(Credit: Alamy / Interscope Records)

How M.I.A. transformed The Clash into a modern mega-hit

M.I.A. track ‘Paper Planes’ is one of the definitive pop songs of the 21st Century. Rarely does a song that delivers such a potent message become so explicitly consumed by the masses, who, ironically, were part of a large proportion of the general public it was aimed at. 

The track was an unexpected triumph. Before releasing ‘Paper Planes’, M.I.A. was a critically adored quirky alternative hip-hop artist who nobody expected to trouble the charts anytime soon. Not because of talent; M.I.A. has always had that by the bucket load, but because being signed to an independent label in London rarely translates to selling millions of records in the United States, but there was something about ‘Paper Planes‘ that struck a chord with everyone who heard it.

Despite being released in February 2008, it wasn’t until the track appeared on the films Pineapple Express and Slumdog Millionaire that ‘Paper Planes’ started to gather momentum. After a gradual rise up the charts, it eventually landed at number four in the Billboard Chart seven months after its release.

The opening to ‘Paper Planes’ is a stroke of genius, one which immediately sets the song up for greatness, and an integral part of that is the interpolation of The Clash song ‘Straight To Hell’. Producer Diplo built the track around the use of the punk classic, which gives ‘Paper Planes’ an undeniable grit, one that combines with M.I.A.’s rhymes perfectly. The result, of course, is dragging The Clash’s 1982 track kicking and screaming into the modern era.

The subjects of both tracks are identical, which makes the two even more suitable bedfellows. The Clash number deals with a theme of how society blames all their ills on immigrants in a typically nuanced manner by Joe Strummer. Similarly, M.I.A. tackles the same issues from the perspective of an immigrant on ‘Paper Planes’.

Speaking to The Fader, M.I.A. revealed that she woke up one morning, and the lyrics had come out of her before she’d even had the opportunity to brush her teeth. After spending time in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy area, the singer reflected on the attitudes she viewed towards immigrants, witnessing how many people viewed them as money grabbers with very little to offer.

M.I.A. said: “I was thinking about living there, waking up every morning – it’s such an African neighbourhood. I was going to get patties at my local and just thinking that really the worst thing that anyone can say is some shit like: ‘What I wanna do is come and get your money.’ People don’t really feel like immigrants or refugees contribute to culture in any way. That they’re just leeches that suck from whatever.

“So in the song I say ‘All I wanna do is [sound of gun shooting and reloading, cash register opening] and take your money.’ I did it in sound effects. It’s up to you how you want to interpret. America is so obsessed with money, I’m sure they’ll get it.”

The singer then added, “We worked on it in London to get the sound of it right. But the idea was Wes’ (Diplo), with The Clash’ Straight to Hell’ sample.”

The surviving members of The Clash had no qualms about the sampling of ‘Straight To Hell’, but little did they expect for it to grow into the anthem that it morphed into. M.I.A. even made The Clash co-writers on the song, so they got their fair share of credit, and the royalties have undoubtedly made the success of ‘Paper Planes’ even sweeter for the band.

The success of the track also helped bring ‘Straight To Hell’ and the world of The Clash to a new era of fans, which made M.I.A. feel immense pride, noting: “It’s cool when you bring all these rappers and artists like the Clash together. It’s cool that they support it. It’s great, especially coming from London.”

While both songs were made by The Clash and M.I.A. almost 30 years apart, it’s unfortunate that the subject matter has remained relevant, and attitudes towards immigrant haven’t softened over this time. It’s over a decade on from ‘Paper Planes’, and sadly in that period, we’ve still seen immigrants become scapegoated in the same ludicrously negative stigma.

How M.I.A. and Diplo managed to maintain the essence of The Clash’s ‘Straight To Hell’, even without the vocals of Joe Strummer, explains exactly why this is one of the most extraordinary samples in modern music and a lesson to any aspiring producer.