On Tuesday, Oct. 5, I had the opportunity to sit down with M.I.A.’s mentee and opening act, Rye Rye, moments after her set finished. The following is an account of our meeting.
Q: What were your first experiences with music? Did you play an instrument or sing as a kid?
A: I never played anything, but I used to watch music videos with my sister and I would imitate the dance moves I saw. I used to write a lot of poetry and my sister was friends with Blaqstarr [M.I.A.’s frequent producer and collaborator] so she hooked me up with him. I called him up and left him a voicemail with one verse on it that had started as just one chord, you know? I turned it into a whole song and just left it on his voicemail [laughs]. I didn’t know if he liked my voice or something but obviously it worked out!
Q: I know you’re a big dancer. You put on these amazing live shows where you’re basically flying around the stage. Do you think you prefer dancing or singing, and why?
B: You know, sometimes I like dancing more because I feel like that’s what my plan in life is. It’s one of those things that I just have in me that’s such a big part of me. But at the same time, I love to make music that makes me dance. So I’d say if I had to choose really, I’d pick dancing, but I’m not saying I don’t love rapping!
Q: Do you think anything’s changed about your musical style since the birth of your daughter? I know you had planned to have your album [Go! Pop! Bang!] out early 2009 but plans got kind of derailed, and I noticed on your new single, “Sunshine,” a definite shift in tone.
A: After I had my baby girl, I felt a sort of pressure, like, “How do I come back out?” When I set out to make the record, I was first really feeling dance, and even though my sound has changed since then, I still want my first album to be fun and dance-y because that’s who I am as a person and I know it’s what the fans want to hear. “Sunshine” is a change because it isn’t too dance-y but the rest of the album is definitely very “me.”
Q: Obviously, you and M.I.A. are quite close, and I know that in addition to touring with her for a while, you’re also signed to her label and she produces your stuff. Can you talk about what it’s like to work with her? Is she the type who lets you do your thing and then gives you advice or is she with you every step of the way?
A: Well, with Go! Pop! Bang! she was with me, pregnant, every step of the way. She says that she spent her whole pregnancy in the studio with me [laughs] but you know, she was really involved in every track. She directed me through it. I started touring with her before I was actually her artist, so we’ve been tight for a while, which meant there was no sort of pressure from her in the studio. She’s like my mom. With “Sunshine” specifically, M.I.A. was the one who pushed me to make a song that’s not a “Rye Rye track.” She encouraged me to be willing to try anything and everything, and I think it all ended up being a real success. We kept it fun.
Q: A couple of months ago, you performed with Ke$ha in New York, which leads into my next question about “pop” today. I’ve gotta ask, what do you think of people like Ke$ha and Miley Cyrus who’ve kind of dominated the charts the past few years?
A: Well, I’m really into pop a lot these days, it’s kind of turning dance, like a crossover that’s really cool. I have to say that Miley Cyrus is a talented young girl and I have so much respect for her. With Ke$ha, at first I was like, “What’s this all about?” but then I started listening to “Your Love is My Drug,” and I was like yeah, this is hot. Listen, it’s so hard to be a part of the industry these days, so anyone who’s doing anything positive I have nothing but respect for. There’s no reason to hate or anything, I’m just out here grinding just like they are and that’s great.
Q: I’m gonna throw a few more names out there to see what you think of them: Nicki Minaj, who’s obviously been one of the most noteworthy and present female rappers this year, and Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, who both own the charts.
A: I love Lady Gaga! I love listening and watching when her videos come on. She’s so artistic. I’ve been asked about her ever since M.I.A. said that stuff about her [M.I.A. told reporters that Gaga’s journey “wasn’t that tough” and said she thought Gaga was “a good mimic”] and I got nothing but love for her. Same with Nicki, I respect her so much. There was no female rapper in the hip-hop lane for a while, and she speaks to a very specific crowd, these girls who feel strong and all “I’m a boss b—h.” She’s a good role model who relates to the culture these days. I got misquoted by reporters because I said she wasn’t a lady back when I saw a picture of her with her legs spread and her junk spilling out, but she’s really become a lady, she raps and is a really nice person. She figured out she doesn’t need to show her goods to do her thing. Bieber? [smiles and giggles] That’s my baby! When that “Only Girl” song came on the radio in the car, I squealed and my mama looked at me like “What’s wrong with you?” I was Tweeting about him during those music awards saying how I would cry if he sang that song because I think he’s good. I really love little kids doing their s—t, it’s tough.
Q: Heading back to the topic of producers, I saw that you’d Tweeted about working with The Neptunes on something. Was that for your new album? How was it collaborating with Pharrell?
A: Well you know, usually you would feel pressure working with such big mainstream producers, but Pharrell knew my style and it felt good. We did a few tracks, they ended up sounding sort of like [M.I.A.’s] “Boyz” and “Bird Flu,” but he kept me in my comfort zone. You know his manager’s my manager, too?
Q: I had no idea! I’m actually seeing him open up for Gorillaz tomorrow.
A: Yeah, my manager’s flying in tomorrow to see him and I’m like yeah, yeah I see how it is [laughs].
Q: Well, speaking about studio time, could you clue me in as to how you approach recording? I know a lot of rappers like to write out their verses before they record and some like to let their creative juices flow.
A: Well me, I like a beat to just be on repeat in the studio so I can vibe with it. Most of the time, I can write at home, I just get really distracted … I’ll even go out and run as a distraction! But when I’m in the studio I usually just knock it right out. A lot of producers are surprised to see how quick I am in the studio, they say I’m mad easy to work with.
Q: You mentioned distractions. Would some of those distractions be things like Twitter and Facebook? M.I.A.’s new album is heavily geared towards a discussion about technology and the “up to the minute” culture of today, so what are your thoughts, as an artist, about social media?
A: Well, the Internet is definitely changing the ways the music industry thinks. Twitter is such a good way to reach out to your fans … they want to feel your personality, and if you don’t ever reach out to them, it’s fake. It’s just fake, and I hate that. With Twitter, they get to know exactly who you are. I don’t like to cover that stuff up so it’s nice. It’s so easy to get in touch with celebrities these days.
Q: One of the most interesting things about your performance at HARD NYC, and also tonight, was your introduction to your song “Witch Doctor.” In New York, you asked the audience who liked to smoke weed, and responded hilariously, “Well I don’t do that s—t but you do what you gotta do!” [She laughs] What is the song about, in your eyes?
A: Well [thinks for a minute], it was recorded in Chicago with DJ Maino, MIA’s friend, and basically I just thought of it on the fly. The beat I heard basically had a knicker-knacker sound like some old toy balls clacking together, so I went with it. The first verse is basically all about weed and the second verse I kind of hit you with a “put that s—t out” message. It’s like I’m leading you on and then shutting you down! I know it’s a way of life, like M.I.A.’s dancer Whyteboi was like, “Why you gotta shut us down on that second verse?” We love to joke around backstage.
Q: I’m glad you brought up backstage antics because I was just going to ask you about performing and preshow jitters. You’ve been touring with M.I.A. for a really long time now, but do you ever get nervous before you hit the stage? You kind of hit the stage with a grin on your face and the energy never seemed to fade from there.
A: Yeah, no backstage stuff goes on really. I love to relax before a show, kick back with my computer. I really should start stretching or something [laughs]. I like performing a lot, just like to kinda pop out there. M.I.A. used to call me out on stage and force me out there back in the day so I could get used to it, so I’m really thankful for that.
Q: Well, it’s about time I let you go, but before I do, I have to ask this really cliched question because it’s something I really want to know. Where do you see yourself in five years?
A: Well yeah, I still see myself making music and being a songwriter, because I actually write a lot of R&B songs. Me though, I just go with the flow and I’m very spur of the moment. I want to do it all, no limits! I do want to maybe go back to school, opening a daycare at some point. What’s that line Miley Cyrus sings? “Tomorrow is the day I never plan.” That’s how I live my life.