Sinuous and mysterious as a plume of drifting smoke, a new sort of groove wafted two decades ago from Bristol, a bohemian university town in the west of England. Though its prime movers — Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead — all loathe the term, the word "trip-hop" has become synonymous with the style created by Bristol bands like Massive Attack and Smith & Mighty. The sensuous groove fulfilled a timeless human need for a bass-heavy sound to touch the secret recesses of the imagination and lure our dreamworld onto the dance floor. Trip-hop was tailor-made for the moment — and it happens every night — when a bopper wants to get tender. Or when domestic listeners seek to wander within themselves.
Not all local grooves take flight, but trip-hop most certainly did. Over the next two decades it was re-imagined as chill-out, downtempo, illbient and lounge music. Its subtle tendrils have woven into music round the world: Washington, D.C.'s Thievery Corporation, with their exotic cosmopolitan edge; drifty Brazilian sounds like Ceu, whose dulcet lilt earned her maximum market penetration (a Starbucks CD); London's Ninja Tunes' artists like Bonobo and Berlin's techno-tinged Sonar Kollektiv. As music writer Simon Reynolds notes, "People like Flying Lotus and Gonjasufi on the West Coast are doing trippy hip-hop. Though it's not quite the same thing, they probably are the inheritors of the spirit of Massive Attack, Tricky, Earthling and DJ Vadim."
To qualify as true trip-hop, music has to share the sense of opiated mystery of Tricky's tantalizing mumbles on the classic album, 20 years old last year, that launched trip-hop worldwide, Massive Attack's Blue Lines. Its magical "Unfinished Sympathy," cast a spell over the world's clubbers. Produced by Nellee Hooper (later of Soul II Soul and Bjork, among many others) the well-timed sound was just one manifestation of a movement taking place in Bristol at that time.
Scene initiators included Smith & Mighty and the DJ collective The Wild Bunch, from which came Massive Attack and Tricky. The Pop Group's volatile post-punk added another element to the scene, later splitting into the savage free explorations of Float Up C.P. and horn-happy Pigbag.
Bristol fed off its slave port for hundreds of years; now it's one of Britain's blackest cities, culturally and socially. It's long been home to a West Indian community, and shebeens and sound systems were a way of life for all music-loving Bristolian youth. Being a port, Bristol was always awash in hashish and other plant-based mind-benders like marijuana — not to mention more macrobiotically sound, locally-grown life-enhancers like scrumpy cider and hallucinogenic mushrooms (legal back then) grown in the surrounding countryside — that undoubtedly fuelled Bristol's music scene.
Much of this musical experimentation took place at a club called The Dug Out. As Hooper has said, "The Dug Out couldn't have had a better location, at the top of the hill from St Paul's — the heart of the black music scene — and just down the hill from Clifton and the trendy punk/art scene. It was just dangerous enough for trendies to feel edgy, music cool and edgy enough to confuse and enthuse the dreads ... perfect!"
Disclosure: I got a chance to explore Massive Attack's creative process first hand over a few years. What follows is a typically incestous Bristolian saga. The links between town and gown — the students and the locals — plus the charming city's many liberal artsy types, made for a scene with a hectic social, creative and romantic dynamic.
Blue Lines was born in an upstairs bedroom of the terraced West London home of Afro-Swedish hip-hop diva Neneh Cherry and her producer husband, singer Cameron McVey. Before her solo hits began with "Buffalo Stance," Neneh sang with Float Up C.P., and as her first husband was Bruce Smith (drummer for the Pop Group and The Slits, with whom Neneh also sang), Bristol was yet another home to her. The young Massive Attackers, Daddy G, 3-D, Mushroom and Tricky, became Cherry and McVey's protegés. They took over the small side bedroom, soon cluttered with reel-to-reels and tape machines, and a record deck on which they would earnestly sift through possible samples. A superb chef, my friend Neneh would be in the kitchen concocting feasts in between writing rhymes, with Massive Attack wandering in for cups of tea.
Years later, after the band had released Blue Lines and were preparing the album that became Protection, I visited Bristol to collaborate with them, eventually co-writing the track "Sly." Sample-based songwriting in those pre-digital days could be laborious. I bought a child's Casio keyboard to help fill the gaps, which came in handy for "Sly," but the process often involved someone getting on their bike and cycling down to the second-hand record shop to try and locate half-remembered grooves that might be just right to fulfill the elusive conception of a song.
Bring back the bike, because the tunes the Massives assembled by hand, between cups of tea, opened a poetic, evocative, emotional vein of music, which is still connecting hearts today.