Massive Attack: Popular Modernism in 90s Trip-Hop

I have to admit that I have never been much of a fan of hip-hop. This does of course not mean that I do not recognize the inventiveness of the greatest hip-hop artists, but there is something with the hip-hop aesthetic that just does not speak to me. I think it mainly has to do with the focus on the vocals and lyrics, which is not my cup of tea. I am more interested in mood and atmosphere, which probably is the reason for why I am much more attracted by so-called ´trip-hop´ – an originally mostly UK-based sub-genre of the rave and club-scene that took the influence of black music in the UK in a very different direction than jungle (the other branch of rave rooted in similar sonic material). Of the three major UK-based trip-hop acts (i.e. Massive Attack, Portishead, and Tricky) it is Massive Attack that attracts me the most. This is a bit indicative of my sentiments towards trip-hop’s sometimes complicated relationship to its black roots, since it is reflected in the band’s trajectory and their shift in sound during the late 90s.

Like Portishead and Tricky, Massive Attack have their roots in the by now famous Bristol underground-scene of the 90s – which in many ways is the spiritual home of trip-hop. Of course, trip-hop artists emerged from other cities as well – Björk from Reykjavik, DJ Shadow from California, and Kruder and Dorfmeister from Vienna, to name just a few examples – but given the initial importance of the Bristol-artists in popularizing the genre (although they did not conceive of it like that, needless to say), it is not surprising that the city has become heavily associated with it. The then three members of Massive Attack – Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja, Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall, and Andrew ‘Mushroom’ Vowles – were all part of the sound system Wild Bunch before forming Massive Attack in 1988 and releasing their first two albums Blue Lines and Protection to much critical acclaim in 1991 and 1994 respectively. Whereas jungle had taken the hip-hop breakbeat and sped it up frenetically, Massive Attack – like other trip-hop artists – went in the opposite direction and slowed it down in the form of a dreamy, post-club sound that also is influenced by genres such as jazz, reggae, dub, and soul. This is not Ecstasy-music to go crazy to on the dancefloor, but Ganja-music to listen to at the end of the clubbing-experience – back home after a night of intense raving.

It is also music that fits me perfectly, since it puts less emphasis on the rap (whenever there is some) by positioning it further back in the mix and giving the often relatively ambient soundscapes much more room compared to in hip-hop. But of course, trip-hop does not necessarily feature any rap at all, which is something that always intrigued me with Massive Attack in that many of their songs utilize female singing rather than male rapping. It may not seem unusual today, but at the time when I first heard them it was – along with the emphasis on atmosphere – one of the main attractions for me. Listening to them at the time, it was as if they had taken elements of hip-hop that I appreciated – although never fully committed to in their current form – and repositioned them in the sonic context that I had been searching for in hip-hop. The resulting atmospheric, downtempo psychedelia is what I mainly associate their first two records with.

Because of my interest in mood and atmosphere, I did not mind the noticeable shift in sound between Protection and the follow-up Mezzanine (1998). Although I can understand why many people – particularly in the UK, who had followed the group since they first emerged – did have problems with it. Mainly because the band was positioned alongside an underground post-rave (although not just post clubbing experience, but the entire rave-phenomenon as such) trajectory, which became very prevalent at the turn of the century through labels such as Hyperdub and artists such as Burial (in particular) – whose music really articulates the UK post-rave affectivity that Massive Attack initially seemed to be moving towards, but abandoned following their second album. But someone like myself – who had no knowledge of this lineage when I first heard the band – obviously was not bothered by it, but instead was quite intrigued by the integration of elements from alt-rock and a more explicit exploration of the darker undercurrents that had coloured the band’s sonic palette from the start. Indeed, it is telling that the alt-rock icon Liz Fraser (of the Cocteau Twins) makes three appearances on the album – including on the hit-single ‘Teardrop’, which later appeared as the intro-music to the popular TV-show House – whereas Tricky (who made guest appearances on both Blue Lines and Protection) notably is absent. Tricky’s non-presence is of course a bit of a loss, yet all in all Mezzanine is still my favourite album by Massive Attack insofar as the fusion between elements of their black roots and a mostly downtempo rock-sound in the form of a darker sonic palette fits my aesthetic sensibilities perfectly. To me, it is the best trip-hop album ever, and one of the best albums of the 90s (just above Blue Lines and Protection).

Yet the shift in sound away from their black roots also created tensions in the band. Vowles in particular was very unpleased, and although he did participate in the writing and recording of Mezzanine, he did not like the turn they had taken with it and subsequently left the group. Afterwards, the remaining duo became – correctly or not – somewhat (in)famous for not getting along and spending much time apart. And these rumours were not muted by the release of their fourth LP, 100th Window, in 2003. Not only is it the first Massive Attack-album that contains no samples at all, but it also moves even further away from the black elements of their sound – in favour of what essentially is a mixture of alt-rock and electronica – and it is also a solo-record by Del Naja, since Marshall did not participate in the creation of it. And needless to say, lots of people criticized the band for having moved too far away from the sound that they initially invented – but I personally like the record. It may not have as many immediate standout-tunes as its predecessors, but one of its major strengths as I see it is that it works very well as a full album (i.e. to listen through in one sitting), whose hazy soundscapes blending rock and electronica are wonderfully immersive (e.g. on tracks like ‘Everywhen’, ‘Small Time Shot Away’, and ‘Antistar’). Yet the shift in aesthetic for 100th Window nevertheless somewhat fed into one of the major criticisms of trip-hop as a genre: That it is merely a ‘white-boy’ version of hip-hop, which effectively mutes its blackness (or only selectively appropriates it).

But regardless of one’s sentiments towards the black elements in the group’s music, the events surrounding the releases of the third and fourth albums made their status somewhat unclear. Was Massive Attack over? Or would Del Naja remain the sole permanent member? Following the release of 100th Window, Grant and Del Naja continued to work separately – with Grant releasing an album in the DJ Kicks-series and Del Naja scoring the film Danny the Dog (2005) with co-producer Neil Davidge, and making guest appearances on albums by the trip-hop group UNKLE. Massive Attack also took part in Mike Patton’s Peeping Tom-project, which came out in 2006. Yet in 2009, the group (including Marshall) resurfaced with the EP Splitting the Atom, which was followed by their fifth full-length, Heligoland, the following year. It was certainly nice to have them working as a duo again – and also to have Martina Topley-Bird (Tricky’s ex-girlfriend and main vocalist on his early albums) finally collaborating with the group – and the album itself is solid, with some great tracks (in particular ‘Pray for Rain’, ‘Girl I Love You’, ‘Splitting the Atom’, and ‘Babel’), but also with a few that lack some punch. And the collaboration with Damon Albarn (of Blur and lately Gorillaz) on the album also saw the 90s pioneers of the UK black underground team up with one of the key figures of 90s Britpop – its lacklustre (white) mainstream counterpart that artists such as Massive Attack once were pitted against – which, needless to say, did not lower the critical voices against the lack of black elements in their more recent music (although here it is worth remembering that Albarn himself has incorporated hip-hop and electronica in his work with Gorillaz – as well as guest vocals from rappers such as Roots Manuva and MF Doom – but the key question is whether the black underground’s encounter with the white mainstream has ended up defanging it or not).

Another problem with Heligoland, I think, is that it is the Massive Attack-record that is least coherent as a whole, since several great songs written around this time did not actually end up on the album – such as ‘Invade Me’, ‘Hartcliffe Star’, ‘Red Light’, and ‘United Snakes’ (and also the remix of ‘Psyche’, which appears on the preceding EP and I think is superior to the album-version) – and have consequently been performed live only. Needless to say, these things are somewhat subjective, but I always thought that they had material for an even better record than what they eventually ended up producing. However, the recording-sessions preceding the album were far from straightforward, and multiple potential collaborators – from Mike Patton and Tom Waits to Tricky and Liz Fraser – were rumoured to be making appearances, although none of that came to fruition. In fact, the band came so far as to actually having finished an entire LP – allegedly entitled Weather Underground – and even sent it to their record-label before deciding to thrash it and starting from scratch again. This is perhaps part of the reason for the somewhat lack of coherence on Heligoland.

What certainly did not lack coherence, however, were the visual elements of the live-shows at the time (and earlier as well, as far as I know, but this tour was the first time I saw them perform live), which were created by UVA (United Visual Artists – a digital arts- and design-group that initially was formed specifically for creating the live show-visuals for Massive Attack, but now also has branched off to other forms of art-shows and installations) in collaboration with Del Naja (who has a background as a graffiti-artist and has been involved with the group’s visual side – including album-covers and some music videos – from the start). The visuals not only incorporated impressive LED- and image-sequences, but also relied heavily on various forms of text – such as political quotations from philosophers and political icons – which even appeared in different languages (rather than in the default English) depending on which city the group performed in at the time.

Following the release of and tour for Heligoland, Massive Attack yet again went mostly silent and have not in fact released another album to date. But in 2016, they put out two new smaller releases: The EP Ritual Spirit (featuring Roots Manuva, Azekel, Young Fathers, and – once again – Tricky) and the single ‘The Spoils’ (featuring Hope Sandoval and Ghostpoet on a second track). Interestingly, for these two releases Marshall and Del Naja chose to produce each one separately – with Del Naja being responsible for the EP and Marshall for the single – rather than together like on their earlier records (another sign of a schism?). But regardless, many of these new tracks seem to indicate a possible return to some of their black roots – with several hip-hop artists appearing on them, and Tricky as well of course – although this is something that only the future will tell.

However, when listening through these new releases, there are two other things that stand out for me. The first one is the group’s by now well-known preference for inviting other artists as guest-vocalists on their albums. Maybe this is something they take from their earlier incarnation as parts of a sound system, or maybe it is a trip-hop thing (their fellow travellers Tricky, UNKLE, and Björk are known for doing the same thing), but their ability to invite both well-known and emerging vocalists for almost consistently great results is something that always has intrigued me. It was for instance on Massive Attack-albums where I first heard artists such a Tricky, Liz Fraser, Sinead O’Connor, Horace Andy (their most long-time collaborator), and several of the names on the new EP and single. To paraphrase one writer: One thing that is particularly interesting with Massive Attack is that they are equally good as curators as they are producers, which they keep confirming on every new release.

The second thing is the music videos that accompany most of the songs (in fact, five out of the six tracks on the EP and single have also been released as music videos), which is another aspect of the group’s visual side that always has stood out. Indeed, Massive Attack had their popular breakthrough at around the same time as the 90s ‘golden age’ of music videos, and made the best of it by collaborating with a number of the top names at the time – including Stéphane Sednaoui (‘Sly’), Michel Gondry (‘Protection’), and Jonathan Glazer (‘Karmacoma’ and ‘Live with Me’). Not only did this allow them to expand on their sound with visuals, but music videos were also an important way of reaching people who had not necessarily heard the albums via channels such as MTV (today it is of course Youtube which is the main vehicle for that). The three videos that stand out the most for me on the EP and single are all highly ambitious and almost feel like short-films, because they are all very cinematic and each feature a distinguished film-actress. ‘The Spoils’ (directed by John Hillcoat, famous for his collaborations with Nick Cave and the film The Road  from 2009) consists of an eerie digital deconstruction of Cate Blanchett’s face to vocals by Hope Sandoval, whereas ‘Come Near Me’ (directed by Ed Morris) stars Arta Dobroshi in a creeping, sinister scenario that works brilliantly with Ghostpoet’s lyrics. And in the video to ‘Voodoo in My Blood’ (directed by Ringan Ledwidge), Rosamund Pike plays a woman whose body is overtaken by a levitating metal-orb that scans her eyes and then submits her to a series of disturbing, convulsive movements.

These three videos are all quite astonishing. Not just because of the additional complexity that they provide to the music, but also because it is intriguing today – when films seem to look more and more like TV-shows – to encounter highly ambitious and cinematic music videos such as these. In fact, it was mainly watching them that prompted me to write this piece, because they reminded me of the thrill not just of 90s popular modernist music, but also of the entire network around it – films, music videos, and so on – which Massive Attack was part of. Like their best contemporaries (Tricky, Björk, etc.), it was precisely the circuit between their underground roots and their later success in the mainstream that constituted the fabric of this network – and which videos such as these continue to remind us of.

To access the Massive Attack & Tricky-playlist in the video archive, click here.

Image Copyright Notice: Alejandro Jofré