By  on December 23, 2008

Had Ryeisha Berrain not left a voice mail for producer DJ Blaqstarr when she was 15, she might never have met M.I.A. nor landed a plum record deal. “My older sister knew Blaqstarr,” says the soft-spoken Berrain, now 18, whose musical moniker comes from her childhood nickname, Rye Rye. “One time my sister was on the phone with him and he asked if I knew how to rap because he liked the sound of my voice. But I was being shy, so I said ‘No.’” Several days later, Berrain called up her sister’s friend with a few verses she’d recently written in hand. “He didn’t answer, so I rapped it on his answering machine,” she says.

Impressed by her rhymes and gritty staccato, Blaqstarr enlisted Berrain to rap on a track called “Shake It To The Ground,” which became a Baltimore club anthem and MySpace sensation. The track lured a key fan — the singer/producer/designer M.I.A. (aka Maya Arulpragasam) — to Baltimore to find Berrain, who was living with her mom and two sisters in Baltimore’s Chapel Hill housing projects. Berrain had never heard of the Sri Lankan indie darling. “Blaqstarr called me and said somebody wanted to meet me at the studio,” she says. “It was M.I.A. She was just like, ‘I’ve been looking for you for the longest time.’ And I was like, ‘What? Who is this lady?’ ” Arulpragasam quickly took on a multifarious role in Berrain’s life, influencing her sound and style.

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