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+ {Nearly God}

Taking bastardized hip-hop beats as his raw material, then suffocating them with layers of samples, disjointed rhythms, freak instrumental lines and obscure noises, trip-hop pioneer TRICKY created music that was wired yet lethargic, with lyrics equally contradictory and ambiguous to match. The producer/part-rapper TRICKY was never the whole story though, and he’d be the first to share his successes (especially on the monumental “Maxinquaye” set) with the cool and succulent MARTINA TOPLEY-BIRD, whilst a plethora of other singers/rappers spun hastily through the man’s perdurable revolving doors.
Born Adrian Nicholas Matthews Thaws, 27 January 1968, Knowle West, Bristol; to an absent Jamaican father, Roy Thaws, and mixed-race Anglo-Guyanese mother, Maxine Quaye (who committed suicide when he was 4), the young lad was raised and cared for by his grandmother.
After a troubling time growing up on one of the city’s poorer “white ghetto” housing estates, Adrian fell in with the wrong crowd and inevitably spent time in prison for receiving forged £50 notes. Interested in rock and dance music, his poems began to have a purpose when he joined the Fresh 4. Spending less time lawbreaking and more time busying himself with the local club culture; he helped run sound systems and hung out with The Wild Bunch, a loose collective of musicians and DJs that included MASSIVE ATTACK and famed producer Nellee Hooper (of SOUL II SOUL).
In between trips to court in Oxford, where he was defending an assault charge, “Tricky Kid” – as he was nicknamed by his Bristolian cohorts – rose up the ranks, culminating with collaboration credits on the said collective’s seminal “Blue Lines” album of 1991; contributing stoned raps on three cuts: `Five Man Army’, `Daydreaming’ and the title track. TRICKY’s inaugural solo effort was a cinematic “Betty Blue”-sampling track entitled, `Nothing Is Clear’ (co-produced by PORTISHEAD’s Geoff Barrow), that featured on the summer 1991 Sickle Cell V/A charity album, “The Hard Sell”.
Yet the track that brought him to the attention of a discerning public was the sublime claustrophobia of `Aftermath’. Eventually released by 4th & B’way Records in early ‘94, the Top 75 track had previously been recorded a couple of years earlier with TRICKY’s musical muse, Martina (aka Martine), predating the trip-hop scene that he would later be filed under. Up next came the jarring loops and nervous paranoia of `Ponderosa’, released almost simultaneously with Thaws’ contributions (`Karmacoma’ and `Eurochild’) to MASSIVE ATTACK’s 1994 follow-up set, “Protection”.
A third taster from TRICKY’s pioneering debut album, MAXINQUAYE (1995) {*9}, `Overcome’, was his first to crack the Top 40. The album itself – named after his long-lost mother – was a dense, brooding collection of slow motion beat-poetry from the darkside. It was immediately hailed as a classic after it soared into the Top 3. With the aforesaid Martina; the soon-to-be mother of his daughter (but still incorrectly credited as “Martine”), the NME Album of the Year absorbed a peppering of samples from MICHAEL JACKSON’s “Bad” (on `Brand New You’re Retro’) and ISAAC HAYES’ “Ike’s Rap II” (for `Hell Is Just Around The Corner’), to PUBLIC ENEMY’s “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos” (on `Black Steel’). Whilst Mark Saunders, Kevin Petrie and HOWIE B respectively co-produced the record, there was room for bassist Pete Briquette (ex-BOOMTOWN RATS), guitarist James Stevenson (ex-GENE LOVES JEZEBEL, ex-GEN X et al) and guest singers Alison GOLDFRAPP (on hit `Pumpkin’) and Ragga (on `You Don’t’). Note too that a further collaboration that summer; this time by way of the hit `The Hell EP’ – featuring rappers GRAVEDIGGAZ (aka RZA, Prince Paul, Poetic & Frukwan – comprised two versions of `Hell Is Just Around The Corner’ and exclusive tracks `Psychosis’ and `Tonite Is A Special Nite’; the latter from the forthcoming “The Crow: City Of Angels” soundtrack.
Subsequently collaborating with BJORK, TERRY HALL, NENEH CHERRY, ALISON MOYET, Cath Coffey (and Dedi Madden), plus of course, MARTINA TOPLEY-BIRD (DAMON ALBARN backed out at the last minute), the trip-hopper unveiled his “unfinished/incomplete demos” project, NEARLY GOD (1996) {*7}. The Top 10 album revisited the dark intensity of his previous effort without quite the same effect; possibly a case of too many cooks (or too many spliffs) spoiling the broth. Nevertheless, with a nod to TOM WAITS, horror/sci-fi soundtracks and all of the above, he and his team breezed through eerie covers of SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES’ `Tattoo’ and Sonny Burke’s `Black Coffee’, next to solitary single, `Poems’ and BJORK’s detached `Yoga’.
Recorded in New York with some underground rappers, TRICKY’s PRE-MILLENNIUM TENSION (1996) {*8}, was almost on a par with his celebrated debut. But if it didn’t exactly break new ground, the album illustrated that the artist’s wellspring of paranoid psychosis was far from running dry; tracks such as `Bad Things’, `Makes Me Wanna Die’ (sampling ERIC B. & RAKIM’s “Beats For The Listeners”), `Tricky Kid’ (borrowing The COMMODORES’ “Zoom”), `Bad Dream’ (sampling The SPECIALS’ `Housebound’) and `My Evil Is Strong’ spoke for themselves.
Up to now, an austere America was giving the Brit the cold shoulder, though with the release of his third/fourth “no samples” album, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1998) {*6}, retail sales matched that of UK figures. En route he’d remixed the great and the good (i.e. COSTELLO, YOKO ONO, BUSH and GARBAGE), however the menacing miasma of multi-genres began to grate on reviewers and some of the public (e.g. on covers of Mary McCreary’s `Singin’ The Blues’ and BILLIE HOLIDAY’s `Carriage For Two’; the latter featuring ANTHRAX’s Scott Ian on guitar). Of course there were exceptions to the rule. His joint effort with PJ HARVEY on Top 30 hit `Broken Homes’, opener `Money Greedy’, and his aural interplay with stalwart Martina on `Talk To Me (Angels With Dirty Faces)’, had thankfully struck the right note.
1999 was a busy year for TRICKY, everything from making “real” gangster LP, “Product Of The Environment” (with Mad Frankie Fraser for one!), to delivering his final shot across the bow for Island Records: JUXTAPOSE {*7}. The latter – which was recorded with DJ Muggs (of CYPRESS HILL) and Grease (of Ruff Ryders) – achieved the usual plaudits; its return to his experimental trip-hop roots gaining him a near Top 30 place. Sadly absent from the record was Martina, who moved aside to let unknown prospect Kioka Williams trial out. Balancing the Brit books by hiring toaster Mad Dog on a few tracks, the TRICKY triumvirate even sampled M’s “Pop Muzik” hit of yesteryear on opener, `For Real’.
2001’s BLOWBACK {*7}, was finally unleashed by Epitaph Records (once home to BAD RELIGION and their ilk). A slightly disappointing Top 40 set for several cynical critics, it nonetheless displayed TRICKY’s usual concoction of hip hop beats and chilled-out smoking rhymes. From the ¾ of RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS-addled `Girls’, to collaboration dabbling with Hawkman (a toaster from Jamaica), Ed Kowalcyzk (of LIVE), ALANIS MORISSETTE (on harmony), soul singer Stephanie McKay, and Ambersunshower (an obscure new age diva), the album certainly had its moments. Putting to one side TRICKY’s as-always profound lyrical abandon, the curiosity aspect of the set fell to a cover of NIRVANA’s `Something In The Way’, a sample of EURYTHMICS’ “Sweet Dreams” (on `You Don’t Wanna’) and his collaboration with CYNDI LAUPER on `Five Days’.
Regarded as his most honest and open record, VULNERABLE (2003) {*6}, didn’t exactly bowl over reviewers or fickle fans; it only chalked up a highest position of No.88. Introducing Italian singer and fan Constanza Francavilla, who’d approached him after a gig, one couldn’t help think that this liaison was a stretch too far. However, the ethereal TRICKY was his own man and if this venture into accessible alt-dance/rock territory gave him a new focus, so be it. He was now part of the L.A. crowd, having recently relocated to the sun spot, but not many songs here captured the zeitgeist of his haunting hues from several years ago; only possibly `Stay’, `Car Crash’ and a dub-heavy dream-pop re-hash of The CURE’s `The Love Cats’.
Bristol’s trip hop scene took a shot in the arm in 2008, when a comeback PORTISHEAD “Third” album was dispatched, and MASSIVE ATTACK geared up by curating the annual Meltdown Festival. Homeboy TRICKY, too, sauntered back into contention by way of the long-awaited and aptly-titled KNOWLE WEST BOY {*7}. A five-year self-imposed sabbatical was thankfully over for this Top 75 pseudo-concept set for Domino Records. Re-recording material he’d collaborated with initial producer, BERNARD BUTLER, the smorgasbord of styles showcased was impressive; from ragga `Bacative’ and the PRODIGY-like punk single, `Council House’ (sampling PORTISHEAD’s `Roads’), to a cover of KYLIE MINOGUE’s `Slow’ (with vox from British actress Carmen Ejogo), there was something here for everybody; the trouble was that former disciples were not tuning in.
Strengthening his street-cred by touring incessantly in 2009; which provided an opportunity for him to slip out the collaborative and re-hashed TRICKY MEETS SOUTH RAKKAS CREW {*6}, the trip-hop icon re-emerged properly with MIXED RACE (2010) {*7}. The set highlighted his revision of ECHO MINOTT’s ragga/dancehall coup, `Murder Weapon’, mashed-up with lyrics from his young brother Marlon Thaws over Henry Mancini’s `Peter Gunn’ theme. And packing a punch in all of its 29 minutes, the pairwork had PRIMAL SCREAM’s Bobby Gillespie feature on the spacey `Really Real’, Terry Lynn on `UK Jamaican’, and auxiliary touring singer Franky Riley nearly everywhere else, bar Hakim Hamadouche’s vox and lute delivery on the eponymous `Hakim’.
2013’s FALSE IDOLS {*7} was the name of TRICKY’s next album (and his label) after he bailed from Domino Records. Together on several cuts with vocal collaborators Nneka Egbuna, Fifi Rong and Irish chanter Francesca Belmonte (best examples: `Is That Your Life’, `If Only I Knew’ and `Tribal Drums’), the star track was arguably a re-working of The ANTLERS’ `Parenthesis’, that featured that band’s kingpin Peter Silberman; others would certainly opt for either a veiled re-vamp of PATTI SMITH’s `Somebody’s Sins’ (aka “Gloria (In Excelsis Deo)”), or even `Hey Love’, which took in elements of JAPAN’s “Ghosts”.
TRICKY’s eponymous ADRIAN THAWS (2014) {*6} once again, could hardly be described as a solo set. The stamping ground for Mykki Blanco, Oh Land, NoLay and Blue Daisy, whilst others like the aforesaid Francesca and Nneka were still trying to make the grade, self-indulgence was the name of the game for the Tirzah participation a la `Sun Down’ and a kooky cover of JANET KAY’s `Silly Games’.
Exactly 20 years since his “Nearly God” project tore up the collaborative rule book, the Berlin-based TRICKY presented another Various Artists-styled viewpoint via SKILLED MECHANICS (2016) {*5}. Featuring past cohorts DJ Milo & Luke Harris, this was by and large swept under the carpet by non-affiliates to the man’s CV. Back on track but not in the charts for 2017’s UNUNIFORM {*6}, the TRICKY team now consisted of a Russian rapper, Smoky Mo, who turned up the heat (with one of the set’s feature figures Scriptonite) on `Bang Boogie’. Whilst Francesca, Mina Rose, actress Asia Argento had their say (Martina Topley-Bird concluded the album with `When We Die’), a gamble was taken on Avalon Lurks’ lonely reading of HOLE’s `Doll (Parts)’.
© MC Strong 1996-2006/GRD/BG // rev-up MCS Sep2019

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