Massive Attack are one of the most iconic British bands of the last twenty years; their music de ned and broke the rules of numerous genres. Constantly innovative and given to potent marriages of music and visual art, their aesthetic has been shaped om the outset by graffiti writer-turned frontman Rob Del Naja (aka 3D). Here he tells Cedar Lewisohn about his influences, what inspires his paintings and how a 1983 record by The Clash helped bring stencils to Bristol.
Cedar Lewisohn – How did you first became interested in graffiti?
3D – I first encountered it, in the artistic sense, I think, through The Clash; the ‘Radio Clash’ video, with Futura 2000. Then, when the New York hip-hop thing started to filter through to the UK, there was the Buffalo Girls video and the Wild Style movie – that was the first glimpse of what was happening.
CL – When are we talking about, here?
3D– Around ’81 to ’83. I think Celluloid released a series of Electro 12 inches, including ‘ The Adventures of Futura 2000’, and he was doing the backs of all the covers. So I became aware of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring… it was one of those worlds that was miles away from Bristol, but we sort of accessed it a bit through music.
CL – So the music and the art were always interlinked.
3D – Absolutely; I brought myself a cheap pair of decks and a little Tandy mixer, because I couldn’t afford the real deal. I started doing some bedroom mixing and I met the guys from The Wild Bunch: Miles Johnson, Nellee Hooper and Daddy G. They were doing this night at the Dug Out club [in Bristol] and I started painting graffiti around the same time. For me, going out there for the first time, it was just pure bravado and for the thrill of it. Then it felt like I was part of the scene, the music and the art. There was no real ambition. It was miles away from the idea of trying to get a record deal; all we were doing was putting on parties and having a blast. Really, we were totally entranced by what was happening in New York. After the post-punk thing in the UK, it just seemed like the next revelation. It seemed so exciting.
CL – Who else in Bristol was doing stuff on the street?
3D – At that particular point, there were only a couple of artists doing it. ere were the Zee Boys, a guy called Tarzan; then the next generation, a couple of years later, Inkie and Nick Walker… around ’85.
CL – Was the book Subway Art out by then?
3D – Subway Art came out, I think, in ’84, before then, everything was very raw. You could only buy car paint or crap paint; it was sort of an unknown world. When Subway Art came out, you suddenly had this manual to work to. I think it really excited a lot of people, that book. Then Henry Chalfont came to Bristol and did an interview with me and took some photos of my pieces.
CL – That was amazing.
3D – Then we did the Arnolni show in Bristol, about ’85. It was quite weird, because we were all very primitive; we were way behind the sophistication of the New York scene. But we were the best that was on offer in Bristol and in Birmingham. At that point I’d met Mode 2 and Pride and the guys from the Chrome Angels. I think Mode was one of the most accomplished painters I’ve ever met. The stuff he was doing at Ladbroke Grove was amazing; it put the rest of us to shame in a way.
CL – What made you start working in stencils? Where did you see them?
3D – The only place I had seen stencils before was on municipal signs and things. The Clash put a stencil in the ‘Know Your Rights’ 12 inch–you had to pull it out of it. It was almost built to go on the back of a leather jacket.
Before we did the first Massive Attack album I was really into cutting out symbols: industrial symbols, warning symbols… and then adding those to faces – I did Marilyn Monroe turning into Margret Thatcher and some Mike Tyson pieces, stencil pieces which I painted straight onto the wall. As a lot of kids were getting into street graffiti, there was a lot of tagging going on, I started to gravitate toward the stencil thing, because I’d been busted a couple of times and also because I think it became over- saturated very quickly.
CL – Which other artists were you looking at?
3D – Interestingly enough, looking at Basquiat and Haring turned me onto Warhol. I was aware of Andy Warhol, as a kid, but I started to look more closely at his work, and that influenced my stencils. Because I had not studied formally at college, I didn’t have access to a silk-screen set up. I treated it like printing. So, a lot of the stencils I did were quite complex and quite layered. They were things I would do for people – portraits and stuff. I did a few on the streets, but not many illegal pieces. I was still doing a few freehand pieces, quietly, with Inkie. I went out a couple of times, almost a bit nostalgically.
CL – Do you feel that Massive Attack had a visual identity that was shaded by your style of work?
3D – Two things we hated were the term ‘trip-hop’ and the phrase ‘multi-media’, they were things we’d cringe at. But to be honest, in a sense, that was very much what we were about. The first shows we did, for instance, were immersive. We’d take a room and decorate it with images; we created models and animations to project. We wanted to create an environment that we felt we were about.
CL – Do you collaborate quite closely on the visuals for the stage show?
3D – Yeah, basically we sit down before each tour and talk about how we want the screen, which configuration, what size, what we can project on to it… then I present a load of themes I want them to cover: political, social… They present me with concepts as well, and we brainstorm it. Then it would evolve throughout the tour.
CL – It would be interesting to see how you could upscale the painterly, gestural aspect of your work, in the way you do with the L.E.D screens.
3D – Even though there is a painterly thing going on, I’ve tried to keep it quite graphic; even the last album sleeve was this strange hybrid minstrel character, with a rainbow. Even though that was more figurative, than graphic, I’m trying to keep it quite symbolic and iconic; trying to keep the legacy of these things having a very graphic image. Weather it was the inflammable material thing, which ripped off Stiff Little Fingers, or the beetle on Mezzanine. They were meant to be very much graphic icons. I wanted to do that even within the painting parameters on the last record. Trying to combine the two ideas, which I felt carried through with the whole history of the band.
CL – When it comes to art, some bands just aren’t bothered. But it seems like such an amazing and big audience to play with.
3D – We always designed our sleeves as a 12-inch format. I always saw it as a 12-inch before I saw it as an eight-inch CD or six-inch, or whatever. They were always done in the format of twelve-by-twelve. So, when I and Tom Hinxston work on gatefold sleeves, it’s three 12s, so its 36 inches long [in total]. at’s always the way it’s going to be. So, the idea of being able to create vinyl around music and limited edition vinyl I’ve been doing with [record label] Vinyl Factory, it’s just perfect. I love that. For me, as a kid, that’s how I saw music, the way I brought it, and picked it up. As much as I love the convenience of left sharing, and downloading music is great fun; I still love the physical object.
CL – I heard that your last album cover was banned by London Underground because it had spray- paint drips on it. Is that true?
3D – It is; it’s very bizarre, that. I think it’s one of those random decisions made in an office somewhere, which didn’t really make a lot of sense, to be honest.
CL – How did you feel about it?
3D – To be honest, I didn’t really care. It just didn’t make any sense.
CL – Bristol now has such a big reputation for street art and graffiti, how do you feel about that?
3D – It’s great. Bristol always has been a really vibrant place. I know it’s easy for me to say that, as I’m still a native of Bristol. But even now, there are new generations of kids making music and painting. It’s always had its own feeling of independence. It’s connected by the main artery of the M4 and now through the internet and data sharing. But it still has an independent spirit. And I think that really comes through in the music that the city makes and the art it throws up. It’s the real blood essence.