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Tamil Tiger Beats

An Underground International Pop Sensation and a Schlumpy Ex-Indie Rocker Go Looking For Context

BEYOND BORDERS: Is it M.I.A.'s beats or backstory fueling her sizzling career heat?
LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy

By Mikael Wood | Posted 3/9/2005

In the worldwide hunt for the hottest beat, what use does groove have for context? Nearly every story that’s appeared in print or online about M.I.A. over the past year has outlined with varying degrees of factual rigor 28-year-old Maya Arulpragasam’s background as a London-based refugee from war-torn Sri Lanka. The interest in her bio—which also includes a father who fought the ruling government with a rebel group, as well as a stint at a London art school and time spent creating visual work for the defunct English pop group Elastica—is utterly rational: M.I.A. embodies a thrill that is extramusical at a moment when guys like Bruce Springsteen and Bono are flailing to give some purpose to their pomp. Because of her backstory and because of geopolitics, Arulpragasam’s music would have political overtones even if she sang about fruit.

Which she does. She opens Arular, her debut, with “Banana Skit,” in which she offers “refugee education number one” over a skittering drum-machine beat: “Ba-na-na,” she instructs, drawing out the word till it resembles three nonsense syllables easily reproducible by speakers of any tongue. Later, in “Sunshowers,” she sings, “I salt and pepper my mango” over another skittering drum-machine beat.

Arular contains many, many skittering drum-machine beats, and most of them are sweet enough that you’d happily devour them even without following M.I.A.’s lyrics: “Bucky Done Gun” is deliriously funky, maybe the funkiest thing since the Quad City DJs urged one and all to come on and ride it nearly a decade ago. Produced by Philly-based DJ Diplo (with whom M.I.A. made a bootleg mix CD late last year called Piracy Funds Terrorism), “Bucky” slices up the bleating trumpets from Bill Conti’s Rocky theme, then layers them over a beat that sounds like a caterpillar doing the Worm while wearing a pair of sunglasses missing the lenses. “Fire Fire” makes it easy to imagine Mario or Luigi—both of whose last name, I just found out, is Mario—wearing those sunglasses. “Bingo” has fake steel drums and robotic grinding noises that obviate the need to sip on some sizzurp.

Though it could be, Arular isn’t all groove—it’s context, too. M.I.A. (salts and) peppers her songs with references to her life, just like schlumpy indie rockers from Ypsilanti. She exhorts us to “pull up the people, pull up the poor”; she describes growing up next door to a “guerrilla getting trained up”; she points to child prostitution as another route out of Sri Lanka; she vows not to surrender, just like the PLO. And yet it’s difficult to decipher if Arular’s pan-global throb is Arulpragasam’s way of reminding herself of the home she was forced to abandon or if it’s her way of making a home wherever she finds it. “Hello, this is M.I.A./ Could you please come get me?” she sings in “Amazon,” a tune about being held for ransom in “blindfolds under homemade lanterns.” She’s playing a character she knows, but she’s also asking the music to make sense of what she (and we) can’t.

James Murphy, the 35-year-old mastermind behind LCD Soundsystem, knows from hot beats, too. As half of the New York production duo the DFA, the schlumpy ex-indie rocker was at the forefront of the dance-punk revival that’s nearly completed its transfer from the big-city underground to the MTV mainstream, producing tracks like the Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers” and cannily constructing a business-side infrastructure that’s allowed him to release, as his major-label debut, a two-disc album comprising nine new tracks as well as the singles that established him as a hipster-set raconteur.

Murphy’s context is that scene itself: In “Losing My Edge,” his underground hit from 2002, he wryly regretted falling out of touch with the alt-culture he once had a front-row seat for. “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House,” LCD Soundsystem’s opener, is “Edge”’s sequel: Over an irresistible bass-and-drums groove Murphy brags that the French house duo’s gig in his living room has attracted “every kid for miles,” and that “the neighbors can’t call the police” and “the jocks can’t get in the door.” As the song gradually picks up steam with shivery Sonic Youth guitar noise and a three-note synth riff, it becomes a joyous tribute to the underdog that’s only made funnier by Murphy’s tacit acknowledgment that hipsters became the new jocks long ago. After regaining his edge, he vows not to surrender, just like M.I.A.

There’s plenty more of that old punk-funk magic here: In “Too Much Love” Murphy lays a deadpan harmony vocal over a kick-and-snare shuffle that slowly accrues bits of auxiliary percussion like lint; in “Disco Infiltrator” he successfully scuffs up a computer-world groove with live-band grit; in “Movement” he gives Mario and Luigi a badly needed opportunity to mosh. But in a way that echoes M.I.A.’s ambivalence about the intersection between music and politics, Murphy sounds most engaged on LCD Soundsystem when he’s breaking with that template: There’s a lovely late-Beatles guitar ballad called “Never as Tired as When I’m Waking Up” that in sound and spirit imagines a time after the DFA’s grip on New York nightlife has loosened, and “Great Release,” the album’s cooled-out closer, which could be from one of Brian Eno’s early solo albums. As the song ends, Murphy allows the final piano chord to ring out into silence, then we hear him get up and walk out of the studio. He hasn’t been forced to abandon anything, but finding home still takes searching.

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