KEXP Documentaries: “Electronic Innovators” – Massive Attack

Photo by Tom Močička

Each week our KEXP Documentary team bring you a musical subject in the time it takes to play just one song. This week we’re working with the Decibel Festival to bring you the series Electronic Innovators and today at 4pm it’s a profile on the inventors of trip-hop, Bristol collective Massive Attack!

Founding members 3D, Daddy G and Mushroom were part of a DJ collective in the city of Bristol in England.  When they got together in the mid-90s, they called themselves “The Wild Bunch”, and mixed different styles of music together.  Influenced by punk band The Clash, Brit-pop songs from The Beatles, Jamaican styles of reggae and dub and the emerging sounds of hip-hop from New York City, they went against the establishment by taking samples from existing songs and creating new ones.  Their first European dance club hit was a remake of Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” in 1986.  This is known as the very first trip-hop track.

These DJs took the name “Massive Attack” in 1987. They were innovative not only because they used hip-hop samples and slowed them down, but because their production was cinematic and lush.  They also popularized the use of guest vocalists in electronic music. Their first single, “Daydreaming,” in 1990 featured Tricky and Shara Nelson. In 1991, their first full-length, Blue Lines, dropped, stunning listeners with a new kind of electronic music that was meant for listening rather than dancing. In 1994, their 2nd album, Protection, another sample-based record, was released.  And the band seemed to get even better performances from their guest vocalists. The single “Protection” featured singer Tracey Thorn from Everything But The Girl.

Massive Attack were influenced by their varied backgrounds: Jamaican, Barbadian, English, Italian and bravely mixed reggae, dub, R & B, hip-hop and rock.  In 1998 the band put out a third album, Mezzanine, the release that many think is their best. It leans back and forth between psych-rock and electronic sounds.  Mezzanine hit number one in the UK charts.  And the single “Teardrop”, was written and sung by the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Frasier.  It was a song about her close friend who had just passed away, musician Jeff Buckley.   Now the same track is known as the theme for the TV show “House”.

After the commercial and critical success of Mezzanine, the band felt that making music based on samples had become overdone. Trip-hop was (and still is) used in many commercials, TV shows and movies.  3D decided to use only sounds made by the band on their next record, 100th Window, released in 2003.  100th Window was layered and hazy and complex, with many of the vocals from pop star Sinead O’Connor.   Fans and critics let Massive Attack know they were not happy with this new sound, but the band maintained that they wanted to explore new ground. And in 2010, Heligoland kept the studio instrument feel, but stripped down number of sounds, leaving more sonic space for the guest vocalists and for the listener to distinguish between the instruments.

In this radio story, Massive Attack founding member 3D talks about the tension between expectation and exploration. This documentary re-airs this Saturday at 4pm.

Listen to this KEXP Documentary:

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Massive Attack are starting their US tour next month but there is no Seattle show! If you want to post about how wrong that is, please go here.   For more electronic music check out the Decibel Festival, happening Wednesday through Sunday of this coming week (Sept 28 through Oct 2) here in Seattle.

KEXP Documentaries are created by Michele Myers. This series was co-produced by Decibel Festival‘s Sean Horton. Assistant Producers are John Felthous and Mary Janisch. Lesson Plans are created by Tiffany Grobelski and Michele Myers. Executive Producer is Kevin Cole. If you would like to follow along more closely in the creation of these radio stories, we post historical music facts, research materials, songs and videos on our Facebook page and on Twitter.

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