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Check M4: Ship-shape and Bristol Fashion (Seven Years Of Plenty 1998)

There's a great picture in Phil Johnson's fascinating if unfortunately titled book Straight Outa Bristol. It was taken at the Avon metroplolis' celebrated Dugout club in 1984. Huddled around a battered-looking set of turntables are future Massive Attack mainstays Daddy G - in Two Tone fan's pork-pie hat - and a punky-looking Robert '3D' Del Naja. The man on the wheels of steel is Nellee Hooper, who in a few years' time would become the world's most sought-after record producer.
If ever there was a candidate for the existence of a regionally distinct musical identity, the 'Bristol Sound' pioneered by Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky would seem to be it. Not only for the common cast of new stars introduced by Massive's Blue Lines - a West Country Big Chill - but also for the particular nature of their local musical background: the rare intensity of the reggae/punk crossover, and the subsequent agit-funk explorations of The Pop Group, Rip Rig and Panic, and Mark Stewart's solo recordings.
What clearer evidence could there be of a common musical culture than Tricky's 'Hell Is Round The Corner' and Portishead's 'Glory Box' both using the same stately Isaac Hayes string spiral from Black Moses' 'Ike's Rap 2'? The very obviousness of this shared inheritance is a large part of the problem (as Johnson found when all the principals bar the ever garrulous Del Naja refused to talk to him about it). The cosy impression it creates - 'Everyone thinks we're all sleeping together,' observed Tricky in early 1994 - could hardly be further from the truth.Distance lends enchantment, but proximity is the mother of discord. The constant rancour - the endless petty feuds magnified through a haze of dope-intensified paranoia - is as much a part of the Bristolian atmosphere as any shared musical history.
Talking to Tricky about his first solo recording - 'Nothing's Clear', an enterprising loop from the soundtrack to Betty Blue for a sickle-cell anaemia charity compilation called Hard Cell - any idea of a caring and supportive musical community soon goes up in smoke. OK, Geoff from Portishead helped out with the engineering, but former Massive Attack colleagues were not so constructive. 'They all came back from the pub to take the piss; remembers Tricky, painedly. 'I never asked myself at the time why they were doing it, but I have done since - they knew how much" it meant to me'.
For all its incestuousness and bitchery, the Bristolian hot-house was no hermetically sealed. For one thing there was the vital input of Swedish' American interloper Neneh Cherry and her husband Cameron McVey (who bought Geoff Barrow his first Akai sampler), for another there were the Wild Bunch sound system's early travels to New York and Japan. These latter voyages might be seen as being in the spirit of what is euphemistially termed Bristol's seafaring tradition. It was slavery that the wealth of the city was built on, and the ugly historical reality which underpins the history of hip-hop echoes through Bristol's street names like a bruise through make-up.
The adjective most casually reached for in a Bristolian context is 'cosmopolitan'. Massive Attack's tapestry of exotic bloodlines (Daddy G's family are Jamaican, 3D's dad came from Naples, and Andrew 'Mushroom' Vowles' was American) is often mistaken for some kind of Feng Shut design concept. A harmonious vision of black and white, yin and yang, dandelion and burdock, which is, in Daddy G's words, 'how everyone believes the world should be'. 'Unfortunately; he notes, sternly, 'the world's not like that, and Massive Attack aren't like that either'.
This band; he continues, 'represents the first generation of immigrants that grew up in England. We all came from different backgrounds and you can't say that living here has affected us all in the same way, because it hasn't, but we all grew up in the inner city and took on board everything that came to us'. It's not quite as simple as that, though. In a sharp turnaround of the conventions of inner city deprivation. Mushroom's unhappiest formative years were spent away from cosmopolitan Bristol, in the Regency elegance of Bath, where he grew up with his mother in a social atmosphere he now describes as 'grim'.
The tension between the US urban ideal of hip-hop and the green-hills-in-the-distance reality of Bristol is a key factor in the city's musical dynamic. Portishead's Geoff Barrow originally comes from a place - Walton-in-Gordano - celebrated only for its proximity to an M4 motorway service station. Having moved to Portishead as a child, with his mum, he decided to name his pop group after his new hometown. While this decision plainly reflected a die-hard hip hop fan's concern with his immediate surroundings (it certainly put the no-horse backwater of Portishead on the map), it was no simple attempt to emulate the upfront sense of place enshrined in the names of The Watts Prophets or The Sugar Hill Gang.
For him to pretend to be a Hip-Hop urbanite, Barrow told Echoes in September '97, would be 'massively disrespectful to people who actually live that lifestyle whether they choose to or whether their surroundings make them'. And its this sense of distance that informs Portishead's sratch'n'mix backdrops - almost as if their haunting music were an attempt to make sense of an absence rather than a presence. But then, any authentic sense of place is as much about what's not there as what is.

Ben Thompson