ScanS → Mojo Magazine Feature On The Bristol Music Scene
Publication Date: July 1998
Despite being the only metropolis between London and Cornwall, Bristol is a city that thinks like a country town. Now the cigarette factories are closed and the refurbished dock is full of sleek art centres it doesn’t make anything bar Rolls-Royce engines, aeroplanes and, with Lloyds Bank based here, money. Music, service industries and a big chunk of the BBC, including the Natural History department, pretty much wraps it up.
It’s a city of contradictions. Live in Bristol for a couple of years and you’ll know half-a-dozen people wherever you go, yet it’s cliquey and shuns outsiders. It gets rowdy on cider. It’s deeply schizophrenic about the active role it played in slavery, even today. It’s renowned internationally for creative dance music but the DJs used to joke that if you want a Bristol crowd to get moving, chuck a tenner on the floor. It’s a city of dreamers and chancers that lives on its wits and its deals, a beautiful town surrounded by lush countryside that can be as mean and introverted as it can be warm and lovey. Maybe it’s the amount of weed smoked, the switch between dozy high and sullen paranoia.
Bristol is also a place that greedily soaks up major sea-changes in pop culture. The hippy thing hit hard and Bristol remains a major centre for new age travellers. Glastonbury Festival, just down the rood, has an infrastructure run by people who live in Bristol. Punk and reggae, styles of music with attendant uniforms, lifestyles and structures, both thrived in the town and hip hop hit harder, with all its trimmings. Skotcboarding and graffiti are both still big in Bristol today.
Everything mingles in St Paul’s, on inner-city ghetto crucial to the Bristol story. It sits right next to the city centre, split from neighbouring Easton by the M32 motorway which goes right into town. When the area exploded into riots in 1980, much of the country didn’t even know Bristol had a black population, yet St Paul’s and its surrounding streets has always acted as a kind of alternative city centre.
Ridden with council flats, prostitution and poverty, home to shebeens, clubs and illegal all-night drinking dens – where West Indians play dominos and you enter via a back alley. It exerts a powerful pull on the city’s more I adventurous youth. There’s always a sense of ~ tension here, an element of danger: someone always knows someone who’s just been mugged or broken into. If nothing else, there is always somewhere to get a drink and a draw, whatever the time of night.
Before Hip Hop: Post-Punk
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, guitar bands are pushing their sounds beyond rock’n’roll into new corners -reggae, hip hop, funk and dub.
Most of Bristol’s movers and shakers are playing in or hanging around the town’s punk and reggae bands. Nellee Hooper is in the punk-funk critic’s darlings, Rip, Rig And Panic, with a young singer named Neneh Cherry. He also plays with funk experimentalists Pigbag.
Mark Stewart, later part of Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound label and singer in industrial dub act Tackhead, has a highly political scratchy-funk outfit called The Pop Group. Later still, he books The Wild Bunch for London’s first rap club. The Language Laboratory, and later still shares a flat and many drunken nights out with Tricky. Rob Smith and Ray Mighty, who as Smith And Mighty first bring attention on the city with their drum’n’bass cover of Walk On By, are in a reggae band called Restriction.
So is a punk called Dave McDonald, later to become Portishead’s fourth member and onstage engineer, where he will be joined by Adrian Utley, who throughout all this is a guitarist on Bristol’s celebrated jazz scene, alongside saxophonist Andy Sheppard.
There is an open-minded approach to all corners of music – punk, rock, Pink Floyd, funk and reggae – that will continue to tint Bristol sounds. It’s too small a town to hide away in one clique: everyone, it seems, knows a punk, a rasta, a DJ, a hippy, a student. As hip hop, and later jungle, arrive, they will embrace this free-thinking _ code, not replace it.
1983: Wild Style Arrives
Hip hop is officially supposed to have arrived in 1979 with The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight, but it is the 1983 film Wild Style that dramatises the culture behind the music. The people who will later shape the Bristol sound are instantly hooked. Inspired by the film, in 1983 Grant Marshall, (now Massive Attack’s Daddy G) and Nellee Hooper form The Wild Bunch, joined by Milo Johnson, Robert Del Naja (Massive’s 3D), and Claude Williams – aka Willie Wee – a rapper who later becomes driver and “vibesmaster” in Massive Attack. Andrew Vowles, at 15, is the youngest member, later to become Massive Attack’s Mushroom.
This is the pivotal group in Bristol’s music history and yet it is not a band. Hip hop replaces the central unit of pop music with a new grouping: the posse. Instead of guitar, bass, drums and voice, the posse, or gang, is a loosely shifting association of rappers, DJs, soundmen, graffiti artists and singers. It is similar to the Jamaican sound system unit that consists of huge speaker stacks, DJs, rappers and singers and therefore easily understood in a town as dominated by reggae as Bristol.
When technology has freed the flow of ideas into music, what counts is the quality of those selfsame ideas. The skills required are different: the ability to freestyle a flowing rap, or cut up and scratch a record, or decorate a wall – because in the hip hop posse at that time, graffiti was as important as street music. Despite the live performances of more recent years, most of Bristol’s music -Massive Attack, Smith And Mighty, Reprazent- is created by posse-type groupings, not bands.
1983-88:The Wild Bunch
The Wild Bunch are the coolest kids in town. They dress the sharpest. Their system holds the best parties, mixing up rap, reggae, rock and soul. They’ve got the best records. Rock music has a walk-on part in their culture; just as important is reggae and the sound systems that travel between black communities in London, Bristol and Birmingham. They rule the roost at a scuzzy yet vital club called The Dug-Out where rastas, punks and B-boys share Red Stripe and spliff, though a tiny knot of tension is always to be found.
Video games, New York street style, Star Wars and trainers are the obsessions of the time, and The Wild Bunch hang out in a cafe called Special K’s, where Mushroom picks up his nickname from a video game he constantly plays. Obsessed with the finest points of sartorial street style, they are Mods 20 years on.
Summer 1985: Graffiti Art, Exhibition Party, Arnolfini Gallery
Local graffiti artists like 3D are spraying onto the Gallery walls and The Wild Bunch are DJing in this modern, harbourside art centre. Milo Johnson and Nellee Hooper are cutting up tracks, Daddy G selecting records while Mushroom looks on. In the audience are Smith And Mighty, Mark Stewart and Tricky. As is Geoff Barrow, a kid from a satellite town who for the first time has taken the bus into town without his mum. He goes on to form Portishead. Phil Johnson, later to write the excellent history, Straight Outta Bristol, videos the event.
1986: The Brunei Shed Party
A huge jam hosted by The Wild Bunch sound system. The Specials7 Jerry Dammers plays, as do local DJ crew 2 Bad. Again, everyone is there. One of 2 Bad, Dom Thrup – aka Dom T, renowned for his mixing ability – later moves to London to take residence at the ultra-cool Wag Club. Reports seep back to Bristol about his deck skills wowing the place. He later moves to Los Angeles to DJ where he falls in love with the singer from Icelandic art school indie band The Sugarcubes and introduces her to dance music. Her name is Bjork and it is Dorn’s friend Nellee Hooper who will produce the solo album Debut that catapults her to international stardom.
1988: Any Love
By 1988 The Wild Bunch have split, having briefly toured Japan and released one single, Friends And Countrymen and The Look Of Love – a cover of the Burt Bacharach classic stripped down to bass, voice and drum, blueprinting what will become the Bristol sound. Nellee Hooper is working with another sound system, London’s Soul-11 Soul; Milo Johnson has moved to Japan. Daddy G, Mushroom and 3D form Massive Attack and release the bass-heavy Any Love, produced by Smith And Mighty and featuring a falsetto-voiced local singer Carlton, later to record an album with Smith And Mighty for London Records. It is the only time that the two crews -Smith And Mighty, Massive Attack-will work together.
1988-89: The Three Stripe Years
During 1988-89 Massive Attack are silent and it’s Smith And Mighty and their Three Stripe label who bring the spotlight on Bristol. Their eerie covers of Bacharach & David standards Walk On By and Anyone Who Had A Heart feature huge, electro and reggae bass, discordant pianos, sudden scratches of noise and shrill singing. Despite the loose arrangements, there is something of the tension of the area to be heard in these classics, recorded above a derelict shop on Ashley Road in St. Paul’s.
Their Three Stripe label is a collective consisting of rappers MC Kelz and Krissy Kriss, in-house DJ Lynx, singers Carlton and Jackie Jackson, all produced by the duo, all local, all unknown. It even includes two kids, Jody Wisternoff, a 15-year-old studio whizz not yet into puberty, and his younger brother Sammee: the Tru Funk Posse.
The Three Stripe posse rave all through the acid house events of both Summers of Love, in a huge Citroen driven by the sax player from their reggae act Restriction, Charlie ‘Cheese’ Clarke. They sign a six-figure deal with Pete Tong at London Records and record an album, Bass Is Maternal. Smith And Mighty produce an acclaimed album with Carlton, The Call Is Strong, based on a more polished version of their sparse sound. But sales are poor, the relationship is fractious and nothing else is released via London bar an EP called Stepper’s Delight in 1992, now regarded as one early template for what would become jungle. There is an intense media buzz on Smith And Mighty, but the pair are too uncomfortable with corporations to court stardom. They stall, leave London Records, and head right back underground.
1990: Massive Attack Arise
One Thursday night a gang of Bristol clubbers and DJs travel to Players Club in Bath to hear Radio Bristol DJ and local dance music pioneer Tristan B play. Interest, locally and nationally, in the first Massive Attack single since their deal with Virgin Records is fierce and this is perhaps the first time the Massive Attack single Daydreaming will be played in public. Its mix of loping reggae beat, haunting snippets of singing and scratches, and stream-of-consciousness rapping totally hits their collective G-spot. The Massive Attack steamroller has begun. The following year, the debut album, Blue Lines, lives up to the anticipation. The band are dressed by leading stylist Judy Blame and photographed by Jean Baptiste-Mondino, one of fashion’s Young Turks. The orchestral torch song Unfinished Sympathy even reaches the charts, its Bailie Walsh-directed video, shot in one take in a gang district of LA, one of the most stirring promos ever made.
This is the posse mentality on a large scale, an exchange of ideas and skills through like-minded souls, made possible by a major record company budget. Massive Attack look and sound like they’re in charge of a brand new manifesto. It’s easy to see how an entire generation of dance innovators like James Lavelle of the Mo’Wax label would be inspired.
Massive Attack have created a whole new level of cool.
1990: Add House Arrives
Maybe the one love, one family, smiley face paraphernalia of raving is just too much for cool old Bristol, but acid house arrives late. Local DJs Tintin and John Stapleton finally bring the smoke machines, strobelights, day-glo banners and guest DJs of the acid house scene home with a club night called Vision, and every Wednesday night for a year or so the city walks around with a stupid grin on its face.
All the faces are there, though Tricky is once forced to recite Daydreaming on the door to gain free entrance. Upstairs Nick Warren is one of the DJs mixing up house records at 33rpm, Carpenters classics, percussion and dub. In 1993 he is the DJ on Massive Attack’s brief American tour. These days he is an international DJ resident at Liverpool superclub Cream and half of trance act Way Out West, alongside former Smith And Mighty protegee Jody Wisternoff.
1991: The Hard Sell
This charity compilation album of Bristol dance acts features Three Stripe rappers 3PM, produced by Smith And Mighty; 0272, featuring Nick Warren; a Massive Attack remix of Furious Fire, a half-finished track by the late former Rip, Rig And Panic member Sean Oliver; and a Mark Stewart collaboration. The compilers myself, Bristol journalist John Mitchell and Sara Tacchi – are surprised when Massive Attack’s jack-the-lad rapper Tricky suddenly offers a solo track.
We’re even more surprised when Nothing’s Clear, co-produced by a pre-Portishead Geoff Barrow, arrives: a dark, angry mash-up of his voice, ska rhythms and Betty Blue samples, a million miles from Massive’s low-key grooves.
1992: Universe Rave
Universe, later to become Tribal Gathering, are holding huge dance parties all over the West Country. In addition to the traditional hardcore breakbeat music of the time, they also offer German techno and British-style house in a spread of huge tents. Roni Size is a regular, raving all night with a gang of mates, going straight home to his studio and attempting to reproduce the sounds he’s hearing. One night in 1992, he loses his posse and ends up in the hardcore tent, listening to a DJ who’s doing something very different with flowing breakbeats and lush, ambient synthesisers: LTJ Bukem. Blown away by what Bukem’s playing, his eyes meet another raver, a DJ called Krust.
He knows who he is. Krust was part of Fresh Four, a Smith And Mighty-produced foursome who hit the charts in 1989 with a classic Bristol-style cover of the Rose Royce smoocher, Wishing On A Star, sung by a local teacher, Lizz E. Their Virgin deal fizzled out when they were sent to a rural studio to record an album and spent their time skateboarding around the farmyard instead. Sudden stardom, money, and the associated pressure hadn’t really worked for them. Along with Smith And Mighty, Krust had gone underground, getting heavily into the hardcore rave scene. He goes to Castlemorton, the travellers festival of 1991 that explodes into a huge three-day illegal rave, prompting the Government’s infamous Criminal Justice Act, which inter alia targetted just such gatherings. He and Krust become friends and start working together.
1992: Tricky, The Cousin And £800
Around the time of Blue Lines, his old accomplice Mark Stewart moves into Tricky’s flat. Stewart’s behaviour gets both of them chucked out but he does suggest that Tricky phone the Massive Attack manager in London and ask him to courier over £800 so Tricky can record a solo track. He makes it for £50, they spend the rest on a drinking binge and for two years the track sits forgotten. Tricky then plays it to his cousin, who tells him to re-release it.
Tricky can’t even find the master tape, so he cuts it off a cassette copy and presses up 1,000 copies. Island sign him and Aftermath is released properly. This, and its follow-up Ponderosa, weave Tricky’s paranoid, bleak raps and his singer Martina’s lilting, West Country voice through shuffling, collapsing, claustrophobic beats. Both are highly acclaimed.
1994: It’s A Jazz Thing
Roni Size and Krust start V Records with London jungle DJ/producers Bryan Gee and Jumpin’ Jack Frost, a favourite guest at the Bristol raves run by Massive Attack’s Willie Wee. The hardcore breakbeat sound of these raves has now mutated into jungle, a firecracker combination of ultra-fast breakbeats, thunderous reggae bass and jazz-funk and ragga samples. The sound explodes, Roni Size’s It’s A Jazz Thing is one of jungle’s anthems and Bristol embraces its rhythms, its street level network of tiny shops, studios and labels and all the accompanying codes. Jungle joins the dots between disparate Bristol producers with frightening symmetry.
In 1993 Krust and Size start the Full Cycle label. A posse forms around them that will evolve into Mercury Music Prize winners Reprazent. It includes Suv, singer Onallee and MC Dynamite. DJ Die is a teenage skateboard pal of Jody, the teenage whizzkid from Smith And Mighty; they’ve released one house track, 4am, as plain old Tru Funk, and DJed hardcore at raves throughout the South West.
Circus Warp was one such rave, a series of high-production free parties held by a New Age travelling circus complete with stilt-walkers and fire-eaters, and it is Circus Warp’s Chris Wharton who released Roni Size’s first ever record on his Where’s The Party label.
Flynn, another of Fresh 4, and his girlfriend Flora have their own Independent Dealers drum’n’bass label. Smith And Mighty, having pioneered their own way through the hardcore rave style with Steppa’s Delight, are now called More Rockers and their 1995 album Dub Plate Selection Vol. 1 is totally breakbeat. Having tried the big labels, and the stardom thing, the remnants of the Three Stripe Posse have finally found a scene they can call home.
1994: The Glastonbury Festival
Geoff Barrow, the tape operator from Bristol’s Coach House studio – who bar working for Neneh Cherry, has stayed on the fringes of this story – emerges with a stunning album of lo-fi hip hop blues. His vocalist, Beth Gibbons, is a pub-rock singer he met on an Enterprise Allowance introduction day, who turns his crunching beats and soundtrack samples into scorching torch songs, aided by jazz guitarist, Adrian Utley, and engineer Dave McDonald.
This is the outsiders’ band, named after Barrow’s satellite home town just outside Bristol. Barrow has often said how uncomfortable he’s felt around the Bristol aristocracy, and the band are uniquely (for Bristol) marijuana-free. But they lead the way for a live presentation of the sound, adding other musicians from other fringes of the city’s scene like jazz drummer Rob Merrill and ska bassist Jim Barr.
That summer Portishead play Glastonbury, turning down a main stage slot because they don’t think enough people will be interested. As it is, the small ‘Acoustic’ tent is frighteningly overcrowded and, worse, the crowd has just bottled off Evan Dando’s first ever acoustic set. Michael Eavis is turned away from a frantic backstage for not having a pass. With tensions running high and technical problems threatening the show’s collapse, Portishead turn in the performance of a lifetime. Their reputation spreads like wildfire. “I felt blessed,” Barrow later comments.
1994-96: Bristol Stoops To Conquer
Perhaps it’s the way Tricky leads the way, moving from Bristol up to London after the huge success of his debut album Maxinquaye, but Bristol suddenly seems to accept success. Though the rest of them still live in the city, Tricky dallies with Bjork, records with Terry Hall and Alison Moyet on his Nearly God project, moves to New York, hangs out with Bono. David Bowie sends him books in the post. He has a child with Martina. He records for American rap label Payday and works with Grace Jones. He releases a stunning, dark third album (if you count the Nearly God project): Pre-Millennium Tension. It’s proper rock star stuff, and Tricky shuffles through it spliff in hand, writing yet more intense music. He even appears, apparently as himself, alongside Gary Oldman, in Luc Besson’s sci-fi romp The Fifth Element.
Nellee Hooper has long since lived the life, dating models – including Naomi Campbell – O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2U and Madonna’s Bedtime Stories. The most successful producer dance music has ever thrown up, he was recently awarded a BAFTA award for his work on the soundtrack to the film Romeo And Juliet. He also produces Bjork’s second album, Post; for a period she dates jungle’s biggest name, Goldie. Goldie had connections with The Wild Bunch when a graffiti artist. Years later, he is also linked to Naomi Campbell.
Massive Attack’s long-awaited second album Protection is a Hooper production, and, since the departure of Shara Nelson, features Tracey Thorn of Everything But The Girl. Massive remix Madonna’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You. They even stay in Madonna’s house but don’t actually meet her.
In 1995 Massive Attack take over Glastonbury’s Dance Tent for a whole day, performing a live/sound system. The show begins with Mushroom, sporting a new afro, walking on stage and triumphantly holding up two 12-inch records to huge cheers, then scratching them into a suddenly-live Safe From Harm. The response is tumultuous. The posse as performance has finally happened. When they win a Brit Award for Best Dance Act in 1996, they quip, as only a Bristol act who’d spent 10 years in clubs could, “We can’t even dance.”
1996: Mercury Music Prize
After the way Roni Size and Krust had met, there is only one event Reprazent could use for their live debut: Universe’s Tribal Gathering. Months later Mercury Prize chairman Simon Frith is mispronouncing Roni as Roh-ney and Reprazent have won the Mercury Music Prize, outsiders at 16-1.
Bar Tricky and Nellee Hooper, all these artists still live and work in Bristol, and are still to be seen in the same clubs and pubs. Some are even beginning to admit the possibility of such a thing as a Bristol scene, something they’ve always denied. Massive Attack’s third album, Mezzanine, looks to be their most successful yet. Tricky’s fourth album Angels With Dirty Faces is, for Tricky, almost upbeat and melodic. It’s been a struggle, but Portishead have released a second album, Portishead. And at the end of last year, the Bristol City Council asked Roni Size if he could switch on the city centre Christmas Lights.
Written By Dom Phillips