Massive Attack

Out of the Comfort Zone - An Excerpt

Melissa Chemam

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Why Massive Attack?

Over the past ten years, as a freelance journalist, I have been living and travelling in Africa, Europe and the Middle East, covering African-European relations, migration issues, the refugee crisis and later on… In August 2014, I read an article about one of my favourite bands, Massive Attack, as they were travelling to Lebanon, to perform at the Byblos International Festival and to visit Palestinian youth they support, in a refugee camp in Burj El Barajneh, in a southern suburb of Beirut.

For months, this story stayed with me. I found their words so genuine… I was listening to Mezzanine on repeat… And 100th Window, their post-9/11 album. I read a lot about them. I thought about Bristol and saw how the city’s history obviously shaped the 1980's music scene, with its transition from post-punk rebellion to a hip-hop reinvention, via the sound of reggae. And when I talked to a friend who is a writer and music journalist, he began trying to convince me I could write about music too. He had an idea for me in France. But I already had my own by then...

I left for Bristol in February 2015. Since then, I’ve met with so many artists from the city, so many lovely people, that it became my second home. An independent French publisher soon after gave me a contract to write this book. I had almost “carte blanche”. So I centred the book on Massive Attack, but there was such deep meaning in what I was discussing with some of the members I met, or with historians, artists, friends of the band. I quickly felt I was writing a sort of counter-history of the United Kingdom in the past 50 to 200 years.

A few of these artists convinced me a year later to write an English version of the book. It wasn’t easy, even less easy to convince people to publish it here, without changing my own ideas, in the middle of the worst moments of the Brexit anti-European fury! But I finally finished it.

It starts with Blue Lines, of course, Massive Attack’s first album. Then it goes back in time to dig into the origins of the “Bristol Sound”, this mix of reggae bass lines, hip-hop/rap and samples, with soulful vocals and a local accent… A new trend, which later evolved into one of the most defining sounds of the 1990's, whether you call it “trip-hop”, “down tempo” or “spacey electronic music”, influencing Björk as much as Madonna and David Bowie! From the late 1990's, Massive Attack had to mutate and ended up splitting… Creative differences. And the two remaining members became increasingly mysterious and highly conscious, politically hyper-aware, in a way very artists have in our times. 

The Birth Of A New Form Of Band (1989-91)

“Suddenly, Massive Attack are happening,” wrote Miranda Sawyer in Q magazine in March 1991. “That ‘all-important’ critical acclaim! Even seminal world rockers U2 want to meet them!”… From the caves of Bristol’s underground and forbidden parties, the non-musicians emerged worldwide in only a few months…

From 1989, the work that Massive Attack’s three core members started took a more definite shape, and it became clear for Cameron McVey and Jonny Dollar that an album was on its way, and not an ordinary album. Produced without a definite plan in mind, their art, which involves “copying and pasting” from an extraordinary playlist of references, seemed to work magically, just like 3D’s art of collage at the time.

Meanwhile in Bristol, the street art movement was on the back burner because of increasing police surveillance. In March 1989, 72 young graffiti writers were arrested in Operation Anderson, after policemen found a contact book belonging to an artist with all his friends’ phone numbers. Some of those arrested stopped writing graffiti; others carried on spraying, going further underground and found themselves in open conflict with the authorities. Others started spraying outside Bristol. London became a good place to hide and try new things.

3D found himself more deeply involved in music. His art remained at the core of the visual aspect of the collective, but for now, Massive Attack’s priority was to produce their very own sound, beyond the DJ approach, a sound that could call itself a proper different and unique genre.

Very early on, Massive Attack sensed that the different approach they were looking for would be found in the vocal parts of the recordings. One point seemed certain from the start, the band wouldn’t have a lead singer. Collaborations were at the core of what they were creating, as DJs and as rappers, and they were looking for guest vocalists to complete their diverse identity in sound.

Find your own voice

Searching for a soul voice to add some softness to their mainly male influences, the idea of working with a female vocalist seemed obvious. The band wrote more songs with Shara Nelson, whose warm and powerful voice suited the slow tempo of their first compositions and brought a touch of melancholy, some contrast with the use of a beat box.

In 1990, Shara worked with Massive Attack while they were composing a track to be temporarily named ‘Just a Matter of Time’, a very slow and mellow hip-hop oriented track, featuring a few rapping vocals from 3D. They added a humming sound performed by Shara. The song finally wasn’t included on Blue Lines, or on any other record, but it was used in a first promo video, produced independently and directed by Roger Pomphrey. Born in Bristol in 1954, guitarist for Eurythmics around 1980/82, Roger started working in films and music videos a few years later. For Massive Attack, he created a film in black and white shot in Bristol, mostly outdoors, taking viewers into the feel of the city, from the docks to the zoo, as well as into the band’s mental universe, in a film full of humour.

The film starts with a close shot of an envelope dropping through a letterbox. Mushroom picks up the mail, which appears to be an invitation to a party. Inside the envelope is a card bearing the word “Massive” surmounted by a flame logo. He brings the card into an old-fashioned sitting room and hands it to an elderly woman whose head is shaking with spasms as she sits in an armchair… She doesn’t seem to be able to understand the message.

Fade to black: a cupboard door gets open by the toweringly high Daddy G, picking a blouson and looking, with hesitation, for the perfect headgear for the day. Hat? Cap with his stage name on? Beanie hat? Yes, beanie with a ‘G’ it will be. Meanwhile, the screen is progressively showing shots from the football stadium, where a worker is repainting the field’s white lines… Before he leaves his house, Daddy G picks up the phone to ring a friend who he calls ‘Jack’ (we’ll soon discover the members of the crew all call each other ‘Jack’, including Shara), looking to find their mate Tricky, unsuccessfully.

The next scene is set in the stadium. A caretaker, cleaning the terraces, wakes up a crumpled, sleeping body; and 3D emerges from under a hat, holding a football programme. He avidly asks: “What’s the score?” Only to be answered: “City beat 2-0 but the match finished two days ago”… And the film moves on indoors to Shara Nelson, singing in her bathroom, writing down some music notes on a sheet that she ends up drowning with her tap’s water. Meanwhile, outdoors, 3D joins Mushroom, playing with an electric car, in front of his house, asking him if… he has seen Tricky. D then proposes going to the zoo – which leads to interesting close shots of the animals. But Mushroom, for some irrational reasons, seems to think that they don’t have enough time. So they just go for a walk. The other side of town, Daddy G walks to the Montpelier Hotel. While wandering with 3D, Mushroom suddenly decides he wants to have a haircut… “Bristol is a city where we are easily distracted”, the band members later regularly explained to the press. Here is it illustrated!

Meanwhile, Shara is heading to her kitchen, when the phone rings: Daddy G is calling, looking for… Tricky. For Mushroom, a large part of the afternoon is spent at the hairdresser with 3D, while Shara is getting ready to go out. All of them are reunited later around a friend’s dinner table. Shara Nelson deeply sighs when 3D asks her… if she’s seen Tricky. “No!” she replies, slightly annoyed. The film is often mentioned under the name “Where is Tricky?” in Bristol. The crowd starts drinking and chatting, while a tarantula is wandering around the candlesticks. And when the host proposes a toast, someone suddenly knocks on the door… It’s easy to guess who is arriving late.

The generally relaxed atmosphere of the film is revealing of the daily life that the musicians led in Bristol, sending flyers, perfecting their look, wandering, watching football, composing music, also featuring visual representations of different parts of the city, from Montpelier to the Harbourside, and the… zoo. Bristol’s underground universe is completely summarised in the film, showing the diversity of the group of friends, from different ages and backgrounds.

The video also reveals traits from the main characters’ personalities: the elusive, solitary and uncontrollable Tricky hardly gets to meet the cool and charismatic Daddy G; Mushroom is mostly silent, looking away in most circumstances; while 3D is voluble and fickle, most of the time hiding his feelings behind a forced serious gaze, then suddenly bubbly and jokingly warm. Surrounded at the dinner table by Shara, Grant, Willy Wee and Mushroom, he is the one standing out from the crowd, with his light eyes and skin tone, his angelic face most often artificially hardened by an unwillingness to smile.

Massive Attack paid a beautiful homage to Roger Pomphrey, after the announcement of his passing, early in 2014: “A lovely man and a brilliant filmmaker. He inspired us to treat each video opportunity as a movie making experience and paved the way for collaborations with other great directors.”

Musically, ‘Just A Matter Of Time’ – which will never be released – already sounds very different from the few Wild Bunch recordings produced in 1987 and 88: its style is definitely hip-hop but the rhythm is much slower, framed around a soft beatbox and a sweet looping melody, accompanied by Shara’s humming voice for the first two thirds and ending in a slow rap performed by 3D. Some of its lyrics later reappeared partly in the track named ‘Eurochild’, on Massive Attack’s second album.

Shara continued to work with the band for another year, composing a few melodies and writing lyrics. She is featured on their first album on ‘Daydreaming’, along with 3D and Tricky, ‘Safe From Harm’ and ‘Unfinished Sympathy’.

‘Daydreaming’ was the first track finished for the album, followed by ‘Safe From Harm’. The latter was originally developed by the three core band members, quite early on, based on a sample of the song ‘Stratus’, written by the Panamanian American jazzman and drummer Billy Cobham, for his album Spectrum, from 1973. The sample, suggested by Mushroom, is used as a rhythmic basis. A genius idea that brings a unique feel to the song. Other samples in ‘Safe From Harm’ include a percussion part from ‘Good Old Music’ by the band Funkadelic,elements from ‘Chameleon’ by Herbie Hancock, and a sentence from the lyrics of ‘Looking Back’ by American soul funk singer Johnny ‘Guitar’Watson, written in 1961. The song’s originality is taken to a higher level with the mix of rap and soul vocals. ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ took shape a few months later in 1990.

Massive Attack also had from the start its own voice in its main rapper and lyricist, 3D. In an article entitled “The Bristol Bunch”, published in February 1991 in The Face magazine, John McCready underlined that what makes this music sound very different is “the polite West Country tones of 3D”. D commented in the same article: “In a way I was just fired by the originality of the old-school rappers (…). The accent comes easy. I have to check myself sometimes before it gets too Bristolian and we end up sounding like the Wurzels.” And the journalist concluded: “Hip hop heroes or Bristol’s answer to Pink Floyd? Either way, Massive Attack are the sound of 1991.”

Lyrically, 3D’s plays on words fitted his reflexive social awareness. He mixed references to his Sony headphones and Studio One with mentions of his passions – from football to graffiti, quoting the Beatles, telling about the band’s daily routines, as well as the urban environment they grew up in and the worries linked to the Thatcher government. Meanwhile, on top of hip-hop, the band were incorporating another major influence: reggae music.

Kingston Calling: Jamaican-Bristolian blending

Another featured voice on Massive Attack’s first album came from Bristol too. Tricky was then collaborating with Nellee Hooper, Smith & Mighty, Mark Stewart and with 3D. He liked to follow his own path, though, never really joining any band completely, feeling different from the former members of the Wild Bunch, claiming his origins from Knowle West as a mark of identity. He often declared that “even Grant would never come to Knowle West [1].” Tricky’s incomparable voice owes a lot to his strong, popular and colloquial Bristolian accent, with a pinch of Jamaican tone.

Tricky wrote with D the raps featured in ‘Daydreaming’, using his talent in “storytelling” rap: “Attitude is cool degrees below zero / Up against the wall behaving like De Niro / Tricky’s performing taking his phono”. He also mentions the social context a while later: “Yes Tricky kid I check my situation / Maggie this Maggie that Maggie means inflation”. And adds details on daily violence: “Wise guys get protection when they carry a knife / They shouldn’t have been born they’re making me yawn”, while 3D brings a more hopeful note: “We’re natives of the massive territory and we’re proud / Get peaceful in the dance, no death or glory and the crowd / The problem ain’t a different kind of skin, Tricks / I love my neighbour I don’t wait for the Olympics”.

Tricky and 3D also worked on lyrics for the songs ‘Blue Lines’ and ‘Five Man Army’, on which they’re joined by Daddy G, Willy Wee and Horace Andy. The reggae singer, born Horace Hinds, in Kingston, Jamaica, on February 19, 1951, is the third main guest vocalist on the album. Grant considers Horace as a legend and knows by heart his first album, Skylarking, released in 1972, after a first confidential single in 1967, ‘This is a Black Man’s Country’, recorded at the young age of 16. Horace joined in 1970 the mythical Studio One, founded in 1962 by Clement Seymour Dodd, aka Coxsone, and nicknamed “the Jamaican Motown”. Horace came to define the label’s sound, alongside Bob Marley. In 1985, Horace started living between Jamaica and Ladbroke Grove, in London, where he got to meet Cameron McVey. His collaboration with Massive Attack brought to the band the reggae feel that they were looking for.

Massive Attack sent to Horace the basic demo of a song called ‘One Love’. The elaboration of the final version of the track was key to the making of the album. The basics came from three main samples. One is from ‘You Know, You Know’ by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a jazz-rock fusion band formed in New York City in 1971 by the British guitarist John McLaughlin with Panamanian-American drummer Billy Cobham, Irish bassist Rick Laird, Czechoslovakian keyboardist Jan Hammer, and American violinist Jerry Goodman, later joined by Ralphe Armstrong on bass guitar. And two other short samples came from ‘Ike’s Mood I’ by Isaac Hayes (from his …To Be Continued album, released in 1970). Massive Attack added a slow beatbox effect and scratching sounds, but with the intention of keeping it simple.

Horace recorded the vocals partly in Kingston and Massive Attack mixed the track in Bristol. It sounded like a reggae song without a baseline, underlined Robert Del Naja, which is the opposite of what you normally associate reggae with. Therefore, ‘One Love’, more than a reinterpretation by the band of a reggae theme, became a 1990 Bristol song with a reggae inspiration.

In total, the band worked on Blue Lines for about eight months, with a break at the end of the year 1990 and the first of many career splits, this time taking the shape of a virtual coup d’état when Mushroom announced that he wanted Peter D. Rose, close to Rob Smith and Ray Mighty, to co-create the album with him. D and G left the studio in dismay. Luckily, they all later found a common ground and continued working on the album.

[1] In an interview with the author in Paris, in February 2015

Freelance journalist, writer, reporter and radio producer with the BBC World Service & Deutsche Welle, travel-lover passionate about Africa, Europe, literature, music, arts, Melissa Chemam was born in Paris. She studied at the Institute of Political Studies and has been working in various media houses in the past 15 years. Since 2003, she has lived in Prague, Miami, London, Nairobi (covering Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia) and in Central Africa. She also travelled to Italy, Haiti, the Balkans/Caucasus, Tunisia, Liberia, South Africa, India, Mexico, Niger, Turkey… 

She writes about African-European relations, refugee rights, politics, social change, music, art & politics, news & culture from around the world. 

Her first non-fiction book, Massive Attack – Out of the Comfort Zone, on the band and their city, Bristol, is published in the UK in early March 2019. 

People can purchase the book at the following: 

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