In the song, MIA plays the stereotype of a menacing illegal immigrant, forging documents and threatening violence. He was inspired by her efforts to enter America on a visa (she is a British citizen of Sri Lankan descent), which resulted in a months-long bureaucratic quagmire, which she attributed to her dark skin and to his real exotic name: Mathangi Arulpragasam.
She composed the song with her then-boyfriend, DJ/producer Diplo (Wesley Pentz), who wasn’t as well-known then as he is now. “Paper Planes” was the first “smash” song he worked on; a few years later he was charting with a number of productions, including Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now” and his Tiesto collaboration, “C’Mon (Catch ‘Em By Surprise)”.
MIA came up with the lyrics all of a sudden one morning. She was living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York at the time.
Interview with Fader magazineMIA said: “I thought I was living there, waking up every morning – it’s such an African neighborhood. , it’s shit like, “What I wanna do is come get your money.” People don’t really feel like immigrants or refugees contribute to culture in any way That they’re just leeches sucking on anything. 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 the 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.”
Mike D and Adrock of the Beastie Boys plus DMX made appearances in the video. It was originally supposed to be shot on the Ecuadorian border, but they were forced to move to New York due to MIA time constraints. Director Bernard Gourley shot the clip in a Caribbean community in Brooklyn. According to VH1’s pop-up video, MIA’s manager refused to let her wear a Metallica t-shirt for some scenes, so she locked herself in his apartment for two hours until he relented.
The shots on this trail imply theft, but MIA said they had a deeper meaning: criticizing the military-industrial complex that sells weapons to Third World countries and reaps the benefits.
Musically, the song is built on a snippet of The Clash’s 1982 song “Straight To Hell”, which also deals with immigration and xenophobia. The sample was Diplo’s idea.
Just before MIA could write the song, she found herself in a battle with the United States government.
After the release of his first album Arularit briefly ended up on the homeland security risk list due to its lyrical content.
Named after the code name of her political activist father during Sri Lanka’s civil war, the album sought in part to shed light on the conflicts unfolding in her home country (when she was born in London, she spent her childhood displaced in Sri Lanka during the long-running, fatal conflict).
Her vocal support for the pro-secession Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (aka the Tamil Tigers) sparked government concern and drew praise and criticism abroad – some even branded her a “terrorist “.
It was used heavily in promotion of Stoner’s Seth Rogen and James Franco epic Pineapple Express, a DFA remix was featured prominently in the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, and was eventually sampled for Kanye West, Ti and Jay-Z mega-hit “Swagga Like Us.”
The song’s licensing was a marketing success, but it’s interesting to consider what the song was beginning to represent via the media it served to promote. It became a sign of rebellion, a middle finger to the status quo (even if it made money for corporate executives somewhere out there).
MIA herself is a public fan of The Clash, calling them not only important to her but also to London. But it’s also important to say how the music evokes that punk feeling without ever saying so explicitly, using a reggae-inspired riff.
“We both have this reckless abandon. We don’tWe don’t really watch the rules and we have hits and misses,” Diplo said in an interview alongside The Clash’s Mick Jones and Paul Simonon on BoomshotsTV. “[The Clash] have always been pioneers of sound, of the way music sounded. In a way, the message was punk rock but also the attitude of making music was even more in this same punk philosophy. That’s why we have a similar attitude.”
Jones agrees, saying he thought “hip-hop was the same thing as punk rock.” He continues, “When we had punk rock, that was our music in the streets when it started. And hip-hop too when it started. And I could see a direct comparison there.
The song’s backing track is a replayed sample of the 1982 song “Straight to Hell” by The Clash. The chorus of “Paper Planes” was speculated to be based on the chorus of the 1992 song “Rump Shaker” by Wreckx-N-Effect, although the writers of this song are uncredited. The song was produced by Diplo with additional production by Switch.