Tricky. ‘I’ll master your language, and in the meantime, I’ll create my own’
from the series ‘One Hundred Musicians’
Digital recording technology was embryonic as early as the 1970s, but in the music industry, analogue still dominated. Analogue recording, considered to be the state of the art, facilitated easy recording and erasing and could even be spliced together or apart. However the digital revolution was soon transforming the large recording studios of the 1980s. By the early 90s digital multitrack recorders were being introduced to small studios and even home studios and suddenly the revolution was in the hands of the masses.
With a computer and some basic software you could now take a recorded sound, loop it, sample it, play it backwards, upside down, make burroughs-esque cut ups in an instant, duplicate it, edit it, slow it down, change the pitch, change the waveform. This was a long way from the Beatles in the 1960s who, when they experimented with tape loops, had long lengths of magnetic tape coming off a revox machine, looping several feet around a studio, around pencils held up by a whole team of engineers or colleagues, and then back into the revox, making a sound loop of a few seconds worth of ‘backwards guitar or seagulls’. Now the whole of Pandora’s sound box was open to anyone.
Enter Tricky. Via his connection with Massive Attack, he found himself with a recording deal. No previous experience, no musical or technical education, a perfect combination of naif and street-wise trickykid. He unleashed his debut album Maxinquaye on the world in 1995 and transformed the musical landscape. Musically it hinted at several different styles, hip hop, electronica, dubby stuff, even soul, but sounded like the music had been accidentally dropped in the bath, put through a wringer, hit with a jack hammer and glued back together in not quite the right order. The drum loops were insistent, hypnotising but curiously broken and disfigured. Voices disappeared far into the background of the mix, often almost inaudible beneath the grinding of machines and fragmented samples. Within a single track, two different tempos would fight against each other for dominance. It was a dark place to hang out, but exciting.
If the music was dark, the lyrics were like black holes. Tricky said that the album was named after his late mother Maxine Quaye, and that many of the words were written for a woman’s voice, as if she was speaking through him. Tricky’s voice is like a whispering presence throughout, but the main vocals are by a very young and freely expressive Martina Topley Bird. The chemistry between the two of them is deeply affecting, it’s sensual, sexual, sometimes very stoned. The words and themes vary from political to gender-political to stream of consciousness to stream of unconsciousness. The gender politics is subverted yet again when Martina covers Public Enemy’s ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, singing ‘I’m a black man’. It’s a courageous and inspired moment. But the whole album is full of such moments.
To paraphrase Dead Prez.. ‘It’s bigger than Trip Hop’. Tricky has said he dislikes the label Trip Hop. That’s fair enough. It’s just a handle after all. But the term does tell you a lot about the music. It’s rooted in Hip Hop but not as we know it. It’s deeply psychedelic. Tricky also bemoaned the way that Maxinquaye had been received by the media, by the public. He said it was supposed to have stayed underground but had become a ‘coffee table album’. Can’t agree there. In the mid 90s it was Portishead which became the coffee table album. Maxinquaye was a cultural grenade.