Massive Attack (Contemporary Musicians)
Contemporary dance group
The trio known as Massive Attack emerged out of a mid-1980s dance-music scene that ripped through their western England hometown of Bristol. The group's sound is a blend of hip-hop and jazz fused with other elements borrowed from reggae and rap. "Massive Attack's music is raw, elegant and instantly identifiable," wrote Ernest Hardy in the Los Angeles Times. "It's one of the few modern pop groups whose sound might be termed true soul music. They bypass the histrionic vocals and formulaic lyrics that dominate contemporary R&B for cathartic, heartfelt life observations that resonate with the listener."
Less an act than a group of three musicians-DJs-songwriters, Massive Attack is noted for their changing cast of characters melting pot that helps give them a distinctive yet always-surprise-laden sound. Such an array of sound and talent seems to make it difficult for them to put together a cohesive album; fans waited four years between the group's acclaimed 1991 release, Blue Lines, and the equally lauded Protection.
The creative core of Massive Attack formed in Bristol, England, in the early 1980s as the Wild Bunch. DJs and musicians Robert Del Naja (known as 3-D), Andrew Vowles (Mushroom), and Grant Marshall (Daddy G) originally formed what is known as a sound system, a conglomeration of DJs and rappers who sample the work of others and remix it into dance music using drum machines, samplers, and electronic keyboards. One integral member of their sound system was Nellee Hooper, a musician who later went on to fame as the nucleus of Soul II Soul and as a producer of both Madonna's and Massive Attack's mid-'90s albums. Of the other three, their heritage is emblematic of the international sound of their music: 3-D's father was an Italian living in England; Mushroom's father hailed from the Dominican Republic but later immigrated to New York City; and Daddy G was the progeny of two immigrants from Barbados.
The Wild Bunch
The music of the Wild Bunch was influenced by Jamaican-style reggae paired with a traditional hip-hop sound. The group played large clubs and even larger parties that drew a mix of people looking to dance. "We started doing parties in 1983.... In those days, the dance thing was relatively new," 3-D told Dominic Pride in Billboard. "People were into soul, others were into reggae. The hip-hop thing was only just beginning to happen, and not much was coming over here. The Wild Bunch tried to play as much different stuff as possible. " They played to packed dance clubs and semipublic parties in Bristol, and the style of music they helped develop was eventually tagged the "Bristol Sound."
Using electronic keyboards, sequencers, and a sampler, the ensemble began experimenting with a slower beat and more unusual instrumentation. Their first single release, a 1986 cover of a Burt Bacharach composition called "The Look of Love," became a hit on dance charts across Europe. A vocalist named Shara Nelson sang on what Details writer William Shaw described as "a blissed-out rap delivered over a lazy beat." Yet, soon after its debut, crackdowns by Bristol authorities put a damper on the large-scale party scene. The Wild Bunch was becoming obsolete; Nellee Hooper left the group and went on to work with Soul II Soul.
Over the next few years, 3-D, Daddy G, and Mushroom continued to experiment with their sound. They did freelance party promotions but failed to make a financial success of their enterprise. In the late 1980s, they met Cameron McVey, the British manager of Neneh Cherry. The remaining Wild Bunch members contributed to Cherry's wildly successful 1990 release Raw Like Sushi, and for the favor McVey agreed to produce a full-length LP for the trio. That LP was 1991's Blue Lines. By this time the three had signed with Circa and renamed themselves Massive Attack. Their debut was met with critical acclaim and commercial success.
Return of the Concept Album?
Blue Lines features the contributions of a host of other musicians and unusual musical instruments such as the didgeridoo (a wooden trumpet of Australian origin). Unlike other dance records, the sounds emanating from Blue Lines come at a less frantic beatnywhere from 67 to 90 beats per minute, a far slow-down from the usual dance syncopation of 120 per minute. Massive Attack bandmembers admit to being influenced by earlier pioneers in rhythm and blues, jazz, and soul, including Isaac Hayes and Herbie Hancock. "We just write as we think," 3-D told Ben Thompson in the Independent, "which is with fragments of ideas and the idea they conjure up. You end up with raps that are almost streams of consciousness, cut up and put back together like something in William Burroughs. It doesn't have to have a point, so long as there's information in there which people can retrieve if they want to."
The work also features a host of other musicians besides 3-D, Mushroom, and G. 3-D laid down some of the vocals himself, with Shara Nelson performing much of the rest. Jamaican-born reggae star Horace Andy also contributed, as did a British rapper named Adrian Thaws. Thaws, professionally known as Tricky, left the group two years later to pursue a solo career and was lauded for his 1995 release Maxinquaye.
Simon Reynolds, reviewing Blue Lines for the New York Times, declared that Massive Attack's sound "may even herald the return of the concept album, not seen in disco since the days of Earth, Wind and Fire." Commending the slowed-down beat, Reynolds noted that "Massive Attack's vibe is meditational rather than gregarious" and observed the title track "combines purring keyboards, a sleepwalking beat and a soft-spoken rap soliloquy that's far from the self-assertive bluster associated with hip-hop." One of the album's biggest hits was "Unfinished Symphony," but the New York Times writer suggested that the group's "real originality lies in more tranquil tracks like 'One Love,' with its mesmerizing clockwork rhythm and jazzy, electric-piano pulsations."
Massive Attack followed up Blue Lines with tour dates and television appearances, but thinking of themselves as a normal musical ensemble proved problematic. Instead, they preferred to consider themselves a collective of musicians and vocalists under the aegis of 3-D, Daddy G, and Mushroom. On one British television appearance, the trio only pretended to hammer the keyboards as Nelson sang and hired musicians played. On their North American tour dates, they let the performers of the songs take center stage while they busied themselves with the turntables and electronic gadgetry. As Shaw put it in Details, "Massive Attack were used to DJing at parties, not putting on a show. The posse hung around onstage, drinking beer, sheepishly waiting for their turn on the turntables." At one show in a Minneapolis club owned by the artist formerly known as Prince, the curtain was brought down on them.
Four Years between Albums
The success of Blue Lines was followed by the slow process of recording a second album. For this they reenlisted Hooper as a producer. (She had gone on to behind-the-boards fame with Madonna's Bedtime Stories and Bjork's debut.) Massive Attack auditioned vocalists with little success, looking for a replacement for Nelson, who had gone on to pursue a solo career.
To their surprise, the band managed to lure former Everything But the Girl vocalist Tracey Thorn to appear on 1995's Protection. Her distinctive, jazzy croon propelled Everything to major success in Europe during the mid-1980s. For the title track (as well as the cut "Better Things"), the trio allowed Thorn to pen the lyrics herself. Musician reviewer Jon Young called her contribution "a happy surprise: Tracey Thorn's self-conscious brooding, potentially the stuff of overkill, dovetails beautifully with Massive's subdued vibe."
For Protection, Mushroom wrote much of instrumentation, but Daddy G and 3-D contributed to the overall songwriting efforts. Much of the album was produced with the most advanced electronic musical equipment available. Taking bits and pieces of other songs, the trio set them onto floppy disk, then inserted the disk into the drive of a sequencer to further expand on the beat. Mushroom explained the general songwriting process to Phil Johnson in the Independent. On "Protection," he started "with a drum track and a sample of a James Brown lick on an 808 bass drum. Then there was this Fender Rhodes riff I'd had lying around for ages that I got out of the old-riff catalogue. It was all a bit raggedy so I put some strings on to smooth the whole thing out and added a spacy 303 bass-line, which is one of those old acid bass-lines they use in house records. I then though it would need to build towards the end so I wrote a piano pattern to sort of go against everything else."
Other contributors to Protection included Andy, who had done work on Massive Attack's debut album, along with a singer from Nigeria known as Nicolette. Called a "coquettish soulstress" by Pulse! writer Susan Masters, Nicolette is like a contemporary reincarnation of legendary American blues singer Billie Holiday, according to 3-D. Vibe writer Selwyn Seyfu Hinds deemed Master Attack's 1995 release "a surreal forging of dub, hip hop, soul, and random bugged-out elements," adding, it "alternately woos with lush, sultry textures (à la Nicolette on Three') and drills grills with the subtlety of a Tec to the neck."
During their tour for Protection, the group performed with neither Thorn nor Nicolette. Deborah Millar, a fill-in vocalist, joined them instead. In addition, they brought along neither a drummer nor a drum machine. The percussion tracks from the album were re-recorded onto the vinyl format, which Mushroom plays on turntables onstage for a backbeat. "It's quite a novel way of doing it," 3-D told Toronto Star reporter Peter Howell. "If the record jumps, you're screwed, because all the other instruments are playing along. If the drums go out, then you can't recover ithe drum beats catch behind themselves."
Hooking up again with Nellee Hooper also proved fruitful in securing the band collaborative work with Madonna. Hooper made unsuccessful attempts to introduce the two actsassive Attack was working at a California studio at the same time as Madonna but could not wake up early enough to meet her. However, the trio was enlisted to record a track with her called "I Want You,"for the album, Inner City Blues: A Tribute to Marvin Gaye.
When Protection was released, 3-D discussed the difficulty Massive Attack has had fitting into a ready niche for the marketing personnel in the music industry. He spoke in the Los Angeles Times interview with Hardy of "all these meetings ... about whether we should be aimed at the R&B market, or the alternative market, or the dance market.... Well, we want to be sent to all of them. I think we have a record that truthfully slides into all those slots. That's the great benefit of not really fitting in."
(As the Wild Bunch; with Shara Nelson) "The Look of Love," 1986.
"Daydreaming," Circa, 1990.
Blue Lines, Circa/Virgin, 1991.
Protection, Virgin, 1995.
(Contributor with Madonna) Inner City Blues: A Tribute to Marvin Gaye, Motown, 1995.
Billboard, February 15, 1992, p. B12; December 17, 1994, p. 11; April 15, 1995.
Details, February 1995.
Independent, May 26, 1991, p. 18; September 8, 1994, p. 31.
Los Angeles Times, March 5, 1995, p. 56; June 10, 1995, p. F1.
Musician, April 1995, p. 72.
New York Times, August 18, 1991, sec. 2, p. 23.
People, January 30, 1995, p. 20.
Pulse, April 1995.
Toronto Star, July 12, 1995, p. D1.
Vibe, February 1995.
Further information for this profile was obtained from promotional material provided by Virgin Records.