ScanS → Details Magazine Interview #1
Publication Date: February 1995
The three members of Massive Attack—Daddy G, Mushroom, and 3-D—pull up to meet me in front of the Temple Meads railroad station in their hometown of Bristol, England. I jump into Daddy G’s battered black Audi and he speeds off. Less than a minute later. Mushroom turns around in the front seat and looks at me quizzically. “Hold on,” he says. “How do we know you’re the journalist? For all we know, you could be a serial killer.”
Massive Attack live on their own custom-designed planet. They play a laid-back breed of hip-hop that sounds like it’s filtered through a deep blue fog of weed. Their beats are almost too slow for dancing. Like the Jamaican dub music they used to groove to at illegal all-night parties, their music is designed for psychedelic introspection, not for working up a sweat.
As they careen through the steep hills of Bristol, Daddy G honks the horn and flashes the headlights at people the group recognize. The trio have been hanging out for over a decade, throwing sound-system parties, sharing private jokes, and arguing about their record collections. On the back shelf of G’s car lies a faded 1981 Charles and Di wedding scrapbook. Unfilled. “Nice,” I say.
“Isn’t it?” beams G.
Grant “Daddy G” Marshall, in his mid-thirties, is old enough to remember the ska and bluebeat “blues” parties that his parents— immigrants from Barbados—used to go to. Back in ’82, G and his friend Nellee Hooper witnessed their first live rap show. They gawked at Kurtis Blow’s scratcher Davy D cutting it up, and dreamed of doing the same thing. They began by throwing a welcome-home celebration for a friend just out of prison. They rented a generator and P.A. and held a giant euphoric outdoor party—which sparked a local demand for sound-system jams. G and Nellee enlisted some friends—including 3-D and Mushroom—to help with the parties, and called themselves the Wild Bunch.
As Daddy G drives, Mushroom is, somewhat sur- really, holding a birthday card to his ear. It’s one of those talking cards, and he’s opening and snapping it shut. I realize he is scratching with it. Of course. Mushroom was the youngest member of the Wild Bunch. Andrew Vowles, born to a Dominican father and British mother living in New York, still remembers flying to England at age three, after his parents split up. He grew up in the stuffy city of Bath, feeling like the only black boy in town: “I couldn’t understand why nobody liked me.” Moving to the culturally mixed Bristol was a revelation.
He remembers seeing a graffito on Hotwells Road: It read GRAFFITI STYLEE. He was amazed, thinking that black Brooklyn had come to Bristol. At the time he didn’t know that the tag belonged to 3-D—whose father was an Italian immigrant.
Robert “3-D” Del Naja was a teenage delinquent: “I sniffed glue for two years. Enjoyed every minute of it.” He also collected photos of New York street art. He spent his nights getting arrested for spray-can vandalism and his days collecting the strange hip-hop music that was also coming out of New York.
“HUNGRY?” Calls g from the driver’s seat, hunched over the wheel, head almost touching the roof. G puts the Massive in Massive Attack: Towering at somewhere around six six, he’s a deep-voiced gentle giant. We pull up outside an upscale restaurant called the Thai House. In the glory days of Bristol’s club scene, this building used to be the Dug Out, a sweat-pit club frequented by the Wild Bunch. Ten years ago the walls were covered with 3-D’s graffiti; now they’re hidden under a hideous shade of peach.
“It was the first real multiracial club,” G explains. “You had the punky element, you had the hippie types. It was just amazing you didn’t have trouble every night.”
In the mid-’80s, the Wild Bunch ran Bristol nightlife. “We were more famous then than we are now,” 3-D reminisces, lighting a low-tar cigarette. Only when the Wild Bunch traveled up to London to jam with the big city’s crews did they realize they were embarrassingly deficient in their rapping skills. No one was sure what British people should rap about. Some people tried soccer-hooli-gan chants, but “Go home you bums” didn’t go over with dance-club crowds. So Daddy G and 3-D started to make up their own rhymes. Instead of talking about fly girls and ho’s, they rapped about soccer and cricket.
In 1986 the Wild Bunch cut their first record, a cover of the Bacharach/David classic “The Look of Love,” done as a blissed-out rap delivered over a lazy beat. It was what is euphemistically called a “club hit”—hardly setting the cash registers ringing. And soon after its release, the glory days of after-hours parties ended. Vacant warehouses that had been used as venues were renovated or demolished. The police started shutting down parties before they got started.
The members drifted apart. Nellee Hooper moved to London, where he produced Jazzie B’s Soul II Soul, sending the Wild Bunch sound across the globe. For a while, G and 3-D attempted to make their fortune by promoting parties in Japan.
They borrowed money from their families but came home broke.
By the end of the ’80s, a local manager named Cameron McVey was scouting for people to contribute to an album he was recording with his partner, Swedish-born Neneh Cherry. 3-D and Mushroom helped out on her debut album, Raw Like Sushi. In return, McVey coproduced Massive Attack’s debut, Blue Lines.
The record became an instant success in Britain, thrusting the band out of the cozy surroundings of Bristol. Soon, things began to fall apart. Shara Nelson, the singer they had recruited to sing on tracks like “Unfinished Sympathy,” left to pursue a solo career. A disastrous series of American live dates followed. Massive Attack were used to DJing at parties, not putting on a show. The posse hung around onstage, drinking beer, sheepishly waiting for their turn on the turntables. The worst show was in Minneapolis. “Prince’s club,” 3-D says. “What was it called? Glam Slam? In the end they put the curtain down on us. Bloody terrible.”
Mushroom is bored. He hits the water glasses with a fork and listens to the resulting noises with a furrowed brow. He’d really rather be watching the documentary about Pink Floyd that’s on TV tonight.
Massive Attack’s concentration is legen-darily unfocused—which may explain why it took them three years to record their second album, Protection. As we talk, G peers at messages that arrive on his pager. Unlike Mushroom, 3-D talks unstoppably, bouncing from subject to subject.
One moment he’s chatting about soccer on his mobile phone, the next he wants to argue about the decline of European culture. “I’ve had a beer,” he says with a grin. “I’m rolling.” And then’s he’s peering into his beer, amazed at the Mercedes logo formed by the bubbles. He makes me look into the bottle. “It’s a freak of nature.”
“Do you know what a Mercedes logo actually means?” asks Mushroom earnestly.
“Land, sea, air,” says G.
“That’s right!” says Mushroom with a grin. Mushroom is the shiest of the three, caught up in his own world: King Cosmic. He’s the studio freak who’s responsible for much of the group’s otherworldly sounds. “I’ve got a lot of favorite sounds,” he says quietly. “I’m just into frequencies.”
3-D and G catch each other’s eyes and splutter with laughter. Sometimes Mushroom is even a little too weird for them.
This year’s Protection is the perfect refinement of Massive Attack’s hypnotic grooves. To replace Shara Nelson, they advertised in a music paper: “Female vocalist wanted for internationally acclaimed pop band. Influences Aretha Franklin and Tracy Chapman.” They ended up with a sackful of aspiring country-Western singers. They drafted a Nigerian-born singer called Nicolette instead; she provides a wispy quality on the tracks “Three” and “Sly.”
To keep an experimental feel to the project, they made a list of singers they wanted, including such unlikely candidates as Sioux-sie of the Banshees. To their surprise, folkie-jazz singer Tracey Thorn of Everything but the Girl accepted their challenge. She took away a couple of rhythm tracks and returned with two perfect downbeat soul numbers, “Protection” and “Better Things.”
Veteran Studio One reggae singer Horace Andy, who had contributed a couple of tracks to Massive Attack’s first album, returned to rework his own rasta classic, “Spying Glass.” The rapper Tricky also popped up again on the seriously laid-back “Karmacoma,” oozing with paranoid ganja visions.
Protection had one more reunion: Their onetime Wild Bunch partner Nellee Hooper rejoined the fold to produce the album. But when the group predictably fell behind on their recording schedule, Nellee had to abandon ship to work on Madonna’s Bedtime Stories. “We were so friendly with him, it took us twice as long,” admits G.
“Nellee was panicking because of Madonna,” laughs 3-D. Later, Nellee invited them to visit the sessions in L.A. They never met Madonna because they kept oversleeping.
After our meal at the former Dug-Out, we get back in the car. Mushroom turns on the radio and listens intently to the white noise, turning the volume of the static up and down. We drive to a small pub, where G starts rolling joints under the table.
Mushroom is here reluctantly. He hates pubs. He doesn’t drink or smoke. His main vice appears to be pyromania: He wanted to torch the orchids on our restaurant table, and would have done so had 3-D not restrained him: “Bad luck that is, Jack.” (Everyone in Massive Attack addresses each other by the name Jack.) Now, Mushroom picks up the plastic cassette case from my interview tape and starts melting it with a lighter. “That is a wicked cassette box,” he says. “You know, when I first got Legos, I got bored by the shape of the bricks, so I tried to melt them down over a candle. I was really ill because of the fumes and had to take a week off school. All I got was a rubbery mess.”
“It’s a metaphor for Massive Attack,” I joke, thinking of how they turn rhythms to liquid.
“They melt down bricks!” laughs 3-D.
“They make people sick!” says G.
“Don’t say that,” protests Mushroom, genuinely appalled. “Massive Attack—they warp their shit?” Next, Mushroom builds a firework out of a box of matches. After twenty minutes of scraping match ends, Mushroom ignites a carefully wrapped pile of sulfur. It fizzles spectacularly over our beers.
“Hey!” calls G. “Twenty minutes of grinding for ten seconds of pleasure.” He bellows with pleasure at his own joke.
A week later, Massive Attack are in the unheated Galtymore Ballroom in North London. They’ve finally gotten around to rehearsing the live show that they’ll take back to America. They’re not discouraged by the failure of their last tour; in fact, they’ve decided to re-create the party spirit of the Wild Bunch instead of trying to become a live band. They’ve set up the stage as a huge DJ booth, with the turntables placed defiantly at the front.
Tonight, Massive Attack’s laissez-faire attitude rules. 3-D slumps around the stage in a ski hat and long leather coat. He’s calling to the empty hall, “Orace? Where’s Orace?” Eventually, Horace Andy ambles onto the stage. Encased in a huge down jacket, Mushroom peers over his turntables. A snaky version of the William De Vaughn disco chestnut “Be Thankful for What You’ve Got” bursts abruptly out of the P.A. For seven or eight minutes, the big hall comes alive with great, supple rhythms. It’s glorious, but it doesn’t last. Soon the groove sputters to a halt, and the stage goes quiet except for Mushroom, shoulders hunched to hold up his headphones, obliviously playing a snatch of six or seven vibraphone notes that have grabbed his ears, cutting up the sounds over and over for his own pleasure.
Out of the darkness comes a voice. From his tone, I guess it’s not the first time Horace Andy has shouted this admonition: “You need to work on the endings, man, for real!”
Written By William Shaw