The Bristol Bunch
Hip hop heroes or Bristol's answer to Pink Floyd? Either way, Massive Attack are the sound of 1991.
John McCready, The Face, 1991
MASSIVE ATTACK were part of Bristol's Wild Bunch crew, a posse who pioneered UK hip hop. In 1986 they helped put together ‘The Look Of Love’, a Bacarach and David cover version carried by a hard hip hop rhythm.
This is quite rightly acknowledged as the direct root of everything from Smith And Mighty to Soul II Soul, and any record company with half an ear to the ground would gladly have waved goodbye to more than a few bob for their services. Basically, the three men who make up Massive Attack — musicians/rappers 3D, Mushroom and Daddy Gee — had to do nothing but turn up at the studio, turn the right drum machine on and make sure their press officer made everyone aware of this bankable history.
But instead of taking the easy option. Massive Attack have tried — and it shows. Their first big-label release, ‘Daydreaming’, burned a large hole in my consciousness, so much so that it made 1990's other releases seem like the work of artless amateurs. Forthcoming eponymous debut album, meanwhile, should ensure that ‘Daydreaming’ isn't seen as a flash in the creative pan. Massive Attack have a lot to say. And despite the fact that their roots are in club culture and club DJs are supporting them, they see themselves as an album band.
In effect, Massive Attack inject new meaning into this well-worn phrase. We're not talking about an album band in the same way that someone in an army surplus greatcoat would talk about Yes or ELP. We are talking about a kind of music which demands an attention span longer than the longest mix on a 12-inch single. Time and time again in talking to Massive Attack, the words Pink Floyd keep cropping up. Massive Attack have a secret respect for the old rockers, for the way in which their music just exists, forever outside any categories. This is a frightening concept for people outside Liverpool who don't smoke marijuana, and so Massive Attack are kind of shy about it. After telling me how much he likes Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon. Mushroom asks me not to make too much of it, as if it was going to do him some harm. But let's tell the truth. Massive Attack are Pink Floyd with bigger bass sounds and better drum patterns. Sometimes they are that trippy, and most of the time they are that good. A spaced out mix of dub tactics, ambient effects and downright surreal rap, their forthcoming selection of non-dance songs should be treated with the respect it deserves.
"We want to make good music." says Mushroom, a man who applies thousands of pounds worth of technology so that it all sounds as simple and as perfect as a decent bread recipe. "We're not just interested in making something for people to throw their arms and legs about to on a dancefloor." And so the Massive Attack legend begins to crumble.
"People always ask us about The Wild Bunch," says 3D. "The truth is it's just history to us now. Nobody in Bristol chases us to get our autographs. I don't know why people go on about it so much, telling us we started this and we started that, like we were the only British musicians ever to have created anything of value. When I look at what we actually did, it amounts to about three days work in seven years."
Still, the name keeps cropping up. Nellee Hooper, co-producer of Soul II Soul and the man behind Sinead O'Connor's ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ also contributed to that three days' work, as did Milo, who is now working with the much touted Japanese crew Major Force, one of the many outfits to have been inspired by The Wild Bunch collective vibe.
Nellee Hooper has in fact remixed ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ from the LP. It's something that concerns Mushroom. "There have been arguments over that. There is a school of thought that reckons we need a club hit. Personally, I don't see it that way. To me it's against everything we stand for. To me music is like a clay pot. When it's been baked, you can't smash it up and rebuild it. You don't hear of people remixing Led Zeppelin or the Mahavishnu Orchestra."
Mushroom says this as a member of the Massive Attack team that has provided us with some of the most radical remixes in recent years. Perhaps it's different when it's somebody else's pot. Massive Attack kicked Lisa Stansfield's pot all around the room. They gave Neneh Cherry's pot a good seeing to, and when they'd finished with Boy George's ‘Jesus Loves You’ it didn't look like a pot at all. 3D, the voice that whispers so persuasively over much of Mushroom and Daddy Gee's new age dub, sees it a different way. Not quite the spiritual astronaut he appears to be on album tracks like ‘Blue Lines’, he's still fairly oblique when he says this: "People steal your soul when you remix for them. Whatever the price is, it can never be high enough."
Aside from the often startling simplicity of the music, it's the polite West Country tones of 3D and long-time collaborator Tricky Kid that makes you see this music as something very different. The things he talks about come across as inspired stream-of-consciousness wordplay. One minute they'll be worrying about the environment or slagging off Thatcher, the next they'll be talking about Studio One, Subbuteo, old Paper Lace records and The Beatles. 3D has no explanations ready when I make it clear that all this amuses and impresses me. "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. It's really just a bit of everything and a bit of nothing. I hope nobody's looking for guidance in there because there isn't any. They're just thoughts about good things, about nature and stuff."
In person and on record, 3D comes across as a deeply untroubled person, a reflective character who's just watching the world go by. Inevitably, he doesn't listen to club music much. Instead he likes to relax with ambient tapes of "streams and birds chirping" on his prized limited-edition Sony Budokan Walkman. 3D mentions "living" in his headphones during his rap on ‘Daydreaming’. "When he puts that on," says Mushroom, "you know that the conversation has finished for the day."
3D is also an ex-graffiti artist who has graduated to one-man shows in posh London galleries. It's almost expected when he says. "I'm colour-blind, though. I have a different way of seeing things."
Like Mushroom, he is concerned that Massive Attack will be perceived as another club act with a couple of 12-inch singles up their sleeves. By the time you hear their debut LP, I find it hard to believe that anyone will confuse them with Adamski or any of the current crop of post-rave techno clones. "This is a thinker's album. You can rock to it, you can nod your head to it, and that's enough to stimulate the body," says 3D.
This I can confirm to be true. The only thing I have to add is that 1991 without this record will be like chips without salt and vinegar — useless. I was going to mention the fact that Neneh Cherry and reggae legend Horace Andy are in there too, but it seemed like icing on a near-perfect cake. Such impressive guest names would, for any other group, be necessary. Massive Attack, however, need help from nobody.
© John McCready, 1991
Citation (Harvard format)