Monday, November 2, 2009

Spin, 1999
by Simon Reynolds

TRICKY, Maxinquaye (Island, 1995)

Although all but one of its tracks were recorded in London, Maxinquaye has everything to do with Tricky's home town Bristol, the west of England port whose
bohemian milieu of Brit B-boys and post-punk radicals spawned Massive Attack,
Portishead, and the Reprazent clan. "In Bristol, all the different ghettos were mixing in the early Eighties," says Mark Stewart, ex-frontman of legendary avant-funk outfit The Pop Group. "We'd go to reggae 'blues' parties, industrial punk events, and hip hop jams at this crucial club called The Dugout."

Through his friendship with The Wild Bunch (the DJ collective that evolved into
Massive Attack) Stewart became a mentor to Tricky. It was Stewart who first pushed
Tricky onstage and who encouraged him to start a career outside Massive. "He's my
chaos," says Tricky. "When people say I'm weird, I say 'you've got to hang around Mark'. He lives out of a suitcase which contains, like, a jar of mayonnaise, cassettes, and articles clipped out of magazines. He lived with me for two months and got me chucked out of my flat!" It was while they were rooming together that Stewart persuaded Tricky to "blag" money off Massive Attack's management for solo recording. "His idea was to spend half of it on drink!", laughs Tricky. The remaining 300 pounds paid for studio time for "Aftermath", a downtempo drift of "hip hop blues" that eventually became Tricky's debut single.

With Stewart operating as "executive producer" (as Tricky puts it), "Aftermath" came together haphazardly. Stewart remembers the session as "just me and Tricks
messing about on an 8 track," looping beats and weaving in samples that Tricky plucked from "some guy's pile of records". Outside his house, Tricky met Martina Topley-Bird--a schoolgirl in uniform, waiting for a bus--and on impulse invited her to sing. "I laid down a guide vocal for her, but we decided to keep my voice in, 'cos it sounded haunting." This slightly out-of-synch pairing of Martina's dulcet croon and Tricky's bleary rapping became the model for much of Maxinquaye. There was a fourth collaborator on "Aftermath",claims Tricky--he believes the post-apocalyptic scenario lyrics were channeled from his mother, who died when he was four. "I found out later that she used to write words, poetry, but never showed them to anybody."

Tricky offered "Aftermath" to Massive, who were still pulling together their 1991
debut Blue Lines. But, chuckles Tricky, the band's 3D "told me 'it's shit, you're never going to make it as a producer". "Aftermath" stayed on cassette for three years,unreleased; Tricky fell out of touch with Topley-Bird. After Blue Lines's release, Tricky was in limbo, idling on a retainer wage from Massive. "All I did was smoke weed, drink in bars, and go to clubs from Wednesday to Sunday." He sank into a slough of despond, complete with marijuana-induced paranoid hallucinations of demons in his living room.

This dark period inspired Tricky's next recording, "Ponderosa" and its lyrics about
an alcohol-and-spliff induced descent through "different levels of the Devil's company". Underpinned by a clanking, lurching percussion influenced by Indian bhangra,"Ponderosa" was one of several tracks demoed in London with engineering wizard Howard Bernstein (a/k/a Howie B), courtesy of Island Records. "Tricky was living with me and my girlfriend Harriet for a while," remembers Bernstein. "Kippers for breakfast, and Tricky kipping on a couch in the front room." Hospitable Howie believed he was all set to be a partner in the album project, should Island decide to sign Tricky. But management conflicts resulted in a "a legal nightmare" and left almost an album's worth of tunes stranded on the shelf. Although "Ponderosa" did clinch the Island deal, Bernstein was not included and "walked away with a sour taste in my mouth."

Tricky, meanwhile, bought a home studio and started work on the album in a grim
area of London called Harlesden, where he and Topley-Bird were ensconced as house
mates, although they barely knew each other. Aggravating his desolate surroundings and the alienation caused by moving from his hometown Bristol to a city where he had no friends, Tricky was listening to a relentlessly glum soundtrack-- The Geto Boys, Billie Holliday, and The Specials. The "concrete bleak sound" of Specials classics such as "Ghost Town" is just one thread in the Maxinquaye tapestry. Alongside the obvious hip hop ancestry (Eric B & Rakim's cinematic rap noir; Public Enemy--Tricky hailed Chuck D as "my Shakespeare"), the album is steeped in the influence of English art-rock weirdness ---Bowie, Numan, Japan, Peter Gabriel, and Kate Bush ("I think she's in the same league as John Lennon," Tricky gushes). Even more unlikely, Tricky claims that the gorgeous aural malaise of "Abbaon Fat Tracks" got its curious title because "it reminded me of Abba--but fucked up, and with phat beats."

An enigmatic tribute to his mother Maxine Quaye, the album's title was originally
intended as Tricky and Martina's collective bandname until the rapper capitulated to
Island's pressure and agreed to record under his nom de mic'. Released in 1995 to massive acclaim, Maxinquaye works simultaneously as an autobiographical account of one man's struggles and as a wider allegory. Evoking the orphanned drift, sociocultural deadlock, and pre-millenial tension of the Nineties just as Sly Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On had expressed the caged rage and curdled idealism of the early Seventies, Maxinquaye seemed to be partly about the inability of Tricky's generation to imagine utopia, let alone build it.

"We're all fucking lost!", Tricky declared. "I can't see how things are gonna get better. I think we have to destroy everything and start again. But I can't pretend I've got the answers. Bob Marley, he could write songs about freedom and love. I'm just telling the truth that I'm confused, I'm paranoid, I'm scared, I'm vicious."
Yet for all its despondency and dread, Maxinquaye is ultimately a redemptive experience.

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