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Get Off on His Cloud (a look at 'Maxinquaye'-era Tricky) (July 28, 1996)

Get Off on His Cloud

By DENNIS ROMERO
JULY 28, 1996 12 AM
DENNIS ROMERO IS A TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tricky, whose imaginative mix of American hip-hop and British soul music has wowed critics on both sides of the Atlantic, just won’t go along with the photographer’s attempts to make him look up during a photo session on the roof of the Hyatt on Sunset. Despite the coaxing, the slender Englishman just puts his elbows to his knees and stares at his gray Nike trainers.

The orange sunshine may be aglow above him, but Tricky’s gray cloud is up there too, following his small frame around like a cartoon phenomenon that darkens only his space. The cloud, too, hovers over much of Tricky’s music.

His mood this day may result from the stress of recent fatherhood or his never-ending hours in the studio. Or it might just be the cloud of marijuana smoke that constantly surrounds him (Artforum magazine calls him the king of “ganja-delic paranoia”). Or it may be from the anger that has consumed him since his childhood in the ghetto of the industrial city of Bristol in southwestern England.

Though he draws influence from American hip-hop, he says ghetto culture is universal. British hip-hop, soul and dub are just as real, he argues, because British ghettos are just as relentless. And his music--despite being lumped in with a new generation of sexy British soul--is ghetto music.

“I believe British and American ghettos are the same place,” he says later, sitting at the desk in his hotel room smoking a fatty.

“No money, no education, tension, suffocation, no jobs, no decent place to live. . . . It’s gone too far, man. We’re never going to be able to repair all the damage we’ve done. I feed from darkness. My music has got a lot of sadness and a lot of hate.”

This pregnant cloud pours prolific sound that washes to earth in sour, simmering beats and numbingly truthful poetry. Tricky’s own brand of trick-hop took critics by storm via the 1995 album “Maxinquaye” (“the most breathtakingly rich and ambitious record released in Britain last year,” says the Face magazine).

Tricky continues to unleash his slow-burning fury with two new projects: “Tricky Presents: Grassroots,” a collaboration with underground New York rappers due Aug. 6 on Payday Records, and “Nearly God,” a full-length album that will be released Aug. 13 in the U.S. by Island Records.

“Grassroots” is a refreshing mix of Tricky’s meltdown sound and the improvisational East Coast flow of rappers the Hill-figuzes and the vocals of several other New York artists--and his own raspy rapping. “Nearly God” (out under the artist name Nearly God, not Tricky) is a down-tempo, dark project featuring Bjork, Neneh Cherry, Alison Moyet and his regular vocalist, sometime girlfriend and mother of his daughter, Martina Topley Bird.

“Maxinquaye” was internally moody but expressed some hope in its steamy sexuality. “Nearly God,” which has been out for several months in England and has been selling briskly in the States as an import, is almost entirely depressing and reflects Tricky’s struggle with fame, fortune and fatherhood (Bird gave birth to Maisey 17 months ago).

And Tricky describes the forthcoming “Pre-Millennium Tension,” due this fall, as “a high-energy album"--tapping the optimism he now sees in Maisey.

“Because of her, I’m more positive,” he says, looking south over a sizzling, smoggy L.A. Basin. “I hate the fact that she’s going to grow up and go through some of the things I did. I don’t want her to feel fear or paranoia or loneliness. To tell you the truth, I hope she is a rich girl lost in money and clothes.

“I’ve never had the courage to love anybody like that before.”

Even his relationship with the 22-year-old Bird, who brings sweet, wistful singing to his tracks, seems to be calming down after a love-hate, up-and-down ride that has brought tension to their work and tawdry headlines to their lives.

“We’re going to move into a house,” he says. “I need to know what that feels like.”

*

At 28, Tricky is still running fast, however, finding time to do a small U.S. tour and add his flavor to albums, singles and remix projects for artists such as Bjork, Bush and Garbage.

“That’s what I do for a living,” he says of his busy schedule. “I don’t see the point of sitting around.

“I’m a prostitute,” he says, ranting, as he often does, against corporate music. “But Idon’t mind, as long as it’s on my terms. This work is being done on my terms.”

Tricky’s art, like his mood, is a moving target, and he likes it that way. He has recorded everything from straight soul and hip-hop to guitar-heavy post-punk and hyper-bass “jungle.” He takes his cues from reggae, ska (he wrote an ode to the Specials’ old song “Nightclub” recently), dub and hip-hop (he has also recorded an old Eric B. & Rakim song for the fall album).

He has a long wish list of those he would like to work with, from the Fugees to Chuck D.

“I’m a musical mongrel--bits and pieces of everything,” he says. “Specials, hip-hop, Prince, Bob Marley, Gary Numan. That’s why I sell records. Nobody knows what to do with me.”

In typical media fashion, he has been pegged as the leader of a new school of Bristol-based hip-hop, a sound called trip-hop that is deliberately slow, scratchy, sour and indeed trippy (other artists pigeonholed here include Portishead, Ruby and Morcheeba).

In his “Maxinquaye” days, Tricky spent a lot of time fighting off that label. Now, he doesn’t have to. His range and poetry have proved to transcend this dance club trendiness. Where trip-hop is confined largely to lyric-less singles of the second, Tricky produces full-range albums that stand the test of at-home listening.

“They will sign anybody from Bristol these days,” he says.

Growing up in Bristol, Adrian Thaws was called the Tricky Kid by his friends because he was. His grandfather ran a Jamaican-style deejay sound system for parties. His uncles were gangsters. His mother died when he was only 4. His grandmother, who raised him, encouraged himto stay home from school and watch horror movies with her.

“I was quite violent growing up,” Tricky says, “doing it because there was nothing else to do.

“Reggae was a big part of my upbringing. Back then, it wasn’t a choice. It’s crazy how you can choose so many things these days.”

In his teenage daze, he fell in with the two-tone spirit of ska and ran with a crew of deejays that eventually became the dub-inspired group Massive Attack. Tricky wrote two songs for the band’s seminal 1991 album “Blue Lines,” a work that both launched modern British soul and proved that dance music was an endless, evolving genre (England’s Mixmag, the last word on dance music culture, called “Blue Lines” the best album of all time).

Against the wishes of his Massive mates, who said he wouldn’t make it on his own, he went solo.

“It was just too comfortable being with Massive Attack,” he says. “It was getting so easy. All I did was write lyrics.”

“Maxinquaye” then proved that he could rap, write and produce. The song that put the album on the college radio map in the U.S. was a version of Public Enemy’s 1988 ode to black isolation, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.” Only this time “Black Steel” came with the pop soul accents of Bird and a driving guitar track.

The juxtaposition of Bird, a beauty who hails from the comfortable class, and Tricky’s often tawdry lyrics (“I am she, fists are clutching, breast stroke, hotel, motel . . .) is striking and continues to be a device in his work.

“Martina can represent my anger because I’ve got her back,” he says. “And I can represent what Chuck D. is saying [in “Black Steel”] because I felt the man.”

He still lives up to the Tricky Kid spirit. When his contract called for a one-album year in 1995-96, he simply released another one under the pseudonym Nearly God.

“Nearly God is a totally '[expletive] you’ to everybody,” he says. “I go through these anti-people phases when I don’t want to be nice to anybody.”

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Dennis Romero

Dennis Romero is a Southern California journalist who has covered popular culture, youth culture, raves, ecstasy, marijuana, electronic dance music, surfing, the housing crisis, wealth disparity, crime and other topics extensively in the span of 25 years. He participated in the Los Angeles Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the L.A. riots.

Before joining NBCNews.com in 2018 as daily contributor he worked as a 40-stories-per-month staffer at LA Weekly. He's also been a recent contributor to the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times. His work as also appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and the Guardian. He's been on the feature writing staffs of the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Emmis Publishing's Ciudad magazine. He's appeared on CNN, Investigation Discovery and Reelz multiple times to speak about stories he's covered. He's participated in panel discussions organized by Zocalo Public Square, the National Hispanic Media Coa…

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Cover photo by Steve Appleford Losing the mural, it seems, was a sign of the times. In 2002, when the city renovated the recreation center at Stoner Park in West L.A., the last remnants of the Westside's Latino gang culture were told that the building's big Chicano-era mural would be temporarily removed to accommodate construction, but then returned. The big tableaux from the side of the building was an homage to the Mexican flavor of the neighborhood, and a point of homeboy pride.
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