Massive Attack


Let’s invent a group. Let’s invent the ideal group.
Imagine that The Clash had stayed around to be influenced by 3rd Bass, The Young Disciples and Marshall Jefferson.

Or Soul II Soul had been inspired as much by Public Image Limited’s ‘Metal Box’ as Public Enemy. Or by the soundtrack to ‘Taxi Driver’ as much as Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here.’

Imagine that De La Soul had been English punks, brought up on X-Ray Spex, The Specials, and Lee Perry.

What if there was a band at the centre of a triangle whose cornerstones were Issac Hayes, The Slits and Marley Marl ?

Result in all cases: Massive Attack.

It’s a good game and, what’s more, it works as well in practice as in principle.

Massive Attack’s debut LP, ‘Blue Lines’, is already a British cult classic and the outstanding track (released later this year) ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ is destined to go down as one of the great songs of the decade (no less).

With a booming dance beat, exquisite jazz-piano solo, and an extraordinary hot-soul vocal all wrapped up in sweeping 50-piece strings and a lavish Massive Attack production, ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ has rightly been hailed as the ‘When Man Loves A Woman’ of the 1990s.

“I know that I’ve been mad in love before/And how it could be with you/Will it hurt me, baby ?” sings Shara Nelson. “You’re the book that I have opened/And now I’ve got to know much more…”

To gorgeous waves of violins and razor-sharp snatches of scratching, the powerful climax somehow sounds completely contemporary and deeply romantic:
“Like a soul without a mind/In a body without a heart/I’m missing every part…”

The music, soul and sentiment are overwhelming in a way you just don’t get any more I tell them.
“Ten years later they’ll re-release it as a Levis’ ad. We’ll reform and make a million,” they laugh.

Massive Attack love music. When they talk about music, it’s rarely their music. When they talk about the influences that have affected their sound, their attitude, their style, they can’t do it without singing you their favourite bits of their favourite records, or taking you round to their house to play you them.

They play me The Juice Crew, Billy Cobham (‘Stratos’), Can, John Barry, Big Youth, George Clinton, Killing Joke, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Herbie Hancock, Omar, The Ruts, Talking Loud, Madhouse, Wire, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Dead Kennedys, The Theme From Rollerball, Madonna… And they’re just the ones I’ve heard of.

Eclectic ? Weird ? Meet the protagonists.
The three central characters of the loose (very loose) collective that is Massive Attack are: ‘3-D’ (Robert Del Naja – The Punk); ‘Daddy G’ (Grant Marshall – The DJ) and ‘Mushroom’ (Andrew Vowles – The Music Scientist). 3-D and Daddy G are brimming with motor mouth enthusiasm, eager energy. Mushroom (named after an arcade game – ‘You had to shoot the mushrooms to get to the centipede,’ he remembers with fondness) does not partake of drink or drugs but when they meet him, he acknowledges calmly, people generally might think he does do.

On this particular day, Mushroom comes across as a gentle genius, rather like Peter Sellers in ‘Being There’, making remarks worthy of Steven Wright.
‘I’m tired. I took someone out to the airport earlier and I think I’ve got jet-lag.’
The others laugh but watch over him.

Amongst Massive’s other collaborations we have soul singer Shara Nelson, Lovers Rock star Horace Andy, Jonny Dollar, Tricky Kid and Willee Wee.

We are in Bristol, at Mushroom’s house. There are bendy toys and an Action Man on the mantelpiece and on the turntable is Vince Guaraldi’s (brilliant) theme-music to the Snoopy cartoons. Perfect.

After playing me ‘The Great Pumpkin Waltz’, a Biz Markie 12’’, and mentioning ‘I’m still trying to work this one out’ (it’s Dark Side of the Moon’), Mushroom plays me ‘The Gold & The Ecstasy’ from Ennio Morricone’s ‘The Good, The Bad & The Ugly’ soundtrack.
‘I’ve got to play this every day,’ he stresses.
Mushroom is lost for words.
‘It’s like something else ‘Amazing,’ he keeps saying with gentle wonder, ‘Check out the brushes, what he does with ’em.’
I can’t even hear them.

He likens what Morricone does with tubular bells to Marley Marl’s bass sound on Biz Markie or Schooly D’s ‘DSK’ LP.
‘It’s like punk’ he explains, meaning the sound but also the attitude. ‘It’s like, let’s go mad. Take it to mental extremes… not compromise. ‘DSK’ was like a giant, weird step forward, away from everything else that was happening. Amazing.’

Massive Attack are in their own world, tucked away in their own scene in Bristol in the south-west corner of England, a peaceful, cosmopolitan cross of cultures and communities, where Daddy G is decaying at the only two clubs running at present.
‘London makes me angry just thinking about it,’ scowls Mushroom, ‘I don’t really like going there.’

Bristol bands like Rip, Rig & Panic, The Pop Group/Slits, Mark Stewart’s Mafia and Adrian Sherwood are all admired and have perhaps all contributed to Massive’s outlook; their attitude.
It’s as if Massive are putting some of punk’s values on to rap (Massive is firmly non-materialistic, non-sexist, free of dogma or posturing), and their sound is rough, flexible and individual in opposition to the probability that rap, like punk, is becoming commercialised, uniform, diluted.

Daddy-G: ‘When you’re young, you pretend you’re just part of one posse – you’re into punk or ska or funk rap, one music, one fashion. But in the end, you’re mature enough to just say ‘I like all this stuff’.’

He looks over at Mushroom, who is pointing out faces he can see in the wall, ‘Terminator’ faces. Mushroom’s watching ‘Thunderbirds’ intently. Suddenly, slowly, he asks the crowded room if ‘Thunderbirds’ is ‘a statement.’
We all think about this, wondering if, in fact, it is.
Then someone speaks. Mushroom’s mate.
‘Yeah,’ he says.

‘Blue Lines’ is a dream, a weird, trippy dream – a stylish, cinematic blend of rap, reggae and rough, cut-up punk and soundtrack samples, tinted with an atmosphere of sparse, sinuous, urban claustrophobia. Summertime blues. The music has such a variety of influences. It finally moulds a style of it’s own: Massive Attack style. ‘We like to have a bit of everything – keep things flexible, follow the vibe.’

In particular, Massive’s distinctively fluid rapping is actually written by (if not delivered) by 3-D, and sounds almost wilfully white, naïve and English – especially on the single ‘Daydreaming’, where in a lazy stream-of-conscience and nursery rhyme rap, he name-checks De Niro, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and The Beatles and describes ‘living in my headphones’.
‘We’ve had our phase of trying to sound American,’ jokes 3-D, mentioning no names. ‘We like laidback rapping, you know ?’

Mushroom, an advocate of 1984-style rap, leans over to make what is apparently a typical contribution.
‘Are there mountains in Italy, Jim ?’ he asks softly.
Around the table the others are adopting pitcher/catcher poses. Mushroom doesn’t get it.
‘Well you’ve thrown a real curve ball there, Mushroom, haven’t you ?’ laughs G.

Even before ‘Blue Lines’, Masssive’s history, as members of Bristol’s Wild Bunch, was the stuff of legend. Daddy G still talks about the gig in 1981 by Kurtis Blow and DJ Davy D that introduced him to rap. Together with Milo Johnson and Nellee Hooper, The Wild Bunch collective evolved one of the first British rapping sound systems – playing with The Fearless Four, and releasing the seminal 4th & Broadway singles (‘Tearing Down The Avenue’, ‘The Look of Love’) credited with having inspired soul II Soul’s sound.

After Hooper left to form Soul II Soul, in 1988 Massive Attack released ‘Any Love’, co-produced by dance-kings, Smith & Mighty. A sound system tour of Japan reinforced their alliance with Neneh Cherry’s posse – besides working with Mondino, manager Perry Haines and stylist Jamie Morgan, 3-D wrote the rap on ‘Manchild’.

As a result, modern-day Massive Attack is ‘almost not really a band at all,’ says G.
‘We don’t fit. We’re too mixed up to have a single ideology – none of us agree with each other anyway.’

What do you argue about most ?
‘Everything.’ he laughs.

America presents a dilemma for Massive Attack because although they’re happy ‘floating around underground’, they want recognition, but want it ‘without having to have a gimmick.’

As 3-D knows, ‘In England you can get away with more of a concept. We did ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ on TV with just Shara and violins. But when people see different characters in different magazines, all as Massive Attack, it’s confusing.’

Massive rate and respect De La Soul/Jungle Bros/Tribe Called Quest as ‘pioneers’, and share something of their ideals and flexibility but are probably too English, too punk, to actually feel a real affinity.
‘Without wishing to sound like we’re better than everybody else,’ smiles 3-D, ‘we are, haha.’

‘We don’t have a colourful focal point,’ points out G. ‘We saw how Soul II Soul burnt itself out, burnt itself up from the inside out. We are not a funky collective and we don’t have a good-looking lead-singer or a wacky leader.’

If it were up to them, their public image would be something like a touring sound system and the Pink Floyd of hip-hop in the studio.

So the probability of Shara who sings ‘Sympathy’, ‘Safe From Harm’, ‘Daydreaming’ the three British hits from ‘Blue Lines’ concentrating on a solo career doesn’t seem to concern them. Neither does MTV’s lack of enthusiasm for the ‘Sympathy’ video. An audacious one-shot tribute to Orson Welles’ ‘Touch of Evil’ with Shara strolling down Pico, past a Hispanic LA gang and a Viet vet who gets around by skateboard, the video is perhaps considered too experimental, too arty. The promos for ‘Daydreaming’ and ‘Safe From Harm’ bare the same stamp.

Having refused an offer to produce Naomi Campbell they have been doing a U2 track and a new version of ‘Games Without Frontiers’ with Peter Gabriel. The next LP, to be completed in the same tiny Bristol studio where they made ‘Blue Lines’, will be ‘completely different,’ says 3-D. ‘Like the difference between ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’ and ‘London Calling’.

Jim Wobble, bassist on ‘Metal Box’, is on their collaborators’ hit list and, if Mushroom’s miming of ‘The Theme if Linus & Lucy’ is anything to by, so is Vince Guaraldi.

‘Last week, in the bath I recorded my heartbeat,’ he says. ‘Wrapped the mic in cling film. I could hear my values opening and closing on my monitoring headphones.’

Massive Attack have only just started. They will get weirder yet. They are here to stay.