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Pop & Hiss goes to the movies: 'Slumdog Millionaire' M.I.A.'s latest cultural mix

November 24, 2008 | 12:15 pm

One doesn't have to get deep into Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" to sample some of the kinetic music that drives it. Close to 10 minutes into the film, there's a rush of rhythms -- the sound, perhaps, of animals scurrying around an alley.

An Eastern chant comes in, but it's digitally affected, just slightly, as this isn't a film -- or a song -- that's looking to the past. English vocals don't cut in until around the halfway mark, but when they do, they capture someone on the run. It's the voice of worldly electronic artist M.I.A., and her rap-inflected vocals stay close to  beat, scurrying under it rather than complementing it. She sings of just wanting to make it to 50, of being a star and fantasizing of the neon flash of Las Vegas.

Like the film, it's about being caught between two worlds. Scraping by, but getting a glimpse of the upper class. In the case of Boyle's film, this comes via the insanely popular quiz show, "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire."

The song, "O ... Saya" is a collaboration between M.I.A. and Indian composer A.R. Rahman. It opens the soundtrack to the film, which, as noted by The Playlist, will be released digitally on Tuesday. M.I.A. tells Pop & Hiss she met with Boyle and Rahman in London to discuss the track. 

"A.R. was the most established, amazing producer," M.I.A. said. "He works with 100-people orchestras, and his sound is huge. Then on the other end of the room was me, making music on GarageBand [software] and playing Danny these really gritty, badly recorded MP3s. We had all these meetings and stuff, and then I realized that’s what the movie is -- it’s the contradiction between these two things. That’s what the whole continent [of India] is."

M.I.A., who lived for a time in India, saw an early cut of the film. She says she tried to talk Boyle into being "more out there" and to stray from India's Bollywood traditions. The film features a grand, electronic Bollyhood number, "Jai Ho," which closes the soundtrack.

If M.I.A. had put a up a better argument, she may persuaded Boyle to forgo the scene. Said M.I.A., "When they have the dance sequence, I was like, ‘You should cut that out!’ I’m glad he didn’t listen to me."

She explained: "If I was painting a picture of that part of the world, it’s not that I’d make it more glum, but I would try not to involve all the positive stuff from it, like the singing and dancing and easy stuff. I think we’re already used to that, and comfortable with that part. So there times that I was like, 'We don’t have to make it so Bollywood' ... Danny, I think, wanted it to be good on both sides. He wanted the Indian population to get it, as well as the West. That’s a really difficult thing to do, and I think he did it -- I think he did it really well."

The soundtrack to "Slumdog Millionaire" will mark the first release on M.I.A.'s Interscope label, N.E.E.T. In 2009, M.I.A. said, the label will release her first signing, Baltimore's teenage rapper Rye Rye, whose club rave-up, "Shake It to the Ground," comes off as a more Americanized M.I.A., but no less energetic or resilient.

Working with Rye Rye, said M.I.A., has inspired her to get back into the studio to work on her third record. She offered no timetable.

"I’m just writing," said M.I.A., who is pregnant with her first child. "You have to be in the habit of writing as much as possible. I don’t have any sort of process. I have all the artwork done and everything, but I don’t have any thoughts as to how this album should sound. It’s weird. I just need to find where I am and what I’m thinking."

She excitedly speaks of Rye Rye as a sort of pet project, noting she does all of Rye Rye's "production, and I do all her styling. I dye her weave." The 17-year-old rapper has a more hard-core club sound than M.I.A.'s globe-trotting electronics, and it sounds like being a label head has provided M.I.A. an opportunity to live vicariously.

"Rye Rye's record was really clubby, and that’s where I started, and she fits that so well," M.I.A. said. "Her music has so much energy. I kind of exhaust with that her. So when I’m sitting down to write my own music, it’s coming from a different place. I want to be able to do things that I feel like are not getting said."

Working with Boyle and Rahman helped accomplish that goal. She says she's even considering compiling an "alternative soundtrack," 10 songs that she would have placed in the movie, and releasing it online. She also says she looks forward to day when she can watch Boyle's "Trainspotting" with her child. And how old does her kid have to be before he or she is ready to view the rock 'n' roll heroin drama?

Answered M.I.A, "Maybe 10? I’m going to be like, 'Why aren’t you sniffing more glue? Come on!'"

"I’m not sure," she laughed. "This kid is going to be interesting. I think it’s going to rebel against me and end up being an accountant. I’m going to be like, 'Why aren’t you [expletive]-upped more?'"

--Todd Martens

Photo credit: Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times