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Small Attack

Massive Attack's Great Divide (The Metropoliton, July 13th 1988)

Massive Attack member 3D explains how three musicians who don't agree on anything made three of the 1990s' most influential albums. Shifting from a moody to a more complex, temperamental sound, Mezzanine--the newest album from Massive Attack, the Bristol, UK, pioneers of "trip-hop"--is testament to the experimental hip-hop-derived style that has defined the band since its inception in 1987. Following the seminal classic Blue Lines (1991) and the slightly divergent Protection (1994), Mezzanine marks a shift in the collaborative efforts by core members Mushroom (Andrew Vowles), Daddy G (Grant Marshall) and 3D (Robert del Naja). "If I had to make another Protection, I would have left the band," says 3D, whose harder, industrial-charged inflfiuence underlies Massive Attack's latest incarnation, which is also the band's first album without Tricky.
Combined with their trademark luscious dub bass and down-tempo rhythm is an unexpected new sound--the tense, nearly abrasive grinding of an electric guitar. "Angel," the punk-infused opening track on Mezzanine, is evidence of a conscious departure from Mushroom's hip-hop sampling styles--a sound that permeates the preceding albums.
"My main ambition was to make Mezzanine totally new," says 3D. "This album had to be fresh, not as much soul. Mushroom likes soul, beats and details, whereas I like the more emotional side, both in terms of the sounds I compose and the lyrics I write. That's why Mushroom and I work separately--these different sounds and aspects don't work together because Mushroom and I don't see eye to eye on music, except on older hip-hop, like Sugar Hill Gang, Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest."
"Mezzanine is a result of me and [producer] Neil Davidge destroying ourselves in the studio, trying to do our own thing," continues 3D. "Mushroom didn't like what we were doing, for the most part, so we worked separately, with Daddy G and Neil between us." Nonetheless, such absolute independence boils down to a matter of creative necessity: "I wouldn't force my opinion on Mushroom, and he doesn't force his on me. We don't work as a team--in fact, there's no teamwork at all. It's all very selfish, except when we play live."
While most electro bands crank out albums faster than the speed of disco light, there are several reasons why it took almost four years for Massive Attack to produce record number three: first, hibernation and obsessive dedication often lead to great works of art, and second, it's difficult to proceed quickly when "you fundamentally disagree with the other members' musical sounds."
How, then, will the band ever progress to album four? "Our next album will be done completely separately. Me and Mushroom will make our own tracks, and we'll lay them down side by side, so that we don't have to compromise. There will be contrast, but it will also make sense. I felt that there was compromise on Mezzanine, and I still feel somewhat cold toward Protection. I just didn't feel much empathy with some of the tracks, and Mushroom resents that. That's just the way we are."
Is it possible, then, that Tricky devised the title of his second solo album, Pre-Millennium Tension, after working on Protection, his last involvement with Massive Attack? "When we work on a project with someone, we spend a lot of time with them arguing in the studio, and then we'll finally mix the album. When Tricky was done, we kept going on. When Shara Nelson (of Soul II Soul fame) was done on Blue Lines, we kept moving on. We never intended to have permanent relationships with people."
Internal dissonance hype aside, Mushroom, Daddy G and 3D share a profoundly familial relationship that began in their native Bristol in 1983, when they evolved into the Wild Bunch--an American-inspired hip-hop/graffiti-boy posse. Formed during the height of Thatcher, the Wild Bunch was an incidental cultural fusion whose roots were embedded in the rich black and white history of the Bristol music scene.
"Dub, reggae sounds were going on everywhere in England but especially in Bristol because we had a very large black community," recalls 3D. "I lived nearby the black neighborhoods but didn't hang out in them. But I did go to a mixed-race school, and that's where I found a lot of my musical influences." Also included among the Wild Bunch ranks was Tricky, then Tricky Kid, and Nellee Hooper, who went on the produce Protection, as well as albums for Soul II Soul, Madonna and Björk.
In Bristol, an industrial town populated by immigrant East Indians and working-class whites, racial tension escalated there along with the rest of the UK in 1962, when England concurrently ended the unlimited immigration policy of the Commonwealth and granted Jamaica self-governing status (although the country still remained a member of the Commonwealth).
While race riots began to erupt in England, reggae and ska flourished in Jamaica. A musical renaissance reflective of the optimism of newly acquired (although limited) freedom, reggae and ska entered British music from the tropical birthplace of the sound system and DJ phenomenon.
More than a decade later, a rebellious white subculture emerged with a new musical genre--punk rock. "I got into the punk thing in '78 and '79, during the edge of the whole movement. That's when reggae started to creep into punk music. The Clash was the first to do this, as did the Slits and PIL later on," says 3D. "When the Clash came around, DJs started playing reggae dubs in punk clubs." The commonalities between punk and reggae were more philosophical than tonal.
"Reggae had a reflective feeling that was taken from the street. It was similar to the way that punks related to authority, our parents, and everyone else around us," says 3D. "The 'do-it-yourself' attitude found in punk and reggae also changed the way people made music--you didn't need the traditional four-piece band setup any longer. Both groups had the same attitude. They weren't really writing and composing songs--they were just making music."
In the mid-'80s, a new urban sound emerged from a black youth subculture in New York: hip-hop. But it wasn't the American version that most Brits initially encountered: "Hip-hop was first introduced to the UK by the Clash with the song 'Radio Clash'--it was definitely the first hip-hop song most of us had ever heard," 3D says.
Quickly, the punk and reggae scenes evolved and "began to embrace hip-hop because it shared a similar feeling--it was also reflective of the city and our lives within it. Then, breaking and graffiti entered the scene," 3D says. "The Wild Bunch was about watching and copying Americans with hip-hop, really, and then eventually our own personalities came through." After four years of thorough b-boy exploration, "all these elements came together in Massive Attack."
Featuring Tricky's sinister whisper and the smooth rapping vocals of reggae legend Horace Andy, "Blue Lines is reflective of our progression from the original [Wild Bunch] crew," says 3D. "Quite simply, that album was all about sampling and DJing--you can really hear it. That's where Mushroom is coming from--electronic music and soul. Protection is also very much in his style; there's a heavy soul-influence in all of the tracks. Mezzanine is where I'm coming from more. My vibe was, 'We've done soul, we've done dub, now we need to do something totally original.' "
Along with a repeat performance by Andy, Mezzanine is graced with the ethereal vocals of former Cocteau Twins singer Liz Fraser--a presence which adds to the emotionally strained quality of the album. Indeed, a more intensified, brooding beauty pervades the newest Massive Attack sound. "Melancholy is reflective of life," 3D says. "It's difficult to understand where you are in life. Dark music is cathartic because although it makes you remember the sad things in your life, it also makes you feel better. It takes sad, open-ended music to make you think."
It is no wonder, then, that Massive Attack named its record label after the group's psychological makeup. "We didn't have the time or resources to go out and form a large, full-time record label, so we developed Melankolic with Virgin. We're too cynical to create a huge record label," 3D explains.
Providing a creative venue for fellow Bristolian musicians, the label currently promotes four UK talents: Horace Andy, Alpha, Lewis Parker and the classically trained string composer and Massive collaborator Craig Armstrong. "We have no desire to become A&R men for Virgin records, so we only sign on people that we truly like, people that we meet out drinking at pubs in Bristol," says 3D. "It's on that level, really. We have no desire to sign on the hottest American band--that's bullshit. We work with what's close to us."
Generally recognized as the first electro-based band to give the head-set precedence over the "rave on" dance floor, Massive Attack produces aching, poetic sounds that have come to symbolize the ever-evolving musical consciousness of a techno-imbued generation. Whatever interpersonal malaise plagues the threesome from behind closed studio doors is irrelevant to the public's hungry ears. Thanks to a few moody guys from Bristol, the "plugged-in" sound is now a valid musical genre capable of achieving melodic brilliance and personal relevance to even the least angst-ridden listener.

By Amanda Nowinski