In 1998, when I was a writer for Vibe magazine (which was the leading black culture journal), I went to London to interview the trip-hop kings Massive Attack. They were preparing to release their third album, the beautifully complex and brooding Mezzanine. Although they collaborated with other singers and musicians, the core Massive trio consisted of Grant “Daddy G” Marshall, Andy “Mushroom” Vowles, and Robert “3D” Del Naja. Del Naja penned most of the Dadaistic lyrics on Mezzanine and thought of its title.
As a pop journalist, I had already covered their contemporaries Portishead and Tricky, so of course I felt it was my duty and destiny to fly to London to cover Mezannine. I had to beg the cornball editor in chief to send me, and in the end, the story was never published. But I never forgot the experience of sitting with Massive, trying to refrain from being too much of a fanboy. The year before, when I’d visited Paris, I’d taken Blue Lines along to serve as my soundtrack of the city. Me and my beautiful homegirl Wendy Washington rode out to the Palace of Versailles as Massive’s remake of the soul classic “Be Thankful for What You Got” blared from the speakers.
“Mezzanine is that place in between, when you’re not sure if it’s yesterday or today,” Del Naja told me at Olympic Studios in London. “That little space where it’s quite scary and erotic.” Also known as an excellent graffitist and painter (inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat) and rumored to be the mysterious street artist Banksy (a claim he denied), Del Naja had seemingly become the leader of the group. He was its resident auteur, and his Francis Bacon view of the world was visible in the band’s videos, album designs, and stage lighting.
The band first came together in their hometown of Bristol. Though Del Naja was shorter than the lanky Daddy G or the equally tall Mushroom, who were both somewhat reserved, his presence towered over the group, and it caused an earthquake break between the brotherhood. “When we got together to record, we realized the amount of creative friction between us,” Mushroom would confess later. “In fact, we wound up recording in separate studios.” The producer Neil Davidge later described the process as “messy,” but from that angst, tension, and messiness, Massive Attack delivered a masterpiece.
Mezzanine, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary on April 20, was a departure from the gritty electronica of Massive Attack’s first two projects, Blue Lines and Protection. It incorporates more rock elements, including a newly hired band with the guitarist Angelo Bruschini, formerly of the New Wave band the Numbers, leading the charge and change. Mezzanine is an album best listened to loud, preferably on earphones, to properly hear the layers of weirdness and rhythms, a soulful sound collage that was miles away from the “Parklifes” and “Champagne Supernovas” of their Brit-pop contemporaries Blur and Oasis.
“In the beginning, the sampler was our main musical instrument,” Daddy G said in his slight West Indian accent. “When we first formed Massive Attack, basically we were DJs who went into the studio with our favorite records and created tracks. At the time, we tried to rip off the entire style of American hip-hop performers, but we realized, as artists, it’s important to be yourself. We realized it made no sense for us to talk about the South Bronx. Slowly but surely, we had to reclaim our identities as Brit artists who wanted to do something different with our music.”
Massive Attack unintentionally kicked off a new British Invasion in the nineties that was as powerful as the Beatles in the sixties, Led Zeppelin in the seventies, or Duran Duran in the eighties. Beginning with their sophisticated debut, Blue Lines, which featured the vocalist Shara Nelson on the masterful “Unfinished Sympathy” and “Safe from Harm,” there was something special about their blunted cinematic (Martin Scorsese was another hero) sound that had a paranoid artfulness. For me, having long grown bored with the stunted growth of many American rap artists during that era of “jiggy” materialism and thug tales of nineties rap, their slowed-down music (tape loops, samples, and beats) created an often dreamy, sometimes nightmarish sound that was fresh and futuristic. The author Will Self called it a “sinuous, sensual, subversive soundscape.”
Blue Lines was accessible avant-garde and comprehensible experimentation. From first listen, I could tell they were as inspired by the pioneering producers Marley Marl, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Prince as they were by Burt Bacharach, John Barry, and Brian Eno. The trip-hop label was bestowed on the group by the Brit journalist Jonathan Taylor to describe the trippy music that was simultaneously street and psychedelic. Trip-hop was a tag that, like jazz, was often rejected by the practitioners, but it fit perfectly. A few years later, when I started contributing short fiction to the Brown Sugar erotica series, I imagined the stories as textual films, and it was Massive Attack that supplied the seductive score.
“Angel,” the third single from Mezzanine, would go on to become one of their most licensed songs, used for the opening credits of the series House as well as by the director George Miller in Mad Max: Fury Road. Over the years, Massive Attack’s music has been used in many movies (Pi, The Matrix, The Insider) and television programs (Luther, True Blood, Power). The videos for their own songs, including the four singles from Mezzanine (“Risingson,” “Teardrop,” “Angel,” and “Inertia Creeps”), were always sinister and disturbing. Massive’s hybrid music achieved pop-cult status, selling millions of copies while still being critically lauded.
Yet in 1998, at least, the group itself was still somewhat anonymous. They could walk around the city without being bothered. Mushroom and I popped out of the studio and went to a juice stand. He told me about his years living in New York, where he was the protégé of Devastating Tito from the rap group the Fearless Four. “Have you ever heard of them?” he asked shyly. When I told him my best friend Jerry Rodriguez had directed their video for “Problems of the World” in 1983, Mushroom smiled. “Finally,” he replied, “someone who knows about the old school.”
I’d followed hip-hop culture since my teenage years. I’d grown up in Harlem, watched break-dancers spin on their skulls in the subway station or Times Square, and experienced the pre-record mid-seventies period when MCs and DJs played in public parks, block parties, and fire trap clubs in the hood. In my opinion, no film depicts that era better than Wild Style (1983). Directed by Charlie Ahearn but guided by the b-boy insight and vision of Fab Five Freddy, it provided a close look at a new culture. As the writer Phil Johnson points out in his seminal book Straight Outa Bristol: Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky and the Roots of Trip-Hop (1997), that was the film that inspired the posse to start making music in the first place.
In the beginning, turntables were their only instruments. By the time Mezzanine was released, Mushroom had decided that he was leaving the group, supposedly because he thought the music had strayed too far from its sampling, turntablist foundation. “When we recorded Blue Lines, we just wanted to make an album for ourselves,” Mushroom said. “We didn’t care about the record company or the listeners, we just wanted to make ourselves happy. That’s all changed now.” As though to make his point and protest visual, in the spooky video for Mezzanine’s first single “Risingson,” Mushroom sits on a couch watching a 12-inch record spinning on a portable turntable. Leaning over slightly, he stares into the black vinyl grooves oblivious to the musicians playing in the same room.
These days, there are still a few nineties albums I play regularly, such as Never Mind (Nirvana) Life After Death (Biggie Smalls), Brown Sugar (D’Angelo) and excellence that was Mezzanine. Twenty years later, that album still sounds like tomorrow.
Harlem native Michael A. Gonzales writes the Blacklist book column for Catapult and has contributed essays to New York, The Village Voice, Wax Poetics, and Pitchfork.