Bristol Underground Scene


massive attack

The Bristol underground scene is a term used to describe the culture surrounding trip hop, drum and bass and graffiti art that has existed in Bristol from the early 1990s to the present. The city of Bristol in the UK has spawned various musicians and artists, and is typified by its urban culture. While the city is most associated with a group of artists who emerged during the 1990s, especially the ‘Bristol Sound’, the city maintains an active and diverse underground urban scene.

The city has been particularly associated with trip hop. Trip hop was spawned in ‘the bohemian, multi-ethnic city of Bristol, where restlessly inventive DJs had spent years assembling samples of various sounds that were floating around: groove-heavy acid jazz, dub reggae, neo-psychedelia, techno disco music, and the brainy art rap.’

The Bristol scene is characterised by a strong relationship between music and art, especially graffiti art. A founder member of the band Massive Attack, Robert Del Naja, was originally a graffiti artist, and local graffiti artist Banksy has also gone on to produce album covers and artworks.

The Bristol sound was the name given to a number of bands from Bristol, England, in the 1990s. These bands spawned the musical genre trip-hop, though many of the bands shunned this name when other British and international bands imitated the style and preferred not to distinguish it from hip-hop. The style was perhaps typified by the song ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ by Massive Attack.

The Bristol sound has been described as ‘possessing a darkness that is uplifting, a joyful melancholy.’ As a whole it was characterized by a slow, spaced-out hip hop sound that a number of artists in the early and mid 1990s made synonymous with the city. These artists can include the original Bristolians Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky and others such as Way Out West, Smith & Mighty, Up, Bustle and Out, Roni Size, and The Wild Bunch.

Many graffiti artists work in Bristol. One of the most notable is Banksy, who has also designed album covers for bands such as Blur. Banksy is a world renowned artist who uses his original street art form to promote alternative aspects of politics from those promoted by the mainstream media. Some believe that his graffiti helps to provide a voice for those living in urban environments that could not otherwise express themselves, and that his work is also something which improves the aesthetic quality of urban surroundings; others disagree, asserting that his work is simple vandalism.

There has long been an interplay between the different music and art scenes. Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack was initially a graffiti artist, ‘indeed, his first ever live gig was as a DJ accompanying artwork he had produced in a gallery in Bristo.’

Bristol has long been a multicultural city. In the 1950s and 1960s there were waves of immigration that made Bristol one of the most racially diverse cities in the UK. This mix included greater access to new strands of music such as reggae. ‘In 1980, following a police raid on the popular Black and White Café, the St Pauls riots erupted, the first of the decade’s civil disturbances.’ “Around this time, the Bristol underground scene was steeped in punk and reggae influences, and soon embraced hip-hop – and with it the colorful New York-style lettering at the most creative end of the graffiti art spectrum.’

The 1990s was when the scene began to create work of international significance. 1991 saw the release of Massive Attack’s ‘Blue Lines,’ ‘It was soul music. But it had bold, symphonic arrangements. It featured samples of the Mahavishnu Orchestra … It had funky breaks and an emotional power that was hard to figure. It sounded anxious and lost. But there was a grandeur in the music also. People who came across the record became obsessed, spinning it endlessly.’

The Bristol underground scene is characterized by a sparseness and darkness. Bands like Portishead and Massive Attack are known for using sparse instrumentation – a prominent bass line, vocals with what are usually melancholic lyrics and sometimes other effects commonly associated with hip-hop, such as samples and scratching. Banksy also tends to use very few colors, concentrating on black and white with sharp outlines, covering controversial topics such as war and economic inequality.

‘Racial matters have always carried a historical resonance in Bristol, a city made affluent on the profits of tobacco and slave-trading. ‘It’s a past that we feel equivocal about,’ says British DJ, Steve Wright. ‘It’s a double-edged thing. There are the beautiful Georgian terraces that we love, but they were built on the profits of slavery. It’s our shady past, and Bristolians are a bit self-effacing, a bit ashamed of it and are quite keen to layer new associations on top of it. There’s always been a defiant, subversive streak in Bristol, and Banksy’s work is very much in that tradition.’

Some of this tension spilled over into some of the artists creative work. Massive Attack for example were wrought with creative tensions over their 1998 album ‘Mezzanine,’ which resulted in one of the three core members leaving. Robert Del Naja has described the dark atmosphere within the group: ‘There was always this tension between control and collaboration. Always… We were just trying to get the job finished… Everything became thinner and smaller. All that warmth being spun into a tiny little thread, then that thread just being cut.’


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.