MIA with DJ Diplo at the Drake Hotel (1150 Queen West), Wednesday (February 2). $20. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Currently hyped as either the female Dizzee Rascal, the Tamil Peaches or, even more dubiously, the next Neneh Cherry, Sri Lankan Brit electro-threat MIA, aka Maya Arulpragasam, has stirred up an alternative press frenzy since her catchy culture-clash of a party rocker, Galang, took UK clubs and charts by storm this fall.
But as it turns out, having a shit-hot single that fuses quirky video game bloopery with dancehall attitude and tops it off with a pop hook that hits and sticks like an ice-pick is merely an intriguing sidebar in the massive MIA media onslaught.
So far there have been ponderous features in the Sunday Times, the Independent and the stodgy New Yorker, in addition to a splashy cover story for trend-conscious Fader Magazine proclaiming "Music's now thing!" And that's likely just the start.
So why the sudden interest in a 28-year-old former Central St. Martin's College of Art and Design film student whose lone claim to fame was designing a CD sleeve for Britpop has-beens Elastica?
Well, try to imagine, in our post-tsunami world, if Beatles-jacking producer Danger mouse were a Sri Lankan refugee who looked like a fashion model and could rhyme sexy about the Middle East conflict and you'll get some idea of what all the fuss about MIA is about.
Arulpragasam's back story touches on so many current hot-button issues - from South Asian stereotypes to tsunami relief fund distribution - that many journalists haven't even bothered trying to make sense of her music.
"Up until the end of last year, any press attention I was getting seemed quite manageable," explains Arulpragasam over a cellphone on her way home from the airport. "But since the beginning of January, things have been going absolutely insane.
"Yesterday I did a full day of back-to-back interviews in Germany where I was asked the most intense political questions ever. They were asking me to comment on really heavy world issues, like what I thought about America, globalization, President Bush. I had to wonder, 'Why me?'"
Well, if the notion of Arulpragasam being Britain's first-ever Tamil refugee pop star isn't enough to write about, there are always those politically daring rhymes she slyly drops over the ramshackle Roland 505 rhythms.
Listen closely and along with the syllable-stretching you may hear references to child prostitution, and then there's the line "like PLO we don't surrender" in the track Sunshowers, which is certain to stir up controversy when - or if - it ever gets released here as a single.
"Actually, MTV just asked me to issue a statement on my interpretation of the word 'sunshowers' and also wanted to know whether or not I would censor the lyrics. That seemed really weird to me.
"I mean, if you don't like hearing the words I use, all you need to do is turn from MTV to any news channel to see what my song's about. Do they expect me to ignore all the crazy shit I see every day and write love songs? No way! My job as an artist is to try to make sense of what's around me and interpret it in a way that other people can feel it."
While we're on the topic of controversy, there's also that Piracy Funds Terrorism mixtape Arulpragasam made with manual mash-up maestro Diplo, aka DJ Diplodocus, of Hollertonix, which borrows liberally from contemporary hiphop tracks. The two clicked surprisingly well for a first encounter.
"I liked one of Diplo's tracks I heard, so I called him up to see if he could make me some beats. He said he was busy with all these shows and whatever, so I told him, 'I don't care, I'm coming anyway!' I got on a plane and was knocking on his door in Philadelphia the next day. 'OK, show me whatcha got!'"
Diplo's party-starting mixes, which employ bumpin' tracks by Missy Elliott, Jay-Z and others, make for a hugely entertaining alternate version of her Arular (XL) album. Only, the legal issues surrounding the sample use should keep distribution of Piracy Funds Terrorism strictly on the down-low.
"We started on a song she did called First Blood that had a dancehall-style beat," recalls Diplo. "I tried it over a hiphop beat and it sounded OK, but the chorus wasn't working. So I started messing with other a cappellas from her album, using some Baltimore beats and Brazilian baile funk - just fucking around, having a good time - and that became the basis of the mixtape."
"I see us as being part of the same new school of artists who are trying to be progressive and working without boundaries or being nerdy. There's no concern for what's underground or commercial. What matters is that the music is real and it's fun."