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Beats and Bass

A History of the Bristol Music Scene

It's still as fresh, colourful, and multi-layered as when it kicked off four decades ago, and without a trip hop track in sight.

I can still clearly remember the first time I heard Massive Attack’s 1991 magnum opus Blue Lines. I was 19 at the time and sitting with friends in student style digs in Plymouth. The curtains, as always, were closed, even though it was the middle of the afternoon, and posters of David Lynch movies covered at least some of the cracks in the flat’s thin walls. The etiolated blue smoke of several days hung dreamily in the air in layers. The album’s combination of torpid hip hop beats, soaring soul, dubwise basslines, whispered raps, and Horace Andy’s quivering falsetto cut right through the haze, unfolding in a series of slow, serious sonic epiphanies that left everyone in the room speechless. Not only was this revolutionary record an almost perfect blend of our combined musical interests, it had been made ‘just up the road’ in Bristol, a city we often visited for raves at venues like Lakota and the Thekla.

More than 20 years on, Blue Lines still feels like one of British urban music’s strongest statements, along with the two other debuts that transformed Bristol into Britain’s trip hop capital – Portishead’s Dummy (1994) and Tricky’s Maxinquaye (1995). This lazy epithet, incidentally, was actually coined for DJ Shadow’s ‘In/Flux’ track on James Lavelle’s Mo Wax label. The surrounding media furore mostly missed out on the fact that these acts weren’t the start of a scene, but rather the culmination of one. Bristol’s music scene had been vibrant as far back as the late 1970s, when areas like working class and ethnically mixed St Paul’s were a blur of Jamaican style blues parties and reggae sound systems and after hours venues battled it out with jazz, funk, disco, and punk clubs. By the early 1980s, hip hop was thrown into the mix, and clubs like the Dug Out – where Massive Attack founder Daddy G was a resident – grew famous for their eclectic music and equally mixed crowds. It was this heady milieu that gave birth to the Wild Bunch, the DJ/sound system crew which would later spawn Massive Attack. The first ‘trip hop’ style production, the Erik Satie-sampling This is Stranger than Love, was also written in the 1980s by Mark Stewart, firebrand frontman of avant-punk band The Pop Group, with production help by Three Stripe Posse sound system operators Rob Smith and Ray Mighty (Smith & Mighty). Not only did Smith & Mighty continue the trend of blending hip hop beats with weighty basslines and Jamaican vocalists on their Bacharach and David covers Anyone Who Had a Heart and Walk on By, they also produced Massive Attack’s début single Any Love, and the 1989 chart hitting cover of Rose Royce’s Wishing on a Star by the Fresh Four. Three of the four, Krust, Suv, and Flynn, would be a formative part of Bristol’s next musical wave; drum & bass. Joining forces with fellow junglist and former sound system fiend, Roni Size and DJ Die, Krust and Suv were also a part of Roni Size’s Reprazent, which won the prestigious Mercury Prize with their jazzy d&b album New Forms (1997). Flynn teamed up with Flora as a formidable DJ and production duo, supported by a constellation of other locals like Tech Itch, Decoder, and Smith & Mighty, who founded the More Rockers label and released several seminal Dub Plate Selection compilations as well as their own album, Bass Is Maternal (1995).

After the fast paced peaks of the d&b scene, Bristol seemed to run out of ideas. By the mid 2000s, however, a new generation helped put the city back on the musical map with yet another new sound; dubstep. After building up slowly via the local underground for several years, Radio One DJ Mary Anne Hobbs profiled twelve of the city’s main protagonists – names like Appleblim, Peverelist and Pinch – for her show Bristol: Rise Up. Pinch – also known as Rob Ellis – was a key protagonist in the transformation of Bristol into a dubstep city. Turned on to the sound by a Kode9 set at London’s fwd club, he was inspired to start his own night in Bristol called Context, later known as Subloaded, and then as Dubloaded. His friend and sometime production partner Peverelist, or Tom Ford, meanwhile set up the influential Punch Drunk label specifically to put out music by Bristol based dubstep artists, many of whom were collected together on 2010’s Worth the Weight compilation. This included Smith & Mighty in yet another musical genre guise. Ford also opened his own record shop, Rooted Records, which became one of the principal social hubs for the scene until its closure in 2010.

The latest urban music trend in the city has seen a shift away from the ‘hard core continuum’ of hip hop, drum & bass and dubstep, moving it towards a sound that Bristol has managed to avoid being heavily associated with for the last couple of decades; house. This freshly vibrant scene has garnered new attention for the city and is centred around the FutureBoogie label, agency, and club night run by Steve Nickolls and Dave Harvey, and rising DJ/producer stars like Julio Bashmore, Kowton, Christophe and Lukas, Coat Of Arms, and Behling And Simpson. Other players are Alfreso Disco, an outdoor house party that happens in random secret locations every few months, and Stoke Croft’s Idle Hands, a record shop that symbolically took over from where Rooted left off. The fact that there aren’t many threads connecting the city’s current house renaissance with the old days doesn’t seem to matter much – the latter are still putting out records and breaking new ground in their own way. From Mark Stewart to Massive Attack, Nineh Cherry to Tricky, Portishead with Geoff Barrow’s Beak> and Quakers projects, to Roni Size/Reprazent and Rob Smith’s dubstep productions (RSD), the Bristol sound continues. It’s still as fresh, colourful, and multi-layered as when it kicked off four decades ago, and without a trip hop tune in sight.

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Further reading