Bristol A Haze of Trip Hop and Graffiti II
23 December, 2016
On the far side of Bearpit lies Stokes Croft, the bohemian area seething with music bars, clubs and cafés with multi-purpose basements like the one in Cafe Kino or The Art House, where what caught our attention on their menu were the paninis christened with the names of the most popular local electronic bands. For a rather quick, nutritional eat – even in vegan variety – we can also recommend the nearby restaurant in the local Biblos chain where we tasted the wraps and shared food trays. The same street features one of Banksy’s first murals, “Mild Mild West”, a teddy bear brandishing a Molotov cocktail as a group of bobbies approaches, painted after clashes between riot police and ravers in 1999. The graffiti is at the entrance to Hamilton House, a building housing cooperatively managed artists and start-ups with a spacious, crowded bar called The Canteen. There we had arranged to meet Euan Dickson, the young sound engineer of Massive Attack, celebrated Bristol citizens and the most prolific survivors of so-called Trip Hop. Dickson has overseen the gestation of their music since early 2000, including the albums “100th Window”, “Heligoland” and the recent EP “Ritual Spirit”. He also operates as a keyboardist in their world tours, although he admits having reached music by a different route: “When the band released ‘Mezzanine’ in 1997, I was only 10 years old! Oasis prompted me to take up the guitar, but it was PJ Harvey and Radiohead that opened up a new world for me. I was lucky enough to have my Dad recommend me as a porter in the Massive Attack studio, where I also learned to use Pro Tools and, thanks to my enthusiasm, ended up helping them with their music”, Euan Dickson revealed to us in the company of two friendly mates of his and a few pints we shared in good cheer.
We chatted about the racial diversity in the city, the result of immigration in the fifties, which has also seen some conflict. Nowadays “it’s just taken as normal because you grow up with people from everywhere. Bear in mind that 70% of Bristol voted to stay in the EU in the Brexit referendum”, Dickson explains. In fact, the origins of the group he plays in is deeply rooted in the vibrant scene born of that cultural mix. Since the 70s, the Jamaican diaspora has left its musical mark on the St Pauls suburb, an area where riots broke out in 1980 in response to a police raid. It would also have been the haunts of the young DJ Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles, Grantley “DaddyG” Marshall and the then graffiti artist, Robert “3D” Del Naja, later recognised as the original core members of Massive Attack. In the eighties, they jointly founded one of the first “sound systems” in the United Kingdom, the legendary Wild Bunch, which also included such illustrious Bristolians as Tricky, a future collaborator of the group and, subsequently, a star in his own right, and Nellee Hooper, a star producer of Soul II Soul, Björk, Madonna and Gwen Stefani. Between steamy reggae and punk activism, the first New-York-style spray and lettering, sweaty MCs and incisive scratches, dark nights and cold rain, the original foundations of Trip Hop were laid. The controversial label was applied to the scene sparked by Massive Attack, together with other local groups that achieved global recognition, like Smith & Mighty, Kosheen and the acclaimed Portishead, the latter named after the nearby town and birthplace of their lead, Geoff Barrow, who met Beth Gibbons when he was earning a living as a singer in Bristol’s night spots.
As if Massive Attack’s ties to the local underground were not enough, there is even a theory which identifies Del Naja as the face behind Banksy. Although we had been warned that the group were fed up with the subject, we couldn’t help slipping the question. “If 3D were Banksy, I would have found out long ago”, Dickson asserted. He added that the headlines came out the day before the band were due to hold a big concert in their hometown and that, “when 3D turned up at the rehearsal, Daddy G began to shout, ‘Look everybody , Banksy’s arrived!’, and we fell about laughing”.
We said goodbye to Dickson and started reviewing the development of local electronic music. At the same time Trip Hop was flourishing, another native of Bristol was coming to the fore – Roni Size who, together with the collective, Reprazent, would define drum and bass, spawning a host of sub-genres that continue to feed the city with breakbeats. For instance, while London is regarded as the nerve centre of grime, Bristol is the birthplace of renowned DJ and producer Joker, said to have a spectacular home studio here. Another local figure is DJ Blazey, from the Bodynod collective. He has managed countless clubs dedicated to urban sounds combining rap, electronic and reggae. Unfortunately, we didn’t coincide with any of them, but we were able to attend a whole night of dub, dubstep and grime sound featuring two beacons of UK Urban Music, The Bug and Flowdan. They performed for a radically young, totally devoted crowd in the gigantic, multi-space Lakota, in the Stokes Croft area. Other clubs where fans queue up at the weekend are the neighbouring Blue Mountain and SWX, in Broadmead. Sure enough, electronic seems to well up by spontaneous generation in a city which is also home to the boisterous Fuck Buttons and The Third Eye Foundation, the alter ego of Matt Elliot, also a singer of dark folk.
Well, music is just everywhere in Bristol – in the transhumant buskers who entertain tourists with their guitar playing, in the numerous shops selling instruments and in the new record stores – like Idle Hands, a must-visit for electronic devotees – that have emerged in place of the plethora of forerunners that closed down during the previous decade. However, the sound is experienced above all in the endless array of music bars and concert halls like The Lanes, where that weekend various members of Fun Lovin Criminals DJ’ed. On Saturdays they host Mod nights, currently featuring DJ Andy Crofts of Paul Weller Band fame at the helm. Others include the famous venue Louisiana – “The Louie”, among friends – or the large syndicated auditorium O2 Academy, used for big occasions. Pubs, too, notably the seedy The Surrey Vaults or The Crofters Rights where, apart from tasting a huge number of craft beers, we spent an evening organised by the London label Trashmouth Records and caught sight of Big Jeff, an endearing local figure whose presence at a concert acts as an endorsement of your choice of venue from among the endless offerings in the city.
All music is welcome and, if one day it is electronic that blares out, this doesn’t mean the next day guitars shouldn’t prevail. No wonder, then, that Bristol is also the city of Wayne Hussey, the former Sisters of Mercy guitarist, and singer of The Mission, both beacons of gothic rock. Also hailing from Bristol are rockers like The Alligators and Rob Ellis, the drummer, producer and arranger known for his close collaboration with PJ Harvey for over two decades. The band Airbus is from nearby Portishead and is actually a spin-off from the group of the same name and with whom they recorded the B-side track “Sour Times”. But, if you’re looking for harder sounds, there are the small standout classics by Onslaught who were part of the thrash metal explosion in the eighties and split up shortly afterwards, only to reunite in 2004. Then there are Jaguar, part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and the hardcore punk group Disorder. So, Bristol begets a penchant for sharp riffs, as evinced in the crowded 3-storey pub, Mother’s Ruin, or at the venue Stag and Hounds, where that weekend happened to feature a performance by Olanza whose bassist is the son of the Black Sabbath drummer.
And, of course, we can’t overlook the fact that some seminal post-punk groups like The Pop Group and Glaxo Babies were founded in Bristol in the late seventies, followed the next decade by such acolytes as The Agents, The Escape and Rip Rig + Panic, whose members include the selfsame Neneh Cherry who would subsequently let Massive Attack use the kitchen in her London flat as a studio during the group’s initial forays in the metropolis. Bristol also witnessed the birth of two members of the popular Bananarama. And, another yardstick of mainstream eighties, the sorely missed Tears for Fears, came together in nearby Bath, where the Propellerheads also emerged. This is clearly fertile ground for music.
The rain never let up throughout our time in the city and, while we never quite grasped the rationale behind some locals – obviously used to such downpours – calmly strolling about in shirtsleeves or jerseys, we did come to appreciate the early nightfall and stimulating cold of Bristol in winter. We admired the city while recalling the verse by Beth Gibbons: “All mine / you have to be / from that cloud / number nine”. And, although soaked through, we felt lucky to be treading its streets.
Did that catch your fancy? Inspiring, isn’t it? Well, don’t leave it at that – get a flight and experience it for yourself. Check out our dates and times here.
Images by Los Viajes de ISABELYLUIS
23 December, 2016