Massive Attack - Biography

Trip hop pioneers Massive Attack defined the UK’s “Bristol Sound” of the 1990s with their slowed down hip-hop beats, trippy ambiances, and smooth vocals -- often whispered rather than sung. However, Massive Attack’s three core members Robert “3D” del Naja, Grant “Daddy G” Marshall, and Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles were anything but mellow, earning the band hundreds of headlines for its outspoken anti-war stance, as well as engendering numerous internal band skirmishes that ultimately led to Vowles and Marshall quitting at one point or another. Descending from the Bristol party group (or sound system) the Wild Bunch, Massive Attack found critical acclaim with their debut Blue Lines (1991 Virgin) and followed it up with equally quality outings Protection (1994 Virgin) and Mezzanine (1998 Virgin) before nearly self-destructing. The wreckage coalesced around del Naja as the disappointing 100th Window (2003 Virgin), before their greatest hits compilation Collected (2006 Virgin) reminded listeners of such gems as “Unfinished Sympathy,” “Safe From Harm,” “Protection,” “Karmacoma,” “Angel,” “Teardrop” and “Intertia Creeps.” Del Naja and Marshall appear to have regrouped as late as 2008 for another studio album, rumored to feature numerous collaborators — a trait demonstrated in the past with the use of Tricky, Madonna, Sinead O’Connor, Damon Albarn, Shara Nelson, Tracey Thorn, and longtime collaborator and reggae star Horace Andy, who del Naja considers the fourth, honorary member of the band. Massive Attack’s fusion of dub, reggae, hip-hop, punk and electronic experimentation can be seen more simply as the fusion of black and white music—and a logical postscript to English colonialism. The soggy, grey city of Bristol was a major hub of the Atlantic slave trade. Slavery’s local history, and more importantly, the dramatic influence of colonized peoples on Bristol’s inhabitants remains a fount of inspiration and conflict.


Robert del Naja (born January 21, 1965), Grant Marshall (born December 18, 1959) and Andrew Vowles (born November 10, 1967) grew up in the southwestern English port town of Bristol. Bristol had emerged as one of the major urban hubs in Western England, owing to its history as the northern tip of the notorious Atlantic slave trade triangle — a commercial route built on trade of enslaved Africans for raw goods and hard currency in the New World. Colonial slave profits paid for goods and ships in Bristol. The ships, money and goods would then be used to buy more slaves from Africa. More than two hundred years later, a thriving Bristol bristled with influences from such early globalism, and in the '80s a group of artists, DJs, musicians, and dancers formed a “sound system” called the Wild Bunch. The concept of a “sound system” — a group that threw parties for profit and prestige -- came from the former English colony of Jamaica. Among the Wild Bunch were del Naja, then a graffiti artist and MC, as well as Marshall and Vowles, both DJs. The collective toured Europe, blending reggae with classic R&B and even punk. When the Wild Bunch dissolved, Marshall and Vowles split off to form Massive Attack with del Naja in 1987. Del Naja was opinionated, motivated and lacked any musical or artistic training, but made up for it with a bold experimental outlook. This contrasted with Marshall, who was black and more musically accomplished, and with mixed race Vowles who was obsessed with jazz, R&B and soul.


Pioneering intelligent dance music, the trio self-released the singles “Any Love” and “Daydreaming” in 1990. With much help from vocalist Shara Nelson, arranger Neneh Cherry, and at least ten others, Massive Attack’s recorded its first LP Blue Lines (1991 Virgin) in Bristol and London. Featuring now-classics like “Unfinished Sympathy” and “Safe From Harm,” the album became a critic's darling, combining dub, soul, and funk into a downtempo delight, and setting the stage for Portishead, the Sneaker Pimps, and many others. “Unfinished Sympathy” featured Shara Nelson in rare R&B form, ditto for “Safe from Harm.” Blue Lines demonstrated to the world Massive Attack’s preternatural powers of collaboration, something the band would have trouble holding onto.


The same year as Blue Lines, the first Gulf War broke out, and Massive Attack, led by del Naja, paid for full-page protest advertisements in the NME. The band also changed their name to “Massive” after Virgin pressured the band to disambiguate itself from the Gulf War or any tacit-albeit-semiotic support of it. As multi-racial residents of Bristol, the band must have been acutely aware of the effects of British imperialism throughout history. They felt an obligation to reject such modern overtures, even as their music was in a certain sense indebted to imperialism. The political stance did not bode well for their first American tour, however. Vowles would grow to hate touring, which precluded his exit from the band.


After touring, del Naja, Marshall and Vowles began work on the Blue Lines follow-up, later to be called Protection (1994 Wild Bunch Records/Virgin), which would signify the end of a peaceful period for the band. Soul II Soul producer Nelle Hooper handled production, and the band also pulled in Everything But The Girl’s Tracey Thorn, Tricky, Horace Andy and Nicolette for vocal duties.  Known for improvising concepts before chucking them entirely, the band took their time, and Protection proved worth the wait. Thorn’s sultry yet sharp vocals on standout single “Protection” gave a contemporary edge to the single’s near-pornographic tempo and wah-wah pedal-enhanced guitar riff.  Longtime Bristol collaborator and troublemaker Tricky also makes his mark on the vocals for “Karmacoma,” a single which also features the bass line from Serge Gainsbourg’s 1971 song “Melody.” Four years would pass between Protection and its follow-up Mezzanine, and in the interim, the specter of the trip hop's success would divide the band.


Collaborators for now more than fifteen years, the three did not associate with one another after the grueling Protection tour and they didn’t miss one another either. When they did regroup, del Naja was fearful of being typecast in the trip hop category after Portishead and others’ success. In the studio, he embarked on a mission to take Massive Attack to a much more dark, punk, and aggressive place with its follow-up to Protection. However, Vowles was more content to work on the band’s R&B, soul and jazz aspects, while Marshall sat squarely in the middle on the issue. Del Naja’s forceful personality began to alienate Vowles and the collective began to dissolve under it. Del Naja said in interviews that the three grew to hate each other, especially after he threw tantrums and dismissed Vowles’ musical ideas in order to get his way in the studio. Fiercely independent, the band took its time fighting with one another and had no compunction about wasting label funds. Massive Attack once killed a $120,000 Mezzanine-era music video amid post-production, because the group agreed that they disliked it.


Eventually Virgin forced the band to finish the album, and del Naja won control over its sound. When Mezzanine (1998 Virgin) came out, it was indeed darker by contrast-- filled with guitars, aggressive percussion. It can be seen as an analog to Del Naja’s profoundly pensive and disturbing work remixing UNKLE standout track “Rabbit In Your Headlights” featuring Thom Yorke on vocals. Single “Angel” finally gave Horace Andy the spotlight he deserved, at the center of a monumentally cinematic and climactic track that would be incorporated into more than dozen films or television shows including The Matrix, Pi, and Snatch. “Teardrop” guest vocalist Elizabeth Fraser took over the female vocal role that Thorn and Nelson invented, sweetly offering a counterpoint to the classic downtempo beats, bassline, and piano and electronic atmospherics. Most interesting of all was del Naja’s incorporation of Eastern rhythms and melodies in the single “Intertia Creeps,” which was inspired by a trip to Istanbul and a relationship that was going nowhere, yet was continually propelled by its own inertia. One would be hard-pressed to find a better example of del Naja’s whispering or softly spoken vocals, which evoke pillow talk more than a raucous club.


The Mezzanine tour ultimately broke the band. Augmenting their traditional mic and DJ stand setup with live instruments, lights, and numerous personnel changes throughout the set, Massive Attack embarked on a 75-plus stop tour that caused Vowles to quit. Still simmering from their inability to come to a creative compromise on the album, the three refused to do press interview together whilst sharing the same bus. Each took turns airing their gross dissatisfaction in the press. The Mezzanine material quickly bored them, while serving up a nightly reminder of their creative impasse. Del Naja said in interviews that he was drunk many nights, owing to his limited stage time amid the collective road show. If there was any inertia holding the band together, it ran out on the road tour. Vowles left in 1999.


In 2000, after their break-up, del Naja recorded with the band Lupine Howl and continued to work with Mezzanine producer Neil Davidge. Frustrated with the creative direction of their follow-up to Mezzanine, Marshall also left the band, leaving just producer Davidge and del Naja to finish the record over the next three years. Again, a war in the Persian Gulf broke out and del Naja spent time with friend and Blur frontman Damon Albarn opposing it. When Mezzanine follow-up 100th Window (2003 Virgin) finally came out, it was considered a dud by many critics, including Robert Christgau and, who gave it a 5.1 out of 10. The title refers to a book on security, says del Naja, who recruited Sinead O’Connor among a notably thinner roster of collaborators including Albarn, and the rock-like, ever-reliable Horace Andy. The album’s lack of impact may have been influenced by del Naja’s arrest on child pornography charges in 2003. The investigation began when del Naja’s credit card information (possibly fraudulently obtained in a case of ID theft) appeared on the purchase invoices of a child porn site. The charges were later dismissed after no child pornography was found on del Naja’s personal computers.


In 2004, del Naja, Davidge, and programmer Alex Swift released the instrumental soundtrack to the Jet Li vehicle Danny the Dog, produced by Luc Besson. Two years later, the release of a best of album Collected (2006 Virgin) preceded another world tour that notably lacked Vowles. The album sold close to 500,000 copies.


As recently as 2008, the music press has reported a new album featuring del Naja and Marshall, as well as Horace Andy, Damon Albarn, Elizabeth Fraser, Hope Sandoval, TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, producer Davidge and Mos Def. However, reports indicate that del Naja and Marshall will not work in the same studio, but will work from their respective sides of Bristol on the record.


Pioneers of trip hop, Massive Attack ultimately succumbed to the success of the genre that they helped create. Children of Bristol's checkered, multi-racial past, the band fused colonial influences to the wet, dark, sensual and cerebral atmosphere of their urbane college town — creating a monster that del Naja grew to hate. His forceful personality, which had motivated and served the band in its infancy, ultimately alienated its other members, especially Vowles, who served as the ghost in del Naja's machine. The band suffered for it. Massive Attack now survives as an inherently more stable duo run by del Naja with Marshall and augmented by longtime fundamentals like Horace Andy and the host of female vocalists who have sung the band’s most memorable lyrics. No matter what their future output may bring or who the relentless collaborators tap next, their first three studio albums are among the most successful examples of Britain’s vivacious, post-acid house experimentalism of the ’90s.

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