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Blagging and Boasting

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From Massive Attack (above) to Tricky, the Bristol sound has imported Bronx worship and transformed it into influential post-hip-hop hybrids

By Jeff Chang

ON FACING PAGES of Spraycan Art, Henry Chalfant and Bay Area native James Prigoff's 1987 book on the international graffiti underground, are pictures of two youthful British can controllers: Goldie and 3D. A decade later, both are dance-music superstars, leaders of the so-called "electronica" movement who have transformed Bronx worship into post-hip-hop hybrids. There's an air of inevitability to these photos, and in the brief accompanying text, 3D (Robert del Naja, who would go on to form Massive Attack) is already talking the talk.

"I think I've paid my dues," the teenage street artist tells the authors. "I think I've earned the right to make money." In his new "trip-hop" history, Straight Outa Bristol (Hodder & Stoughton), British journalist Phil Johnson terms del Naja's blowhardiness "blagging--getting resources by dint of subterfuge," an apparently endemic skill without which Bristol would never have arrived on the pop-music map.

Even American b-boys and b-girls have to respect the sleepy town's ability to turn the tables on the metropolitan types. Really, you can't knock their hustle. But it's also possible to contrast the young 3D's confidence with his world-wearied descriptions of Massive Attack's personal rivalries, tense recording sessions, management troubles and incessant group conflict.

"During [the recording of] Blue Lines, I thought I was going to have a heart attack," the aging lyricist/producer tells Johnson. "Every time we argue, it never gets resolved."

Out of break-beat ambition, racial segregation and tenuous miscegenation, the Bristol sound has become one of the most influential of the decade. Bristol is a port town, and Johnson's book makes much of the fact that the city played a key role in the slave trade--the horrible transatlantic triangle of goods for bodies.

In recent times, Bristolians like Tricky and Massive Attack have imported hip-hop and reggae culture. What they have sent back is a multilayered sound that embraces those musics' forms and techniques but reverses the emotional impact.

The Bristol sound internalizes rather than externalizes, encloses rather than discloses. At Bay Area shows by Portishead, another Bristol band, the well-heeled young couples dress in fine black leather and sway slowly, but rarely do they hold hands.

Tricky
Tricky of the Trade: On his new album, 'Angels With Dirty Faces,' Tricky traffics in musical ennui.

TRICKY TAKES such ennui to its logical extreme, making deliberately difficult albums. On Maxinquaye, he explored personal legacy and blood debts; Pre-Millennium Tension captured unease and disease. His newest, Angels With Dirty Faces (Island), examines debasement and degradation. In kindred spirit with the off-center post-punk of Bristol O.G. Mark Stewart (ex-leader of the Pop Group and Adrian Sherwood collaborator), the seemingly unfinished music parallels a jagged and anxious frame of mind.

Tracks like "You" appropriate indie hip-hop's loop-and-run methodology to suggest an existential dead end--a closed loop with no closure. Even Tricky's trademark jackhammer-guitar covers of hip-hop classics no longer feel like premillennium release as much as recapitulation.

As members of Massive Attack, Tricky and 3D pioneered a snarling, whispered rap style on their 1991 debut album, Blue Lines. They meant to deflate hip-hop's egocentrism in order to draw the focus back to the words. Since going solo, Tricky still raps--sort of--but little of his output has what an American head would recognize as flow.

In fact, Tricky seems downright contemptuous of reality-obsessed hip-hoppers on the song "Money Greedy" from Angels With Dirty Faces: "Brag then I boast/What do I got to boast about?/Ghetto traps trapped me, I got out."

And yet the chorus of critics calling for Tricky's allegedly inflated head swells. Perhaps his narcissism is a front; the cheeky kid has already built in his retort. As he chants with fellow icon PJ Harvey on "Broken Homes," "Those men will break your bones/don't know how to build stable homes."

Massive Attack's newest album, Mezzanine (Circa/Virgin), uses architecture as its central metaphor, but in some ways, that's just a neat little device to distract attention from the ongoing chaos in the center. Viewed up close, the black beetle on the album cover sports threatening jaws and impressive armor--he's really got great design. Still, your black Timberlands will crush him in a second.

Indeed Massive Attack is all about cover--creating a spectacle, disguising the weakness. The architectural metaphor has its strengths. As DJs in the Wild Bunch sound system (the seminal Bristol club crew that also launched Soul II Soul producer Nellee Hooper), 3D (del Naja), Daddy G (Grant Marshall) and Mushroom (Andrew Vowles) obsessed over blueprints, raw materials, foundations. They set out to collect, as they disclosed in the opening lines of Blue Lines, "midnight rockers, city slickers, gunmen."

They found legendary roots-reggae singer Horace Andy (thereby securing their street credibility) and a rotating circle of divas--Shara Nelson, Tracey Thorn, Nicolette, Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins and Sara Jay (solidifying their club credentials). As for gunmen, 3D and Tricky brought their own ruffneck ting. So, in spite of itself, their unstable core did not melt down. In fact, they created some of the most beautiful music of the '90s in "Safe From Harm," "Unfinished Sympathy" and "Protection."

Massive Attack's first two albums, Blues Lines and Protection (along with 1995's scintillating Mad Professor dub version, No Protection), have redefined dance-oriented pop. Not all of the group's output has aged well. The arrangements and samples have sometimes become overwrought or obvious, turning the tracks into episodes in search of climaxes.

Mezzanine, however, benefits from the assistance of producer Neil Davidge. Each track is allowed to unfold slowly, inhabit its own mood, build its own narrative. Mezzanine succeeds where Angels fears to tread. By meticulously attending to craft, Massive Attack may have painted its masterpiece.

As in del Naja's cover art and album graphics, the basic elements are given their own spotlight. The album carefully places each emotion, each crescendo and counterline meaningfully into a seamless arc that rises and falls with Andy's incantatory vocals.

As a result, Massive's moods don't seem as coerced as Tricky's. Andy's sunny cut "You Are My Angel" (1973) is transposed on the other side of midnight, and his captivating croon sets up a backdrop for Angelo Bruschini's angry guitars to uncover the jealousies and passions roaring beneath.

Where Tricky agitates, Massive Attack seduces. Vocalist Fraser's impenetrability makes the mysteries of "Teardrop" and "Black Milk" all the more inviting. As "[Exchange]" fades into the end-groove static, Andy's Rasta-esque aphorism "You see a man's face, you will never know his thoughts" lingers like the breeze through the door behind a lover taking early-morning leave.

Recent interviews suggest that Massive Attack may not return for another album; tension among the members is apparently finally exacting its toll. And in Straight Outa Bristol, Johnson even hints at some undisclosed darker side to the Tricky Kid: "It will be a surprise if he's still alive next year." But all this dire talk could simply be more "blagging"--after all, as Brits from Ian Curtis to Morrissey have found, personalized dystopia sells.

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From the June 18-24, 1998 issue of Metro.

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