No question about it, there's a lot of music being made out there. And most of it—even the small percentage of good stuff— sounds a lot like everything else. It's no small feat, then, that 30-year-old Adrian Thaws, a mixed-race ("mongrel" he calls it) street kid from Bristol, England, has managed to create one of this decade's most distinctive music styles under the nom de rap Tricky.
DV8, Tuesday, August 18
Tricky's distillation of hip-hop into a cinematic, often nightmarish soundscape of funk beats, soul vocals, spoken grumbles, and some of the most wicked sonic thrills ever popped out of a sampler has been labeled "trip-hop." But since he was first to do it and no one else has come close to reproducing his signature sound, it just as easily could be called "Tricky music."
What's the secret to the vocalist/producer's unique musical vision? He's all about work—not work spurred by some wholesome ethic, but rather by an irrepressible, short-attention-spanned creative energy. For Tricky, creation is as natural an instinct as a predator's need to hunt. And the only thing that will soothe this savage beast's hunger is feeding. "I just keep learning, and trying to have fun and not get too caught up in it," Tricky says, his voice racing over the phone from New York City. "It's meditation more than fun, actually. Writing lyrics or writing music is like a meditation."
In the year after his 1995 debut, Maxinquaye, arrived to critical genuflection, Tricky released three records: first, Nearly God, a collection of tracks with guest vocalists such as Neneh Cherry, Alison Moyet, and Bjork; then Tricky Presents Grassroots, a mini-album featuring underground rap acts; and finally, his second proper album, the universally praised and darkly apocalyptic Pre-Millennium Tension.
Last year, as recording began on his recently released Angels with Dirty Faces, a broken leg threatened to curtail Tricky's hectic pace. Not one to be held back by temporary disability, Tricky and his backing musicians (including longtime singing partner Martina) ventured to New Orleans and holed up in the popular studio/residence Kingsway. Though he didn't have much chance to soak up the city's musical textures, being homebound helped allay the stress that drove Pre-Millennium Tension, making Angels a less tightly wound affair. "I didn't leave the house for two and a half weeks, because I couldn't move around much," he recalls. "I was just making music. I was rested and very relaxed."
It seems the only things able to distract Tricky from creating new music have been other creative endeavors: remixing, starting his own label, and touring. He's produced tracks by artists ranging from horror rappers Gravediggaz to Elvis Costello. In September, Tricky's DreamWorks-affiliated Durban Poison label hopes to release its first two records: one by Baby Namboos, a group made up of Tricky's cousins, the second a spoken-word album, Products of the Environment, that features true-life crime stories told by Britain's old-time gangsters (including his uncle Tony).
Yet when studio work threatens to become stale, performing live helps Tricky cleanse his creative palate. "You can just do it too much—I could put a tune together with my eyes closed, and it becomes like a factory," he notes. "To keep my attitude, I go on tour. That way I'm kept interested but I'm not recording. And I'm getting inspired at the same time."
Reflecting the world from which he emerged, Tricky's live show is closer to a club/DJ experience than full-on rock spectacle. You won't see him front and center, hamming it up or working the crowd. In fact, you might not see much of Tricky at all. He's been known to perform behind stacks of keyboards, or with his back to the crowd. "I don't feel like it's a performance," Tricky says. "It's just as important for me and my band to have a good time as it is for the crowd to. If we ain't having a good time, then you ain't gonna have a good time. So it's more of a union between people. I'll feed off of their energy, they'll feed off of my energy. It's not important to see me, it's more important to feel me."
In some ways, Tricky has been felt and not necessarily seen by the entire spectrum of underground and popular music since his arrival three years ago. Though he's yet to make a huge impact on the pop charts, his influence has spurred new genres and reached the highest echelons of stardom—both Bush and Madonna have sought his production skills. A "nearly godlike" reputation has given Tricky license to pave his own path through blues and rock, hip-hop and electronica. As critical acclaim and his cultlike fanbase continues to grow, Tricky's music has actually become less commercial—a rare feat for an artist in the '90s.
Reflecting on his rise from ghetto orphanhood, Tricky expresses appreciation: "I've been lucky enough to get accepted for doing my own thing, and now people take it for granted that I'll do my own thing," he says. "With that leverage, I keep pushing it. My fans have stayed with me through change, and that makes me feel strong. I've been lucky, so I just take advantage of it."