Publication Date: February 1998
It’s a duality Massive Attack combated at last year’s Glastonbury as 3D cajoled us to “dream on” across acres of mud and miles of cloud to the grinding backdrop of “Risingson”, the first single to appear from Mezzanine out this spring. Edgier, deeper, moodier, heavier, their third album finds Massive dislocating from reality altogether. Strung out on a limb both emotionally and musically, it’s the last exit to bleary-eyed No Man’s Land. “It’s the idea that you’ve been up all night really caning it. You’re not up where you were the night before but you’re not down either,” is 3D’s explanation. “You’re really spacey. Daylight is creeping in through the curtains and blinds and you’re trying to hide it all out but people are going to work, buses are running, milkmen are doing their rounds, papers are coming through the door and it’s a real freakout. You try and adjust but you just can’t…”
Blending influences as diverse as Erik Satie and Eric B, their seminal 1991 debut Blue Lines, defiantly captured the spirit of the times and irrevocably changed the course of British hip hop soul. From their ’80s soundsystem days as part of Bristol’s Wild Bunch hip hop crew, Massive’s centrifugal sound naturally grew out of the multicultural ragga, roots, hip hop, soul and dub fusion all around them and reconstructed the concept of music-as-soundtrack (just don’t say “trip hop”). But where could they go from here? Potentially drifting towards a mire of “dreary dub”, Protection – luscious, orchestrated and at times profound – instead consolidated Massive Attack’s universal appeal.
Now Mezzanine stretches the Massive Attack canvas even wider. Swelling the band’s hallmark turntable culture with Clash-inspired guitar licks and live instrumentation the band’s aesthetic has shifted from soundsystem to soundclash. Here Horace Andy’s comatose reggae rhythms enter a fracas of guitar turbulence on tracks like “Angel” and “The Man Next Door”. The Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser air-kisses the new single, “Teardrops”, with apricot-sweet vocals; new talent Sarah J unashamedly rocks out and 3D, Daddy G and Mushroom cruise uneasily through the inner city paranoia and ruptured beats of “Risingson”.
There’s no doubt that the success of Portishead, Tricky and Reprazent owes more than a little to Bristol’s rich sonic heritage, yet the Massive Attack story goes beyond origin and location. It’s a story about the Anglicisation of hip hop culture and the fusion of rap, jazz, soul, dub, rare groove, 2 Tone and rock.
The original Wild Bunch crew are now dispersed across the globe interconnecting faces and personalities as
diverse as Neneh Cherry, Tricky, Soul ll Soul, Smith & Mighty, Shara Nelson, Tracey Thorn, The Mad Professor, Nicolette and Nellee Hooper. Massive Attack are a global concern who have worked with Madonna and provided tracks for both corporate, blockbusting Hollywood movies like Batman and The Jackal, and more credible films like welcome To Sarajevo. Back home, their label Melankolic is nurturing the talent of composer Craig Armstrong (who appeared on Protection), young soul rebel Lewis Parker and fellow Bristolians, Alpha.
But behind the controls of this sprawling Massive Attack metropolis are three very different individuals. Mushroom: the 30-year-old junior member, aka Andrew Vowles. A talented hip hop head, he speaks in soft murmers, but mostly listens, checks out beats and builds new sounds. Then there’s 3D, the Italian-blooded Robert Del Naja, A lucid lyricist, given to chemical detours, sleepless nights and paranoid dreams; his blond hair is increasingly wild and unbrushed. Completing the Avon trio is Daddy G: the rapper, aka DJ Grant Marshall. Given to frowning in photos, he’s tall and imposing from a distance; gentle and laidback when close up Black and white; tall and slight; wired and reserved, together Mushroom, 3D and Daddy G add up to the obfuscating, city dwelling, daydreaming sounds of the Massive.
Dazed & Confused: There’s a lot of dream imagery throughout Massive’s raps, when did you last have a weird dream?
Mushroom: it was on tour in Japan, we were staying in a hotel half way up Mount Fuji when a monsoon hit and everyone in the tour party that night had a freaky dream but l don’t really want to go into it: it was too full on. We were out there with The Prodigy having a laugh and going to these fashion clubs where all the British models go. Did we hear any jungle? Nah, it was all disco music, KC And The Sunshine Band.
D&C: You’ve been to Jamaica too. What was that like?
M: We went out there to shoot the video for ‘Hymn Of The Big Wheel’ but it never got finished because l think everyone had too much to smoke.
D&C: That sounds like a common Massive Attack theme.
M: It just turned into a bit of a mad free-for-all out there. You’re in Jamaica and the director was heavily into that whole culture. So having to get a big group of people from A to B turned into a bit of a nightmare. Like trying to set up a video shoot in Escapeland. [laughs]
D&C: The new album has comedown connotations. Have you ever had any Mezzanine moments?
M: I don’t really take any drugs or get drunk. But D’s been known to down a few whiskies a day. As my man out of New Kingdom says [raps] I’ve been known to down a few too many
D&C: Are you conscious of being the ‘baby’ in the group?
M: sometimes but only in a jesting way The piss gets taken a little bit but it mainly goes back to the early days when I was just a kid straight out of school.
D&C: What was it that drew you to the Wild Bunch when they were all older and bigger than you?
M: Back then the Wild Bunch were the only crew out there. I’d try and go down to The Dug Out but I was only 15 and the doorman, Chippy, used to tell me that I was far too young so G had to sneak me in. Those were wild times. I think Glastonbury was wilder when I first started going too. There were people with megaphones shouting ‘Acid!’ and ‘Get your hot knives here!’ really loud. I remember going to see Lenny Kravitz. I don’t know where he is now but l do know that he was an all-time genius.
D&C: These days it seems like Puff Daddy rules the airwaves. Do you think he should be celebrated, or should he be dead?
M: Hip hop’s always had its commercial front men. He just takes small pieces of rhythm and makes them really big, which is good because it brings hip hop and black music to the fore, it puts money into the movement and gives it a bit of power. But hip hop just keeps moving on. It has its moments of stagnancy but it’s a pretty strong culture to hold down in one frame, it’s more of a voice, rather than just about dance music and there’s a big political element. D&C: Bristol’s always been a city with a reputation for racial tension, especially after the riots in the early ’80s. Is it something you were conscious of when you were growing up?
M: Bristol is a racist place – but it’s undercover. There was a documentary on telly about a black guy and a white guy both looking for accommodation and it just summed up people’s attitudes. People won’t shout at you down the street but there’s a really horrible undercurrent of racism down here. I lived in Bath for a bit and that was just outright up to your face racism. I was only little at the time, in fact, it was so bad that it’s the reason my mum had to bring us to Bristol.
D&C: What’s the weirdest thing that happened to you when you were recording Mezzanine ?
M: Well we were in the studio one day when this big crate of Bibles mysteriously arrived addressed to us with a note which gave instructions about how we should use them and how we should ‘grasp the Law’ which kind of freaked us out a bit. But the weirdest thing for me is still getting my head around the fact that people actually want to go into shops and buy our music.
Dazed & Confused: The Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser is the new Massive Attack leading lady. What was it about her that appealed to you ?
Daddy G: She’s always been top of the list for us to work with ever since we began. And now she’s moved to Bristol six years too late. The brilliant thing with Massive is that we’ve had the opportunity to work with people like Tracey (Thorn), Madonna, Horace Andy and people like that.
D&C: I always imagine Horace Andy as your godfather figure.
DG: He’s a real wise man. We’ve always worked with Horace from the reggae days and that voice is so unique; there’s a real tension going on.
D&C: You’ve produced for Madonna. Did that mean you got to meet her?
DG: Me and Nellee and 3D went over to stay with her for the National Cup because she really wanted to meet us. But we were absolutely petrified about meeting her (laughs). So every time she came to look for us, we’d be hiding under the beds in her huge ten bedroom house so we didn’t have to bump into her. We were there for about ten days and she was real pissed off on the last day when we were leaving without saying hello. So she rang us to ask what we were doing trying to avoid her in her own house. And that set the precedent for us to work with her.
D&C: Don’t you think it’s ironic that Massive Attack have come out of this multicultural background. And yet we’ve got government ministers claiming that multiculturalism undermines Britain’s traditional heritage?
DG: But that’s always been the case in England. I remember when I was a little kid in the late ’60s, when they really clamped down on the immigration laws; they said that anybody who’d been living in the country for less than seven years had to reapply for immigration. Quite a lot of my dad’s friends didn’t qualify for that and some of them had to go back. Even my dad and mum were going around trying to make sure that they were all right.
D&C: So for a minute there, we might never have had a Massive Attack.
DG: Yeah. But when I go to Europe, it reminds me that England’s quite mellow in comparison. When you go to the continent you don’t see the same mix of people. We go abroad, you think the youth are the same as they are in England. You go to Manchester, or Liverpool or Leeds and there’s a unification of youth culture in a way which I don’t think is vastly explored or exploited in this country. I don’t think the government gives enough to young kids.
You’ve only got to look at Bristol. The amount of shit going down doesn’t reflect the music that’s coming out of the city, we’ve created so much publicity for the city through bands like Massive, Portishead and Tricky, that it makes me resentful there isn’t any money put back in for funding studios and media facilities.
D&C: You were supposed to play at the first ‘Japanese Glastonbury’ on Mount Fuji but it got cancelled. What did you get up to instead?
DG: Well it was cancelled because of a big typhoon. So we were staying in this hotel where no one was there because of the typhoon – except for us and Lee Perry. It was like a ghost hotel and so we spent the whole night in audience with him. He’s very spaced out to say the least. Some of the things he came out with were quite thought-provoking but I couldn’t help but think, “Is he all there?”
D&C: when was the last time you had a really big fight?
DG: In the band sometimes they get really passionate about one little drum or what they wear. I’m not really like that and I’ve never been in a fight all my life. Because l’m so big, I don’t need to be aggressive. I’m just an easy going type of guy. But when it comes to music I’m a frantic obsessive. We all are.
D&C: So you’re not bothered about whether you’re wearing Adidas or Nike?
DG: At the end of the day there is that thing about tribalisation because you get affiliated to a certain way of thinking. You’ve got your circle of mates but I think there’s still a lot of individuals within that. That’s one thing about London which I don’t really like. The Verve swept through London. But as soon as one sect of
people like it, there’s pressure on everyone else and you just get swept along.
D&C: Daddy G says, ‘Don’t believe the hype’.
DG: Hype is massive. The last really big thing we were all into was when hip hop came aibng. We just took on all these other experiences from where we came from like punk, reggae and soul. What’s the point of talking about Magnums and stuff that doesn’t relate to us. We’re in England. So we’re talking about, l dunno…
D&C: How ‘getting a visa card these days isn’t hard’?
DG: Yeah, things like that that. I’m not trying to imitate Americans. That’s where the pitfalls of hip hop come really.
D&C: I really like the line in “Risingson”. Toylike people make me boylike.
DG: That track was about two different things. For 3D, it was about being out at night, drifting through this party and trying to connect with it all. For me, I don’t want to go to that party. It’s more personal, about being in a relationship with someone that’s not working and how sex can be really destructive.
D&C: The wild Bunch sound system parties you were throwing in the ’80s have become the stuff of legend. Don’t you ever wish that you could go back to those heady early days?
DG: I think certainly, if people go to Bristol they’d be quite disappointed, it doesn’t necessarily cater for what
people are actually saying about what’s happening there. It’s supposed to be the centre of music at the moment but there’s nothing down here.
D&C: The whole thing about Blue Lines was that it set new standards for British hip hop. Who do you think has successfully followed your lead?
DG: I think Lewis Parker is the freshest artist to come through. But at that time there was definitely a sense of excitement in Bristol that something was going to happen. Hip hop at the time was something fresh and new. But punk was the thing that gave us insight into hip hop. The first time we saw breakdancing was through Malcolm McLaren. He’s always been a catalyst for taking on different cultures and trying to amalgamate them and that’s what Massive Attack is all about.
Dazed & Confused: How do you make the connection between that kind of west Country boy existence and being this international player who produces Madonna?
3D: Player! [laughs] I dunno. Bristol’s either lazy, unmotivated, unambitious. Or, after travelling, seeing loads of cities, coming back to Bristol is really nice.
D&C: That sounds pretty schizophrenic.
3D: Yeah, it’s good because you can be two people at once. I’d hate to be just stuck in Bristol and if I was just in a band I’d hate not to be able to go back there. Part of the privilege of being in the music business is the whole kind of glamour thing. You do get a chance to be schizophrenic and it’s legal. Everyone’s got that in them. That kind of fantasy world and that real world. To be able to do it, to realise it, is amazing. The only other thing I can think of like it is to be an actor.
D&C: well it seems like your chum Tricky has taken up both.
3D: Obviously we watch what he does and he watches what we do. See how his acting career’s getting off. [laughs] I see him occasionally and that’s cool but l lived with him for a year and that was enough.
D&C: Do you keep in touch with the rest of the Bristol crew?
3D: Yeah I bump into Roni (Size) and Nick (Warren). I don’t see much of Geoff (Barrow). Roni used to live up the road from me. G lives on my road now. Liz (Fraser) lives in Bristol now, which is brilliant. Bristol’s mad actually. It’s changed a bit though, there’s millions of students. That’s not always a bad thing, it just means it’s different.
D&C: My brother’s a student in Bristol. He thinks he’s Men Behaving Badly.
3D: I use that excuse, to be honest. When I go out playing football, l don’t make any excuse for my behaviour, which is based around drinking and football. I can become anything I want and talk about anything l want and get away with it because it’s Saturday and I’m pissed and it’s football. My life is full of rituals. When I haven’t got any rituals, I panic. I can’t just sit there and think calmly because my mind starts going round in
millions of circles. Rather than just getting all my thoughts into one fucking area and sorting it out, I just freak. Then l go back round and start going insane. I catch myself repeating lists like a madman.
D&C: when was the last time you picked up a paintbrush?
3D: I’ve been really fucking lazy, it really pisses me off when I think about it because my mind is full of so much I can’t just seem to sit down and paint any more, i like John Squire’s artwork actually, we swapped paintings recently.
D&C: There was talk of Massive Attack remixing OK Computer. Where did all that come from?
3D: I don’t know. Where’s it all gone? it really was an ambitious project. A nice thought, but I don’t know how relevant it is now.
D&C: Do you think the moment passed when you got the Mad Professor to remix Protection?
3D: You know that was a laugh. But the reality is that everyone’s got their own contracts, their own problems and their own life, if you did everything you said you were going to do, you’d lose all sense of reality. Good fun chatting about it, though!
D&C: How many times a week do you argue?
3D: We don’t bicker. We end up having disputes which is really hard work sometimes but I can’t imagine any job where that doesn’t happen. People always ask us why we work with girls. We need to work with girls to get that balance otherwise it becomes too ego, too male. Maybe we’re all just really selfish people, it’s weird, though, because we’ve never really had this front person mentality either.
D&C: Just don’t say ‘collective’.
3D: I hate that word, I really fucking do! [laughs] We were described as that in 1991. We’re a group, an outfit. Even though it puts us in a difficult position where, say, most magazines can’t use us without having one person up front. My favourite bands have always been based around that. My mum got me into The Beatles and that was always different voices so you never had to listen to just John Lennon, you had McCartney and different tonal things happening. Then it was The Clash for me because you had Mick Jones and Joe Strummer.
D&C: Would you say you were a ladies’ man?
3D: l think it’s different working with women to getting on with them personally. But I’ve definitely found myself increasingly getting on with women in an unsexual way. As soon as anything else gets into it, it becomes a real
problem for me. Just generally. You meet someone and you really get on with them and you fuck it up and then, I dunno… women are weird, though, because I find that these days, they seem to expect more from men.
D&C: Well, yeah…
3D: The amount of times I’ve seen women and not wanted sex and they think it’s strange and you feel under pressure. Whereas in the old days it was the other way round. It’s really confusing.
D&C: You showcased some of the new material at Glastonbury last year. Are you a big fan of muddy fields?
3D: It was messy there, wasn’t it?
D&C: It’s that thing where you arrive and it’s raining and all your stuff is wet and you haven’t even put your tent up and everyone’s in a bad mood. Then you chill out. have a smoke and…
3D: Yeah, I remember it was getting so fucking late and I was pissed, because I’d been drinking since I got there. The gig was over really quickly and all of a sudden, it was 2.30 in the morning and then we started taking loads of, you know, nosebag. The next thing, it was like eight in the morning – and that was the ‘mezzanine’ period of the day. [laughs] The best thing for me was the day after when l got some pills and went to watch Neneh Cherry on the main stage. I blagged it backstage and we kind of got the second wave of the posse together, it was mad meeting Neneh because l hadn’t seen her for quite a while. Then we went to see Radiohead. Watching it from the back of the stage, you could see all the lights over Glastonbury.
D&C: Don’t you find, though, that there are times when it all gets too on top and you just have to disappear to a more reclusive kind of oblivion?
3D: We went to Cornwall to write some of the album. We went in the winter, which I loved. The water’s clear… it’s just great to hear the wind just banging on the window. And it’s only a couple of hours drive from Bristol. We should really make the most of all that.
D&C: When you look back at Blue Lines, how do you feel about it now?
3D: 1991… It’s not just because we were there then but there was something particularly interesting about that year. There was The Stone Roses, Primal Scream, our album, Soul II Soul from the year before. It was that late ’80s, ’90s thing, it always reminds me of summer. When I think of ’89 to ’91, it’s sunshine all the way through.
D&C: How do you feel you’ve moved on since then?
3D: What we did was draw on more of our life experiences. I think that’s the really different thing about this album. We naturally moved on from two turntables and sound system shows to becoming more free on stage.
D&C: And Massive Attack now get to rock out with guitars, right?
3D: I was really into New Wave in the old days, so when we started to put guitars in, it seemed right. The tracks l really like are the ones that start off like they’re just in the studio with a drum machine then they build up as if you’re at a gig and it’s really loud and then by the time it’s ended, there’s one little beat going and it’s like switching a drum machine off in your bedroom again. D&C: Can you imagine a fourth Massive Attack album?
3D: Yeah. I think because Massive Attack is so unorthodox, we’ve got to learn to sort out our differences and be honest a bit more and learn to do more things both as individuals and as a group. We’ve just got to have that respect and loyalty for each other while giving each other space to do our own things.
Written By Rachael Newsome