Music

Pull Up the Sound: The Story Behind M.I.A.'s Innovative Producer

Stefan Nickum

Like many pop-artists through the years, M.I.A.’s career has been built alongside forward-thinking producers and musicians, but few have had such a complex relationship as M.I.A. and Diplo.

Last week, M.I.A. released her third studio album entitled /\/\/\Y/\, which when deciphered reads “Maya", the singer’s first name. Furthering the album title’s ode to digital culture, the album’s cover finds M.I.A.’s face buried behind layers of red YouTube streaming bars and propped up by what could be the red bricks found in Nintendo’s classic Super Mario Brothers video game. Either crudely executed or executed to be crude, both the album’s cover and title are befitting of a time when any adept youth can crack open Photoshop to cut, paste and assemble, or when an impotent Google search of /\/\/\Y/\ is an underscore to the elusive return on music industry investment. Though coherent in the familiar colours of red and silver, the YouTube streaming bars are with out the YouTube brand, juxtaposing implicit corporate ubiquity and DIY usability, leaving only M.I.A.’s hollow eyes behind a torrent of red lines.

Two singles have been released from the album, and the songs are as sonically unrelated as her album’s title is deceiving. The first of the two singles “Born Free” heavily samples the early synth-punk band Suicide’s 1977 hit “Ghost Rider”. The song’s production values are reflective of M.I.A.’s chart-topping hit from her second album Kala entitled “Paper Planes". That song sampled liberally from the Clash’s “Straight to Hell”, and was planted firmly in the pop eye when a very pregnant M.I.A. performed alongside T.I., Jay-Z, Lil’ Wayne and Kanye West for a song called “Swagga Like Us” which sampled one of her lyrics from “Paper Planes".

M.I.A.’s second single “XXXO” takes the novelty of Suicide’s best-known song and exchanges it for unabashed club-pop a la Lady Gaga (notwithstanding M.I.A.’s fierce dislike of Gaga). Altered to an icy-thin wisp of her natural voice, Maya squeaks out the chorus saying “You want me to be somebody who I’m really not,” a preoccupation that seems to contradict her insistence on being “born free” on the first single.

Distraction and confusion have so far haunted M.I.A.’s third musical outing, accented in part by a controversial exposé from writer Lynn Hirschberg in the New York Times Magazine back in May. Misquoted and made to look two-faced and politically naïve, M.I.A. first responded rather childishly by posting Hirschberg’s cell phone number on Twitter, then later that week gave a more engaging and convincing response by posting an audio excerpt from the interview on her website, clearing up the subtext and guilt implicated by Hirschberg when M.I.A. ordered truffle fries at the Chateau Marmont during the interview. Whether these accusations among others could become an afterthought, only time will tell, but M.I.A.’s latest album plays like a soundtrack Hirschberg’s profile of her; mapping sounds and lyrics over all the contradiction, incoherence and pretension of Hirschberg’s portrayal.

If the first two singles sounded like a departure from the music of M.I.A.’s first two albums, familiar architects built the songs. With no more than three productions on any all three of M.I.A. albums, no one has been as present for M.I.A.’s evolution then Wesley Pentz a.k.a. Diplo. Responsible for “Born Free” as well as two others on M.I.A.’s latest, Diplo is best known for his work on “Paper Planes” (he and Switch were nominated for a Best Producer Grammy, Diplo for his work as producer and Switch as mixer), and despite misconceptions about his involvement on M.I.A.’s debut album Arular, only produced the song “Bucky Dun Gun”.

Diplo has strived, like M.I.A., to color the grey netherworld between pop and the underground, producer and DJ, author and co-author. To chart Diplo’s contributions to M.I.A. and her sound through production credits with his name on them is to overlook his more dynamic influence as a mediator for underground sounds and their makers, lifting them from corners of the globe and re-contextualizing them for broader appeal. Paralleling M.I.A.’s own journey through sound, Diplo’s ascendance from niche to international-notoriety offers a lens into M.I.A.’s latest record, an album that on the surface is in keeping with her frequent use of underground sounds and fiery political lyrics, but manages to sound muddy and incoherent. Like many pop-artists through the years, M.I.A.’s career has been built alongside forward-thinking producers and musicians, but few have had such a complex relationship as M.I.A. and Diplo.

Playing such roles as producer, DJ, A&R, or even boyfriend Diplo, as well as M.I.A., is a personification of an era when the Internet fuels cheap high-speed access to information, art and communication from all over the world. Collapsed to horizontal structures of exchange, social networking, blogs and pirating allow people from all socio-economic backgrounds to play a multitude of artistic and economic roles from anywhere there is an Internet connection and a computer. However, all this ease of access and use is at considerable odds with existing structures of profit and an entertainment industry paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. /\/\/\Y/\ and her tenuous relationship to ex-boyfriend Diplo couldn’t be better characters in such a tale.

Born in Mississippi and spending a significant chunk of his young life below the Bible-belt before coming north to Philadelphia and Baltimore, Diplo made an early name for himself as a DJ who could transcend genre and place. Looking back to the early part of this decade, Diplo emerges as a DJ who would lead a generation that grew up listening to Public Enemy, Pearl Jam and P. Diddy all at once. Among the DJ’s/producers who popularized the “mash-up", Diplo was known for mixes and sets that traversed every thinkable genre of music, commercial and underground alike. One of Diplo’s earliest mixtapes “Never Scared”, with fellow-Philadelphia DJ Low Budget, was a tour de force of nascent Southern rap artists alongside essentials like the Cure, Björk and Missy Elliot. Then New York Times music critic Kelefa Sanneh named the mix as one of his top 10 favorite albums of the year, an early prediction of the album format’s untenable future and the egalitarian taste of a generation that would help expedite the process.

Even as Diplo was helping to usher in an era of musical pluralism, Diplo was ever forward looking in his desire for new sounds, just as adventurous about how or where they were coming from as he was about putting them together. The most notable of these new sounds, and ones that bubbled up to Diplo’s production for “Bucky Dun Gun” and the sound palette for M.I.A.’s debut album Arular, were from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Called "Funk Carioca" in Portuguese, and known to the world as Baile funk, this form of dance music derives most obviously from Miami bass. Popular in the late '80s and '90s with controversial groups like 2 Live Crew, Miami bass took the sexual explicitness of hip-hop and fused it with the electro-funk sounds of Afrika Bambaata. Baile funk and its associative parties come most prominently from the outlying favelas (slums in Portuguese) of Rio, outer-urban dwellings that are notorious for their deadly albeit sophisticated gangs, forms of governance more effective than many state governments. Baile funk is the most popular form of music amongst the favela communities, and many high-ranking gang members sponsor parties filled with free drugs and alcohol.

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