B-Boy Rock Star
Tricky in the 1990s
“And when there’s trust there’ll be treats
When we funk, we’ll hear beats.”
—Tricky, “Overcome,” 1995
Twenty-seven years after Tricky released his debut album Maxinquaye in 1995, those dusty grooves still sound fresh. However, while Tricky and his musical partner Martina Topley-Bird’s early genius continues to be recognized, I often think of what their place should be within the hip-hop canon of 1990s production and vocal innovators. Inspired by the boom-bap of the old school, its impressive that he and she were able to expand the sound and language of the genre while contributing something new to the world of music.
As a fan of the black technological music known as rap going back to the days of crews travelling from block parties to parks to paint peeling venues in local New York City hoods, I was attracted to the diverse styles of various MCs and turntable sounds. A few years later when the music moved from the streets to the studios, that changed the tones, textures, and trebles of the music that those sound stylists made experimenting with turntables, samplers, drum machines and various electronic instruments.
My personal favorites were the tracks that were gritty as well as futuristic. That included singles by 1980s sound scientists Kurtis Mantronik, Marley Marl, Scott La Rock, and The Bomb Squad. The sonic contributions of those four names formed part of the foundation which others would build upon for years to come. It was those geniuses that inspired me as an emerging hip-hop journalist to document the music and scene that defined the movement.
A decade later, the next generation of production whizzes not only included American homegrown talents DJ Premier, Pete Rock, DJ Muggs, Rza, and Dr. Dre, but also pulled in from Bristol, England producers/artists such as Smith & Mighty, Nelle Hooper, Massive Attack, and Tricky, who led the pack in the 1990s. Each of them had known one another since their teenage days in that seaport city, where their posse the Wild Bunch planted the sonic seeds that would later bloom throughout the world.
Before them, the rap music coming out of England was somewhat lackluster, with pioneering artists Derek B., The Cookie Crew and Wee Papa Girls trying their best, but not hitting the mark. It wasn’t so much that they were musically bad, just too influenced by their American counterparts. I can recall my friend, U.K. music journalist Frank Owen, saying, “I wish they rapped about something they knew about, like the rain?”
The Bristol crews, on the other hand, were on a different vibe when they got together to create in local bars, clubs, and home studios. Inspired as much by early turntablism and dope rappers they saw and heard in the groundbreaking hip-hop film Wild Style, those boys named themselves after the Sam Peckinpah classic and immersed themselves in the subculture that was spilling out of New York City via mixtapes, videos, documentaries, and dispatches published in Melody Maker and New Music Express (NME).
Still, the Wild Bunch boys weren’t interested in shedding their U.K. skin. Instead they embraced their accents and tea-sipping ways. Integrated by both race and class, they gathered primarily at the Dug Out and the Moon Club, venues where they held jams while practicing and refining their DJing and MCing skills.
They were also more ambitious than even they realized. Smith & Mighty were the first to start releasing music, soon after Nelle Hooper found success as the co-producer of Soul II Soul’s awesome debut Club Classics Vol. One, which featured the singles "Keep on Movin'" and "Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)." The trio that became Massive Attack (Daddy G, 3-D, and Mushroom) received early endorsements from singer Neneh Cherry, who used them to remix her 1989 single “Manchild.”
Though it took a few attempts before Massive Attack finally broke through, including releasing various singles, doing remixes for other artists, and years of studio work, when they released their revolutionary debut Blue Lines in 1991, they sounded unique and still got on Top of the Pops.
While I listened to a lot of new music during that era, I would be lying if I said I was down with Massive Attack from the beginning. It wasn’t until I fell in love with Tricky’s equally brilliant debut Maxinquaye in 1995 that I went to their work to listen to his early appearances as a rapper on Blue Lines (the title track, “Five Man Army”) and 1994s Protection (“Karmacoma,” "Eurochild"). Before developing into an in-demand artist, Tricky was the group’s resident MC, contributing rhymes, performing on the road, and hanging out in the studio.
Rewinding back to 1985 when Tricky was 17 and still known by his real name Adrian Thaws, he was introduced to rap music when one of the friends he bought weed from was blasting Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick' “La-Di-Da-Di.”
“I’d never heard anything like that in my entire life,” Tricky said in 1997. “From that moment I started telling my homeboys that I was a rapper. I told people I was a rapper for a year before I wrote my first rhyme.” Tricky was already friends with DJ Milo, who was down with the Wild Bunch. It was Milo who brought Tricky Kid into the fold.
Toking weed was a big part of the scene, and Tricky puffed vast amounts while recording, performing, and living his wild life. When Massive signed with Virgin, they brought the kid along for the ride. Apparently, while the group had Tricky on salary for a hundred pounds a week, he wasn’t considered a member of Massive. Like fellow featured voices Horace Andy and Shara Nelson, who sang lead on the breakout single “Unfinished Sympathy," he was simply another voice in their ensemble.
Tricky decided to leave shortly after Massive’s second album Protection was released in 1994. Over the years he gave a few reasons for breaking out of the group including Daddy G not lending him a few pounds to buy a sandwich when they were on tour. According to his 2019 autobiography Hell is Round the Corner, he’d had no plans to go solo at that time, although he’d already started working on material, namely the track “Aftermath.”
Hoping to record it with Massive, he played the demo for 3-D, who shrugged him off. Being down with the group was no longer fun for him, so he left. Later that year Tricky released “Aftermath” as a white-label single and made a spooky atmospheric video for it directed by Mike Lipscombe.
Living in New York City, I must’ve heard the blunted track “Aftermath” at some smoky lounge, but it wasn’t until the end of the year that I really fell under the aural spell of Tricky’s haunted asylum soundtracks.
Between 1994 and ’95 I wrote a lot about the artists produced by DJ Premier, including his duo Gang Starr (Hard to Earn), featuring Guru on the mic, Jeru the Damaja (The Sun Rises in the East) and Group Home (Livin' Proof), perhaps the most slept-on rap album of the ’90s. DJ Premier created tracks that were gritty but funky, contemporary but futuristic. Occasionally I found myself working for his label Payday Records, who sometimes hired me to write bios for the artists.
Publicist Tracii McGregor was my friend and contact. Originally from Cali where she was a singer, former editor at Urb magazine, and actress (she played 2Pac’s mother in the “Dear Mama” video), Tracii gave me an advance CD of Tricky’s debut Maxinquaye. Knowing that she had strange but soulful musical taste comparable to my own, I couldn’t wait to play the disc. Of course, I had no idea that Maxinquaye would be the equivalent of musical crack that turned me into a trip-hop addict after the first listen.
That day I returned to the first floor flat on West 22nd that I shared with my music publicist girlfriend Lesley Pitts, I jacked in the headphones and was immediately lost in the cosmic sauce of Tricky’s kitchen sink sound, which incorporated hip-hop, industrial, punk, and the lush vocals of musical partner Martina Topley-Bird. As someone who loved the Clash, Chic, and Big Daddy Kane equally, what drew me to Trick and Topley-Bird’s music was how seamlessly he mixed genres, especially rap and rock, creating bleak soundscapes that were eternal.
My girlfriend referred to Tricky’s songs as “suicide music,” while some music journalists made it seem as though he’d made a pact with the devil to import tunes from hell. Just because he lived at 666 (for real) Greenwich Street, didn’t mean he was a demon or had sold his soul like Robert Johnson at the crossroads. Still, regardless of the labels that listeners put on his music, be it trip-hop or electronica, Tricky was proudly grounded in the hip-hop tradition.
I could hear his love for the yesteryear sounds in the samples and scratches that were collage-mixed with live instrumentation production, whispery raps, diva vocalizing, and classic cuts. Tricky was a b-boy rock star, a gravelly voiced rapper who wasn’t afraid of blaring guitars or the beauty of a torch singer crooning in the forefront, but who still head-nodded as if hanging on a NYC street corner with Kool Herc, Kool Keith, and Kool G. Rap.
Most of the 1990s rap/rock releases meant nothing to me. I wasn’t into Ice-T’s “Body Count.” I could care less about Public Enemy’s remake of their own classic “Bring the Noise” with Anthrax. And the 1993 Judgment Night soundtrack wasn’t exactly my shot of Jägermeister. Besides Run-DMC’s 1986 collaboration with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way,” the aural oddity of Basehead’s debut Play With Toys and various tracks by the Beastie Boys, Tricky was one of the few to do the rap/rock hybrid right. His way of mixing the genres was more organic, more real, more grassroots. His sound wasn't put together at a marketing meeting. Expanding the boundaries, it was a hybrid that owned as much to Eric B & Rakim as it did to Lee Scratch Perry, Shirley Bassey, and Nirvana.
For the next few years after discovering him, I couldn’t get enough of Tricky’s gritty greatness. You could hear it so clearly on Nearly God (a collaborative project that included contributions from various vocalists), and on Pre-Millennium Tension, Tricky Presents Grassroots (a five-song EP released on Payday), Angels with Dirty Faces, and Juxtapose.
For someone known as a major pothead and often referred to himself as “lazy,” Tricky was one of the most prolific artists of the decade.
Living in Harlem in the early 1980s, the community was divided when it came to rap music. Most people over 30 wasn’t feeling it, equating the sound with a primitive ghetto mentality that would never be able to compete with the upward mobility of the soul and dance music played at upscale buppie clubs. Most of the Black folks that went to the classy night spots Leviticus, Bentley’s, and Silver Shadow weren’t ever going to be seen slumming at rap clubs like Disco Fever, Broadway International, and Harlem World.
When I was 19, I was sitting in an uptown barbershop when an older gentleman loudly proclaimed how much he hated rap music. “It’s not real music,” he said. “No one will ever cover those songs. That’s the sign of a great song: when someone else wants to perform it.”
Though I found the statement baffling, it stayed with me for years. I thought about it in 1993 when Snoop Dogg— also a big Slick Rick fan—covered “La-Di-Da-Di,” but spelled it "Lodi Dodi." Tricky recorded several covers in the ’90s that were as stunning in their execution as any of his original compositions.
When constructing covers, Tricky reminded me of Isaac Hayes, who was known for taking other people’s songs and transforming the material to make them completely his own. In the same way Hayes turned Dionne Warwick’s brokenhearted, yet peppy pop ballad “Walk on By” into a soulful suicidal lament, Tricky reconfigured borrowed tracks completely.
The first was a remake of Public Enemy’s hardcore “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” a booming political track about Black men going to prison under very long sentences. The song was a single from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988), an album that has classic status.
Tricky’s version was propelled by mojo explosive drumming and electric guitar supplied by a mysterious group calling themselves FTV, Martina’s vocals were simultaneously beautiful and tougher than leather. “When I recorded the ‘Black Steel’ cover, the studio was in the house and I’d just crawled out of bed,” Martina said in 1997. “I sang it in my husky morning voice.”
Tricky’s second studio project Nearly God wasn’t a “proper” sophomore album. Instead, it’s credited as a full-length side-project that featured a few of his friends and heroes, including Terry Hall (The Specials/Fun Boy 3), Alison Moyet (Yazoo), and Björk. The disc was even more challenging, experimental, and musically minimalistic than the first. “Nearly God stripped out whatever commercial possibilities Maxinquaye's paradigmatic trip-hop held," critic Eric Weisbard noted in Spin.
That was done to get as far away from the “trip-hop” tag as possible, though the redefining didn’t work out. Massive Attack, Tricky, and Portishead might’ve hated the term, but no matter what they made, that’s how their sound would be labeled forever. Finding the moody material to be darkly inspiring and cinematic, trip-hop became one of the primary sounds of ’90s pop culture, with songs popping up in movies, television, and the soundtrack to every chill-out room across the world.
Seven months after the release of Nearly God, I finally got to meet Tricky. We were introduced by our mutual friend Tracii McGregor at the platinum party for D’Angelo’s debut Brown Sugar. The celebration was held on September 13, 1996, which hardcore hip-hop fans know as the day Tupac died.
Although Maxinquaye had turned Tricky into a star and critical darling overnight, he showed no signs of ego or being souped-up. Later, when I got to know him better, I realized he was all about the work: of being in the studio, tinkering with electronics, and collaborating with people that he respected, famous or not. He’d recently launched his label Durbin Poison and was working with various artists, including legendary singer/ performer Grace Jones, former mentor DJ Milo, his cousin Mark’s band The Baby Namboos, underground rap producer Rock and newcomer singer-songwriter Ife Mora, a Detroit native who was fronting a band called The Autumn People.
Dressed smartly in an expensive suit, we talked briefly, and I recall Tricky telling me how puzzled he was that more urban (i.e. Black) publications, especially those specializing in rap music and hip-hop culture, hadn’t featured him in their pages. “Slick Rick and Rakim saved my life,” he said. Though we both laughed, I knew he was telling the truth.
Although Tricky and his music had been embraced by hip-hop producers, including Premier and Rza—who viewed him as part of their tribe even if he did sometimes wear dresses—many of the writers and editors at rap publications saw him as an interloper in the land of the big beats. That was the era of ghetto realness, and to their ear, Tricky was too avant-garde to be hardcore genuine.
Never mind that many of the gatekeepers weren’t from “the hood” themselves, it was they who determined what “real rap” sounded like and how it was served in their publications. Many of them were as conservative as Baptist preachers in their thinking when it came to their narrow definitions of rap and hip-hop culture.
Personally, I’d grown tired of the constrictions and limitations on the culture. Thankfully Vibe magazine, the publication that was my main base that year, approved the pitch, and Tricky and I spoke for my 1997 article “Weeded, Wicked & Wise.” My story appeared with a photo of him spitting jewels during our interview.
“Rap music is the most alternative music there is,” he said. Minutes later, he shot down the term trip-hop. “I think it’s some peoples’ way of making hip-hop safe; of taking the Black out of the music.” Perhaps the most on-point statement Tricky made was, “I love the New York hip-hop community, but I’m afraid to get too deeply involved, because there are too many politics, and people get killed over that shit.”
A month before the profile was published the Notorious B.I.G. was killed in Los Angeles. Ironically, Tricky was in the middle of remixing “Hypnotize,” the first single from the then-upcoming BIG joint Life After Death.
Three months before our interview, Tricky released Pre-Millennium Tension, his third full-length album, which featured a speedy version of Eric B and Rakim’s 1988 rap classic “Lyrics of Fury.” Once again sung by Martina, Tricky was aiming for a punk rock feel, and he captured it perfectly. The original vocals were actually faster than most of Rakim’s tracks. In Ben Merlis’ 2022 article in uDiscoverMusic, he noted, “Employing James Brown's 'Funky Drummer' break (played by Clyde Stubblefield, in 1970), the track is a benchmark moment for fast, aggressive, braggadocious rap music….”
For the remainder of the ’90s Tricky continued to make music that was dark, dangerous, messy, and exquisite. For his last recorded cover of the decade, Tricky remade “The Moment I Feared,” another Slick Rick song, on his 1998 album Angels With Dirty Faces. Tricky chose to re-rap the song as opposed to utilizing singing Martina to interpret the lyrics. Much like his musical muses David Bowie and Prince, he had no problem taking chances and usually emerged on the winning side.
In the post-millennium, I continued to check in with Tricky and Martina’s though admittedly I fell behind on their new works a few years into the decade. In 2008, my friend Miles Marshall Lewis gifted me with Martina’s second solo project The Blue God, a genius of an album that she co-produced with Danger Mouse. That disc, along with her 2003 debut Quixotic, were two of the best albums released in the aughts.
Twenty-seven years after the release of Maxinquaye, I don’t hang tough anymore in nightclubs and lounges, but I do regularly revisit Tricky’s back catalogue and remember the time when the music was new and the possibilities were endless.
Michael A. Gonzales is the co-author of the seminal text Bring the Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture. He has written essays for The Village Voice, Wax Poetics, CrimeReads, Longreads and Soulhead.com. In the early 2000s, when Gonzales started writing fiction, he utilized the chilling compositions of Tricky, Massive Attack as soundtracks for his noir stories, erotic fiction and cyberfunk sci-fi. His latest short story “Really Gone” appeared in The Oxford American.