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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.
Berrain’s new mentor invited her on tour, and they set out in 2007. Berrain opened for M.I.A. at shows in the U.K., Mexico and the U.S., all the while finishing up her high school degree from the road. Unlike other teen musicians, Berrain didn’t bring a momager or watchdog relative with her (“I’ve been a responsible person ever since I was younger.”). She credits Arulpragasam and crew with keeping her in line. “They were very overprotective,” says the rapper, adding, “[Maya] calls me her daughter.”
Arulpragasam signed Rye Rye as the first artist to her Interscope imprint label, N.E.E.T., and has her hand in Rye Rye’s songwriting, beat-making and album mastering. Perhaps the most obvious result of the relationship is Rye Rye’s eclectic, genre-bending sound, which, like Arulpragasam’s, runs the gamut from hard-hitting club music to laid-back techno- and reggae-inflected fare. Berrain admits that there is a downside to being under M.I.A.’s wing. “It can be very hard with her,” Berrain says, referring to a recent test video shoot with director Spike Jonze. “By the end of it, I wanted to fall asleep and [Maya] was like, ‘Come on, just one more take!’ I was, like, passed out on the floor.”
But Berrain’s musical style is only one of M.I.A.’s touches. Known as much for her in-your-face style as she is for her music (she often makes her own clothes, like the reflective-tape number she wore at Coachella), Arulpragasam also took a keen interest in her protégé’s look, whether styling Berrain for her electric, dance-filled performances, taking her on shopping sprees at Topshop, or introducing her to hipster designers like Jeremy Scott, Brian Lichtenberg and Cassette Playa’s Carri Mundane. “[Maya’s] style rubbed off on me,” Berrain notes. “Now, when I’m home, if I go to the club dressed different, people will be looking like, What does she have on? But I wear it with confidence, like M.I.A. said.”
Arulpragasam is expecting her first child (with fiancé Benjamin Brewer) in February, a month before the release date for Rye Rye’s as-yet-untitled album. But chances are that even a baby of her own won’t distract Arulpragasam from Rye Rye. “Maya always says, ‘I don’t want to have another girl because I already got a girl,’” Berrain says. Whatever the baby’s sex, one thing’s for sure. “In the studio, the baby always kicks, and Maya will be like, ‘When the baby comes out, all the baby’s going to know is Rye Rye, ’cause that’s all the baby is hearing right now. The baby is already dancing off our music.’”