Leading the Attack

England's Massive Attack is still making the Nineties more interesting.

Massive Attack's sound, which integrates street life, DJing, music, art and angst, has played a major role in shaping the pop music of the Nineties--and with this accomplishment have come some impressive spoils. Today the group's Robert del Naja (aka 3D) is as comfortable ordering room service in swanky hotels as he once was spray-painting walls in his hometown of Bristol, England. But whereas del Naja and his mates (Grant "Daddy G" Marshall and Andrew "Mushroom" Vowles) are huge in their homeland and the planet's dance capitals, they remain a cult item in most of America. As a result, del Naja notes that some of the gigs on Massive Attack's current U.S. tour "have been quite small, obviously, compared to what we've been doing in the rest of the world. It's a nice reminder of how small you really are in the great scheme of things."

There's no bitterness in del Naja's words. Earlier this year the band issued a masterful new disc, Mezzanine, but despite favorable reviews and great word of mouth among dance-clubbers, the CD has earned little airplay and only modest sales; it doesn't even appear on this week's Billboard Top 200 album chart. Even so, del Naja remains philosophical about Massive Attack's stateside state of affairs. "I think the American music scene apologizes for itself when English people come out. And there's no reason to, because the English scene is much smaller on the whole, but you get as much crap with it just the same." He laughs before adding, "The only problem I have with the American music scene is that it's too standard. There's obviously an experimental side to it, but you don't really get to see that on MTV or hear it on the radio, do you?"

As for Massive Attack's approach, it's innovative but readily accessible to listeners on this side of the Atlantic--which only makes sense given its original inspiration. During his youth in Bristol, del Naja ran with a pack of future pop geniuses, including Tricky, Nellee Hooper, Goldie, Roni Size, Smith & Mighty and DJ Krust, and like them, he did his damnedest to emulate the underground heroes in 1982's Wild Style, a movie set in the South Bronx during the early days of the hip-hop explosion. In fact, del Naja's first major band borrowed its handle from the film. "We used to play music at the Dug-Out Club in the early and mid-Eighties as the Wild Bunch, cutting up music and DJing," he says. "And then I'd take my cans and spend the night getting myself drunk and going out with a little bit of an entourage and having a war--you know, painting until the sun came up." His passion for graffiti occasionally landed him in trouble. "I got arrested a couple of times," he admits. "But it was good fun, those days, and I was pretty young. What was going on in England was like a secondhand New York, if you know what I mean. It wasn't that credible, but it was a load of fun at the time."

The music that came out of venues like the Dug-Out Club, located in a cease-fire zone between white, racially charged Bristol and nearby black St. Paul's, seemed fresh in part because the people who made it were exposed to so many disparate sounds. "There were a lot of new wave and hip-hop and reggae bands in Bristol, and it was a good scene," del Naja says. "We all knew each other, and we went to the same clubs. Back then, Bristol clubs were run by Bristol people, and there would be a lot of cool parties."

The Wild Bunch splintered when various members (including Hooper, who went on to produce Soul II Soul, Tina Turner and Madonna) struck out on their own. But del Naja, Marshall and Vowles stayed in Bristol and gradually developed the aesthetic that would forever be associated with Massive Attack. "There was a lot of experimenting, and it took some time for that whole process to take effect," del Naja says. "It all happened within its own time and space, without a lot of exposure to the outside world."

He's not exaggerating: Massive Attack's first release--"Any Love," a Smith & Mighty-produced vinyl single--landed in 1988, but it took three more years for the act's first full-length to arrive. According to del Naja, the group spent that time learning how to transfer its new posse mentality into a pop setting. "It started as art and words. But I always liked the idea of a band, and when the whole hip-hop thing happened, it was really exciting to see people who had the same kind of energy and anarchy, just as the punk thing had when it happened."

By 1991, the Massive Attack brew--a fusion of Mushroom's turntables, Daddy G's dub production and 3D's spiky new-wave sensibilities--was ready for tasting. Blue Lines, the group's debut album, soon shook the dance scene to its roots. The modest del Naja downplays the disc's impact, but there's no question that the recording represented the shape of musical things to come. "Unfinished Sympathy" is the standout track: Featuring the chocolate vocals of Shara Nelson, this psychedelic fusion of reggae, dub, rock and dance music blurred the line between sampled and performed instrumentation while softening the ground for the blossoming of trip-hop. Protection, the trio's next album, followed in 1994, and its popularity opened the floodgates. Imitators like Morcheeba and Sneaker Pimps attempted to capitalize on the Massive Attack revolution even as Bristol associates Tricky and Portishead came up with creative variations of their own.

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