Emerging from the Bristol Party scene of the late 1980s, Massive Attack have been hailed as one of the most original and influential groups the UK has produced.
Now a new book seeks to lift the lid on the band, their home city and the network of artists and collaborators that broke through alongside them.
Massive Attack Out of the Comfort Zone is the product of three years’ work by French journalist Melissa Chemam.
Her book is drawn from a long series of interviews with Massive mainman Robert “3D” Del Naja and other key figures including Tricky, producer Neil Davidge, bassist Sean Cook, and members of the bands Portishead and Alpha.
Overtly political and fiercely uncompromising, Massive Attack is as much a multimedia arts collective as a conventional band.
Fearless in their support of causes like the plight of Palestinian refugees, inter-band rivalries mean members have often fought their biggest battles with each other.
Tricky left early to forge a solo career, while Andy “Mushroom” Vowles rancorously quit in 1999 after growing disenchanted with the dark direction in which Del Naja was taking the group.
Here Chemam tells Matt Catchpole how she went about generating the band’s mystqiue and why she feels Bristol’s history as a slave port is so important to shaping its music.
Bristol became a leading port in the slave trade in the 18th century, with thousands of Africans forced to make the difficult and dangerous journey to the Caribbean to face a life of servitude on plantations.
Due to overcrowding and appalling conditions on board the ships, it’s thought that half of those trafficked failed to survive the voyage.
It’s this grim history that forms the backdrop to Chemam’s book and she argues it’s been central to shaping the culture of the city, along with the more recent arrival of the “Windrush” generation of immigrants in the 1950s.
“Bristol’s past, its link with the Americas, the slave trade and the influx of newcomers from the Caribbean, Italy, Ireland and beyond, in the 1950s, was defining,” Chemam asserts.
“We could say artists are connected to their birthplace and origins in many cases, it’s true for The Beatles, as well as Nirvana, or Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“But in the case of Massive Attack, they put Bristol on the cultural map in a way few had done before then. The very dynamic reggae and punk scenes of the 1970s obviously helped them in becoming so unique. And the birth of their first album, Blue Lines, was very much nourished by a dynamic intended to bring these influences into their very new and British hip-hop style.”
What makes Massive Attack so special, Chemam argues, is that they’re able to assimilate diverse influences and combine them to create something entirely fresh and original.
“Not every Bristolian of the 1980s became Massive Attack! It is about finding alchemy between different elements, talent, a self-taught ethos, a vision and a good instinct,” she explains.
Massive Attack’s principal trio, Del Naja, Vowles and Grant “Daddy G” Marshall met and gained notoriety in the mid to late ’80s through the Bristol partying collective and sound system The Wild Bunch.
Tricky was also a member along with Nellee Hooper, who would go on to be a celebrated producer and re-mixer of artists, such as Madonna, Garbage and Bjork.
The success of Blue Lines was like a statement of intent, a clarion call, focussing attention on the burgeoning music and arts scene in the city.
Suddenly a whole wave of musicians from the area were garnering national attention – many with close links to Massive Attack.
Portishead, Tricky, Martina Topley-Bird and Goldfrapp – to name but a few – all came through at about the same time, garnering considerable critical acclaim.
Much of the music was an entrancing, eerie, hypnotic blend of punk, reggae and hip hop and a new phrase was coined, with the city rapidly becoming known as the capital of ‘trip hop’.
“Bristol was big enough to attract great collaborators, producers and vocalists, but also small enough to allow encounters and good opportunities.It was far enough from and close enough to London, connected enough to New York City.” Chemam explains
“Hip-hop and street art all emerged together in a melting-pot in the early 1980s, and were taken to a new level by The Wild Bunch. From there, a dynamic was on the way.”
Following the departure of Vowles, and with Marshall taking a temporary break from studio work during the making of 100th Window, Del Naja became Massive Attack’s de facto leader.
It was pivotal to the success of Chemam’s book that he agreed to cooperate.
“Of course, to me, this project was only worth writing if Robert Del Naja was willing to participate. He’s the heart of the story, both an artist and visionary musician,” Chemam says.
“It was difficult to reach out to him but once he received my message, he said yes right away.”
With Del Naja on board, doors opened and many other key figures in the band’s inner circle began to emerge from the shadows.
“Most of the 30 artists and musicians I interviewed were a bit difficult to reach, but once I did, they were all very cooperative and helpful. Especially Mark Stewart of The Pop Group, Neil Davidge and [street artist] Inkie.”
A former BBC journalist, Chemam says it was Del Naja’s political activism that first made her want to tell the band’s story.
“I have always loved their music of course but what sparked the book project for me was their show in Lebanon in August 2014.
“They highlighted the situation of Palestinian refugees in the country in a very striking manner, going themselves to visit refugee camps with a charity they have been helping for years.
“As a reporter on culture but mainly international news, I was very moved by the authenticity of their involvement. I looked back at their history and realised how deeply relevant they had been in defining the past three decades, culturally.”
Chemam argues that Del Naja’s activism bleeds into the band’s music in both explicit and more ambiguous ways.
Songs like Eurochild, Future Proof, False Flags and Splitting The Atom are direct in their message, while others look at the challenges we face in the current geo-political landscape.
Hymn of The Big Wheel on Blue Lines is about looking at the world and wishing for change,” Chemam explains. “While the collaboration with James Massiah, for the EP Dear Friend, is about our post-colonial world and the tensions we’ll have to overcome whether we want to face them or not.”
Having now released five albums, along with numerous EPs, film scores and other collaborations, and with Marshall firmly back on board, Massive Attack remain as inventive and influential as ever.
Never far from controversy they remain a source of fascination for both music and mainstream media.
A former graffiti stencil artist, Del Naja, has often found himself compared with another of Bristol’s famous sons, the mercurial Banksy.
Banksy has admitted his early work was inspired by Del Naja, but some have speculated that the relationship is actually much closer.
In a 2016 post, blogger Craig Williams suggested that the anonymous Banksy, may not have been a single individual, but a network of artists including Del Naja.
To support his theory, Williams matched the appearance of several Banksy works to Massive Attack live dates.
A year later, drum and bass artist Goldie, appeared to add further fuel to the fire, when he referred to Banksy as “Robert” in an interview with Scroobius Pip’s Distraction Pieces podcast.
Chemam, however, is roundly dismissive of these stories.
“These are old rumours, recently exhumed by people who hardly know Bristol,” she says. “British tabloids, The Daily Mail, The Sun, regularly use them to bring traffic to their websites. Banksy’s anonymity sells and Massive Attack won’t give these media any interviews.”
For the real connections between the band members and Bristol’s street art scene,” Chemam says you have to “dig into the story”.
Where better to start than with Out of the Comfort Zone?
- Massive Attack Out of the Comfort Zone by Melissa Chemam is out this Autumn through Tangent Books