They cast a shadow, they do. The Bristol-based trio Massive Attack has had a profound influence on British music this decade. With Blue Lines in '91, they helped spawn the 'trip-hop' aesthetic - the dimly lit intersection of hip-hop, pop and moody soul also popularized by fellow Bristolians Tricky and Portishead.
You can also draw lines between Blue Lines and the sampledelic beat excursions of assorted Mo' Wax and Ninja Tune artists, the vogue for moody, string-heavy film scores and the resurgence of interest in dub reggae, subsequently increasing the usage of bongs worldwide. "Everybody should hear that album because that's the blueprint to what's been happening in certain circles since," says Daddy G, a.k.a. Grant Marshall, speaking on the eve of Mezzanine's release last spring.
"Not to blow my own trumpet but I can still sit back and listen to that album and think, 'Oh yeah, that was cool shit that we did.' "
But it didn't spring from nowhere, although at the beginning of this decade, it might've seemed like it. Their heavily lauded and just plain heavy third album, Mezzanine, released in the spring of 1998, makes it clearer that their work did not represent so much a revolutionary break from existing styles. Rather, they've adhered to something that's fallen in and out of vogue in British popular music since punk, something evident in the music of artists as varied as the Pop Group, Wham! and the Stone Roses: a willingness to cross genres and carry on a dialogue between black and white music. It's the harmonious - at least temporarily - sound of a multiracial England, its subcultures in collision.
Though Mezzanine has a louder, dirtier sound that's closer to the style of their live performances, Massive Attack's music remains more diverse in influence than that of their many imitators. The ongoing collaboration between Massive members Marshall, Robert del Naja and Andrew Vowles and reggae singer Horace Andy continues to take them into new terrain (particularly on the monstrous opener, "Angel"), and by situating the voices of two famed '80s alterna-pop singers - Tracey Thorn of Everything but the Girl on 1994's Protection and Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins on Mezzanine - in their tortuous soundscapes, they tie different strands of British music together, creating a take all their own.
"We've always tried to open up the boundaries," says Marshall. "When we worked with Shara Nelson, we took a lot of influences from the early '80s, a lot of soul influences as well. When Shara left, we didn't want to repeat that or get a singer to match Shara, because she was the best. So we went for Tracey, whom we've always loved. When Tracey went and did a thing with Ben [Watt, her EBTG partner], we had to change direction again."
To many, Fraser's voice signified "cool" as much as Morrissey's or Nick Cave's (or even Nik Kershaw's) did in the '80s. Hearing what Massive Attack do with it on "Group Four" and "Teardrop" more than makes up for Mezzanine's few weak tracks.
"I was working in a record shop about '84," says Marshall, "and Meat Is Murder by the Smiths and 'Pearly Dewdrops' Drops' by the Cocteau Twins were the coolest records to have. Liz's voice has always been familiar to people into cool, underground bands. That's where we come from-we were into everything."
There's a sense, too, that Massive Attack have been able to bring another level to their music by using singers like Thorn, Fraser or Horace Andy because their voices have their own particular histories. "Most definitely," says Marshall. "And Horace Andy's been in the music business for 35 years. We've only caught up to him 25 years later, which is perfect because he's always been part of our heritage, as far as being DJ's or musicians or just guys totally saturated with music. And that's where we come from. That's where we learn stuff from."
Their original contact with Horace Andy was through first manager Neneh Cherry, whose father, late jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, knew Horace. After years of working with Horace, Marshall is a great admirer of his flexibility as a performer. "He records in Jamaica so there's quite traditional methods he uses to record," says Marshall. "But with us, we try to break that down. He's really flexible-that's the reason why he's with us. He's become a quite integral part of what Massive Attack are about- live he's been the main figure. We always seem to change the women singers to give us different textures. Also, I think women get intimidated working with us and off they go (laughs). It is quite a male-dominated thing we have going on, so I do believe that women, once they've done their bit, don't want to repeat it. But Horace is flexible and he's brilliant. We're so proud to have him on board."
Horace's spookiest moment on Mezzanine comes in the cover of John Holt's reggae
classic "Man Next Door." Fraser just sounds generally spooky. With
Fraser, Marshall disagrees that there was an effort to situate her classically
angelic voice in more extreme, dark contexts. "It wasn't really a conscious
thing like that," he says. "That was just the way Liz works. It was
quite a unique process how we'd work with Liz, because we'd get certain sections
of music cycling around-just took the whole section and repeated it, and she'd
actually sing the loop. Then we'd go through and pick out pieces of what she'd
like. The thing with Liz, we'd never understood a fucking word she was singing
anyway (laughs), so it doesn't really matter. She's always treated her voice
as an instrument, the same way we do.
"We did the same thing we made the Nusrat [Fateh Ali Khan] mix, because when we did that, we had no idea what the guy was saying. We wanted to cut some of the lyrics so what we did was actually make a template of what we wanted to put together in the remix and asked him what it said to make sure that no parts were left out. That's the 'Mustt Mustt' remix."
Much has been made about how fractious the group became during the making of Mezzanine. Marshall believes that this was a transitional time, as Massive as a studio project was becoming more closely yoked to Massive as a conventional live band. He's also candid about the strife their unconventional working methods and artistic evolution have caused. "Everyone thinks it's this angelic scene going on in the Massive Attack studio where we're all bouncing ideas off each other. It's a fucking nightmare. Seriously. Because we've been together for such a long time, we're kind of sick of each other. And so in turn, we didn't really get on that well when we made this album, and so we spent a lot of the time in the studio on separate occasions, going in and doing our own thing. It was like all these atoms that went into making the whole, whereas before it was the case where we'd tolerate each other-for too long really-trying to make the last two albums.
"It's a fucking nightmare, really. We hate each other." I suggest that they've outlived the gang mentality essential to getting Massive Attack off the ground in the first place.
In the old days, Marshall agrees, they was this sense of collective purpose, which is relevant to his claim that Massive Attack is a "barometer of all that's been going on since punk music." Socially and creatively, the early-'80s Bristol scene had a profound influence on the group. "The punk thing," says Marshall, "was the first laddy, gang-mentality thing where everybody was into the same thing. Then the next big thing was hip-hop, when everyone wore the same trainers and listened to the same music and the same DJs, know what I mean? Hence the stupid names Daddy G, Mushroom and 3-D. We kept trying to take on that whole ethos of hip-hop. But sooner or later, you realize for yourself that you can't imitate what's going on in America.
"Massive Attack is quintessentially English music because we take from all the influences that you'd only find in England-punk, reggae, the whole saturation thing. And being a multiracial band in England as well, you're open to different influences."
In Bristol's post-punk years - around the time the Wild Bunch posse formed, eventually spawning sterling careers for Massive Attack and producer Nellee Hooper - it didn't seem so bizarre that an anarcho-punk band like the Pop Group could catch the funk and spin off into groups like Pigbag, Rip, Rig and Panic and Mark Stewart & The Maffia (a.k.a. Tackhead).
"We were into punk and reggae," says Marshall. "The Slits were working with Dennis Bovell, the precursor to Mad Professor, Mark Stewart was working with Adrian Sherwood and the Sugarhill Gang, the Clash were working with Don Letts and Mikey Dread. Punks were evolving in the early '80s, cross-culturalizing their music with reggae, hip-hop, funk. The Pop Group were like this group that came out with a heavy punk sound but with funky guitars on it - 'She's Beyond Good and Evil.' And also some of the Clash's stuff, which was quite funky as well - 'Radio Clash' and stuff. "For us, that was quite an imaginative period in music. It was quite a long time ago and I don't mean to harp on and on about it, but it was. You had these staunch punk bands who came out of punk's ashes and moved into the '80s. I think that's where we pick up the travel point in our albums, where we started on Blue Lines. We've moved through and gone back and taken a few more influences from early years, really."
This Bristolian spirit is most pronounced in Mezzanine in the cover of "Man Next Door," inspired not by Dennis Brown's hit, but by the version by fem-punk band the Slits. "It's brilliant," says Marshall, "but it's so crap. I thought it was brilliant back in '81 but when you actually hear it now, it's pretty cringey." (If you want to hear a much earlier fragment of Horace Andy singing the track, "Man Next Door" has a ghostly presence on several tracks on Dr. Alimantado's roots-dub classic The Best Dressed Chicken in Town.)
There's been a Massive Attack compilation album slated to be released on their Melankolic imprint for the last year that would cover some of this territory. "That's called Legends of the Sound System," says Marshall, "things we used to play. And it was gonna include records like that - Slits, Pop Group, funk and hip-hop records. That's the type of shit that we used to play, that's what we were about. I think it does show where we came from."
Expected sometime in '99 is a dub version of Mezzanine, along the lines of the Mad Professor's fascinating meltdown of Protection. There's also been talk on-and-off of them making a dub version of Radiohead's OK Computer, but that project is unlikely to happen.
"We got to know them quite well," says Marshall. "We had a gig with them in Ireland and spoke to them, and it was obvious that we could not find the time to do it. And if you're gonna do something like that, you've got to really treat it with respect. Don't want to sound arrogant, but to do it really well, we couldn't find the time. Otherwise, it'd just be embarrassing. You can't take projects on unless you can really put your all into it. You could quite easily end your career by doing a naff job with them guys, know what I mean?"
Marshall says that he's still listening to a lot of dub reggae - is he discovering stuff via the Blood and Fire and Pressure Sounds reissues, or is this material he already knows?
"Good question, because, yeah, a lot of the Blood and Fire reissues is stuff we've had before, like the Lee Perry stuff and the Horace stuff. I think that's really brilliant in a way because there's a new generation of people who haven't listened to a lot of old reggae, and to be honest, old reggae is like listening to old James Brown: those are the roots to the music. I especially think that around the '70s, when there were a lot of young kids coming up, making their own thing, starting their own labels, reggae really exploded. Reggae's always been out thing. Brilliant, Blood and Fire. They've introduced a lot of people to the original thing. That's the first time reggae started picking up in Europe, maybe America as well."
Though stuff with the label moves as slowly as everything else with Massive Attack, the releases on Melankolic are all highly worthy of investigation. The first, Skylarking, was an ace compilation of Horace Andy tracks. The best, Alpha's Come from Heaven, features a delicate Bacharach-influenced take on Portishead (the subsequently released Pepper mini-album features uptempo remixes and B-sides). The Space Between Us collects the sumptuous compositions of Craig Armstrong, who arranged strings on Protection and Madonna's Ray of Light and scored Romeo and Juliet with ex-Wild Bunch member Nellee Hooper.
On their North American tour last fall, Massive Attack showcased Melankolic rapper and DJ Lewis Parker, whose Masquerades and Silhouettes: The Ancients Series One combines cinematic grandeur with dirty beats and laid-back rapping.
Explains Marshall, "It wasn't the case where we were saying, 'We wanna help all these poor little bands,' because they're not poor little bands. Alpha had been knocking around Bristol and if we hadn't signed them, someone else would've. With Craig as well-he's got so much credentials, he worked with Madonna, on Romeo and Juliet and us. He said to us, if you do start a label, I'd like to put my stuff on it. He could've gone anywhere. "We were just giving them a hand, running them through the same infrastructure that we've got, that we know works. If you're gonna start a label, you've got to put your whole heart and soul into it because you're fucking around with people's lives."
by Jason Anderson