Darklife (Select October 1994)
The originators. The masters
of deep, dark dancehall blues. The best dub-dance collective of all...So why
did Massive Attack fall apart just as U2 were at the door? And how did they
survive three years of limbo to make 1994's ultimte trip-hop experience?
3-D only has to take one look at the helicopter for his stomach to disappear into the direction of the airport's melting tarmac. No big fan of heights, the Massive Attack rapper is hardly reassured by someone's comment that "at least one 'copter goes down every day". Still this is the World Cup final and nothing but nothing is going to get in the way of a good time...Not even Madonna.La Ciccone's people have been trying to set up a meeting. But yesterday the Massive contingent were recovering from jet lag and tomorrow they return home. Today of course, is out of the question. Madonna may be the biggest female star in the world, but compared to the climax of America World Cup '94 she is just someone else hoping for a touch of that old Massive remix magic.
In any case, as the helicopter zooms across the Californian landscape, it's too late to worry about that now. 3-D gradually relaxes in his seat and begins to notice that, above the noise of the helicopter's rotor blades, a louder roar is making itself heard. With the Pasadena Rose Bowl coming into view it is the sound of a hundred thousand footie fans going collectively ape-shit.
As the helicopter lands a strangely familiar figure looms. It's Harvey Goldsmith en route to his Lear jet. Pleasantries are exchanged but, with only minutes to go before kick-off, this is not the time for chatting, not even with the most powerful concert promoter in the world.
Within the stadium confines the atmosphere has by-passed 'electric' and gone straight to 'nuclear meltdown' level. It doesn't matter that the actual match turns out to be the dullest confrontation this side of the annual East Anglian Moustache-Growing Challenge Cup. For a football nut like 3-D, right now, right here is the only place to be.
After the excruciating tension of the penalty shoot-out has secured the first Brazilian World Cup in over two decades, it's back on the helicopter and time to start organising the evening's entertain- ment. Drinking is fairly high on the agenda. In fact drinking pretty much is the agenda. Fuck it. They can sleep on the plane. After all, the World Cup only happens once every four years.
So later, much later, 3-D staggers through the humid, West Coast night to where he is staying. Very tired. Very drunk. And very happy...
"Yeah. That was undoubtedly one of the best days of my life," he recalls today, taking a long pull on his drink in one of Bristol's less than salubrious hostelries. "The vibe was just incredible."
But what about Madonna? Don't Massive Attack ever put their career - not to mention their bank balances - before a good time? After all, it's three years since the band last put their heads over the pop parapet. A period in which they lost not only their lead singer but also their producer, their management and a large pile of money. Wouldn't a liaison with the Material Girl have been timely?
"As it happens, on the day we were leaving America we did chat to Madonna on the phone. Mind you, I was having a bit of a panic attack."
About meeting Madonna?
"Naaah. Just because I had such a fucking hang-over. Fancy another one?"
Three years ago Massive Attack were being fairly accurately hailed as The Coolest Band In The World. Utilising the talents of singer Shara Nelson and video director Baillie Walsh, the core trio of 3- D, Mushroom and Daddy G projected an aura of sleepy-eyed grooviness without ever stepping too far into the spotlight. Meanwhile, singles like 'Safe From Harm' and the eerie, jangling orchestra-soul of 'Unfinished Sympathy' mooched around the Top 40 making everybody else look bland.
But it was 'Blue Lines' that secured their place in one of the shadier sections of the eternal Hall Of Cool. Half a decade in the making, Massive Attack's debut LP extracted the hippest aspects from dub, house and hip hop, added a range of voices - from Shara's deep soul chanteusing to 3-D's so-relaxed- it-sounds-like-he's-fallen-asleep rapping. Like De La Soul's 'Three Feet High And Rising' before it or the Stereos' 'Connected' after it, 'Blue Lines' cap- tured the spirit of the times by pretty much being the spirit of the times. The result was not so much a dub crossover as a full scale invasion...
Then the band just disappeared. After a while Shara Nelson announced that she was no longer with them and released a solo album. It didn't take long for the rumour mill to start working overtime. Massive Attack had flopped in the States. Massive Attack had disbanded. Massive Attack had dropped by their record company...
Unsurprisingly, none of the rumours mention Massive Attack lounging around in an undergroud health spa at one of Bristol's more exclusive hotels. Yet this is where the three of them are to be found as they spend a morning toning up in preparation for the release of their second LP, 'Protection'. Under the wary gaze of the hotel staff the have just vacated the pool and are looking forward to a sauna later on. But right now it's Jacuzzi time.
"Ha! This is the way to live isn't it?" shouts 3-D, over the roar of the Jacuzzi's engine. "This is what you do on Album Two, know what I mean" Album One we'd have just gone down the pub."
Before Massive Attack there
was the Wild Bunch - an even looser collective, which included all three members
of Massive with Bjork knob-twiddler Nellee Hooper (who returned to produce 'Protection')
and anyone else who could be trusted to distribute flyers or sell a few cans
"Basically it was a reggae sound system," recalls chief sample-meister and resident technophile Mushroom. "Everyone round the turntables, just taking turns on the mike."
By the mid-'80s The Wild Bunch and their all-night party jams had gained a reputation that stretched far beyond Bristol's city limits. In fact, it was a trip to Japan, of all places, that was the catalyst for the Bunch's demise. 3-D got homesick and came home early, while Nellee Hooper left soon afterwards to pursue his producing interests.
"The final straw was at St Paul's Festival," explains 3-D heading off to the sauna. "The truck tumed up from London with the sound system, took one look at us, went off for a cup of tea and never came back. Soon afterwards we became Massive Attack."
Looking at 3-D's half-shaven, dissolute features it isn't hard to sympathise with those truck drivers. Certainly, he looks out of place in these plush surroundings, and the pool attendants are looking decidedly on edge. So, 3-D do you come here often? "Yeah, ha ha! We're fucking regulars." And do the attendants recognise you? ""Oh yeah. They recognise us alright. They just don't like us all that much."
"Now thi sis City Road.
Right by Bristol's front line. Bad area. I once drove down here and tore the
front off some guy's car. Not the kind of place you want to be doing stuff like
The situation is not unfamiliar: successful pop star fancies a bit of slumming, so he cruises around the parts of his home town that would undoubtedly have been designated 'no go' if the people doing the designating had ever come back. The big difference is that the man behind the wheel is Daddy G. And he lives here.
"We deliberately stopped talking about Bristol a while back," he says, turning into another not-so-elegantly-decaying street. "People kept on talking about the Bristol Sound and it was such a bunch of crap that we just stopped mentioning it. But it's such a great place to live. It's got such a vibe to it, it's small enough so I can be 'hands-on', you know? It's a shame, because virtually everyone I know, apart from us, who is involved in trying to create something has had to move to London. Good luck to them. But this is the place to be."
We pull up at G's terraced house. It's identical to all the other buildings in the street except for the black iron bars over all the windows. Stepping inside it's hard not to notice that even some of the interior doors are similarly protected. "Burglars," he explains, while skinning up the first of several large-to-very-large-sized joints. "Every-one knows when I'm going away, so you can't be too careful."
But presumably you can afford to buy a house anywhere?
"Don't you know?" he says, a grin splitting his face. "All the good times happen in bad areas."
"We dIdn't know what
we were doing in America. I mean, we didn't even know we were supposed to be
doing Yo MTV Raps until the limo stops and this guy goes, In you go then."
The scene is the Sumo Wok restaurant on Bristol's well-heeled Park Street and
Mushroom is recalling their less than entirely successful US jaunt to promote
"The Funniest thing about doing MTV though, was when Dr Dre asked 3-D who his favourite rapper was and he said, as a joke, Vanilla Ice. It was like, Ooooh, British humour.. .cut."
In a band consisting almost entirely of back-room boys this soft-spoken character still manages to be a paragon of monosyllabic anonymity. But their misadventures in America really got under his skin. "The strangest one, though, was when we did a radio interview with this really powerful guy called Sonny Joe Bos.. .Bos.. .something. At the end of the interview he shook all our hands and said, You guys are going to go far. Then he phoned up the record company and told them to drop us!"
The waitress serves our food and he once again falls back into contemplative silence. Is there anything else you'd like to say?
"Yeah," says Mushroom, holding up a bowl of apparently uncooked meat for inspection. "What the fuck is this?"
"Ere, isn't that one of the Portishead crew?"
"There?, across the road. Isn't that Rich?"
"Yeah. Oy, Rich!"
"Fucker's blanking us."
"They were nothing before they met us. Now they won't even say hello. Ha, ha, ha."
Once 3-D and Daddy G arrive it doesn't take long to figure out why Mushroom isn't the most talkative person in the world. Archetypal motormouths, the pair couldn't be farther removed from their laidback, ultra-cool public personas.
"It's all true. We brought Portishead up from the gutter," continues 3-D as he too looks aghast at the bowl of raw food that's been placed in front of him. "No, we just introduced them to our old manager Cameron, and things evolved from there. Fair play to them. It's a good album."
The food problem is solved. Apparently we are supposed to select vegetables and sauces to go with our raw meat and then the meal gets cooked. It turns out the waitress is a big Massive fan although she doesn't recognise them. Don't they find it odd being anonymous despite having had such a successful record?
"Well 'Blue Lines' wasn't that successful was it?" retorts Daddy G. You must have made some money out of it. "We made it all and wasted it all," admits 3-D. "Basically, all the people who worked with us on 'Blue Lines' we kept on a retainer. We probably spent most of a hundred grand just paying people wages to hang around."
You mean people like Shara Nelson?
"Yeah, yeah," he sniggers. "Shara made a fortune out of us."
With the food suitably nuked, we try to piece together Massive's Lost Years. Obviously the American experience took up a chunk of time, as did other promotional trips to Jamaica and Europe. Then there were battles with their producers and their manager Cameron McVey. The band are reluctant to go into details but it's clear that they still strongly resent the waste of time and opportunities.
"There's just no point starting to name names," says 3-D. "Basically we had to start all over again. And it had taken us ten years to get to where we were in the first place. People might have had this image of us just sitting around, getting wrecked, but most of the time it was fucking hard work."
Before they could even think about starting work on the new album, they had to find new vocalists to replace the absent Miss Nelson. The experience, 3-D recalls, was not always a happy one.
"We even advertised in the music press. But no matter what you stipulate - even if you say you're looking for an Aretha Franklin/Tracey Chapman- style singer - you still get all these white guys with damn great quiffs writing in. I mean, what's that got to do with Aretha Franklin?"
As the months became years Massive began to wonder whether Album #2 would ever see the light of day. Especially when those rumours began to fly that Virgin had given them the boot.
"Everyone was saying that we'd been dropped," moans 3-D. "Then we got our Christmas hamper from Virgin so we knew it was alright. You see, people never tell you that you've been kicked out. They just stop sending you the hampers!"
Eventually the trio found the right people for the job. First, Nicolette from the Shut Up And Dance posse came on board. (3-D: "She fitted right in. We'd go out clubbing and by four in the morning she'd be dancing on the tables singing 'Summertime'. I'd just leave her to it.") Next veteran reggae star Horace Andy. who'd contributed to 'Blue Lines', was brought in to makeover his classic "Spying Glass' track while also contributing a bizarre version of The Doors' 'Light My Fire'. Even stranger, the band persuaded Everything But The Girl's Tracey Thorn to sing on a couple of songs.
"After 'Blue Lines' we felt that we'd exploited the soul root to its potential." 3-D says, waving his china mug around in a vain search for more ultra-potent saki. "We thought it would be more interesting to go with a different approach like we did with Tracey Thorn and Nicolette. It's different work around their voices. Traccy's quite intense and emotional, whereas Nicolette's more dreamy. It's not an album that takes you into the extremes of excitement. It keeps you on a moody vibe."
'Protection' doesn't feature the sort of ground-breaking originality that even now makes 'Blue Lines' sound five years ahead of the game. On the other hand, tracks like the Tracey Thorn showcase "Better Things' or the first single, 'Sly', should appeal to anyone who appreciated Massive's darker side. And with the Mad Professor dubbing up an alternative mix of the LP there's every chance of Massive reclaiming their position as the grooviest reggae-hip hop-dance collective in town.
Weren't they worried about meeting the standard set by their debut?
"What nobody knows is that a lot of 'Blue Lines' was recorded in what we called The Poo Room," says Mushroom. "One of the nappies that belonged to Tyson, Neneh Cherry's kid, got trapped in the air vent. Then they went away for the .summer and we were left to work with this terrible smell. So I guess you could say that we've got less of a romantic memory of that album than everyone else."
3-D insists that we relocate
"for a quick pint". If a jacuzzi is the last place that you'd expect
to find Massive then The Montpelier is one of the first. A dark, cavernous establishment,
the pub exudes the kind of elegantly-seedy vibe so powerfully evoked in Massive's
'Daydreaming' video. Including the barman, there are just six people in the
3-D: "I can't understand why it isn't more crowded. You'd think there'd be at least a few students."
Perhaps they're put off by the enormous rubber lobster that guards the bottle of Bells. Or the way people keep phoning for someone called 'Cecil'. In any case, The Montpelier is more suited to serious drinking than student hi-jinks. Certainly 3-D appears more than at home here. For if Daddy G's penchant for 'herbal' remedies is well known then his partner-in-rhyme's liking for the amber nectar, at least in these parts, borders on the legendary.
"Yeah, when Tricky was living with me we use to come here every night. 'Course in those day there was a table football machine."
The elusive rapper Tricky - one of several 'fourth' members of Massive Attack - has again come up with the goods on 'Protection' in the form of 'Karmacoma', a near-perfect combination of sinister rapping and distorted, other worldly samples. But as Tricky's own album is due out soon, it's doubtful whether he'll be at Massive's gigs in October. Not that 'gigs' is a description that carries much favour with 3-D... "We prefer the term 'installations' It's going to be a sound system again like in The Wild Bunch. I don't know whether Tricky is going to be 'installed or not, ha! ha! We don't like pressuring him into doing things."
Part of the live Massive experience will be an exhibition of 3-D's work as an artist. The Montpelier has a fair seletion of his early graffiti in the upstairs pool room - sprayed directly on to the wall the painting ranges from dark abstract figures to repeated, Warholesque images. But... "People keep drawing things on the paintings. Not very nice things," 3-D complains, a rare note of bitterness entering his voice"Plus, they were all done before I realised that was far more profitable to paint on canvas. I mean you can hardly cart away half of a pub wall.
"Well," he adds, sizing up the more than slight useful-looking geezer behind the bar. "You can't round here anyway..."
In true Massive Attack style
it takes half an hour for them to agree on where to be photographed because
there are certain areas of town where the individual band members refuse to
go. 3-D suggests we venture South, Mushroom refuses: "I've had scuffles
"What about taking them on City Road?" sugests Daddy G. "There shouldn't be too maby crackies around at the moment."
We end up at some wasteground just the other side of the M32 from St Paul's. This once smart part of the city has been left to rot, most of the buildings have been knocked down. Standing in splendid isolation, however, is one lone house surrounded by a pile of washing machines. According to Daddy the guy who lives there got so fed up with being broken into that one day he barricaded himself in.
While the trio pose in front of the machines, 3-D returns to the subject of the band's installations.
"People expect so much more out of a jam these days," he says, flashing uncharacteristically menacing expressions for the camera. "We can't just do it in a darkly-lit room with a candle in a comer on a car-load of Red Stripes. Nowadays you've got have bouncy castles, visuals, fairground rides and all the rest. You've got to have drug counselling in the comer, for fuck's sake."
"Well, we are going to have drug counsellors the comer," interjects Daddy G.
"Yeah," smirks 3-D, his face unable to hold t mean'n'moody pose for more than a few secon "But they'll be counselling us."
And all three of them collapse laughing. Having another good time. In another bad area.
story by Clark Collis
photos by Pat Pope