he arc of quality of nearly every musician I’ve ever enjoyed implies that there will be an eventual decline, it’s only a matter of which downward spiral path they choose; whether they evolve and marginalise themselves, stay ploughing the same old sound, bore people or lose their initial creative drive. Even though it’s normally only his debut Maxinquaye that regularly appears in canonical top albums of all time lists, throughout the mid 90s Tricky was constantly moving and evolving into something unique. For a short time, he kept ahead of potential media backlash, by continually working with new artists and moving towards new sounds. He escaped existing definitions, provoking the same media that had built him up so quickly to invent a genre name to describe his sound.
But then his work began to slip and became increasingly pedestrian as he settled into the industries write-record-release-tour hamster wheel. Over time, he lost the singular and independent vision and work ethic that he had employed in the early years of his career. These changing priorities, and his troubled relationships with various record labels, robbed Tricky of the certain something that informed his early musical output. Here, then, is his story: a year-by-year account of the incredible weed smoking, trip-hop denying, paranoid, schizophrenic world of Tricky.
As the power shifted in Bristol from the Wild Bunch days of Miles Johnson and Nellee Hooper to 3D and (to a much lesser extent) Daddy G as Massive Attack, a more commercial, cleaner production sound and professional work ethic was created. When the group’s debut LP, Blue Lines, was first released it gave the impression that Tricky was merely a hired hand with a smart mouth; an unstable element at the core of Massive. From all appearances, it seemed that Tricky barely had any input into the main studio committee decisions (if any), only co-writing and MCing on three tracks: "Five Man Army", "Blue Lines" and "Daydreaming". With hindsight, it’s easy to see his input into the latter track was much more than wordplay with 3D. His signature unconventional wobbly wheeled shopping trolley drum loop and Shara Nelson’s repetition of snatches of the rapped lyrics here were maybe the spark of inspiration for his own debut. There are important differences, however. On Blue Lines, Tricky's vocals are astonishingly clear and well pronounced in his endearing Bristol accent, his lyrics at their most flippant and even funny at points.
Perhaps as he began to mine his flaws in preparation for his debut album, instead of the one-upmanship bred into him by his sound system roots, he began to alter his vocals. Did he subconsciously feel a little self-conscious about this honesty and obscure his own words with mumbling and foggy production? Or had his spliff intake reached such epic proportions that the damage began to be audible?
Either way, Tricky’s first solo cut, "Nothing's Clear", slipped out silently later on that year on a Bristol charity compilation album. A collaboration with Geoff Barrow, then a Massive Attack engineer and soon to be one of the brains behind Portishead, the material was much rougher than what Massive Attack had been doing and kept closer to his own musical parentage. It's a 2-tone moody schizophrenic number, which still stands as one of best his recordings to date; skanking between Jericho blasts of horn, echoing rim shots, neighbour abusing, speaker fucking bass which sits next to a calm Satie-like piano melody.
When his debut single, "Aftermath", (co-produced by Massive engineer Kevin Petrie) was officially released, I wasn't particularly enamoured with it; I thought it was alright, but not good enough to go out and buy in those pre-Napster "music costs money, and you buy it in shops" era. I literally paid the price later at a record fair when I had to pick up the promo 12" for the sake of completion. Its jazzy keys, rolling drums and whistling flutes were too clean and structured, and even with the abstracts creeping in late in the song, it's nowhere near as otherworldly or emotive as it's reputed to be, even back then. The fuzzy staticy vinyl trimmings of the production and Mark Stewart's (Stewart engineered and contributed to the original demo, but was only credited as playing keyboards on release) wandering whisperings prove to be integral to Tricky’s sound.
One of my main issues with the track is Martina's vocal performance, Tricky might have found an incredible vocalist and the perfect blank canvas/muse for his lyrics but on "Aftermath" she sounds too remote, too uninvolved. Her voice is without accent, distant and bored (in a 'I'm not arsed about what I'm doing' way). Her uninspiring vocal performance, plus the fact that the B-sides offered only slight mutations on the original song, allowed me to pass this single over easily. As we were very soon to hear, however, Martina was about to become a unique vocalist; profoundly English, young, alive and comfortable tackling both the drawl of the blues, spitting male hip-hop or cooing over arrhythmic beats.
The second single "Ponderosa", a co-production with Howie B, is more deserving of the praise that was lavished upon "Aftermath". This was the song that announced that a new mad pop genius had arrived. A slice of homemade psychedelic dread, “Ponderosa” is a far rougher recorded beast, combining elements of blues, jazz and soul into a much irregularly shaped package. It retains the fresh feel of a cluttered live home studio atmosphere, collecting scratching, toy pianos going haywire and indecipherable odd noises coming out of my left-hand speaker. The cracked music box intro breaks off upon collision with the bone on bone clank of a beat sounding suspiciously like something from Tom Waits Bone Machine. The influence of Waits’ post Heartattack and Vine music on Tricky, though he’s never fully acknowledged it as far as I’m aware, seeps all the way through to the present day.
Tricky began to receive offers of remix work based on this early promise, and soon would have an eclectic queue of artists waiting for his hit and miss mix favours. With Howie B still in tow he tackled the world-pop bland fest of Angelique Kidjo's "Agolo" and switched it up at least several gears. The remix works brilliantly, reinventing the song with an inspired lift from Primal Scream and The Orb's "Higher than the Sun". This moves it on from a rather ordinary MIDI-sounding backing to something broader and more tribal, as the singsong vocals layer each other riding the huge drums and the occasional single bass note which punctuates the chorus. But, just when you think that Tricky had found the magickal formula to polish turds, his other mix of this year showed he could be as lazy as he was clever, adding only a hip-hop beat to Leena Conquest's "Boundaries" and its clichéd 'give peace a chance' lumpy acid-jazz.
By the time Massive Attack's Protection dropped, Tricky was already getting a bit antsy at having to work with a committee of vocalists and engineers. The cinematic Vangelis sheen of "Eurochild" doesn't sound like anything Tricky had done before or has done since, so I think it's safe to assume it's a Massive track with him only helping out on vocals. Both he and 3D sound strong here, matching each others flow and pace, actually rapping as opposed to what was soon to come on Maxinquaye. Like "Daydreaming" was before it, "Karmacoma" is obviously a buffed up Tricky demo; a stalling looped rhythm with a manipulated sine wave serving as melody. Far more entertaining though was the Hendrix-on-the-Moon-isms of the Portishead’s Experience remix of "Karmacoma" (and the Bristol groups always wondered why they were lumped in together by the press). After the glassy-eyed hip-hop of his work this year, these two collaborations seemed like almost a step backwards. But it didn't take long for him to turn on his old friends once he'd got Maxinquaye in the can. In early 1995, Face Magazine’s interview with him reveals that he had "animosity towards them [Massive Attack] for saying they co-wrote 'Karmacoma' when I did all the music and most of the words, and they've got animosity towards me for doing my own thing". This was the start of a trend for Tricky, with Massive Attack being only the first of many collaborators who would be pushed to the curb.
Martina’s presence on both the "Aftermath" and "Ponderosa" singles were credited as merely performing the 'Honey Coated Vox', painting her as a guest performer on the very records that she had made so absorbing. By the time of release of the third single credited to Tricky, "Overcome", the credits stated it was performed by “Tricky and Martine” and, more tellingly, the inlay picture saw them physically tied together. There is a world of difference between the standard practice of offering two perspectives in duets like, say, Sparkle and R Kelly's "Be Careful" and what Tricky was doing on Maxinquaye. The LP captured the space between Martina and Tricky's vocals becoming blurred (created through layering, mixing and repetition), as the voice (and vision) became male and female; hermaphroditic as opposed to vaudeville camp back and forth. But, the real genius lay in Tricky's ability to highlight the separate perspectives of their experiences whilst still retaining that one vocal persona.
With the exception of Prince and the songs recorded in his, short-lived but incredible, Camille guise, most artist's particular strain of androgyny has more to do with camp, imagery and PR packaging than capturing the essence of two separate entities as one in song form. While Bolan, Bowie, Molko, O'Dowd and Anderson may have toyed with and manipulated imagery and sexuality (to varying degrees of success) none of them ever released music that you could truly call androgynous. This is not to underestimate their influence or accuse them of being charlatans, but this androgyny normally only reveals itself in video clips or magazine shoots. Tricky is also certainly guilty of using/abusing this type of imagery, but the result is much darker and more confusing (take for example the images of Tricky coyly holding handguns in a wedding dress with Martina as the bored groom). The cover of the "Black Steel" single pushed this idea a step further by morphing them into a hybrid; from '95 to '98 Tricky referred to Tricky (the name on the record spine) as being both Martina and himself.
Although it seems to be generally accepted as fact that Maxinquaye is an exotic, erotic and darkly sexual dialogue between Tricky and Martina, delving below the surface there are other ways to see it (it’d be rather obviously Freudian to name a record all about making sweet love/humping after his dead mother). It's not as simple as straight up boning, it’s about the complications of intimacy; a very different, complex and far more personal thing. From the perspective of a child, can there be ever be a bigger loss that that of your own mother? How much closer can you ever be to someone than once actually being a part of them? That is the reason why he named it after his mother, who took her own life when he was only four. The loss of this intimacy and the fear of the possibility for internal damage clashes here with the innate human desire for communion, which clashes again with the feelings of weakness and disgust (at the self and the others) with the desperation for this familiarity.
An often used reference, used in the defence of the LP as being primarily sexual, is the line 'When we fuck we'll hear beats' from one of its three central pieces “Overcome” (along with “Suffocated Love” and “Feed Me”) which was the opening track and third single. But when pushed on the sexual nature of his work by Melody Maker in a 1995 interview Tricky stated, "Ah no, it don't say fuck, it says 'funk'. That's to do with trust. As in, me and you, when I trust you totally I'll show you myself. I must admit, it does sound like 'fuck' though, dunnit? Sorry to disappoint you about this sex thing." In retrospect, the ‘funk’ line seems like it was just added to rhyme with the more powerful following line ‘When we trust there’ll be treats’ which lends support to the idea of intimacy as opening oneself up to another person creating a more rewarding relationship. This air of keeping the rest of the world at bay is reflected by the distant desolate denuded sound of “Overcome”, overwhelming the listener with space and ribbed with a closely miced patty-cake type beat. When Martina opens the LP with 'You sure you wanna be with me? I've nothing to give", this is Tricky registering his bitterness and disinterest for everyone through her.
There is a rather organic fluidity to “Suffocated Love”, its live bass playing, scratching, plucked guitar and bleeps streaking through the track, while dissipating sound shadows move across the song like a sparkler’s trail. Tricky’s chilled vocals here sound they could’ve been lifted from back in the Massive days- you can make out every word! He comes across as almost light-hearted, filling the song with juxtapositions of tenderness, violence, frankness (‘It's too good, it's too nice’), fear (‘I keep her warm but we never kiss’) and an utter lack of trust (‘She says she's mine, I know she lies’). Martina gives a shadier delivery with heavier lines like ‘Will you spend your life with me and stifle me? I know why the caged bird sings…I know why’. Despite the confessional tone and glimpses of his personal life through the lyrics, he acts as if we, the listeners, are prying (‘You ask what is this? Mind your business’).
The lonely windchimes of closer “Feed Me” features Maxinquaye’s strongest vocal performance, Martina sounds both awake and interested alongside his best lyrics to date (hacked from his own “Nothing’s Clear”). The précis is the strength in the union of a relationship, but unavoidably the tensions, insecurities and needs of the individuals will stretch this bond to either become a resented routine or for it to fall apart acrimoniously. The confusion between need and antipathy is the backbone of this LP and is summed up in the line ‘I despise you, damn you, dream you, I love you but still nothing’s clear’. The whole issue of Tricky recycling lines from his own work reeks of laziness, and, although he was to lose this reprocessing habit with the increased workload of the next few years, it casts a shadow over the songs in question.
The host of imitators that lined up soon after Maxinquaye's release frequently failed to grasp the real strengths of the recording and began producing music based on what they perceived Tricky was doing. Though much of Maxinquaye's initial shock and universal critical acclaim was based on the supposedly raw, alien and original production. It hasn't stood the test of time for me. These days those jarring arrangements and dissonant edges that snagged the imagination have been smoothed down; sadé-d out. Yes, even “Strugglin’”. And, because of this, we can partly blame Tricky for the mediocre trope of that all-too-familiar 90s sound of a breathless female vocalist over a hip-hop beat. Trip-hop became a dirty word to many of the artists who were being wrongly given the label, simply because they weren’t working within a traditional band format. Additionally, at the time, Tricky was regularly incensed at the claims that he sounded like any other act (especially fellow Bristollians). In the future, he was to claim that all those acts had in fact been influenced by him and that some had even ripped off and diluted his beats. Though, by the time he'd released Maxinquaye, he was already working with a harsher, looser, more experimental production style. That's why Maxinquaye’s an important LP and not a great one.
The more press he did, the weirder his interviews and his public persona became. During the pre- and early-Maxinquaye interviews he talked casually about his past and seemed quite genuinely surprised at people's perceptions of his music and the interest in him. As time went on, he seemed to almost play to the image of confused, temperamental genius- culminating in both amusing photo sessions and paranoia filled rants (see the cover and article from April 95’s NME with Tricky wearing plastic horns).
Releasing "Black Steel", with its loud guitar driven sound, opened him up into a wider marketplace and the long-fringed indie-boy market. This Public Enemy cover is powerful, in that it dislocates and uses only the first verse of the original track, and is half-sung half-rapped by Martina, convoluting the original meaning into something else entirely. The shortening of the title is incredibly apt, as what is left of the lyrical content in the LP version is a black man's statement of defiance (”Black Steel”) without the social circumstances that demanded this action of the aftermath (the latter half of the title "...in the Hour of Chaos"). The "Been Caught Steeling Mix” is a little more live sounding than the original, the instrumentation freer and more ragged replacing the tight edits.
With the first four singles from Maxinquaye, almost all of the b-sides on offer were merely confused, befuddled reworkings of the a-sides. And, as mildly interesting as it was to see the tracks devolved and deconstructed, they weren't anywhere near as good as the LP versions. The Hell EP signalled Tricky spreading his wings, beginning to further loosen his style. The EP was credited to Tricky Vs The Gravediggaz, and featured two collaborations with the RZA/Prince Paul side project as well as "Hell is Round The Corner" and a remix. "Psychosis", despite its cast, is absolutely nowhere near traditional hip-hop, employing a steam-powered dark, stagnant, grinding loop over a broken click track. It does sound grimy, but not in the normal way we now associate that word with hip-hop; it’s unclean. The apocalyptic freestyle contained within seems to stem from the fact that Tricky had recently discovered that the devil-spawn from Rosemary's Baby was named Adrian (his real name is Adrian). The second track, "Tonite is a Special Nite (Chaos Mass Confusion Mix)", is a much lighter affair; an airy piano driven tune with a deranged party feel. The repeated 'let's just record' vocal sample from Tricky emphasises the tracks ramshackle improvisation. It was really from this point onwards that he began to release material at a brisk pace, with little care as to whether it was possible to flood the market or to bankrupt your fans.
Thus, with his Island contract stating that he could release music under aliases and work with other artists on different labels as and when he pleased, Tricky began to take advantage of this clause soon after the release of his debut. The first major group he collaborated with, outside of the The Hell EP was Whale, a Swedish pop rock hip-hop hybrid with a female vocalist. Best known for their medium sized hit with a firestarting monster chorus monster, "Hobo Humpin' Slobo Babe", they collaborated and released four low profile tracks which represented a more jocular, and dare I say it, fun side of Tricky farting about in the studio. The acoustic guitar and melodica of the comedic seduction song "Kickin'" (the opening track on their album We Care) saw Tricky singing backing on a song with a chorus that went ‘I cannot help that I think you’re really kickin’. Not exactly the cry of a pained emotional freak, as he also playfully rapped the chorus of the bouncy "Young Dumb n' Full of Cum". More in line with his advertised persona was "Tryzanice". Lyrically recycling all of “Abbaon Fat Tracks” from Maxinquaye, its dark cloudy backing sounded very similar in feel to the Gravediggaz group efforts. Finally, washing up on a B-side was "The Now Thing", a semi-sentient hazy hookah vibed song with broken guitar melodies and Cia and Tricky unleashing off the cuff and amusing made-up rhymes. This idiosyncratic lighter style was a precursor of his ill-fated, but brilliant, work with Neneh Cherry and like that, this would stand out as one of his finest moments. On the other hand, it sounds like he may have spent longer cashing the cheque for remixing Luscious Jackson (lady friends of the Beastie Boys) than he spent actually doing it. Ransacking “Here” for the ‘Love/Hate mix’, he stripped the irritatingly party perkiness of the original down to bass, heavily processed drum rolls and a few offbeat noises (guitar strum, whistle) and whilst this may make it less annoying, it’s still not anywhere near interesting enough to return to.
The first fruit of his quick to sink vanity label, Durban Poison, was the low-key release of the I Be the Prophet EP under the pseudonym of Starving Souls. A beatless, but stiffly plucked, cello sound is lain against a bassy melody and punctured by sharp shanks of Psycho high-end strings, as Tricky and Martina take turns murmuring, then duetting, lyrics about time, visions and need. This was a deliberately harsher sidestep from his more melodic past, as this is brittle and initially unrewarding, stumbling instead of flowing. This was backed by a pointless ‘…(with drums)’ remix which adds only a lonely school orchestra percussion to the original and a Tricky-by-numbers cover of Depeche Mode’s “Judas”, titled here as “If You Want My Love” (it also appeared on the U.S. release of Nearly God). To a casual observer this may have looked like a radical dip in the quality control department at Tricky Towers, but the praise he was receiving for being a maverick and an independent spirit was leading him to a more reactionary means of working. Plus, the carte blanche from Island led to his reluctance to feel that he was part of a movement and pushed him to distance himself from expectations.
"Pumpkin" was an average album track, and a very peculiar choice for the sixth (even Britney wouldn’t push her luck that far!) single from Maxinquaye. It also provided Tricky with his oddest sleeve art; Tricky and mates in skirts carrying vibrators outside a café from the future whilst Martina and her mates dressed as female 007s with guns with an unaccredited paraphrased KRS-1 quote on the cover. Could it have been some sort of statement on demasculination? The music didn’t offer much of an answer, being something like a ballroom waltz take on the Cocteau Twins, with Alison Goldfrapp's wordless torch song built around a gloomy Corgan guitar and drum sample. Tricky offers a brief soliloquy of dissociation from the world around him:
I refuse to understand,
You go your way and I'll see mine,
How'd you like yourself?
You don't know yourself.
It seemed even more out of place, considering the contradictory styles of the B-sides. A one-off collaboration with fellow stoner NY alt hip-hop act (before it was cool) New Kingdom entitled "Moody Broody Buddhist Camp" was, at least on a rhythmic level, a straightforward hip-hop track. But with freewheeling noisy loops of fuzzed-up vocals and dying pac-man bloops fighting it out with a wheezy accordion riff prevents it from ever being played on, say, Hot97. Reportedly they disowned the song on release, unhappy with what Tricky had done to it. But the real revelation here was "Pumpkin (Ambient)" (originally available on one of the Macro Dub Infection Collections), an incredible self-reinvention of the original, this is what a remix should be. A transfixing sound, reminiscent of a lion’s throaty growl and someone popping a handful of bubble wrap as a beat, enabling a much clearer listen to the vocals and created something deeper and darker than the original. This is very reminiscent of the music created within the Isolationist genre that was to come to fruition in the years following. The pumpkin coloured 12” featured “Slick 66”, a re-titled cover of Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” with his hero Terry Hall (ex-The Specials and Fun Boy Three) on backing vocals. Tricky’s camp pronunciation flow sounds like a precursor to Asher D’s similar style on So Solid’s “They Don’t Know”. As his second hip-hop cover, this is miles away from PE’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, being a cautionary narrative (a hip-hop fable without animals) about a boy with a gun who takes the ‘wrong path’. As for the Alex Reece remix of "Brand New You're Retro" and the Badja mix of “Pumpkin”, the less said the better; how can junglists create such atrociously lumpy and stubborn rhythms?
Finding a temporary soulmate in Bjork, who was working on her second LP Post, Tricky went on to co-write and co-produce two antithetical tracks for her (and, in return, she contributed two tracks for his Nearly God project). Warming up with a trembling organ line “Enjoy” kicks into an oppressive, but amazing, bassline, while industrial harsh martial percussive beats provide the rhythmic basis and violent stabs and freeform squonks of horn are contributed by Einar (the man responsible for the silly rap on The Sugarcubes “Hit”). The expert hand of Marcus Dravs ensures these sounds slide back and forth in the mix, creating a shifting, urgent sound inspiring relentless head nodding. “Headphones” (a platonic love song to 808 State main man and collaborator, Graham Massey) feels like it’s been let loose from its rhythmic moorings, drifting loose between the speakers. This hardly-formed piece of genius/beauty feels more like an embryo of an ambient track, as transparent little membranes of sound, hums and Matmos style pitter-patter beats (made from finger tapping on mics) give it a lack of easily identifiable structure. Tricky played a pre-Bjork demo of it to Terry Hall, who admitted he was utterly clueless as to what to do with it. Hall’s attempted comeback EP “Rainbows” (lead track co-written with Damon Albarn) included a live deconstruction of the classic Specials song “Ghost Town” recorded at a Tricky show. I expect this new version may have been performed in an attempt to show the song’s remaining relevance, but this truncated version doesn’t relay the grim inner city of the original, contain the manic ‘la, la la la la’ refrain or feature the counterbalance of the happy ‘good old days’ refrain. Whilst the original message remains pertinent to modern day Great Britain (and possibly elsewhere), this is poorly executed and uninteresting, which is possibly why it was never given a studio recording.
The collaborations completed around this period showed an artist prepared to push himself in many different directions; sometimes harshly experimental, simple pop melodies and improvisational work. Expanding his palette of influence, Tricky seemed to be creating unique sounds and pushing the envelope seemingly without concern for boundaries or careerist motivations, yet still enjoying critical and reasonable sales. He was walking (and was helping to create) the fine line between the avant-garde, hip-hop and pop. There is a school of thought, though, that argues that this is the point at which Tricky suddenly fell off. Ignoring the work he did in 1996 and onwards, however, means missing out on some of his finest work, much of it putting Maxinquaye in a comparative shadow.
--- Part Three ---
By: Scott McKeating
Published on: 2003-12-08