcase of so many sounds. If it was food, it would have the most variety of shit you can possibly eat. It wasn’t about me saying, "Here’s a steak, from start to finish, and you just eat this one big steak until it finishes." It has everything: a starter, a main course, spicy foods, this, that, a dessert… At different times you’re gonna need different bits of food to make you strong. And that’s sort of what it is. It’s like everything you could possibly get in a record.
There were times where it seemed like you were really battling to get the record put out. I think you were going to leak it on Twitter one day.
I know. I know. I have been very close to doing that, loads. But I felt like I had just sort of gone through a very long journey with it. And it wasn’t about that, because I had already done Vicki Leekx and I can still make a mixtape version of this record that’s an hour long. That’s not the Matangi mixer that came out for Kenzo, but I can make a proper one, and I still have enough content to do that. So it wasn’t about that. It was about me trying to make peace with the label and Roc Nation and corporations and the system and all these things. To be like, "Even if I gave you something positive and nice, is it going to be a problem?" To be like, “If you make something more really aggro or something really political, will you make something really, like, not?" It’s to identify where the misunderstanding is. I didn’t want to give in to being the cliche of the person that freaks out and leaks it, because I was in it for the long haul. You can’t be insane and practice that much patience. You can’t. So, yeah, I think it’s different. It’s just a different dialogue.
The record seems quite peaceful in some ways. It opens with like the "Omm..." mantra. It’s almost a meditation. But then that first song title, “Karmageddon.” What a scary word!
This is the crazy thing because conceptually, it was so interesting to be on Google trying to make something spiritual happen. To find spirituality on the Internet—the only way I’ve seen it done is in a dark way. Everyone’s been obsessed with wearing pentagrams and getting upside-down tattoos, and you know, the image in fashion—everything’s been, like, the same sort of darkness for about three years. If you look at it culturally, creatively, all the shows that are famous, all the movies that were big… Everything across the board has been obsessed with that same concept of darkness and zombies and the world coming to an end.
Yeah, lots of skulls and vampires.
Yeah. It’s like, it’s annoying. And when you go to the slums, that’s what the kids are wearing. They have no idea what it means, but they’re wearing it—and getting it tattooed on their face. And you’re just like, ‘What the fuck is that?” That’s just like somebody having a brain freeze. You know, in a place where we generate creativity, and create concepts and ideas, they had a brain freeze and couldn’t think of shit else to do. When you have a creative brain freeze, culture always goes to black and white, you know, good versus evil… It’s the easiest thing to pedal out. This is definitely what I was thinking before I went to India. I was just like, “This is so boring. I’m going to have to ride this shit out. And I have nothing to contribute to this shit." I’m not going to be like, “Yeah, tattoo a skull onto your face and stick your tongue out.” It just means nothing when there’s so much real shit going on. Your liberties are fucking getting lost daily—left, right and center. Like politically there’s crazy shit going on.
We just had the government shut down.
The government shut down. No one’s got fucking money. Lile, what the fuck? You know, maybe this is symbolism for kids to turn around and be like, "We’re all fucked.’ There’s kids walking around New York with a “Fucked” T-shirt on all the time and I’m confused by that. Is that just you saying you don’t know how to use the fucking tools that you invented? You don’t have to stage a revolution, but you can use it to fucking tweet at Obama. Like, do it. That’s what it’s there for. Why are you criticizing how Iranians use it and the Turkish use it and Egyptians use it? Your government’s getting shut down. I mean, you use it. Show them why you invented that tool in the first place. Instead the kids here are like, “Oh, it’s over.” So I’m going to just walk around literally looking like death because I’m dead inside. That’s the message, and it’s just bushit. If you’re going to do that you might as well fucking fight.
During your talk at PS1 you mentioned that you never did drugs because it wasn’t an option for people who were refugees. And the people who you were living with at the time were strung out on heroin. You talked about the cycle of apathy to guilt to drugs. America has had this embarrassment of riches for so long that there isn’t quite as much of a fighter spirit.
Again it comes down to what people are eating—and I’m talking about creatively. It’s about enriching peoples’ palate. Which is why I wanted to bring ashram to the world—you know, I’m fucking going to go back there with this weird shit. And I’m going to make them fucking listen to it because it’s so weird. [Laughs] And I’m going to tell them how vast this concept is. It’s beyond these ideologies that we’re all fighting and dying for and these economic structure that was set up by someone else’s greed. And we’re the ones feeding it, who have to pay the taxes and live by all these ideals. Even the Internet, which started with the hippies, who did go to India and do LSD and fucking meditate on the mountains. They came back invented that shit. They were like, "Ooh let’s liberate the world..." And then it got taken up by the same system. And they took it and they’re like, "This is ours now. And we’re going to use it how we want to use it. And you’re still fucked."
Does it get exhausting battling for your ideas all the time?
All these things that people write: "She’s crazy and very difficult. Works way too hard. I don’t know why she draws her own pictures. She could just hire someone to do it. You know, what the fuck is she wearing? What the fuck is she saying? Don’t understand the lyrics." [Laughs.] "What the hell is going on? Her dad’s basically a terrorist," which is, I think, a modern-day untouchable. Actually, refugees are the modern day untouchables because they’re faceless and placeless and no one represents them. And so I discovered this concept and I was like, "Wow this is like 5,000 years old. It’s not even a modern concept." No one needed the Internet to fuckin’ come up with that shit. Nobody needed fucking Twitter. Nobody needed any of the shit we have. They don’t need a toaster to write this concept. And they wrote something where it puts emphasis on the importance of words, truth, and music. And the power in music.
Going back to, like, my SOBs show—I Wayne is definitely a symbol of the power in music and purism in that. Cause at the SOBs shows he was like, "Fuck it, I’m not ever going to ever sign with a label." And he did that and never looked back. And, you know, I was the other option. I took the option of like, “OK I’ll sign to the label and go through the motions.” And I’m not saying I’m like I Wayne, but I definitely fought. He had the luxury to keep it really pure. But luckily, because I throw myself out there a lot, I get given shit by the universe as well. That makes me land on my feet. Because this concept, I couldn’t have written it. After all of the media barrage of discredit to the things I’ve achieved, and who I am and where I come from, that there was another bigger answer to it. To be like, this story, my journey, is not even to do with the industry. Like, I’m gonna connect this to something that’s older than when media was invented and when the monetization of music was invented. It’s going to go beyond that. And there’s no more strength that’s bigger than that. I feel like it's a hard one to knock.
Matangi is 5,000 years strong.
And there were too many coincidences to ignore and not to make another album. I’m just going to approach music where I just care about music. And it’s not about being cool and having the most stylish beat for this moment. And make something for all the kids in the hood that are walking around with a skull on their T-shirt and wondering why they’re in a really beautiful, hot, colorful country dressed like a goth. It’s just about expanding everyone’s existence, conceptually. And it works in any place, you know—all people. This just says the same fucking message again, which is the power is in the people. It’s about instinct. I got offered millions of dollars for following the rules and playing the games and throwing people under the bus. I didn’t. I fought. Suffered the consequences for it and I got given this story of shit that makes sense to my life. l found meaning in the universe that makes sense to me. I discovered things and overcame things and found ways to do it. Those come to you because you lead with your instincts. And you live by that and you make choices based on what makes you feel good and not constantly compromising. I think that is the message of this whole album. The whole thing is a representation of getting to a point where it’s like, you know, sort of striking gold. And not because you kind of compromise and live by the rules.
When you talk about compromising and throwing people under the bus...
I didn’t do it, but I’ve had opportunities to.
Like monetizing your Myspace fans?
Yeah yeah yeah, that kind of thing. Or just to be like, “Yeah, the world is great because these people are doing this.” And it’s like, “No, the world is great because it’s great anyway. For every fucking one it’s the same.” And it’s not different to one person—that’s the whole point of Matangi, is to be like, In the first song, it’s like, “Yeah we’re all born as cells, and then some get put in cells, some form cells, some grow to cell phones..."
And "sex sells."
Yeah, It’s whichever way you take it.
Speaking of sex, what’s the difference between an “Exodus” and a “Sexodus”?
It was actually “This Exodus” but somebody deleted the “thi” and then it was just "Sexodus," and I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of cool…” I think the difference is the original Weeknd song is very sexual.
As most of his work is actually.
Yes, actually all of his work is. But when I play it for people they always say, “Are you talking about, like, your baby or are you talking about your lover?” Who can have it all?
How did you decide to rework that song by The Weeknd?
I actually started writing it as a remix when I first heard “Lonely Star.” I just really loved the song and I was like, "Oh I really want to get on this song and write a remix." And it sort of grew. It was actually the first song I wrote for the whole album. And that was like the first thing that came out when I went into the studio the first day. And I was like, “Oh shit, this is something I’d never write.” So it was kind of inspired by the backing tracks and then I just kept it.
Matangi is dealing with some pretty esoteric stuff.
Yeah, I don’t want people to be like, “Oh my gosh, she’s just spiritual and started going to a temple.” Because it’s not. It’s being conceptually drawn to something… Right now, in 2013, it’s almost like we get given a book of “This is what you’re into.” And everybody looks exactly the same. It’s got the same content, the same images, the same songs. And we can’t get away from it because the Internet has gripped us and everything’s like that. I can’t tell apart a rapper from a politician. You know, it’s all really intertwined. And at this moment, I wanted to bring a palette of different colors and different concepts.
And different concepts of women even. Especially in the West, because when concepts come from the East to the West they always turn negative. There’s some weird tunnel they go through where they just gets spat out differently. When you take a swastika, look at what it means in Hinduism, and how it got applied to the West is the most negative existence of that symbol. If you take a pentagram, which is a normal sacred design of symbolism that means something completely different in the East, but when it lands in the West, it means this dark thing. If you take the word “enlightenment," in Hinduism it means something totally different to how it lands in the West, you know, with the word “illuminati.” And if you take women, it’s the same. In Hinduism, you have these powerful women who are goddesses, and their ultimate god who created the universe and the cosmos and all that is woman.
When you take a swastika, look at what it means in Hinduism, and how it got applied to the West is the most negative existence of that symbol ... If you take the word “enlightenment," in Hinduism it means something totally different to how it lands in the West, you know, with the word “illuminati.”
What’s her name?
Durga… If you look up who invented Shiva, the force of the cosmos, it’s a female. She invented three guys, and then for each of the three guys she invented three girls that went with them. So like, Vishnu, who represents life can’t do it without light, so there’s a goddess who represents that. And Shiva, who is the god of destruction, can’t destroy without power, so his wife is Parvathi. And so on... So the women all play equal, if not superior roles. But then when it comes to the West, we’re sluts, hookers. We can be mums, we can be like, you know, a really not-happy wife, because whatever the reason... But mainly the image that we promote of women here—the one we promote and reward—is not positive.
The hypersexualized woman.
We can either be whores and sluts and prostitutes, or we can be a nun. If you take the Bible, you’ve got Mary Magdalene who was a prostitute or you’ve got the Virgin Mary who conceives without having sex. Can I just be like a scientist who’s interested in quantum physics and time-bending? Because in Hinduism, there is a woman that does that. It’s just way more open. So Matangi itself it’s interesting to talk about it. She is green, because it’s the color of intellect. But green in the West is the color of money. And so you’re already fighting with like a negative image to do with color, and it’s not even like, “I’m brown and I come from Sri Lanka.” But to put forward a cover where you’re green in the West is fucking hard because the only thing you can associate green to is zombies, witches, and money. And they’re like the three most negative existence of that color. And you know in the East it’s life, knowledge, and intellect. So even putting things on the palette in the pamphlet where you have to debate these things, to me it’s not just about the songs. It’s again, the whole concept: why do things turn negative when they get here?
Then again you've got a song on the album called “Bad Girls.” Is that the first time you and Danja worked together?
Yes. We wrote that the first day we worked together. We wrote it in like 2-3 hours, and at the time we didn’t think much of it. Then we just kind of shelved it and carried on working on this other track which didn’t really come out in the end.
And then you came back to Bad Girls and said, "Hey, we’ve got something here..."
Yeah. It was just kind of like a throwaway track. And no one was into it, cause I guess it was sort of quite classically hip-hop. I played it for my other producers and they were like, “Yeah it’s OK.” And then I put it on the mixtape and that’s the one that everyone loved. And all my friends who heard it, they were like, “You can’t just forget about it after you put it on the mixtape.”
The video for that song was so dope. How did you get the cars to stay up on two wheels like that?
We used a ramp. It goes up on the two wheels. You drive it up a ramp and you tilt it, and then it stays like that for ages until you jerk it to put it down.
So crazy. What did we not see that happened on the video set? Any fun memories?
All I remember is that it was really freezing cold. But then on the set it was like 106 degrees. And it was very awkward the whole time because it made styling very difficult. We had like 100 people, with extras and stuff like that. And it seemed like an odd time to be making a video. I didn’t have an album and nobody really was into the idea. But I thought there was something magical about it, you know? Apart from the danger aspect of me thinking maybe I should write my will before I shoot this scene... Fun is not the word that came to my mind.
What was the danger aspect? Those car tricks?
It’s funny because Danja produced the track and then the video was pretty dangerous. It wasn’t fun because I’m a mum. So I was like, “Oh my God, I have to make a decision about this." You know, "Can I raise my child with no legs?” You do have to think like that. And then I was like, "No, I’m cool. As long as you know you could just jump off there you’re OK.”
Well thanks for taking that risk for all of our entertainment. Tell me about how the title track on the album. How did you and Switch put that together?
We just had all the drum sounds recorded in India. And this time he didn’t come with me. So he was just messing around and he built a mix. Actually I recorded the drums for a different song, which is not even on the album. It’s crazy it’s not on the album! I’m really depressed about that, actually.
Well, you’ll have to leak it then, won’t you?
“Depressed” it not the word. I’m like a bit gutted.
What’s that one called?
It was called “Saturday,” but there was a bit of a miscommunication on the deadline. I was somewhere without Internet and I told Switch to send it in to Interscope, but he just didn’t. So Interscope drew the line and handed it into iTunes. And, you know, I got back two days later and everything was confirmed, and that track didn’t make it.
We’ll look forward to hearing “Saturday” one of these days then.
Yes. I think that’s how it’s going to go down. So with “Matangi” the drums got worked on first. The intro sort of starts in the mountains, and then it comes down to the street. It’s sort of like a coming down to the street level kind of track. It’s a procession track. Arrival. That kind of thing. Like a carnival or a crowd or a marching band. Yeah, it sounds like that.
I’ve been puzzling over the "bug spray" lyric. It comes up a couple of times on the album. What is the bug spray about?
Just hot Third World countries. Every person needs bug spray.
Did you have any particular kind of bugs in mind?
No. I just wondered if I had a perfume contract. [Laughs]. If I had a perfume it would be a kind of bug spray that you find in the market if go to Jamaica or India or Thailand or Philippines or any random Third-World country. I’d like to have an M.I.A. bug spray instead of a perfume. [Laughs] Cash in on the tourism market.
I’m sure most people buy bug spray as much as perfume at the airport. That’s what I was thinking.
This record also has what seems like a shot at Drake. Am I interpreting that correctly? You say “Started at the bottom, but Drake gets all the credit.”
Well if Drake is starting at the bottom, then mine is like fucking the pits, innit? [Laughs.] And you know with the bug spray thing, Matangi lived in the jungle. So it’s like the album always has some bug spray handy. [Laughs] Sometimes my songs are based in the jungles, and some of them were based in the mountains. Some of them were based in the ghettos. And some of them are based in, like, a brothel. It’s all these environments to Matangi.
Another one you worked with Switch on was “Only 1 U.” How did you put that one together?
When we first made that beat, which was just a crazy beat, I got on the track and we recorded it outside. And everybody was pretty drunk and wasted, and as soon as we made it we got so tired we got into a car. When we were listening to it, we got so excited about it, cause we’d never heard anything like it. And we smashed the car, and we dented the roof of the car because we were banging out the beat of it so hard. And then I drove the car into a ditch, crashed it, all the windows shattered. Then we got home, and then we sampled the crunchy windows and smashed doors and everything just got basically thrown in. I don’t know, it was just born out of excitement… You know, how we can make a song without no cool sounds in it—that is, your average cool track sounds? We didn’t want to make, like, EDM music. We didn’t want to make rave shit. We didn’t want to make hype, sort of, you know—whatever sort of thing that was big at the time—trap music or whatever. We wanted to make something else. And it was like the first song we had that there wasn’t really a genre for it. And before it didn’t have the chorus—the fast bit that comes in—so we just did a backward bassline and one snare in it. Cause we felt like we had unlocked how to write jungle beats without the beat basically.
You said "a backward bassline," so you played the recording backwards?
Yes it’s a reverse like “whoop whoop whoop” sound, but I was able to—I understood it basically. And Dave was like, "Shit, I just wanna leave it like that." But then when we came back to London, we kind of built on it later. Initially, that track was just a very simple—we wanted to make a jungle song, but we didn’t want to use a jungle beat. And we didn’t want to use any beats that were out, you know? Yeah, so we started out with one sound. And yeah, it made us all really excited.
Sounds like that session was more dangerous than the “Bad Girls” video shoot.
It’s true, there was actually an accident. It was a freaky freaky night.
You did this song “Warriors” with Hit-Boy. Was that your first time working with him?
Yes. That was the first song we wrote. And I didn’t really have any ideas when I walked in. We both had no preconceived ideas about what we were going to make. And all I had were my own samples from my live shows, cause we used to do a tag on my live shows—"Ommm." That’s all I had. And then it sort of just happened. And I think it was the week that I was into this Mali singer, and it’s also the week that Mali was being attacked by someone, so it was in the news a lot. So it just kind of happened that I had this Omm sample and this other Mali sample. And then he just kind of made that happen. It was so unstructured but structured, and we both kind of hit a gridlock. We didn’t know what to do with it. So it just ended up being what it is. You know, it’s just like a vibe. And I think it’s one of my favorites on the record.
The other Hit Boy record was “Boom,” which is called a skit.
Well “Boom” was actually a whole song. But after Superbowl edited all the bits, it ended up as a skit.
Okay. So it was sort of trimmed down?
Yeah it used to be a three-minute track. But I cut it down cause in the beginning it had my lawyer explaining the Superbowl court case.
Yeah, and there was a verse two to it, which basically says, ‘Steve Jobs went to India and Jesus went to India." You know, it’s not that alien. The song had a lot of controversial bits on it. And so before they re-opened the lawsuit and went into litigation, one of the things they negotiated for is that I don’t put the song out. So I agreed and so I edited the song so it didn’t have any offensive bits and I put it on as a skit. And then they opened the litigation again anyway. But by then I was kind of over it. I didn’t want to put the whole thing out. If people want to hear the details of my case, I still have the longer version. But I just didn’t feel like it was… You know, the Superbowl case was of the moment, and it wasn’t the be-all end-all of what I was trying to communicate with Matangi. I was writing a conceptual album, it wasn’t about the Superbowl, so I think that seemed OK.
There’s still a trace of the idea in there though.
There are traces of it, there’s traces of it, but it’s not directly talking about the case.
The whole idea of “brown girl, turn your shit down, go back to India...” and all that. Was that something that really flared up after the Superbowl? Were you hearing that a lot after all the controversy with the halftime show?
More than before? Hmmm.. You know, it’s a reference to “Born to Roll,” Masta Ace. He said “Black Boy, black boy, turn that shit down.’ And I felt like in 2013, that was no longer the case. Me and Hit-Boy talked about that. I was, like, an “other.” And the way that Superbowl was treating me was as though I’m an “other.” They weren’t even hearing me out. They were like, “She’s not even fucking American.” And that sentiment, I definitely felt it. I felt like they had so much support from people who wouldn’t really support this weird court case, but they were able to be like, “You definitely can’t trust this girl.” And a lot of people were like, “Yeah, maybe you’re right. You know what she's like.” And that’s not the case. And I feel like maybe if Madonna weren’t really quiet... I don’t know. I don’t want to really speak for her, but a lot of people went quiet. They didn’t say anything to my face, but they didn’t say anything at all.
I actually remember reading a quote from Madonna that was critical of you. Did you see that?
I think that’s when I was away making music... There’s no news there. That’s why I like going there. Yeah I just missed that whole wave of Super Bowl news. When I left my publicist was like, “You peed on the American flag.” And I was like, “That’s a bit harsh, come on.” And he’s like, ‘No, you did.’ So I didn’t look at the news after that. I was like, ‘Well, you know... I’m not coming back to be accused.’
Well Madonna invited you to the party, right? She was the one who wanted you to be on the record.
Yeah she invited me to the party. I didn’t gate crash it. But she did say that I was like a drunk guy that gate-crashed her wedding.
Oh, she said that?
Someone in her camp said that. I thought that was quite funny. I’m giving you all the juicy story here. I’ve been called "the female Kanye" and “the drunk guy at the wedding."
Who called you “the female Kanye?”
Someone in her camp. Sources. Can I say sources in the camp?
“Sources in the camp.” They always have the best lines.
Yeah, those are the ones you guys use.
No, we actually talk to real people. So tell me about "Y.A.L.A." That’s the second mention of Drake on the album.
Yeah and that wasn’t a Drake dig by the way. “Y.A.L.A.” is not a direct comment to Drake. It’s not like I’m obsessing over the philosophies of Drake and writing albums in the studio thinking, “Hmm what did Drake say?” It’s not. It’s just, it’s everywhere. The concept of YOLO is fucking everywhere. And people were studying its meaning and writing dissertations on it. And I just thought that was really weird because at that time I was in India and they have a thing called Y.A.L.A. But their concept is basically the exact opposite to YOLO.
I saw your brother’s name turned up on the production credits as well. Has he been part of your sound team for a while?
Yeah he wrote a skit on my first one. He helped me write some stuff on Maya, and so he’s always been a part of it. A very teeny teeny part of it. But this time he had more of a part because he wrote “Lights” as well. And so… yeah.
That’s my favorite record on the whole album.
Oh that’s so cool you say that.
There’s a sweet kind of atmosphere to it. What were the lights you were thinking of?
Well actually that song was written when I put out Maya and I was touring it in my darkest days. It was literally dark because it was winter, and I was touring Scandinavian countries. You know, there’s no sunlight. I had my one-year-old baby, it was freezing, and like three feet of snow. It was not a happy time for me. And the realities of living out that Maya record were pretty dark. I was touring with Sleigh Bells so we’d be put into, like, Death Metal clubs. You’d go to pee and all the graffiti on the door was like, “Die die die.” And it was just like, “Oh my God, I just want to, like, shoot myself.”
So there was a lot of darkness. There was this one show—I can’t even remember where we were, Brussels maybe?—and the lights cut out in the venue, nobody could go on for ages. And so I had this song that my brother just gave me, and so I put it on and I listened to it. It was just the most amazing thing I’ve heard. Because it was like the antidote to what I was living. I was just surrounded by so much harshness, so every time I got off the stage, I would just put the song on on the tour bus before I went to sleep. And it sort of put me in a different headspace. It just soothed me to go through that whole phase. And I just loved it so much because it helped me. I went back and then I worked on it and it’s on the album. So it’s like, I’m very precious about it.
Let's talk about “Come Walk With Me.” That sounds like a sweet kind of relationship song. Was that written for anyone in particular? Was that for your man?
I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s definitely um…
It’s the kind of thing you would love to hear your girl say after a quarrel…
Everyone says that to me. Is that a relationship song? It’s kind of I guess so. Because to me, that’s like a real—you know, it’s like a songy song. And probably that type of songwriting was born in the ’60s where everybody did these deep songs about relationships. And kind of those love songs—you know that sort of love songs and bandy songs. So it definitely has seeds in that time. So I think that’s probably why it ended up being that way.
And who are we looking at in the video?
The lyric video, that’s basically a lot of people. It’s sort of all different mythological stories chopped up together. It’s a lot of the Hindu deities. Yeah there’s a lot of different ones. I had loads of different ones and I edited them all together. I didn’t want people to be freaked out by the story of it. But I just wanted them to look at something that was weird and gentle. It’s all Indian people using the Maya software, 3D animation.
Finally, what's going on with the documentary? The trailer looked pretty cool but then it was taken down for a while. Will it ever see the light of day?
It’ll come. It’ll come. It’s just taking a bit. It’s just growing because loads of people are really supportive. Obviously my fans are really supportive. So I’m not scared of it. It’s so good actually that I just kind of want to put the album out and be with it for a minute. But at the moment I don’t want to disturb Steve [Loveridge] while he’s on a run… He’s doing it, and one of the pacts we made was that I wouldn’t get involved and pick at it, like, “My hair’s not right.” And do stupid shit to it. Basically a lot of the people from my class at St. Martin’s are making it now. So it’s become, like, their shit and not mine. But when I was there, I got into St. Martin’s with no work. But my friend Steve, he got into St. Martins with the most elaborate one-hour feature film that was like this film noir movie he’d made with his mum and dad. And he’d like dug a hole in his living room, had a crane that came through—it was so elaborate and insane. And they put us next to each other in class because we were the polar opposites of how we work. I had no work and he was just gonna make something amazing one day. So I totally trust him to make something that will be a film, but I don’t want to like disturb his process just because he just is a laborious person, and I’m too impatient. And also he’s known me for 15 years so I don’t even want to know what he’s going to say. Cause he could be like “Yeah, I’m gonna get that bitch back.” [Laughs.]
Oh I doubt that.
I hope not. I hope not. But you can never tell…