Massive Attack transformed British music in the 1990s - and now they are fundraising for Palestine.
I had imagined that Robert Del Naja, otherwise known as 3D, the driving force behind Massive Attack, would be haughty, arrogant, über-cool. He is one of the godfathers of trip-hop, that most muted and disturbing of musical genres, and so it would seem only fitting. In photos he always has a pouty, mean expression: all narrowed eyes and razor-sharp cheekbones. One always suspected that, out of all the Massive Attack members (and there have been many - of which more later), it was he who pulled the strings.
So it is with some trepidation that I await him in the sitting room above his studio on an unassuming industrial estate in Bristol. Outside, the building nestles discreetly next to unglamorous despatch services and taxi firms - but inside, it is boy heaven. An enormous mixing desk covered in flashing lights and buttons fills up the downstairs area. Cables and pliers of various sizes and colours hang on the walls. Upstairs, comfy sofas are arranged in front of a wide-screen telly and boxes of CDs are stacked on every surface. I sneak a look to see if I can spot any embarrassing enough to puncture the cool façade. The worst it gets is Patsy Cline. No Cheeky Girls, worse luck.
As soon as Del Naja potters up the stairs and puts the kettle on I regret my meanness. He is a charmer, garrulous, engaging and highly opinionated - exactly the opposite, in fact, of what I'd expected. He doesn't do small talk, launching straight into an intense conversation about the commercialisation of art and the music industry ("If you want to make real art, sit at home and do it. As soon as you sell it, it's all about the market"). Even his sandwich becomes the subject of debate ("Marmite: are you a lover or a hater?"). Phew. And I haven't even switched on my tape recorder yet.
It quickly becomes evident that Del Naja is unfashionably political, and not in the woolly way we have come to expect from our pop stars. "When you are travelling around the world on tour, you see all these places that you hear about on the news and you start to actually feel some connection with them," he says. "We've been to Israel, to Bethlehem twice, and to Lebanon, performing in Baalbek, which was heavily bombed in the last attacks. You see these places and you start to feel a connection, and to feel a bit more responsible for what happens there. I wanted to actually do something."
Thus it is that Massive Attack will be playing three benefit concerts this month in Birmingham and London for the HOPING (Hope and Optimism for Palestinians in the Next Generation) Foundation, a charity set up by Jemima Khan, Bella Freud and the academic Karma Nabulsi to support grass-roots organisations in the Palestinian refugee camps across the Middle East. Primal Scream played a similar concert in 2004 (it was Primal Scream's lead singer, Bobby Gillespie, who introduced Massive Attack to Nabulsi), but Del Naja insists this is not simply a case of "sleb" guilt. "It is easy to get cynical about this kind of thing. As much as an event like Live 8 was monumental, it left me cold. It does raise awareness, but then you ask, 'Were any of those ambitions really met? Which targets have been reached?' This charity is a small group of people, with specific aims. You can understand that; you know where you are."
Del Naja has occasionally been sneered at by less earnest music-industry types for his interest in political issues - an indication, perhaps, of how disengaged pop music has become. On the eve of the 2003 Iraq invasion, he and Damon Albarn tried to organise a group of similarly prominent musicians into an anti-war campaign, only to be greeted, he says, with a silence bordering on hostility. "We approached people who we knew, people who were our peers or who we respected. But no one was interested. The only ones who got behind it with us were [the British Asian rap group] Fundamental. The majority didn't even respond, and those who did asked us if we supported Saddam Hussein's regime.
"Everyone is happy to get behind a cause like Make Poverty History, or fair-trade and environment issues. But when it comes to politics, they are reluctant."
There is another, rather more sinister story doing the rounds, though it has never been endorsed by Del Naja himself. In 2003, he was arrested under Operation Ore, a nationwide campaign against child pornography on the internet. He was innocent - the police never even brought charges - but details of the incident were leaked to the press. Many of his fans believed that the allegations were a deliberate smear, provoked by his anti-war stance. "It seemed to be very cynical in its timing. It happened just as we had an album coming out, so it seemed designed to cause the maximum amount of damage," he says. "But I don't think it was directly connected to my political activities. There are lots of things I could say about the Big Brother state we're living in, but that's a whole different conversation." For the first time there is a distinct chill in his voice. Clearly, the hurt is still fresh.
The Bristol music scene from which Massive Attack sprang in the early 1990s was never overtly idealistic; Del Naja remembers it as being "anti-political - it was just like 'we're going to do what the fuck we want'". Its genesis was in a hip-hop crew called the Wild Bunch, a loose collective whose affiliates included Del Naja, Grant "Daddy G" Marshall (the only other remaining founder member), Andrew "Mushroom" Vowles, and several others who later hit the big time in their own right: the rapper Tricky, the Soul II Soul producer Nellee Hooper, and Geoff Barrow, who went on to found Portishead. "We put on parties and warehouse jams, mini-raves in public places. If there was any capitalist side to it, it was very little, because you never really made any money out of it."
That changed in 1991 when Massive Attack released Blue Lines, widely accepted to be one of the most significant British albums of the past 20 years. Combining reggae, rock, soul and hip-hop influences, it was a huge critical and commercial hit, but more importantly it exploded the idea - still widespread at the time - that British pop equalled white boys with guitars. Before it, there was no British hip-hop, no grime or jungle, and DJ culture was still deep underground. The idea of a band based on the Jamaican sound-system model, with a fluid membership and no instruments, was revolutionary (one critic described it as "the musical equivalent of communism"). Looking back, you can see that the British music of that era had a vibrant multiculturalism which has dropped away in recent years.
"I actually don't think we changed the British scene in any way," Del Naja says. "There was a really interesting period of cross-pollination during the 1990s, but that blossom has perished in an early frost. If you look around now, everything is still orientated around white rock bands. Part of me wonders whether, if the re cord companies had their way, they'd just produce the same thing over and over again."
I wonder if Asian and Middle Eastern cultures might begin to permeate popular music, in the same way as Massive Attack and their ilk absorbed African-Caribbean influences during the 1990s. "It's interesting - we have done some exciting work with Asian and Arab artists, but I think there is still an unbridgeable gap there in terms of what happens in clubs and bars," he says. "When I was a kid, the Asians got more passive abuse than any other race, just because people are ignorant - they don't understand the culture. And of course, integration is difficult in the current political climate."
Since its Nineties heyday, the Bristol scene has suffered a slow demise - due mainly, he thinks, to gentrification and the growth of consumer culture in the city. "It feels less local and less personal than it used to, so there is less of a scene. The chemistry has changed," he says. At times, Massive Attack's future, too, has seemed uncertain. The 1994 follow-up to Blue Lines, Protection, was well received, but the more clinical-sounding Mezzanine (1998) and 100th Window (2003) divided the critics. Personal conflicts dog ged the band, leading to the departure first of Tricky, who left in 1994 to pursue his solo career, and then Vowles, who went for a walk during the making of Mezzanine and never came back. Del Naja had a brief stint as a solo artist, but has been rejoined by Marshall.
"It was always going to be transient madness - it was never a traditional band," he says. "That format has produced great things, and sometimes bad things, too. But despite everything, we have managed to maintain a sense of hunger and drive after 15 years."
But it is obviously still a painful process. After touring for most of last year, Marshall and Del Naja are now at work on the next album - at work in separate studios, that is (though Del Naja tells me proudly that they did in fact get together the other day). They have already recorded tracks with Albarn and their long-time collaborator Horace Andy, but even though release was originally scheduled for this month the project is still some way from completion.
So is the Massive Attack story finally drawing to a close? "It's a difficult one. As long as there is some creative ground to be harvested I want to carry on. But if you get to a time when it feels like you're banging your head against a brick wall, you'll give up gradually. Only freaks can be creatively constant. Either that, or they're taking all the right drugs and I'm not."
If that sounds negative, I don't think he means it that way. A glint in his eye tells me that even when Massive Attack is no more, we won't have heard the last of Robert Del Naja.
Massive Attack plays the Birmingham Carling Academy on 6 February and Brixton Academy, London, on 7 and 8 February. For booking details, visit: www.hopingfoundation.org
1987 Massive Attack is formed as an offshoot of the Wild Bunch sound system/DJ collective, and becomes successful on the Bristol club scene. The original members are the graffiti artist 3D (Robert Del Naja), Grant "Daddy G" Marshall and Andrew "Mushroom" Vowles.
1991 The band is briefly forced to change its name to just "Massive" because of the outbreak of the Gulf war. It is this name that appears on the cover of the hit single "Unfinished Sympathy".
1992 Shara Nelson, lead vocalist on many of the tracks on Massive Attack's debut album, Blue Lines, leaves the band.
1994 The second album, Protection, wins the group the Best Dance Act prize at the Brit Awards. It is the Massives' last collaboration with the rapper Tricky, who goes on to pursue a solo career.
1998 After a tense production period, Massive Attack finally completes a third album, Mezzanine. Vowles leaves shortly after this, and is replaced by the producer Neil Davidge.
2003 The release of 100th Window, recorded without Grant Marshall. It goes straight into the top ten in the UK charts.
2004 Massive Attack contributes to the soundtracks of two films - the British gangster flick Bullet Boy and Danny the Dog, written by Luc Besson.
Research by Eugenio Triana
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