Massive Attack’s “Blue Lines”

Album cover for Massive Attack's "Blue Lines"

This week, I’ve been listening to Massive Attack’s 1991 debut album “Blue Lines” for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. “Blue Lines” gets praise for it’s groundbreaking style opening the way for the genre of trip hop for the rest of the decade.I was completely unaware of Massive Attack throughout the 90s. In the early 2000s, I heard a bit of the 1998 album “Mezzanine,” but I honestly can’t say I remember anything about it.  I liked the atmosphere of other trip hop artists, especially Portishead. Somehow, a copy of Massive Attack member Tricky’s solo album “Pre-Millennium Tension” found its way into my collection and I enjoyed bits of it.

So, I was looking forward to my week with this album. Overall, this album was disappointing. It’s not that it’s bad, in fact some of it is quite good. I had expectations that it could not live up to.  To my ears today, it’s not remarkably interesting or special. I was anticipating something more like the trip hop that followed it, and really it’s hip-hop inspired pop music of the mid-90s. Perhaps what made it innovative was influential to other artists that took it further, making the original sound kind of quaint.

Like much hip-hop, the music of Massive Attack is largely sample-based. Though, as I understand, combining original music with samples was part of the innovation here. But even the SugarHill Gang was doing this back in 1979. The use of samples does not pose a problem for me, but I was disappointed to learn that the bassline from “Safe From Harm” is a sample from Billy Cobham’s “Stratus” which uses the bassline in much the same way. Massive Attack sample, one of the most sampled-artists, Funkadelic for drums.

The opening of the track with atmospheric noise and rolling bassline sounds super-cool. It reminds me of some of DJ Spooky’s (also sample-based) work “Galactic Funk” from 1996. I would assume that’s an example of me hearing the influenced before hearing the influencer. Stylish vocals float over the bassline, sung in a jazz-inflected soulful way by Shara Nelson. 

One of my favorite bits of the song are the male smooth-rapped line “I was looking back to see if you were looking back at me to see me looking back at you.” They cut and manipulate this line to enhance the scratched-record feel already present in the lyrics.

The lyrics of this album frequently disappoint. I don’t know if I can condone mispronouncing “contagious” to make it rhyme with “dangerous” though. It reminds me too much of Jez’s song “Outrageous” from comedy show “Peep Show.” Also, this album provides reminders that if the listener can figure it out, maybe you shouldn’t spell it out. Like in the otherwise decent reggaeish track “One Love” when he says “They say don’t lay your eggs in one basket;
If the basket should fall all the eggs’ll be broken.” 

The smooth track “Blue Lines” features cool samples from Tom Scott and the L.A. Express. Some clean funky guitar comes from a song by The Blackbyrds. I recognize the Blackbyrds sample from several other hip hop songs around the same time. Again, the vocal are smooth rap delivered in an effortless way that contradicts much of the “spit” or harder-edge rap. Massive Attack often opt for cool over brag:

Somebody da-ditty, nobody
Walking on sunshine, but, still, we’re treading water
The son of many reasons searching for the daughter
Seeking knowledge, not acknowledging the jet-set
Silver papers of the sound within my Budakon headset
The solar system watches in wisdom
The children dance as the moonlight kissed them

The closing track “Hymn of the Big Wheel” features all original music, as far as I can find researching online. It stands also as one of the musically stronger songs. Pulsating synths provide a drone-like effect as heard in Indian or Scottish music. Over this, the vocals sing in a hymn-like melody lyrics that almost achieve what they try to do.  Again, there’s some disappointing lyrics. The line “There’s a hole in my soul like a cavity” seems rather redundant, considering “cavity” is a synonym for “hole.” Still, overall the song is a hymn, some of the best lyrics on the album.

As a child’s silent prayer my hope hides in disguise
While satellites and cameras watch from the skies
An acid drop of rain recycled from the sea
It washed away my shadow burnt a hole in me
And all the king’s men cannot put it back again
But the ghetto sun will nurture life
And mend my soul sometime againThe big wheel keeps on turning
On a simple line day by day
The earth spins on its axis
One man struggle while another relaxes

While I enjoyed some of this album, I don’t feel I’ll be returning to it. Also, this isn’t a collection of songs I see having much influence on my own music. Still, glad I finally heard it and devoted a week getting to know it.

Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”

Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back album cover

Yeah boy! I devoted this week to Public Enemy‘s 1988 album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” to learn as a songwriting musician. This first first hip hop album for this weekly project. This was also my introduction to Public Enemy, excluding the collaboration with metal band Anthrax in the 90s. My music is definitely not hip hop; so learning from this album works a little differently. Rhythm and tone of voice take precedence over key and melody. While I consider this a valid style, it’s not one that I either have the intention or skill to use. I look to other aspects of the songs for my purposes.

The famous song “Bring the Noise” opens the album after a short intro track. The song starts with the phrase “too black, too strong,” a phrase crafted from a sample of Malcolm X (“It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. […] You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. […] It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep.”). This perfectly introduces an album that frequently takes pride in being “too black” while designed to wake listeners up to sociopolitical issues.

The lyrics are densely packed with meaning. References deal with current events and/or historical context, particularly with racism and corruption within both the media and the government.. The use of phrases and word-choice to convey meaning is particularly interesting to me. Unfortunately, Public Enemy seems to spend more time talking about how controversial and political they are than actually being political. Braggadocio and self-referential lyrics have been a major part of rap music since the beginning. In the mid-80s when Public Enemy were getting started, rap songs usually spoke about partying, dancing, rapping.

The overall message of this album is that racism is still a problem and that minorities, especially the black community, should be proud of who they are and take a stand against social injustices. Public enemy is not here to teach so much as wake people up so they will take themselves to school. Most directly, they point to Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan, saying “a brother like me said, ‘Well What he can say to you, what you wanna do is follow for now.'” Though they generally keep it light, when they hit, they hit hard like in the song “Louder than a Bomb” with lines like “Your CIA, you see I ain’t kiddin’, Both King and X they got rid of both. A story untold, true but unknown.”

Public Enemy assumes a sizable crowd are going to be hearing the songs and they speak to that crowd, and they write for that situation.  In contrast on “Blue“, Joni Mitchell was speaking intimately to a single listener. On “Highway 51 Revisited“, Bob Dylan was usually speaking to the subject of the song.

The music is almost completely built from samples, with turn-table scratching and a Roland TR-808 drum machine keeping the beat. What they’ve done is more than looping a sample; the music is a layered collage of music and sound effects to create a rhythmic atmosphere. The drum patterns make you want to dance. The first beat of each bar is usually dedicated to the kick drum with a snare on the second and third beat. Extra work on the snare and/or hat during space between the second and third beat that give the rhythm their groove.

Limitations of samplers caused them to use short samples, so most samples are either only 4 or 8 beats long.  Since they’ve built each song with a limited collection short samples, chord progressions are nearly non-existent. Changes in the music are created through either having or not having a sample playing; for example, they may cut out the bass line for a eight bars and then bring it back. Combining this layering of starting and stopping phrases with dynamic vocal delivery is what keeps the songs interesting despite the repetitive nature of the music. The siren noises get annoying though.