Twenty years ago, Tricky faced an avalanche of lofty expectations amidst the afterglow of critical and commercial praise following the release of his 1995 solo debut Maxinquaye. The album peaked at number three on the British charts, and it top year-end lists for both the NME and Melody Maker and came in an impressive 2nd in the Village Voice's Pazz and Jop critics poll. Most would take their time, lay back and woodshed their sequel. But the man born Adrian Thaws—at the time fresh off a tour with Island Records labelmate PJ Harvey—wasn't ready to rest. His 1996 was one of the busiest and most vibrant years of his career, releasing two LPs and an EP over the course of six-and-a-half months between late April and early November.
But rather than play to the critics and fans expecting more of Maxinquaye's electronic soul maneuvering, he made visceral, challenging records that drove him further away from the gleam of pop radio. Trying to shirk the "trip-hop" tag he and his friends in the Bristol music collective the Wild Bunch were begrudgingly saddled with, Tricky used 1996 to delve even deeper into his roots in post-punk and underground East Coast hip-hop to put together a pair of albums that truly cemented his formative role in the collaborative interplay between American and British hip-hop.
On April 29, Tricky delivered Nearly God, a collection of what he described as "brilliant, incomplete demos" in his online biography. That included a keen look into the producer's sonic connections to Siouxsie & The Banshees, Depeche Mode, and Slick Rick by covering favorites from those artists such as "Tattoo," "Judas," and "Children's Story," respectively. But, this being one of England's great experimenters, instead of just of mere homages, he tore them into their component pieces and reconfigured them to highlight the creeping darkness at the heart of each—bringing all three compositions closer together sonically than anyone could've ever imagined.
Then on November 11, Tricky would release Pre-Millennium Tension, a proper studio album recorded in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Offset by the dense guitar work of Professor Pat McManus (formerly of the Northern Ireland metal group Mama's Boys) and longtime vocalist Martina Topley-Bird, this record pushed his post-punk, hip-hop hybrid experiment to even headier depths, which could be heard on such brooding numbers as "Christiansands" and "Makes Me Wanna Die." Elsewhere, he doubled down on his love for the rugged nature of mid-90s NYC hip-hop through the din of such material as the braggadocious "Tricky Kid," and the Smif-N-Wessun-sampling "My Evil is Strong," not to mention the Topley-Bird-led covers of such rap staples as Chill Rob G's "Bad Dream" and "Lyrics of Fury" by Eric B. and Rakim.
These two LPs, along with the Grassroots EP he released on the Payday label on August 6th of that year, arrived at a time when hip-hop was experiencing the advent of its own alternative movement. It's amazing to think of just how many groundbreaking recordings were released around the same period: the first Dr. Octagon album, Company Flow's Funcrusher EP, Bahamadia's Kollage, The Fugees' The Score, The Roots' Illadelph Halflife, the first DJ Honda LP, Cibo Matto's Viva La Woman, DJ Shadow's Endtroducing and Infinite, the local-level debut from a young Detroit MC named Eminem. These titles helped provide a true alternative for fans who needed a slightly more off-kilter angle to appreciate hip-hop at the time, not to mention serving as a gateway to the form on the comedown from Britain's first ecstatic wave of rave culture.
In celebration of the 20th anniversary of both Nearly God and Pre-Millennium Tension, THUMP had the rare opportunity to speak with Tricky—who is not exactly a fan of rehashing the past—about the challenge of following up an album as hotly hyped up as Maxinquaye was at the time and the moves he made in 1996 to ensure his career wouldn't be defined by the term "trip-hop."
THUMP: Were Nearly God and Pre-Millennium Tension recorded as reactions to that success you experienced with Maxinquaye?
Tricky: To be honest with you, it was almost like I could do no wrong after Maxinquaye. And when I was putting together Nearly God, I was thinking, "Will you stay with me if I put out something that radio cannot play?" I could have made another Maxinquaye or something else that was more obvious. But with Nearly God I wanted to do something really extreme to make sure you get what I'm doing. I didn't want to be just a Top 20 artist.
Did you feel a lot of pressure to follow-up Maxinquaye with something of equal proportion?
The thing is, Nearly God was immediately well received, but Pre-Millennium Tension wasn't so well received by some writers. When I started touring, actual fans would come up to me with Pre-Millennium Tension saying, "I was in a coma for ten days and this album saved my life," or "I work in a kids' burn unit and this album helps me cope." You've got to realize that success is all kind of an illusion, or at least what we consider success. Maxinquaye comes out in England and it's at the Top of the Pops, and you would consider that success. But Nearly God and Pre-Millennium Tension were much darker albums. Now I don't really care about some critic's review, it's all just bollocks, but if you reflect upon some people's opinions, that could become your reality.
It's almost like what Radiohead are experiencing now, that they can do no wrong in the eyes of the press.
It's a weird thing with Radiohead. They're a great, great band. I actually met Thom Yorke years ago. I was in this pub and having a drink with Shaun Ryder of Happy Mondays and Black Grape, and 3D from Massive Attack comes over to me and goes, "The Radiohead guys are here and they want to have a meet." So I said, "No problem!" and I went over to their table, and one of them told me, "When we record, we put your tracks on a loop while we're in the studio for inspiration." But they never mention me today. They never give me any love at all.
That's not cool, especially considering just how influential you and the whole Wild Bunch squad were to so many acts in the 90s.
Yeah, they never give me some cred, and they never give me a shout out. I thought that was mad. But when you get that big, I don't envy them. Because you have to play that game, but they do it well.
Were you surprised to see how much both Nearly God and Pre-Millennium Tension were instrumental in increasing your fan base across both hip hop and alternative rock at the time?
It's very strange. I lived in L.A. for a little while, right. And I met these Mexican guys who were super into the Cure. But these guys were on some total gangsta shit, yet they were driving around listening to the Cure. Robert Smith would never probably imagine that [laughs]. It's mad how music transcends. You know the stereotype, you think Mexican ghetto guys are just going to be banging out hip-hop, but these were older generation guys and they used to drive around listening to the Cure and Depeche Mode and stuff.
Tell me specifically about your headspace while making Pre-Millennium Tension. It seemed as though underground New York City hip-hop was a big creative touchstone for you.
It definitely was. First off, I absolutely hate the term "trip-hop". It was a term that made it seemed like I was trying to turn the music into something else. I was always influenced by New York hip-hop, since forever, since I was a kid. The reason I moved to New York was due to loving hip-hop and considering myself a b-boy. And I always knew that one day I would have to live in New York. That was the mecca. I wouldn't consider my music hip-hop by the time I got to New York, but that was where I was coming from, and the reason I arrived to New York, which was to link up with hip-hop artists.
At the time I remember especially digging Kool Keith and the Dr. Octagon album…I think that guy is one of the greatest and most underrated artists in New York hip-hop. I've met Keith a bunch of times and he's the kind of guy, however, that doesn't give a fuck about what was popular in 1996. He's on his own wavelength. I was in the studio with him once, right. And I sat next to him when he was writing, and when he put the paper down and I checked the lyrics, I didn't get it. But then when he started spitting the lyrics on the mic, it all started to make perfect sense.
And then there's also the heavy use of guitars on Pre-Millennium Tension. What inspired this emphasis?
I've always loved rock music. I've always loved stuff like the Specials and the Breeders and things like that. But it was hip-hop that really got me into music. I'd see Prince on the TV or listen to his song on the radio, but I can't do what Prince does. I'm just a normal guy from a normal neighborhood. I can't play every instrument or dance the way Prince danced. So even though I might love Prince's music, it never gave me the feeling that I could do his stuff. When I first heard Slick Rick and Rakim, and the Specials as well, it was music for a kid like me, like "I can do that." Terry Hall and Rakim and Slick Rick, they weren't professional musicians. They were normal people who got an opportunity to do something or make an opportunity. Hip-hop made me realize that I could do this.
The Specials, meanwhile, have been a big part of my growing up; it's a part of my identity, I suppose. Two Tone, it was like hip-hop in a way, and you identified with it and it became something you could be a part of. I could listen to Terry Hall's words, and they're describing my upbringing. It was like they were talking for me and my friends, you know?
How did the cover of Eric B. and Rakim's "Lyrics of Fury" come about?
When I go to the studio, I never have a plan. And sometimes I go there just to listen to the music I love, because I don't just go there to work, I go there to listen as well. Like I'll be there writing a song, then all of a sudden I'll want to listen to something it reminds me of. So the covers I do are never really planned; it's just what I do in the studio. For instance, I always have a copy of "Lyrics of Fury" on me whenever I travel, whether it was on a mixtape or on an iPod or whatever. So it was always in the studio with me. Then one day I stopped and listened to it, and was like "Ah fuck it, let's just do a cover of this." So it just kind of happened.
Having Martina Topley-Bird do the vocals for not just that song, but all the hip-hop tracks you covered during that time was definitely a cool move.
She heard those songs all the time, because we were living in a flat together. So whether she wanted to hear them or not, she was hearing them. I always loved Chill Rob G: his flow, his vibe. That was one of the ones I'd be playing over and over again. It was storytelling at its best. He was someone I always felt was underrated or ahead of his time. Hip-hop wasn't doing so good back then, and he had done some great stuff then all of a sudden he disappeared.
Did you ever get feedback from any of the artists you've covered?
I know Flavor Flav and Chuck D liked "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos." Flavor Flav is a friend. He's jumped onstage with me in the past when I'd been on tour, which was good fun. Rakim as well; he reached out to me about possibly doing some work together, but it never came off just yet. Chill Rob G, I don't know anything about that. It's like he's totally off the grid.
How did the Grassroots EP come together?
I was in New York and asked Payday if they can help get me some underground rappers to do an EP. I always like to work. They wound up getting me the Hillfiguz from Brooklyn, and I remember one of the guys was running late because he had just gotten out of jail. I was like, "Who are these guys you got me in the studio with?" [laughs]. But these guys were just kids and they were wicked. They just jumped on the mic and did their thing and [didn't think] about things too much. I like artists like that. It was a fun little vibe on that EP.
Are there any plans to reissue the rest of your Island Records catalog any time soon?
To be honest with you, I'm about moving forward. I don't really think about it. I just did something with Massive Attack, and it took me a long time to do that, because I didn't want to go backwards. I met up with the guys and we talked and it was a good vibe, so we were just like, "Let's do this." We're talking about doing some live stuff later this year as well, with the 25th anniversary of [Massive Attack's] Blue Lines [which Tricky contributed vocals to] coming up and all. It's gonna be crazy. But I never listen back to my old stuff, unless it's for like a concert or something. It's weird. When you do something, after a while it doesn't feel like it's yours anymore. I barely hear my songs in clubs anymore, but when I would hear my songs in clubs it took me a few minutes to realize it was me. There's a distance between what you put out and what you are creating in the present, and I'm always pushing it forward so these instances where I'm looking back on my stuff is very rare.