At the Belasco Theater in downtown Los Angeles, Maya Arulpragasam – better known as the rapper M.I.A. – is in a golden outfit, fanning herself and rocking out most of her excellent new album, Matangi. She's joined onstage by a DJ, dancers, a live drummer, and seemingly half the audience.
"Pretty chaotic, like pop music is supposed to be," says DJ Venus X of the M.I.A. experience. Twenty-seven years old, born Jazmin Venus Soto, Venus X made her name with the New York party GHE20GOTH1K (pronounced "ghettogothic") and quickly became a fixture on the turntables from art museums to illegal raves. Renowned for her skill at crosscutting global styles, from Spanish salsa to Turkish techno, she's been collaborating with M.I.A. for only a few weeks. Venus X has already been issued a stage uniform of boot-camp fatigues. Is that camouflage? "It's Versaceflage," she declares. "Very rare. For fighting the pop demons."
How did you start working with Maya?
She hit me up 48 hours ahead of a show in Paris. We did one rehearsal for a few hours, and she asked, "Can you sing backup?" I said, "Yeah, sure, why not?" She said, "Do you know how to sing?" I said, "I do, actually." I did musical theater, school and church stuff; I went to Catholic school. I played Dr. Seuss in Seussical and in winter workshop, I sang Barbra Streisand's "Don't Rain on My Parade."
What would you be doing right now if she hadn't made that call?
I might be in the Dominican Republic. I grew up in New York City, but my family's from there. America's work, work, work. I want to go to an island and retune my internal guitar.
What made you want to be a DJ in the first place?
Being a cocktail waitress and hearing lots of shitty DJs play music while I popped bottles. When I started out, I just wanted a lesson from my boyfriend at the time. He gave me a live lesson – he had a job DJing at Topshop. He said, "I'll teach you, and you can DJ for me, because I don't feel like DJing today." He taught me how to mix the songs and I did it for two hours, in front of hundreds of people. I never got a chance to practice at home.
Are you a better DJ now than you were a year ago?
I'm so much better. You learn how to do things, and then it's better when you fuck it up. There are no rules. Anybody who says there are rules is just domesticated. Last year, I gave more of a fuck than I do this year. The less of a fuck I give, the better I get at what I'm doing. For me, it's straddling the line between being something really special and something really familiar. I don't want to be somebody who's just respected amongst a bunch of white nerd DJ boys – I want to appeal to my mom. When I tell her I'm a DJ, she doesn't care unless I can DJ my cousin's wedding. For me, every DJ set has to bring together the stuff I know because I have an elite group of musical friends, and then the stuff I know because I listen to the radio and I know what my people dance to.
When Maya goes offstage for a break, what are you spinning?
Some Bollywood remixes and some old-school reggae: a set that reminds people of all the things that influenced her. It's hard, because there aren't a lot of artists like her. There aren't really any other artists who are able to put vocals over those kinds of beats. You have to recontextualize it into hip-hop, reggae, club music. I like tropical sounds, since I was raised listening to a lot of merengue and dembow and reggaeton. Then I moved to New Jersey for high school, so I heard a lot of club music and techno that I wouldn't have been exposed to in New York. Jersey has Jersey club music, which is a derivative of Philly and Baltimore club music: in their free time, 16-year-olds make all these remixes. It's getting popular now, but it's been around since I was in eighth grade.
What's been the craziest thing that's happened the last couple of weeks?
Going to Brazil and having Karl Lagerfeld linger in our dressing room, watching us. I think people are scared of him because he's a cartoon, almost. He was a sweetheart, and surprisingly on point considering he's probably pretty old. We got a lot of swag.
What do you believe in politically?
Everything but the government.
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- Maya Arulpragasam