You might have heard the story. A young designer and visual artist from West London sits in her bedroom with a microphone, an old four-track recorder, and an all purpose weapon of DIY musicians from the mid-80’s onward, a Roland MC-505 groovebox. Piecing together the infinite collections of sounds and squeeks and drums, she figures out how to make a beat. Then she figures out how to make another and another. A few months in, with virtually no musical training, she’s able to compose full songs and set them down as passable recordings. One of those songs becomes her first track. She teams up with a pair of producers and 500 pressings of her first song go out into the world, sent out like messages in bottles, hoping to be found.
The do-it-yourself story of Maya Arulpragasam—who would adopt the stage name M.I.A.—has echoes throughout the history of music. Artists waving their master tapes under the noses of any DJ who will play them or producer who will take them on, or handing homemade recordings off to friends in the hope of building a buzz. It’s Loretta Lynn hauling copies of “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” from one radio station to another, asking for a chance. It’s the Wu-Tang Clan slinging copies of “Protect Ya Neck” out of vans to earn cash and get their name recognized.
There are worse ways to cut your teeth in the music business than to put something together yourself and toss it over the transom. But M.I.A. had a couple distinct advantages going for her debut, beyond her staggering raw talent.
The first was how different she sounded. “Galang” was stripped down yet symphonic, a tower of sound that came right up out of the streets of not just London, but every city that gave London its population, from the song’s Caribbean title that M.I.A. rings like a bell during the chorus to the deep bass influence of Brazillian Baile Funk, which was starting to pop off around the city at the moment she was conceiving the track. It all flies in your face in a lo-fi roar, making noise with the tools that are available—limited, perhaps, but capable of making a hell of a racket.
The second thing M.I.A. had going for her was the Internet. This seems like old hat now, but in 2003, right on the back end of the Napster lawsuits, file sharing was just coming into its own. Word of mouth generated by passing along demos and mixtapes was nothing new. New York’s hip hop scene was built on it. What was different was the speed and the range of the handoffs. You didn’t just ride the train to drop a tape off in Manhattan. You tapped a few keys and sent it to Brooklyn, Rio and Berlin inside of thirty seconds.
To put it in terms we understand now (and that no one was using then) “Galang” went viral. As 2004 came on, the track could be heard across the world, from dancehalls to fashion shows to BBC 1. Despite a pressing of only 500 vinyl copies of the original single, and being put together largely on the fly in the artist’s bedroom, “Galang” had, in a matter of months, become an international underground hit. There was no precedent for it. It was powered by a technological sea change, and as a song it was addictive as hell. By the time she completed her first album, Arular, M.I.A. was already becoming a star.
Pages have been written about M.I.A.’s backstory. Born in London to ethnic Tamil parents and shuttled between Sri Lanka, India and London as a child due to Sri Lanka’s civil war (her father fought on behalf of ethnic Tamils and was a target of the government), she spent her teenage years in council housing in West London before attending art school and becoming a respected visual artist. A few months after first trying her hand at music, she’s on her way to stardom. Within a decade, she would be an international icon and one of the most recognized artists on the planet.
Again, there weren’t any blueprints for this at the time. There are a lot of artists who found themselves on the big stage quickly, but there’s often the grind of club dates and rejections and shifting lineups of bands and producers. M.I.A’s explosive burst onto the scene is not only remarkable in that it happened so quickly, but that she was able to sustain the momentum of her early stardom. Arular was a solid, cohesive album, rather than a prop to hold up a lightning-in-a-bottle debut. M.I.A. seemed to either be an impossibly fast learner or a prodigy who couldn’t help but spin gold from the get go (in retrospect, she’s both). Three years after her debut, her second album Kala—anchored by the worldwide hit “Paper Planes”—would be named album of the year by Rolling Stone, one of the best albums of the decade by others, and the best album of the century (so far) by esteemed critic Robert Christgau.
But lets get back to the pivot point, because the fact that “Galang” is an important track isn’t the only reason to write about it. Separate out the file sharing phenomenon that made it so big so fast, take away the supernova career of its creator and and the remarkable backstory behind her art, and “Galang” is a great track all on its own. It stood up then, it holds up now.
M.I.A. performing in 2014.
Maybe it would have been possible for a track like this to come from somewhere besides London, but it was always going to have to come from somewhere like London. This is a pile-up of sounds that demonstrates not only what M.I.A. was listening to, but what was both available and prominent. Punk, hip hop, local slang and booming bass pounded out on the nearest bangable object.
You can hear The Clash—of course you can, it’s England—not just in the opening line of “London Calling,” but the track’s rough edged mix of political awareness and fuck-off dismissal. The last verse contains sneeringly sarcastic readings of advice coming from an invisible “they” at the top of the food chain, a disembodied force that suggests prayer, hard work, and trading of sex as a way to fit into the system and not cause a ruckus. And in the way that this political reality check is layered into a sonic assault, you can hear the profound influence of Public Enemy, particularly their work with the Bomb Squad on tracks like “Brothers Gonna Work It Out.”
The beat builds in layers, feeling both synthetic and unrefined—the kind of sounds construction equipment would make if it could talk. Soon it’s augmented with low level buzzes and high whines like distorted sirens, and it becomes, in the up tempo rhythm its been laid on, its own landscape. The only thing it’s missing is language.
The term “galang,” in the context of the song, is a Caribbean slang term for “go along” (though it’s also a Tagalog word for respect). The idea of “go along” has a double meaning in the song. You can see both sides of it in the second verse, which reads like a litany of misdirected advice, from the baseless bootstrap logic of “work is gonna save you, pray and you will pull through” to the sinister and nihilistic anti-code of “backstab your crew, sell it I could sell you” (M.I.A. stated that a lot of this came from suggestions people gave her on how to survive in London).
So what’s the way to “go along” here? Do you keep your head down and grind ahead and follow the rules? Or do you take out anything that gets in your way on a climb upward? And in the world today, how far do these two options differ from each other? How often are those who chop out the legs of those less fortunate rewarded for being god-fearing upholders of law and order?
Ultimately, this is a song about survival, and this all comes together for me in the song’s coda. For the first two and a half minutes, M.I.A. paints a dark and paranoid picture, and contrasts it with the bullshit advice she’s received on how to navigate the situation. But then the beat goes silent for a moment, and when it comes back, the song becomes something else entirely—a defiant chorus of hope:
Ya Ya Hey
Ya Ya Heyyyyyyy
Oh we oh we oh-ohhhhh
It’s stunning audibly, but it also hits us in the visual receptors. The sudden appearance of all these voices has the effect of a camera pulling back from this one street in London to bring all of them into focus at once. All these experiences, singing in harmony, as if the streets themselves are chanting at us. It’s a thousand scenes just like this one in an interconnected web of experience simply labeled as “the city.” And just like that, the gloom burns off and the song turns triumphant.
It’s not just one street in one city. It’s a whole world, a world that M.I.A. sees herself as a citizen of. A land of the displaced who have found each other, the survivors who have survived, the ones building their art against a backdrop of no, no, no. The ones who sit in their rooms with the barest of essentials and a desire to make a noise, who sing into a recorder, and shake the streets to life and the world to attention.