As the genesis point of the trip-hop movement, Massive Attack originated the genre’s hypnotic sound: a darkly sensual and cinematic fusion of hip-hop rhythms, soulful melodies, dub grooves, and choice samples. The group created some of the most influential and trend-setting sounds of their era, with the groundbreaking albums Protection (1994) and Mezzanine (1998) informing decades’ worth of acclaimed artists including Portishead, Beth Orton, Radiohead, TV on the Radio, and Tricky, a Massive Attack alumnus.
Massive Attack’s roots date back to 1983 and the formation of the Wild Bunch, one of the most successful sound system/DJ collectives to arrive on the early-’80s U.K. music scene. Renowned for their seamless integration of a wide range of musical styles, from punk to reggae to R&B, the group’s parties quickly became can’t-miss events for the Bristol club crowd, and at the peak of their popularity they drew enormous crowds with their shape-shifting sets.
When the Wild Bunch folded during the mid-’80s, two of its members — Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles and Grant "Daddy G" Marshall — teamed with local graffiti artist 3D (born Robert del Naja) to form Massive Attack as a production team in 1988. Another Wild Bunch alum, Nellee Hooper, split his time between the new group and his other project, Soul II Soul. Massive Attack’s first single, “Daydreaming,” appeared in 1990, featuring the sultry vocals of singer Shara Nelson and raps by Tricky, another onetime Wild Bunch collaborator. The classic “Unfinished Sympathy” followed, as did another compelling effort, “Safe from Harm.” Finally, in 1991 Massive Attack issued their debut LP, Blue Lines. While by no means a huge commercial success, the record was met with major critical praise and was heralded as an instant classic in many quarters. Nelson, featured on many of the album’s most memorable tracks, exited for a solo career soon after, and the group then changed their name to simply “Massive” to avoid any implication of approval for the U.N.’s policy toward Iraq.
After a three-year hiatus, Massive Attack — their full name now properly reinstated — resurfaced with Protection. Again working with Hooper and Tricky, they also brought into the fold vocalist Nicolette, as well as Everything But the Girl’s Tracey Thorn. Three singles — “Karmacoma,” “Sly,” and the title track — were released from the LP, which was also remixed in its entirety by dub specialist Mad Professor and issued as No Protection. A lengthy tour followed, and over the next several years, Massive Attack’s output was primarily confined to remixes for artists including Garbage. They also worked with Madonna on a track for a Marvin Gaye tribute album. Finally, to promote their appearance at the annual Glastonbury music festival, the group issued the EP Risingson during the summer of 1997.
The third full-length Massive Attack effort, Mezzanine, appeared in mid-1998. In addition to reggae singer Horace Andy making his third consecutive LP appearance with the group, vocal chores were handled by the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser and newcomer Sara Jay. Mezzanine became a hit among critics, clubs, and the college crowds, spinning successful singles such as “Teardrop” and “Inertia Creeps.” The album topped the U.K. chart and crossed into the Top 60 of the Billboard 200 in the U.S. A tour of America and Europe followed, but Vowles left the band after disagreeing with the artistic direction of Mezzanine. Del Naja and Marshall continued as a duo, later working with the likes of David Bowie and the Dandy Warhols. Marshall later took a brief leave of absence to raise his family and producer Neil Davidge picked up the slack.
In February 2003, after a five-year wait, Massive Attack released their fourth album, 100th Window, including collaborations with mainstay Horace Andy as well as Sinéad O'Connor. The record was the group’s first effort to be free of samples or cover songs, but it still performed well commercially, eventually selling more than a million copies. For much of the 2000s, members of Massive Attack moonlighted in film score work, often under the 100 Suns pseudonym. A contract-fulfilling collection of hits and unreleased material entitled Collected was issued in 2006.
The fifth proper Massive Attack studio album, Heligoland, released in 2010, featured collaborations with Horace Andy, TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, Elbow’s Guy Garvey, and Martina Topley-Bird. Burial remixed the album’s “Paradise Circus” and the unreleased “Four Walls” for a limited 12″ release in 2011. The four-track EP Ritual Spirit appeared in 2016 and featured cameos from Roots Manuva, Young Fathers, and for the first time since 1994, the return of original Massive Attack collaborator Tricky. Later that year, the band issued new songs “The Spoils,” with vocals by Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, and “Come Near Me,” which featured U.K. singer Ghostpoet.
In July 2020, the group returned with the conceptual three-song EP Eutopia. The material was recorded in three different cites during quarantine for the COVID-19 pandemic and featured contributions from Young Fathers, Saul Williams, Algiers, and several spoken word artists. The audio was paired with video counterparts, with charged visuals further emphasizing the overt political themes of the songs. ~ Jason Ankeny & Fred Thomas