|With the masterpiece Maxinquaye and the new Pre-Millenium Tension, Tricky has become pop's most enigmatic genius, turning hip-hop into a hall of mirrors. Chris Norris goes off to see the Wizard.|
|"All right They're
waiting for you," a goateed guy says from the darkness. The lone hepcat
is hanging curbside on a Manhattan street, about a half-block down from
the crowded entrance to the disco palace the Roxy.
Tricky stands blinking in the glow of the streetlight. Tonight, he's turned out in a white collarless shirt, black collarless jacket, thick-heeled shows, and a long, white, ankle-length kind of, flowing sort of a... well, dress. He cocks his head, squints, shifts his Budweiser to the other hand, and finally, cordially, says, "Wha?"
True, Tricky's hardly invisible, but it's hard to imagine who could be waiting for him. We've only come to tonight's fab new-music showcase to catch a set by Tricky's new buddy Jeru the Damaja, a hardcore Brooklyn MC who's on an otherwise techno-slanted bill with Goldie and Orbital. Tricky hirnself, reluctant "king of trip hop", might easily headline such an evening. With caesar cuts and nappy heads, a mod sort of cyber-ghetto manifests in the queue out front. Then, as we're whisked into the flashing, pounding entryway, it dawns on him. "I just realized," Tricky says. "I bet that geezer thought I was Goldie."
When It turns out Jeru canceled - apparently, management was spooked by the security issues posed by an actual rapping American - Tricky and I clamber upstairs to the VIP area and proceed to get drunk. Though a charming drinking buddy, Tricky quickly lives up to his narne, masterfully vanishing every five minutes. He'll chat up some cutie In dancehall gear, then disappear with her into the thick crowd. He'll reappear, discuss the wonders of Rakim's rapping technique and then - poof - he's gone for another ten minutes.
After one of his absences stretches into 15, I start to push through the crowd looking for him. Asking around, I hear that an event soon to appear in London's tabloids has transpired under my nose.
Tricky ran into Goldie, whom he's known since they were both teenagers, and, greeted the jungle star as he was hanging out with his fiancee, Björk. Some words were exchanged, followed by a brief shoving match that British newspapers will morph into a full-scale, World
brawl - with knives appearing and Björk jumping on Tricky's back.
Perhaps it was a case of cherchez Ia Icelandic femme: Previously Björk was romantically linked with Tricky. Perhaps it's an MC battle gone physical: In the recent single "Tricky kid", Tricky busts "As long as you're humble / We'll let you be the king of jungle," which Goldie might not have found amusing. (He was unavailable for comment.) Or perhaps, as Tricky will later tell it, it was all a misunderstanding. "Someone asked to take our picture. And I said, 'If I wanted to make a scene I'd make it at a Rakim or Nirvana show with the big paparazzi. And then he went into his Robert De Niro and started pushing me around. Mad, innit?"
Tricky, 28. Five-eight and
wiry, vaguely elfin, vaguely reptilian - definitely, as they say, on some
other shit. Nearly two years ago, Tricky produced the brooding masterpiece
hallucinogenic tapestry of dub echo, industrial clang, hip-hop beat, and
somnambulant verse that bespoke a chilly pop revolution. Mixing death rattles
and gamelan chimes into dystopic, Hieronymus Bosch-worthy dream scapes,
a musical mind quite unlike any other-intuitive, abstract, and well past
any genre definitions.
|hung with crowds
on either side, and when the Specials ushered in Britain's two-tone movement
Tricky was inspired by a music that was integrated racially and musically.
But it was hip-hop that first got him onstage. He began rapping with a
Bristol posse called the Wild Bunch, which evolved into the MC and DJ collective
Massive Attack. "A lot of the things you hear now were born quite a way
back really," says Tricky's longtime mate, Massive Attack rapper 3D. "We
used to do warehouse parties, before there were raves. We'd play hip-hop,
funk, reggae, and whatever else, just hanging out in backrooms, cutting
up tunes, playing with drum machines. We were on that cooler, late-night
vibe from way back." And it was in that vibe that Massive Attack brought
Tricky's sleepy, free-associative rhymes into the public consciousness
on their 1991 debut Blue Lines. Around this time Tricky spied 15-year-old
Martine Topley-Bird as she was sitting on a wall, smoking a cigarette in
her private-school uniform. After some "funny, quite cheeky banter," as
Martine remembers, Tricky cajoled this schoolgirl from a wealthy Bristol
neighborhood into a studio. "It was very casual," she remembers. "Just
a laugh really. He'd give me the lyrics, I'd work on the melody, and we'd
just go in and do it." The two produced the single "Aftermath," an exotic
hip-hop-dub marked by Martine's precocious siren song. The two also produced
a daughter, Maisie.
"Aftermath" led to a series of successful singles, followed by Maxinquaye's debut at No.3 in the British pop charts - and Tricky's subsequent coronation as the reigning "king of the slow beats." Loathing such benedictions, Tricky quickly went about dashing expectations and revealing an ominously high level of productivity. This summer he released Nearly God, a fast and loose collection of "brilliant demos" with the likes of Neneh Cherry, Björk, and Tricky's early hero, Specials singer Terry Hall - followed by Tricky Presents: Grassroots, a (relatively) more straightforward R&B effort with singers and New York MCs the Hillfiguzes and Drunkenstein.
| Now, Tricky
presents Pre-Millennium Tension, and with it a return to his life's
most electrifying passion: hip-hop. "I've got my attitude back," he says
of the record. "Maxinquaye was weird when it came out, but it's
become pop music. And now you've got a lot of experimental music, so now
I have to go somewhere else." Maxinquaye's eerie languor and symphonic
density have been channeled into dryer, punch-drunk drum tracks and more
pointedly aggro vocals. Martine, who sang Maxinquaye's sighing,
entrancingly disaffected cover of Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour
of Chaos," essays two more rap classics: Chill Rob G's "Bad Dream" and
a surprisingly faithful, funky-drummer version of Eric B. & Rakim's
"Lyrics of Fury." Tricky says he also plans a cover of an MC Lyte song.
"Rakim, Chuck D, man. These people were my saviors."
But if this is hip-hop it is the hip-hop of an utterly alien hood. "Sex Drive" puts wheezing harmonica and static-soaked techno beat over a jazzy, Raymond Scottish bass line. "Makes Me Wanna Die" is a gravely beautiful R&B-ish lament sung by Martine over a hovering, luminous guitar. And even when he's playing the dope MC, Tricky is a darkly diffusive presence, his spliff-ravaged voice sounding like a languorous sybarite or the hoarse whisper of a demon, croaking "I tell you everything I I tell you lies." The spirit of Miles Davis, jazz's so-called Prince of Darkness, breathes in a song like "My Evil Is Strong," which Tricky says is "me trying to do voodoo." More than any sole predecessor, Tension recalls "Psychosis," from the Hell EP, a paranoid, dark - and - stormy - night of a hip-hop jammy Tricky did with Wu-Tang Clan offshoot the Gravediggaz. On it, a choked, breathless Tricky draws attention to the fact that the first name of the antichrist is Adrian.
"The demon is a liar," counsels Max von Sydow in The Exorcist. "But he will also mix his lies with the truth...to attack us." I ponder this line as I stand outside the site of Tricky's new home. He's relocated from England to New York City - to an imposing, brick-faced monolith in the West
street address is, naturally, 666. I enter to find the devil eating a cheese
"I suppose I do mislead people," Tricky says after welcoming me in. "But I honestly don't know why." Tricky's newly occupied bachelor pad is in sparse disarray. A fax machine rests on the floor next to a bag of weed and an asthma inhaler. A deluxe chess set sits near a jump rope. He does 15 minutes a day, he tells me, as well as "a bit of kung fu," coached by a personal trainer. Tacked to one wall is an autographed letter from Uri Geller. "Dear Tricky," it reads. "We all have the power within us to achieve our greatest dreams. I have personally touched and empowered the enclosed T-shirt with positive energy." It's near a black-and-white archival photograph of a Deep South lynching.
On the far wall a Method Man sticker is holding up a photocopy of Shakespeare's sonnet 138, "When my love swears that she is made of truth I I do believe her, though I know she lies." He tells me it's the inspiration for Maxinquaye's spellbinding "Suffocated Love."
Among Tricky's whoppers is the one about the purely platonic nature of his relationship with Martine, a state of non-affairs to which he attributed Maxinquaye's angsty aura of sexual tension. Maxinquaye was completed in mid1994. Maisie was born in March 1995. Go figure.
Mysterious as it is, Martine seems content with their partnership. After spending a month in Jamaica recording Pre-Millennium Tension, she did a U.S. tour with Porno for Pyros as a backup singer and is now resting with Maisie an ocean apart from her collaborator. "There's a bit of truth in every kind of representation of Tricky," she says. "He calls himself a liar, but at the same time people always talk about how very honest he is. He truly is a paradoxical person."
Tricky seems to agree. "Musically, I definitely mislead people," he says, cobbling together his latest spliff. "They hear one album, they think they know what's coming next." He goes over to the stereo. "This is something I haven't released yet." A sick, slow, depraved version of the Grease classic "Summer Nights" comes blasting out of the speakers, all gongs and Neubauten crashes. The sultry diva Cath Coffey, heard on Nearly God, trades verses with Jamaican vocalist Wayne Jobson, getting physical in a way that Olivia Newton-John couldn't imagine. "This is what keeps me going," Tricky says, "Just having fun."
Tricky records like some people go to the gym, manifesting a compulsive creativity that's threatening to give him a backlog to rival Prince's - a comparison he does not shirk from. "It sounds stupid, but I do think I could be a British Prince," he says. "In that there's no black, no white to my music and that there's nothing else like it."
Certainly, his methodology is unique. As we sit on his hardwood floor,
Tricky shows me his primary instrument: the Yamaha QY-22, a black device
about the size of a volt meter. "I put together most of the album on this,"
he says. "The whole bass line on 'Christiansands,' most of 'Tricky Kid,'
the strings from 'Bad Things,' 'Lyrics of Fury.' " He uses this audio Powerbook
to program tracks and create noises that he can play either on a keyboard
or by downloading straight to tape. "It's a drum machine, a sequencer,
it's got bass, piano, strings. You can't sample, you can only write, but
I like that. I read this article that said Tricky doesn't play any of his
own music. Well, this is the instrument I play."
This audio sketchbook, seemingly designed to provide only the most basic skeleton of a studio track, seems to fit Tricky's freestyling, graffiti approach to music just fine. "I work fast," he says. "It's too hard thinking about stuff like, 'Should we have a break here.' I'll just build a fat spliff and put the music up really fucking loud and mix it all live, freehand." Later he shows me one of his tattoos, a "psychic drawing. A guy smokes a spliff, starts a line and you tell him when you want him to stop," he explains. "It's the most painful tattoo I've ever had." I wonder how deeply this aesthetic runs through Tricky's life.
It certainly served him well in his collaboration with Wu-Tang maestro RZA. When the Gravediggaz were touring in London in the fall of 1996, an Island rep suggested that RZA and Tricky meet. Since RZA had already been grooving to Tricky's tape in the tour bus, he agreed. "At midnight we met at the studio," Tricky recounts. "And we just did the tracks, man. Drank some red wine, started mixing. We set up four mikes and just went down the line, shouting at the engineer." They cut the Hell EP in one night. The experience left Tricky with lasting impression of the Wu Tang Clansman. "He's like a wizard youknowwhumean?" he says. "I get like a Beethoven vibe from him."
"Oh yeah?" RZA says when I extend the compliment. "What, was Beethoven a nut or something?" Ensconced in the Wu-Tang mansion in New Jersey, RZA is similarly impressed with Tricky's mixing- board alchemy. "His beats sound kind of like my beats," he says. "Slow and dark, but fat. It's like confusion that's organized. Only thing that fuck him up over here is how he be dressing," he says. "People won't take it as art, they'll think he's on some homo, drag-queen shit."
Indeed, Tricky's forays into hardcore American hip-hop are as strange and inspired as one might expect from a guy who wears the occasional dress and answers to "Tricks" - not exactly a term of praise in most U.S. ghettos. While
well to Tricky's homeboys, selling 200,000 copies in the U.K., its U.S.
sales of 72,000 suggest Tricky may have a bit more trouble fitting in among
Nas, the Fugees, and Busta Rhymes. Still, he's developed relationships
with RZA, Jeru, and Chuck D, which may suggest a new, less hoodcentric,
more experimentally minded age in legit hip-hop expression.
In fact, Chuck D was impressed enough by Tricky's enervated Public Enemy cover that he plans to collaborate with him on a Tricky cover of his own. He tells me Tricky's distinctive style is similar to the Bomb Squad's "in the meshing of genres and a relentless not-give-a-fuck attitude." He's also impressed with Tricky as a person. "He's cool peopIe, you know?" says Chuck. "Tricky's in a typical situation where he's got one foot in the hood and one foot in his career, trying to figure out how to balance it all."
That these two feet are separated by an ocean can't be making this process any easier. It is a truly odd moment to be colonizing American rap music. Tricky and I sit talking in his apartment less than 24 hours after Las Vegas doctors pulled Tupac Shakur off life-support. Although he says he was more shaken up by the death of Eazy-E, whom he considered a genius, the event has definitely left Tricky thoughtful.
"I love hip-hop so much," he says. "But sometimes I listen to all the tough-boy stuff and I think, well, maybe the only way I could do
|hip-hop is to
be like that. But I'm not like that." For an artist so shrouded in musical
and theatrical dissembling, Tricky is surprisingly adamant about a core
honesty, an "energy" or "passion" that can't be faked. "My thing's all
from my mind and my energy and my soul," he says. "I'm just a normal geezer.
Fish and chips."
Tricky goes back to the stereo. A solo acoustic guitar comes on, plinking and plonking a pretty, minimalist melody. "It's me fucking around on guitar," he says. "You can tell it's me. I just find the same notes I like and play them over and over again." Martine comes in, softly cooing some improvised, unintelligible lyrics. The low-fi sound and breezy background noises make the tape, recorded during some downtime in Jamaica, sound like an old blues field recording.
I'm reminded of the Pre-Millennium Tension track "Bad Things," a soft, creepy meditation that, despite the post-rock bleeps and vaporous distortion, sounds like Robert Johnson, only transposed into a spectral, dead-air AM wasteland. It's almost like that haunted ether - more than Bristol, Wales, Ghana, or wherever his bloodline originates - is where Tricky comes from. Or maybe where he wants to be. "Bob Marley, Kurt Cobain, Grace Jones, Prince, Billie Holiday, Peter Gabriel, Rakim, Miles Davis," Tricky says, rattling off a list of heroes. "I want to be on this level, the people who are not of this earth." He gazes out the window. "And I could do it."
photos: Ruven Afanador
|analyze me (Tricky)|
|Tricky solo discography|
|Tricky collaborations discography|