The pioneering force behind the rise of trip-hop, Massive Attack were among the most innovative and influential groups of their generation; their hypnotic sound — a darkly sensual and cinematic fusion of hip-hop rhythms, soulful melodies, dub grooves, and choice samples — set the pace for much of the dance music to emerge throughout the 1990s, paving the way for such acclaimed artists as Portishead, Sneaker Pimps, Beth Orton, and Tricky, himself a Massive Attack alumnus. Their history dates back to 1983 and the formation of the Wild Bunch, one of the earliest and most successful sound system/DJ collectives to arrive on the U.K. music scene; renowned for their seamless integration of a wide range of musical styles, from punk to reggae to R&B, the group’s parties quickly became can’t-miss events for the Bristol club crowd, and at the peak of their popularity they drew crowds so enormous that the local live music scene essentially ground to a halt.
When the Wild Bunch folded during the mid-’80s, two of its members — Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles and Grant “Daddy G” Marshall — teamed with local graffiti artist 3D (born Robert del Naja) to form Massive Attack in 1987; another Wild Bunch alum, Nellee Hooper, split his time between the new group and his other project, Soul II Soul. The group’s first single, “Daydreaming,” appeared in 1990; it featured the sultry vocals of singer Shara Nelson and raps by Tricky, another onetime Wild Bunch collaborator. The classic “Unfinished Sympathy” followed, as did another compelling effort, “Safe from Harm.” Finally, in 1991 Massive Attack issued their debut LP, Blue Lines; while by no means a huge commercial success, the record was met with major critical praise, and was dubbed an instant classic in many quarters. Nelson, featured on many of the album’s most memorable tracks, exited for a solo career soon after, and the group then confusingly changed its name to simply “Massive” to avoid any implication of approval for the U.N.’s policy toward Iraq; in the wake of the disastrous U.S. tour that followed, many were quick to write the band off right then and there.
After a three-year layoff, Massive Attack — their full name now properly reinstated — resurfaced with Protection. Again working with Hooper and Tricky, they also brought into the fold vocalist Nicolette, as well as Everything but the Girl’s Tracey Thorn. Three singles — “Karmacoma,” “Sly,” and the title track — were released from the LP, which was also remixed in its entirety by Mad Professor and issued as No Protection. A lengthy tour followed, and over the next several years, Massive Attack’s solo work was primarily confined to remixes for artists including Garbage; they also worked with Madonna on a track for a Marvin Gaye tribute album. Finally, to promote their appearance at the annual Glastonbury music festival, the group issued a new EP, Risingson, during the summer of 1997.
The third full-length Massive Attack effort, Mezzanine, appeared in mid-1998. In addition to reggae singer Horace Andy, making his third consecutive LP appearance with the group, vocal chores were handled by the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser and newcomer Sara Jay. Mezzanine became a hit among critics, clubs, and the college crowds, spinning successful singles such as “Teardrop” and “Inertia Creeps.” The album topped the U.K. chart and crossed into the Top 60 of the Billboard 200 in the U.S. A tour of America and Europe followed, but Vowles left the band after disagreeing with the artistic direction of Mezzanine. Del Naja and Marshall continued as a duo, later working with the likes of David Bowie and the Dandy Warhols, but Marshall later took a leave of absence to raise his family; producer Neil Davidge took up the slack.
In February 2003, after a five-year wait, Massive Attack released their fourth album, 100th Window, including collaborations with mainstay Horace Andy as well as Sinéad O’Connor. Danny the Dog, released in 2004, marked the group’s entry into film score work and, perhaps unsurprisingly, often sounded much more like incidental background music than a typical Massive Attack release. From there, Del Naja and Davidge scored a handful of other films — In Prison My Whole Life, Battle in Seattle, and Trouble the Water, for which they earned an Oscar nomination — but their work was credited to their real names or the pseudonym 100 Suns rather than Massive Attack. The fifth Massive Attack album, Heligoland, released in 2010, featured collaborations with Horace Andy, TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, Elbow’s Guy Garvey, and Martina Topley-Bird.