ScanS → NME Magazine Interview #1

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Publication Date: April 1991

Bristol. Home of tit jokes. The town designated to take over from Mane as City Of European Equity Culture since 1989, when the world at large first discovered Smith & Mighty. The birthplace of Nellee Hooper, the man who has had more influence over dance music than any man called Nellee has ever had before. Or Hooper, come to that.

Back before Bristol was anything other than the place from which Johnny Morris presented Animal Magic, there was a posse called The Wild Bunch. They were into hip-hop, ragga, graffiti and all the paraphernalia that used to go with those musics like dancing on bits of your body that weren’t designed for dancing on, such as your bollocks.

Nellee was a part of this mob, together with Daddy G, Robert 3D Del Naya, and Milo Johnson.
They ran a sound system, cut a few dub plates, got arrested for spraying things, and eventually added a couple of live players and a DJ called Mushroom. Why Mushroom?
“Because he once stood in some shit,” says Daddy G. This may not actually be true.

Time passed and The Wild Bunch sound system toured Japan before anyone else you care to mention thought of doing so. A singer called Shara Nelson, previously part of Adrian Sherwood’s On-U cobblers, sang on a totally dett version of the Bacharach & David tune, The Look Of Love’, which some wag at the American office of 4th & Broadway records heard and put out alongside a rougher tune, Tearing Down The Avenue’ in 1986. The Look Of Love’ was the since heard from Soul it Soul, Sybil, Smith & Mighty and yawn knows who else.

“Sure, it’s an easy comparison between us and Sou! II Soul,” says 3D. “But we’re sick of it.” The real point is that Massive’s music is sound system music rather than group of studio trickery music.
In 1987, Nellee left to join the easy comparison and a star was born. Milo vanished to Japan, a place he had been in love with since the tour. The remaining members changed their name to Massive Attack, after a warehouse jam they did called Underground Massive Attack, found an aim in trying to make music that reflected both their times and 3D’s interest in art, and cut the best record Smith & Mighty ever made in ‘Any Love’, while 4th & Broadway stuck out an old Wild Bunch 45, ‘Friends & Countrymen’.

Last year they formed a label, called, in a perverse circular way, Wild Bunch. Virgin’s Circa label picked it up, and the drifting, weird introduction to the group, ‘Daydreaming’, was put out last October. Even better is the new single, ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, a crumbling monument to personal despair from a soul under siege, released under the name of Massive because attacks are not cool in this day and age.

Sitting in a tasteful cafe in Bristol, one thing is immediately apparent: if you’re cooking chips for Daddy G, make sure they’re not anaemic and that the black bits are taken out.
“We haven’t really got a line­up,” says 3D, in his friendly fire machine-gun delivery. “We’re not governed by bass, guitar, drums and singer. We’re just a loosely- based idea. The difference between now and The Wild Bunch is that we’re not fighting for supremacy all the time, we agree to differ. We all know we hate each other and that’s the way it is.”
The waitress arrives. Daddy G does not like the look of his chips.

“This is what happens when you sign a major deal,” grins 3D. “You get fussy about your chips.”
“Can I change them?” asks Daddy G meekly.
“What do you want me to change them into?” smirks the waitress.
“Small chips” says Daddy G. “Cut them into funny zoo animal shapes” suggests 3D. “I’ll fry them more”says the waitress, walking out with a long- suffering look on her face, chips in hand. “Thanks alot” smiles Daddy G, sincerely. “We’ve already had a little chat. She’s got a good sense of humour.”
“Lucky for you really, otherwise she’d piss on them,” says 3D.

Massive Attack have that unity of people who have been together years and are comfortable with each other. They don’t take themselves seriously, even thougth their music is about as serious as dancefloor stuff gets.

“Most of the dance music you see transferred to stage now is just pantomime,” says 3D. “Because audiences expect to see a ‘band’, people pad their show out with dancers and get in a few musicians to make it look good. What we’re gonna do is go out as a sound system, which is what we are. If we did it any other way we’d just look like a bunch of . . .”
“Wankers,” offers Daddy G helpfully.

The problem here is what the public expects from a live show, which isn’t necessarily an honest thing. Daddy G points out the brilliance of Soul II Soul’s gigs at the Africa Centre many years ago, compared to the slick but dull stage repertoire of the Soul II Soul world tour of last year.
If Soul II Soul had gone out as a sound system, things might have been different. Whether the public would appreciate it is another matter altogether. The chips return a shade browner, but do not have anything to add to the debate.

While 3D neatly defines the concept of a Bristol Scene as “wank wank wank”, there are certain similarities between Massive, Smith & Mighty and Soul II Soul’s Bristol influence in the person of Nellee Hooper. All three have worked together, and Massive, like Smith & Mighty,  adore the warbling falsetto voice of reggae singer Horace Andy to the extent of employing him on two tracks on their forthcoming ‘Blue Lines’album.

“Anyone who remembers the old Studio One days will respect him,” says Daddy G. “We thought that he might not want to try something new but he’s a great guy, willing to have a go at anything. But it’s not just Bristol that’s into him.”

“There’s this Bristol myth” . says 3D. “Everyone talks about a Bristol sound but half our album was done in London and the video for ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ was shot in LA.” Why’s that?
“Because we wanted a holiday,” mutters 3D, only half joking.

“Being a sound system is part of it,” says Shara. “You’re not so restricted by certain things that a band would be.”
“We’ve always had loads of ideas,” reckons 3D, “but we never had the cast to do them. ”
“There aren’t any rules,” says Daddy G. “There’s a 40-piece orchestra on one of the tracks.” “We had to sell the car to pay for it,” says 3D.
Daddy G grins. “We did!”
“It was a Shogun,” says 3D.
“ … You know what happens when you get a record deal. You get carried away.”
“You forget about your budget and do a Bros,” says Daddy G. “You buy everything.”
You really sold the car? It wasn’t repossessed?
“So that’s your angle”, says Daddy G.

“It’s not a case of being obsessed with that kind of glamorous lifestyle,” says 3D, who looks so unHollywood it’s unreal. “If s just a case of being able to do things on the artwork and creative side that we couldn’t do before. There were a couple of tracks where we wanted to use strings but they didn’t fit so we dumped them. We’re just trying to get our ideas to work, it doesn’t matter how we do it.”

So far, they’ve got an album of ideas that work, although exactly how cohesive they are as a whole package is uncertain. ‘Blue Lines’, to be released sometime in April, contains reggae, rap, ragga and pure dancefloor stuff, held together by the distinctive, slightly odd Massive sound attack, the lyrics border on self­ psychoanalysis for ‘Daydreaming’, offering layer upon layer of ideas as to how the outside world affects the inner mind.

By contrast, Shara’s vocal tour- de-force, ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, offers a heart bloodied by emotional loss and confusion. While other dance acts sit on one level waiting for approval, Massive Attack offer piles of ideas that you have to dig into.

Written By Ian McCann