"Do you have any ideas
on how we can actually sell this record in America?" (Los
Angeles Times 5th March 1995)
All three members of England's critically acclaimed reggae/hip-hop/dance-music group Massive Attack slide to the edges of their seats in the Beverly Hills offices of Virgin Records and wait for an answer to the question posed by 3-D, the group's self-dubbed "white boy."
When no reply is forthcoming, 3-D leans back in his chair and laughs.
"That's OK," he says, waving a cigarette. "Even our record company is completely at a loss as to what to do with us. At this point, we're definitely open to suggestions."
The album that has Massive Attack at a loss is the trio's sophomore effort, the just-released "Protection."
A moody, hypnotic excursion into the realms of alienation, self-doubt and romances that are more bitter than sweet, the album draws from influences that range from punk to classic R&B.
Massive Attack's music is raw, elegant and instantly identifiable-it's one of the few modern pop groups whose sound might be termed true soul music. They bypass the histrionic vocals and formulaic lyrics that dominate contemporary R&B for cathartic, heartfelt life observations that resonate with the listener.
"They've redefined dance-based pop music," says Kaz Utsunomiya, executive vice-president of artists and repertoire at Virgin. "They've brought in rap, dub and elements of youth culture. In the process they've become one of the most important bands to come out of England in some time.
Although the new album has garnered raves in both the United States and Europe, the Bristol-based group is anxious about how it will be received by the public. They still appear disappointed at the lukewarm response to the group's 1991 debut, "Blue Lines," particularly in light of the current success of another Bristol outfit, Portishead.
"Our problem has always been bad timing," says 3-D, whose real name is Robert Del Naja, with a shake of his head. "I think if we put out `Blue Lines' now, it could be very successful. The fact that Portishead were able to click so well at this moment proves that to me. `Blue Lines' would be perfect right now."
"Then in a few years maybe America will be ready for (the new album)," murmurs Andrew Vowles, who goes by the name Mushroom.
The trio is eager to tour America to make its case, having learned from its past mistakes. The last time they toured, they feel, they compromised their vision by trying to be a conventional outfit, standing onstage with all the focus on them as they fiddled with turntables, etc. The trio prefers to remain somewhat faceless, letting the music rather than a persona speak for them.
"When we play live, the point is not to watch us up on a stage while you just sit out there," says Daddy G (real name: Grant Marshall). "We want to rent out a huge space and bring our massive banks of speakers and just have a cool club with maybe some video projections and artwork. We don't want to just play Massive Attack stuff, either, but a whole range of music."
Not fitting in has long been one of Massive Attack's goals. At a time when the U.K. music scene is once again torn between "dance music" and "rock" factions, Massive Attack is notable for not sitting in either camp. But then, the trio has been ignoring boundaries from the beginning.
Massive Attack, then called the Wild Bunch, formed in Bristol more than a decade ago, although the members had actually known each other longer.
Marshall, Del Naja and Vowles met in the early '80s at a club called the Dugout, one of the few spots in town where blacks and whites gathered under the same roof. The original lineup included Nellee Hooper, who left in 1987 to help start Soul II Soul and has gone on to produce records by Bjork and Madonna.
After various personnel shifts (including a brief membership by acclaimed singer Shara Nelson), the group landed a contract in 1989 with Virgin through a demo tape that was so impressive that in effect it became the group's first album, "Blue Lines."
Original bandmate Hooper produced the new album, marking the first time they've worked together since he left. On the record, they are joined by a cast of singers that includes Tracey Thorn, the chanteuse from the group Everything But the Girl.
Like the debut, the new collection features lush arrangements, bitter, defiant lyrics, synthesizers and drum machines set against live strings or guitar, seductive, near-whispered raps balanced with soulful singers.
That ease with a variety of components comes from their earliest Wild Bunch days socializing and deejaying in clubs like the Dugout in the early '80s.
"We wanted to turn Bristol into a more multiracial, multicultural club scene, because at the time there were white clubs and black clubs with little or no interaction," says Daddy G. "We played reggae, punk, ska, hip-hop. It was an exciting time in England because there was always something new coming up in music, and we tried to embrace it all."
And what about the commercial prospects?
"There are all these meetings at the label right now about whether we should be aimed at the R&B market or the alternative market, or the dance market," says 3-D with smile that barely masks his frustration.
"Well, we want to be sent to all of them. I think we have a record that truthfully slides into all those slots. That's the great benefit of not really fitting in."