They’re not a ‘group’ in the traditional sense; there’s no lead singer, no egotistical frontperson, no focal point and certainly no lead guitarist, yet despite this, (because of this?) Massive Attack are one of our most important groups.
From Bristol, they’re a multicultural melting pot of accents, ideas and vision. Robert Del Naja, better known as 3D has his roots in Italy’s Naples. Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall is a Bristolian, born to West Indian parents. Andrew ‘Mushroom’ Vowles brought his talents as a soundsystem DJ. Tricky, known to his mum as Adrian Thaws, has his own parallel career as as a solo performer. Combine their backgrounds and musical tastes and you have a pigeonholer’s nightmare; they blend elements of hip hop, dub and soul, post-punk, ragga and cinematic score to ceate their own unique music.
Massive Attack – Sly
Sly in name and sly in nature, Sly was created from an uncredited Sly Stone sample (Africa Talks To You, on There’s A Riot Goin’ On). In keeping with Massive Attack’s multicultured and open policy approach to music-making, it features a magical vocal from Nicolette Suwoton, a Scottish-Nigerian living in London. Nicolette sings elsewhere on the Protection album, but, for me, this just shades her other efforts.
Often sample-led, though not in the obvious way, Massive Attack’s music tends to be low on BPM, high on wide open space and spoken word verses and wrapped in rich production. Some of the low-end bass sounds on their first couple of albums are astonishing. By the time of 3rd album Mezzanine, they were sampling Siouxsie Sioux and had added a creeeping sense of impending doom to some of their material. Stick some earphones in and go for a walk with Mezzanine playing. You’ll find yourself in your own movie. Try it with the Velvets and Wire-sampling Risingson (and see if you can spot the less-than-obvious samples)…
Massive Attack – Risingson
Always moving forwards, always seeking new ideas, the key to their success is in no small way due to their choice of vocal collaborators. With no lead singer, they’ve worked with a succession of inspirational vocalists. Soul belter Shara Nelson takes the lead on a few debut album tracks, most memorably on Unfinished Sympathy, their first biggy, the band’s signature tune and arguably their best track. Tracey Thorn adds down-at-the-mouth bedist disco queen vocals to Protection, the title track of their second album. Liz Fraser pops up in Teardrop, an astonishing record that eschews her usual Cocteau Twin’s gibberish for a straightforward native-tongued love song. Love, love is a verb, love is a doing word. I don’t know who wrote that lyric, but it’s perfect; poetic yet straightforward, straightforward yet poetic. For what it’s worth, I’ve read somewhere that it’s Madonna’s favourite record.
For what it’s also worth, here’s my (current) favourite Massive Attack tune. In the spirit of Plain Or Pan it’s a less-than-obvious choice. Euro Zero Zero found itself on the CD single of Teardrop. It’s a remix of Eurochild from the Protection LP and features each member of the group taking a verse each. Tricky nicks some of the lyrics from The Specials’ Blank Expression for his part. It’s terrific.
Massive Attack – Euro Zero Zero
‘Genre’ menas nothing to Massive Attack. If the voice fits, they use it. Look elsewhere throughgout their rich and varied discography and you’ll find the undisputed vocal talents of reggae legend Horace Andy, Elbow’s Guy Garvey, Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, Sinead O’Connor, Damon Albarn…..it’s an endless list, really. They’ve also allowed their music to be remixed by Underworld, Paul Oakenfold, Primal Scream, Tim Simenon, Mad Professor, Brian Eno, U.N.K.L.E., Manic Street Preachers and Blur. An embarrassement of riches and a huge ‘fuck you’ to people like me who prefer their music neatly categorised. If your interest in Massive Attack waned after the second or third album, you’re missing out on a whole load of brilliant music. If you’ve kept up with Massive Attack, you will, as the saying goes ’round here, know that already.
Is 3D really Banksy? There’s plenty of evidence to suggest he may well be. As well as being happy to show off his skills at producing very stylised stencilled art, there’s the theory that a new Banksy pops up wherever Massive Attack are on tour. Only 3D can answer that question. And I kinda hope he never does.
Here‘s the evergreeen, forever-rolling Perfecto remix of the Billy Cobham-sampling Safe From Harm. It’s a cracker.