Massive Attack & the birth of the "Bristol Sound"

BY Melissa Chemam

18th Oct 2020 Music

Massive Attack & the birth of the "Bristol Sound"

We look back on Massive Attack's seminal single, "Daydreaming" and how it opened a new era for Black British music 

Thirty years ago, on October 15, 1990, the song “Daydreaming” by Massive Attack came out, six months before their debut album, Blue Lines. The song opened so many directions for Black British music. While writing a book about the “Bristol Sound”, I met many of these musicians and their collaborators, to retell this story.


Released with a slick black and white video, with a hot climate fusing England and the Caribbean, “Daydreaming” reached number #81 in the UK Singles Chart, a first for a Bristol band.

The single featured Tricky, 3D and Shara Nelson on vocals, mixing rap, dub and reggae influences with a pinch of soul and funk, and opened a new era.

From reggae and punk to hip-hop and electro, came the “Bristol Sound”

Before forming Massive Attack in 1988, Daddy G, Mushroom and 3D hung out in a club called The Dug Out. They were part of The Wild Bunch, a loose collective created by DJ Milo and Nellee Hopper in 1980. Milo, G and Mushroom are of Caribbean origins, and grew up to the sound of reggae and soul. 3D, born in an Italian-English family, and Nellee were as obsessed with Black music.

Reggae has indeed had a major influence on Bristol since the 1970s. The music helped immigrants to understand their post-colonial situation at a time of hostility. Bands like Black Roots and Talisman, DJs like Tarzan the High Priest and DJ Derek popularised the style in pubs and at St Paul’s Carnival. Soon, younger DJs started organising “blues parties” and events in warehouses or clubs like the Dug Out, described as Bristol’s little Studio 54 of the 1980s.

"Graffiti and rap came out of the cultural void left by punk"

“Graffiti and rap came out of the cultural void left by punk,” 3D told me. “I started writing vocals for Wednesdays at The Dug Out. It was very selective; The Wild Bunch wouldn’t let many on the mic. Daddy G did some reggae-style toasting. Willy Wee had a more New-York-style MC thing. And then there was me.”

Also part of the scene were young rappers from the same humble immigrant origins, like Tricky. Born of English, African and Jamaican parentage, Adrian Thaws aka Tricky infused his music with Bristolian and Caribbean references. He met The Wild Bunch in 1987. “It was a great time for us all,” he says, “we didn’t care about money, only about making the best music possible. I slept at friends’ or in squats. It was a life of total freedom.”


In 1989, the collective dissolved though, and Nellee Hooper joined Soul II Soul in London, producing their second album, Vol. II: 1990—A New Decade, which peaked at number 1 on the UK Albums Chart.

3D and Mushroom started working with the Swedish singer based in London, Neneh Cherry, producing songs for her first album, Raw Like Sushi, released in 1989. Her partner and manager, Cameron McVey, saw a potential in the unconventional group and encouraged them to record… That’s how of Massive Attack came about and the songs that formed Blue Lines.

“Daydreaming” 30 years on

This mix of soul vocals and hip-hop started with a track, “Daydreaming”.

The band sampled the song “Mambo” by West-African French musician Willy Badarou, from his album Echoes (1984), adding their raps and soulful lyrics. 

Tricky was then 20 years old, was not part of the band but collaborated with 3D on lyrics. “It’s the first track I worked ever,” he told me. “I was so young at the time; I had no clue of how to release a track alone. 3D was my mate; we were always together in the clubs, in the underground scene. I was not at all interested in keeping a track for myself back then. I still hear people telling me how much they love it.”

The song, in a very Massive Attack way, was “reworked dozens of times”, 3D told me, with many producers like himself, Cameron Mc Vey and Johnny Dollar.

Massive Sound, Massive Influence

Since the release of Blue Lines in 1991, the song as well as “Unfinished Sympathy” and “Safe From Harm” have become some sort of national anthems.

Massive Attack has released four other albums, Tricky—14, and bands like Portishead have emerged from the city. The Bristol sound produced a new chapter for the history Black British Music, Massive working Horace Andy and the Mad Professor (who remixed their albums in dub versions), Nigerian Scottish singer Nicolette, Bristol stars Martina Topley-Bird and Yola, also inviting Black artists from the US such as Mos Def and Snoop Doggy Dog. Their influence is heard in the sound of London Grammar as much as Lana Del Rey.

Massive Attack live

More recently, they featured Young Fathers, Roots Manuva, Saul Williams and James Massiah, who read one of his poems on “Dear Friend” in 2016. “It was an incredible opportunity,” James told me. “An A&R at a record label sent one of my poems to their producer and we had two sessions before locking it in.”

In 1991, John McCready wrote in The Face magazine: “Hip hop heroes or Bristol’s answer to Pink Floyd? Either way, Massive Attack are the sound of 1991.” A sound that still resonates.


Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter