ScanS → NME Magazine Interview #2
Publication Date: June 1991
The swarthy taxi driver must’ve been a Boer warrior in another life, or a refugee from the South African Nazi Party in this one.
Palms sweating, distended neck glistening, he informs us that on no account will he take us to the St Paul’s district. After some cajoling and much subterfuge he relents and, upon arrival, we discover why. The hulk of a burnt-out car smoulders as if to welcome us. It’s a predominantly black area, unofficially classed as a no-go zone by the less tolerant inmates of this beautiful city.
Which city? Bristol. The Heart Of The West Country. Built from the proceeds of slavery in the late 19th Century. Home to Gary Ciail, Mark Stewart, Nellee Hooper,
Smith & Mighty and… Massive Attack, purveyors of kinetic cybersoul, rudeboys about town, pop stars incarnate.
3-D, Mushroom and DaddyG are gathered in the latter’s home, offering up gems like, “Bristol might seem soft and slow and sedate on the surface, but there’s more to it than meets the eye, you can’t really be sure that an underground society doesn’t run this town.”
The house is strewn with the debris accumulated from years as a sound-system turned hip-hop crew, albeit in some kind of filing-system order; the latest 12″ imports, old Jamaican totems, posters and books, shrapnel from a Massive Attack (while they were temporarily called Massive recently) promotional campaign and, curiously, a short statuette made in Daddy G’s likeness, a personal voodoo doll.
Although Massive Attack have been hailed as purveyors of scintillating black dance music, there’s more to them than that. Dance music is too narrow a term to describe their recent hit single, ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, a symphony that serenades other planets from a lofty viewpoint and a sour-love-affair song rolled into one. Joy Division greets Soul II Soul at The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s request package. Or ‘Safe From Harm’, a paranoid walk through a city while being stalked bv axe-murderers.
THE ONLY constant about Massive Attack is the way they continually prove that being associated with dance music doesn’t mean you have to be asinine, vacuous, or unchallenging. If there’s any proof that the old and increasingly desperate warhorse Morrissey is approaching senility when he claims “dance music has killed everything” then it’s here, in the vibrant grooves and sound-paintings of their debut ‘Blue Lines’ LP, which has almost singlehandedly re-defined the scope of contemporary soul.
And if you were thinking dance music couldn’t be written about as easily as rock music or somehow caters to musicians of lesser intellect with nothing to say, try Massive Attack’s spiel. 3-D is the chief talker, but that doesn’t mean he holds the reins and keeps strict control over his compatriots, he’s just naturally garrulous. Daddy G always looked forward, from when he was 12-years-old, to the day he’d also be able to drink Babycham and brandy at sound-system dances, otherwise he’s an ineffably cool character with a deeeep voice. And Mushroom’s the space cadet of the group, fidgeting throughout the interview and occasionally interjecting wild comments seemingly from some parallel universe; although he later says he’s of Spanish New York and Bristolian extraction and that he absolutely detests remixes, as he thinks it’s impossible to improve on perfection and Massive Attack always strive for perfection.
“The higher the monkey climbs, the more he exposes, ” is a piece of received wisdom 3-D has decided to share with me in a park after a gruelling hour-long interview. We’re arguing because 3-D thinks we’ve only scratched the surface of what his group stand for, and Massive Attack have always wanted to do one of those in-depth four-hour interviews that grace the cover of the NME. I say we’ve got enough. I’m sure we’ve got enough. Then he says: “That parable is true. There’s things in everyone that no one wants to see. There’s things we don’t want other people to see of ourselves. Human beings are filthy creatures and if we do end up with any measure of success we don’t want people looking at our backsides. The thing about our concept is we’d like to f—ing balance commercial success with the vibe that we can do what we want over the next few years. ” And with that 3-D runs off to play football – Massive Attack are all committed football supporters – with the rest of the g roup, pausing only to tell an unrealistic tale of climbing high on one of the neighbouring trees when he was younger, sniffing’a bag of glue and spotting a small pixie-like creature at the foot of the tree trying to chop it down. These guys are definitely possessed of a sense of humour, albeit a mite strange. But then 3-D is currently I one of the most individual rappers going – check the way he and Tricky Kid traded rhymes on the long-lost first single, ‘Daydreaming’.
As a final parting shot, 3-D plugs the most recently completed group composition, “A reconstruction of an old Sean Oliver track he did when he was with Rip, Rig And Panic. His death from Sickle Cell Anaemia was unexpected and profoundly sad. We just decided to do something for the cause, ’cos we had another friend who died as well. It’s also a popular cause in Bristol ’cos the charity is based here. And the co-ordinators managed to get the cream of Bristol talent to contribute. We all worked separately, though. There’s no real scene here beyond the one that’s always been here. ”
Flashback two hours, and 3-D is discussing the politics of LP covers and magazine covers, spurred on by Daddy G’s observation that black artists now have the lowest profile, media-wise, since the dark days of disco-record-burnings. He thinks there’s a conspiracy afoot.
“I was asked recently to visit this exhibition on music imagery,” opines 3-D, himself a former graffiti artist who narrowly escaped conviction. “It was in some gallery somewhere, and they were just showing bits of covers and bits of music promotion – how images went around music for years. And all the stuff from the ’30s and ’40s – if it was a white jazz artist they’d just rely on the face to sell records, and I just noticed that for the black artists the photos were minimal and they had to rely on loads of graphics…”
Daddy G: “You’re talking about the jazz age, even in the rock’n’roll era, the same thing happened. I mean, for a long time with Tamla Motown, which was a black company, you wouldn’t get pictures of Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye on their sleeves.”
3-D: “These magazines who don’t have a lot of black artists on the front just follow the same pattern. Black music influences … I mean, even the indie stuff over the past couple of years has charted almost on the strength of the fact that they’ve put dance beats behind it, black music ideas into the music, and they’ve charted, instead of having to do the live circuit they’ve suddenly got access to these clubs. But still you don’t see the black artists on the magazine covers..
3-D’s tirade continues, picking off targets left of centre and finally coming to settle on the Scritti/Shabba Ranks collaboration, which to him is just the same thing at work on a larger scale, though both Daddy G and I rate that single. The rise and part-downfall of Adamski is also examined in detail, with Mushroom questioning how come he got all the media exposure and House pioneers like Marshall Jefferson and Inner City’s Kevin Saunderson didn’t.
Massive Attack chat about injustice, but not in song – at least not directly; they’d rather stealthily creep up on you in an abstract way. In fact in all their canon, only ‘Hymn Of The Big Wheel’ (earmarked as the next single) is ‘about’ anything, in this case pollution, environmental meltdown, the future seen through a child’s eyes.
“At the end of the day,” says 3-D, “‘Hymn Of The Big Wheel’ joes build a bigger picture than the rest of the tracks on the LP, Decause the rest are kind of jnfocused – they just drift round and round in their own way, which is what we’re into, rather than paint an obvious picture or leave« message. We’re as worried aboul things like pollution as everyone else, it’s just we don’t often wanns write about it so obviously. We ain’t got no solutions to the problems, we’re just the same as everyone else living with it. We’re just pointing things out to ourselves, not to anyone else. It’s just a story about a man talking to his son, talking about the future or what’s gonna happen, what’s it all about? Just questions, y’know. We don’t offer any alternatives like solar power or anything like that.”
Massive Attack are in no hurry to record a follow-up LP, and they’re certainly not enamoured by what passes for rock music these days, preferring to fall back on older acts like Pink Floyd – although this doesn’t mean they don’t keep an ear to the ground. As a unit, the nearest they have to a focus is 3-D, and even he will assure you they’re a three-way democracy, helped out by such stalwarts as Horace Andy (who sings ‘Big Wheel’) Shara Nelson (the fiery yet laid-back temptress on the singles) and Neneh Cherry (who helped arrange ‘Big Wheel’) amongst others. The Bailie Walsh-directed videos further separate Massive Attack from the mass by treating the format as an artform and making odd little feature-film type snippets from the starkest of material. In fact, the only vices they readily admit to are a loving of splatter movies and pornography, but everyone can’t be perfect.
3-D: “You know that scene in Wild At Heart that just comes out of nowhere, where the geezer’s lying on the ground after falling off his motorbike with his brains hanging out? That’s my favourite scene, totally outrageous, even better than when Willem Dafoe gets his head taken clean off…”
Keep close to Massive Attack and you’ll be safe from harm.
Written By Dele Fadele