Tricky - Biography

Adrian Thaws, better known as Tricky, got his start with the Wild Bunch, the rap group that became Massive Attack and pioneered the popular trip-hop scene in early 90's Bristol, England. By 1995, Tricky was striking out on his own, beginning a raspy-voiced solo career that would bring him fame, critical praise, and requests to work with admiring artists. By the end of the millennium, it would seem that Tricky's creativity and relevance had sputtered out prematurely. In 2008, however, he bounced back with Knowle West Boy (2008 Domino), a definite return to form that made critics and fans take note once again.

Though never considered an official member of Massive Attack, Tricky appeared on many of their tracks, giving certain songs extra character and weight. On their 1991 debut, Blue Lines (Virgin Records), Tricky had strong vocal outings with “Daydreaming,” “Five Man Army,” and the title track. It was not until his first solo album that he would utilize the trademark hoarseness in his voice.

 In 1993, he had a pivotal encounter with Martina Topley-Bird, a teenage vocalist who would share collaborations with Tricky for years to come. Tricky recorded the single “Aftermath” that year, and signed a contract with Island subsidiary 4th & Broadway Records in 1994. The contract was favorable for the artist, containing a clause that gave him the freedom to appear on one non-Tricky release each year. Two popular singles, “Overcome” and “Ponderosa,” were released that year, as well as further joint efforts with Massive Attack on their second album, Protection (1994 Virgin Records), on which Tricky shines with songs “Karmacoma” and “Eurochild.” Tricky recycled the lyrics of those two Massive Attack songs on his own solo debut Maxinquaye (Island/4th & Broadway), which was released the following year in 1995. 

Maxinquaye was a huge success and was showered with positive reviews. It shared elements of Massive Attack's approach to production but demonstrated an eclecticism that many hadn't expected from Tricky. “Black Steel” is dominated by punk guitars and loud drums. The Smashing Pumpkins-sampling “Pumpkin” has future Brit-star Alison Goldfrapp singing a haunting lead vocal. Other songs include samples by Isaac Hayes, The Commodores, Public Enemy, and even Squeeze. Many wanted to work with Tricky after hearing his debut and 1995 saw him collaborating with Bjork, Swedish alt-rock band Whale, and Luscious Jackson. Hardcore rappers the Gravediggaz worked with Tricky as well and as Tricky Vs. Gravediggaz they put out an EP called The Hell in the fall of 1995. Taking advantage of the special clause in his recording contract, Tricky recorded the EP I Be the Prophet (1995 Durban Poison) and released it under the name Starving Souls. Maxinquaye was still popular with fans and critics at the end of that year, and it turned up in many year-end best lists in the UK. The album also received a nomination for the Mercury Prize, an annual music award for the best album in the UK and Ireland.

Nearly God (Island/4th & Broadway) surfaced in 1996. Not seen as a proper follow-up to Maxinquaye, the album was more of a showcase for Tricky's recent collaborations with artists such as Bjork, The Special's frontman Terry Hall, trip-hop forerunner Neneh Cherry, Cath Coffey of Stereo MC's, and British pop singer Alison Moyet. Again, Tricky had scored with critics. The album may have seemed like an effort to buy some time to write new material that could rival Maxinquaye, but shortly after Nearly God appeared in stores, Tricky traveled to Jamaica to complete his official follow-up. Once finished with the recording sessions, he moved to New York to begin collaborating with artists in the underground rap scene. The result of these partnerships was Tricky Presents Grassroots (1996 FFRR), a five-track EP that pairs Tricky with several other artists. MCA and Beastie Boy’s Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond co-wrote the EP’s opening track “Heaven, Youth Hell,” although they do not appear on the track. 

Just a couple of months later, Tricky released Pre-Millennium Tension (1996 Island/4th & Broadway), his second official solo album. Although not as well-received as Maxinquaye or Nearly God, Tricky had still pulled off an impressive hat trick in a very small amount of time. The all-around darkness of the release was alienating for some, and it certainly can be a depressing listen. The opening track, “Vent,” is a claustrophobic mélange of music and lyrics. It’s not just gloomy; the album has its boring moments as well, such as the five-plus minutes of “Ghetto Youth,” which features a Rastafarian speaking unintelligibly over a dragging beat. But one can't deny the cool of “Christiansands,” a song with a hooky guitar line that snakes along on a broken groove, and the seductive vocals of Topley-Bird against Tricky’s menacing, warbled rasp.

Tricky participated in a few more collaborations before the year was out. He remixed the Elvis Costello song “Distorted Angel” from All This Useless Beauty (1996 Warner Bros.). He remixed “Milk,” the last track off Garbage's self-titled debut [Garbage (1995 Almo Sounds)] for inclusion on a single. The unlikely partnership between Tricky and Yoko Ono produced the bizarre and strangely appealing “Where Do We Go From Here?” On the soundtrack to Tim Pope’s 1996 film The Crow: City of Angels, he teamed up with Bush for a remix of the song “In a Lonely Place.”

Getting back to his main gig, Tricky released his fourth album, Angels with Dirty Faces (Island) in 1998. Not a bad album by any means, Angels finds the artist taking some steps back, or at least treading the same water as Pre-Millennium Tension. That year, Tricky and Topley-Bird had a falling out that resulted in her decision to go solo. Five years later, she would debut with Quixotic (2003 Independiente) and become a finalist for the 2003 Mercury Prize. Meanwhile, Tricky would be promoting the worst album of his career.

At the close of the millennium, Tricky partnered with Grease (DMX's producer) and DJ Muggs (Cypress Hill) for 1999's Juxtapose (Island). While the album highlights a revitalized Tricky, the songs sound less inspired than one might hope. The album is extremely uneven; half of the songs sound like failed experiments while the other half stands with the best work of Tricky's career. 

By 2001, Tricky had left Island Records and put out the EP Mission Accomplished on Epitaph offshoot Anti-. He then signed with Hollywood Records and, later that year, pulled out all the stops (or at least all the stars) within his reach. Among the artists featured on Blowback (2001 Hollywood Records) are Alanis Morissette, Cyndi Lauper, and Live's Ed Kowalczyk, as well as Anthony Kiedis, John Frusciante, and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Again, Tricky had a hit-and-miss affair on his hands. There are moments of self-sabotage in which Tricky puts a good groove to tape but then adds vocals that do not measure up, whether they are delivered by a guest star or himself. He had now officially painted himself into a corner; he etched out an innovative, futuristic sound years ago, but found himself unable to build upon it or make it fresh and relevant. Things looked even worse for him on 2003's Vulnerable (Sanctuary) — yet another attempt at reinvention that was a misstep through and through. Everything about Tricky, from his music to the unflattering way he was portrayed in the media (some publications referred to him as “the dark prince”), was working against him.

Tricky laid low for five years following the disastrous release of Vulnerable. He moved around the US, first living in the Bronx, then Los Angeles. In 2007, he started up his own label called Brown Punk. The sabbatical turned out to be a good move, giving him time to regroup and find a way to avoid stretching his run of flops to a total of five. Luckily, Tricky returned with an album that was seen as his best since Pre-Millennium Tension. He needed a win badly and Knowle West Boy (2008 Domino), his first release for Domino, is definitely a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, Tricky saw the timing of the release as rather unfortunate. The album dropped at about the same time as Third (2008 Island), the brilliant comeback album by fellow Bristolian trip-hop visionaries Portishead. Massive Attack had plans to release their long-delayed Weather Underground later that year as well. Comparisons were inevitable. Knowle West Boy is solid, but nowhere near the startling achievement of Third. Where Third was an album that merited discussion beyond its context, Knowle West Boy was an “achievement” based solely on the fact that it came from an artist whom many had written off years ago as irrelevant. That having been said, it is impressive that Tricky could overcome the negativity and record an album that was, at the very least, a pretty good set.

Many thought that 2008 signaled a revival of the Bristol trip-hop scene, but Tricky denied it. He is today, as he was in the ‘90s, an artist who makes music on his own terms and does not fear poor results or critical backlash. His music, much like his perplexing persona and tenacity, is something that is familiar and inspiring. In 2010 he released Mixed Race, a Top 40 hit in France.

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