Leading the Attack
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.
Mezzanine isn't a complete departure from its two predecessors. "We do have a spacey melancholia going on in all our records," del Naja says. "It's a feeling and, I suppose, a bit of beauty." However, the disc spotlights an instrument that previously played only a relatively small part in the group's efforts: the guitar. The impetus for this change came from del Naja, a fan of guitar-oriented acts such as Spiritualized and the late Jeff Buckley.
"I've always had an interest in the guitar, despite the fact that it's a bit traditional and generic," he says. "I just kind of thought that with Massive Attack, people expect us to experiment--and frankly, we'd get bored if we didn't. I thought guitars might open up our universe so that we could do anything that we wanted. It was time to do a different record." In his opinion, "Blue Lines was Blue Lines, and Protection was Protection, but we thought it was time to do something different. And after Protection, I personally felt a bit closed-in in one area."
The UK press reported that this pro-guitar stance led to bickering that nearly destroyed the band. Although del Naja doesn't go quite that far, he admits that "there was a bit of friction, between me and Mushroom particularly, about the guitars and the different direction that Mezzanine was taking. I thought I'd be belligerent and go with it--take the risks and take the blame. I was kind of up for doing that, because it means all of us can feel that freedom to experiment on the next record. We don't want to confine ourselves by boundaries or markers or by people's expectations of us."
Fortunately, Mezzanine, a collage of dub, soul, sampling and trance, bears no scars from the conflicts that occurred during its making. More important, the commingling of guitars and electronic sounds works unconditionally. On "Inertia Creeps," for instance, studio jock Angelo Bruschini winds a spindly riff around Turkish rhythms sampled by Vowles during a trip to a belly-dancing club in Istanbul. Elsewhere, "Man Next Door" employs a discreet guitar line that accents the contributions of Horace Andy, one of several singers who are featured on Mezzanine. Marshall and del Naja turn up, too, as do Deborah Miller (Shara Nelson's replacement on Massive Attack's tour) and Elizabeth Fraser, whose work on the back-masked, Barbarella-esque "Group Four" and "Black Milk," a cut marked by submarine kick-drum beats, is more grounded than her ethereal warblings for the Cocteau Twins.
In discussing the various vocalists, del Naja displays more than a hint of the boys'-club attitude that's common in hip-hop. "We've been in the band for a while, and we have this male dynamic," he says. "We've always worked with Horace Andy. We get on with him because he's male, and we naturally have more in common. With the girls you work with, like Liz and Tracey [Thorn, from Everything but the Girl], it's always different. They've got their own relationships that have nothing to do with us. It makes it difficult for the girls to come in and stay. It's easier for them to come in on the outskirts and just look at Massive Attack without getting involved."
Fraser apparently was more affected by her Massive Attack experience than del Naja expected; her decision to leave the Cocteau Twins led to its disbanding. (Her former partner, Simon Raymonde, has since produced a Billy MacKenzie disc and a solo album and is currently hunkered down in a studio in London producing an album with Denver favorites the Czars. See Feedback, page 84, for more details.) "I don't know what's going on with them," del Naja says. "I just know that Liz is living in Bristol and enjoying herself. I keep my distance a bit, really. We have enough internal friction going with Massive Attack without getting involved in other people's."
A number of other famous folks have also come into Massive Attack's orbit, including Madonna, who hired the group to work its magic on her simmering 1995 ballad "I Want You," and Tina Turner, responsible for a horrendous cover of "Unfinished Sympathy." These interactions were fun for del Naja, but he tries not to make too much of them. "The thing about Massive Attack is that we've always managed to keep our heads down and stay real without blowing ourselves out and losing the plot. Working with Madonna or being covered by Tina Turner gives us a taste of glamour and a mini-adventure into that world of superstardom.
"Massive Attack itself has gotten a bit famous as well," he continues. "But it has been a slower trajectory. It's never been an overnight change; it's never gone too far. We've never gone to London and started living that life." He believes that Tricky, a former protege and sometimes acrimonious rival who's now London-based, hasn't been so wise. "It's a matter of getting away from his home, really," he says. "I think you need people you know well who can tell you the truth, as opposed to people who have some kind of agenda. To be honest with you, I think he's lost a bit of himself."
On the other hand, del Naja concedes, Bristol is no longer the sleepy burg it once was. "It always had a reputation for being lazy until recently," he says. "But after the rave thing happened, Bristol got really big. DJs became very important to club life and became personalities and stars in themselves. Now you get this traffic in DJs from around the country. It's not that it's become generic, but you can see the same DJ in five cities in a week. When our scene took hold, it's like what happened with Portishead and Roni Size. That citywide cross-pollination has gone global."
To further this process, Massive Attack founded its own imprint, Melankolic, three years ago. Giving rising Bristol combos an opportunity to be heard is definitely part of the plan, del Naja says. "There's a lot more music waiting to come out of Bristol now--young bands and DJs and programmers and writers doing things. So it's going to be a continuation. But it gets a bit harder for the bands when they see us and Portishead and Roni Size having such success. It means there will be the inevitable comparisons, with the labels always waiting for the next Massive Attack and the next this and the next that. Whereas with us it was all new and unexpected."
The rise of juvenile geniuses such as DJ Shadow and U.N.K.L.E.'s James Lavelle serves as a reminder that the members of Massive Attack are dance-music veterans. As such, del Naja finds himself taking the long view more often these days. "It's not just the money thing," he says. "It's about getting older. We're not kids anymore, and your life takes a more serious twist. The consequences of your actions are heavier now. You've got to look at your responsibilities. You can't just go out and get wrecked every night and give up everything you've got."
Still, del Naja isn't so far removed from his Wild Style days that he can't appreciate how far he's come. "We didn't have any plans to be a regular band or a success," he says. "It was always just a bit of fun."
Massive Attack, with Lewis Parker. 7 p.m. Tuesday, September 22, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $17.50, 303-830-2525.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.