Massive Attack are one of the two titans of trip-hop. Their style was so unique and popular in the 1990s that they came to represent this genre – along with Portishead – almost entirely. There are very few bands like Massive Attack: The Herbaliser and Gorillaz were notably influenced by them, as were solo artists such as DJ Shadow and Björk. But albums such as Blue Lines and Mezzanine, and songs like the dystopian Angel and the soulful Unfinished Sympathy established the band as one of the most innovative musical forces of 1990s Britain.
3D, Daddy G and Mushroom were members of The Wild Bunch, a loose collective of musicians, DJs and artists in Bristol through the 1980s, but they weren’t doing anything with their music until they were encouraged to by Neneh Cherry. Cherry was a friend and a star around the turn of the decade, after international chart success with Buffalo Stance and Manchild, the latter of which had been co-written by 3D. With her support, the trio gathered to record debut album Blue Lines (1991).
With fast breakbeat rhythms but slow tempos, turntable scratching and string quartets, gospel vocals and rapping, Blue Lines laid the blueprint for a style that was later termed trip-hop. It was a breakthrough album for the band, who became instant heroes of the British music scene, and an important album in the development of “dance” music: because Blue Lines was not really for dancing to. Unfinished Sympathy was an international chart hit and has many times been named one of the best songs or singles of the 90s and of all time.
After a long lay-off the band returned with their second album Protection in 1994, with Blue Lines’ guest Tricky as a full member. While other artists had tried to copy the Massive Attack style, Protection proved nobody could beat the originals. Title track Protection, featuring Everything But The Girl’s Tracy Thorn on vocals, and Tricky feature Karmacoma still remain standouts in Massive Attack’s catalogue, though Protection can’t be seen as an equal to Blue Lines.
Third album Mezzanine (1998) got much closer though, with a slight change in style emphasising the dark, the atmospheric and the cinematic side of Massive Attack, exemplified by the terrifying lead track Angel. Trip-hop had become a major influence on alternative music in the meantime, with fellow Bristol scene trio Portishead making the biggest impression, and trip-hop being a clear element of records by DJ Shadow, Björk, Beck, Morcheeba, Air and UNKLE. But Mezzanine returned Massive Attack to the centre of the scene, and was said by some to be even better than Blue Lines. It topped the charts in the UK and went on to sell four million copies in total.
Never a band to work quickly, it took until 2003 for Massive Attack to return with a fourth record. 100th Window. Then comprising just 3D and new producer Neil Davidge, it sold around a million copies, but was never as loved as Mezzanine or their fully formed debut. 3D and Davidge moved on to soundtrack work, not credited as Massive Attack, before fifth studio album Heligoland arrived in 2010, with Daddy G back in the fold.
“Everybody knows about 100th Window and how we fell out," Marshall told The Skinny in interview at the time. "It’s not as though we haven’t been seeing each other, we’ve done three tours since 100th Window so I think we’re back being mates again. But the thing is, we’re like brothers – I’ve known this guy 27 years – we’ve been working together for all this time. We have our brotherly loves and our brotherly hates; it’s just like any old manly relationship.”
Massive Attack album discography
Blue Lines (1991)
100th Window (2003)