Over the past four years, as a freelance journalist, I have been travelling between Bangui (Central African Republic), Paris, Istanbul, Calais, Erbil (Iraqi Kurdistan), the South of France and Ventimiglia in Italy, London and… Bristol. I have mostly been covering post-conflict issues and the refugee crisis for different European radio stations and magazines. So I went to Bristol to write about a brighter, engaging and inspirational story. To explore the culture of England’s West Country, retrace the history of my favourite music, a fascinating journey through an artistic and social explosion.
I decided to write about the band Massive Attack when I read they were travelling to Lebanon, in July 2014. They were about to perform at the Byblos International Festival and to visit Palestinian youth they help, in a refugee camp in Burj El Barajneh, in the southern suburbs of Beirut. I contacted a friend who is a writer and music journalist to convince him I could write a book about them…
I had always loved their music and I know all of their albums by heart. Their engagement suddenly seemed very authentic to me; it completely stands out in the current music business. I started to think of a way to reach out to them, especially to 3D, also known as Robert Del Naja, the heart and soul behind Massive Attack’s writing process and social involvement. After months of preparation and once he agreed to meet me, I packed my bag for Bristol in February 2015.
I immediately liked the journey from London (where I had lived for two years) to the West country, the murals in Stokes Croft, the contrast between Saint Pauls and Clifton, the way art and music are present all around the city. I first stayed in Saint Pauls, walking everywhere, writing at the Watershed’s welcoming café and helloing Banksy’s famous ‘Mild Mild West’ and naked ‘Well Hung Lover’. After meeting with 3D, I contacted a snowballing list of Bristolians: some of 3D’s co-workers including sound-engineer and co-writer Neil Davidge, talented instrumentalists, rappers and vocalists like Mike Crawford, Sean Cook, Andy ‘Spaceland’ Jenks, Krissy Kriss, Mark Stewart and, six months later, Adrian Utley, Portishead’s guitarist. I also spent a lot of time in venues and art galleries, in Bristol – spending a day with Inkie or listening to Roni Size at the Hamilton House. In London too, in Paris – where I interviewed Tricky and met Nick Walker, then in Dublin and further, to see Massive Attack on stage. All these meetings and events helped me recreating the key moments that made possible The Wild Bunch then Massive Attack and the scene that followed.
My book therefore retells the story of a rare group of unconventional and politically aware musicians and artists. The story starts with Massive Attack’s first album, the remarkable and inimitable Blue Lines, then goes back to their first influences. The Beatles, reggae, punk, soul music, hip-hop, Jean-Michel Basquiat and the graffiti stars of the film Wild Style. These include their very own hometown’s history, from the slave trade to recent riots… Then the book evolves until Massive Attack’s homecoming show in September 2016 and their coming projects.
It digs into the making of their groundbreaking albums, especially Mezzanine, which turns 20 year-old this year, described by many critics as the best thing that ever came from Bristol… It follows Massive Attack’s evolution as extraordinary performers, whose shows rival with the best acts in the world, and 3D’s artistic transformations, collaborating with Banksy, United Visual Artists and Adam Curtis. This very rich and fascinating path took them around the world, from Japan to America, Mexico and Turkey, Lebanon and the Congo…
Writing about them and about Bristol’s music and art scene, led me to write this parallel history of British culture, with underground origin, always pushing boundary and keeping an aware and open gaze on our fast-changing world.
Massive Attack: Out Of The Comfort Zone by Melissa Chemam will be available from April 9th 2018 here.