Although he’s managed to cloak himself in mystery for the last 30 years of his career, Tricky offered a surprising level of candor and transparency in his must-read 2019 memoir, Hell Is Round the Corner. As he documents in the book, the Bristol-born musician has always used music to escape a reality plagued by misfortune, violence and racism.
“Well, it’s funny — I actually learned about racism through white people,” he says, almost incredulously, to SPIN. “And with what America’s going through right now, I wondered if they really wanted a book by the name of Hell Is Round The Corner on their coffee table. I don’t know if that’s good timing, but my manager encouraged me to do it because ‘people will understand you more.’”
Tricky’s innovative catalog conveys the depth of his brooding emotions — from Massive Attack’s acclaimed 1991 debut, Blue Lines, to his 1995 solo cult classic, Maxinquaye. Fall To Pieces, out September 4, is his 14th album — and first since the death of his 24-year-old daughter, Mazy, last Spring.
He opened up to SPIN about the album’s cathartic creation, the lingering effects of devastating loss and the importance of Black artists not seeking institutional validation.
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SPIN: One of the things I loved about Hell Is Round The Corner is how boldly you address racism and how it’s affected your life. How has it affected your career?
Tricky: I remember talking to my first A&R guy, Julian Palmer from Island Records, and I said to him, “How come all of this music sounds like my music and it’s getting on Radio One and I’m not on Radio One?” And he said, “Because you’re Black, Tricky!” That shocked me. I knew about racism, but for me, it was someone calling you a name from out of a car when you’re walking. That was the racism I suffered. You know, kids calling each other names. He taught me there was a next level…you’ve got people making your music, but they get on Radio One because they’re white and you can’t because you’re Black. It was mind-numbing.
It’s infuriating, and I’m sure it’s not the only instance that comes to mind for you.
I also see racism in a different way cause I’ve been around money — trying to go on British Airways with a first-class ticket and a woman telling me I’m going the wrong way. I’ve learned from being in positions where a lot of Black people don’t get to be. In all the countries I’ve lived, I’ve been to clubs and other places I wouldn’t have access to if I wasn’t Tricky. I just did a German interview, and they asked me that with all the protests if I think things will change with racism. Four weeks after George Floyd was dead, I walked into a shop in Berlin and the dude followed me around the shop, and I said, “Excuse me, can I help you with something?” It ain’t gonna change if we live in a capitalist society that is built on racism.
You’ve mentioned in the past your love of hip-hop artists like LL Cool J and Public Enemy. Do you find current artists that inspire you still? Or do you go back to older rap?
There’s still some good hip-hop…some of it sounds great, but I’ve got no stories that I can listen to. Like if I’m at home and I’ve got headphones on, or if I was having a beer or something, I’m gonna listen to it for the lyrics. So I need lyrics. I need melody. That’s why I like Public Enemy and Slick Rick. They had lyrics, you know — stories. So some of the new hip-hop I can’t totally relate to, but there is good stuff, like Dave East. He’s got incredible lyrics. When you hear Rakim, you know it’s Rakim. When you hear Public Enemy, you know it’s Public Enemy. Now with music, I can hear a song on the radio and have no idea who it is.
I think some of the artistry has gotten lost because people just want to sell records now. And that is the main goal, right? You want to be streamed, so it’s going to sound the same because you want to keep replicating what’s popular.
That’s exactly what’s happening. When I started selling records, that wasn’t the motivation, you know? And now money has become such a big motivation. So if you sell records, it doesn’t matter if the record’s any good. It’s about your chart position; you’ve got people saying, “I’ve gotten to number one,” but that don’t really mean anything. I come from the era of when you made an actual album. Now it’s like, “Do a couple of singles and then throw tracks together.” It wasn’t about the objective of just getting to the top of the charts because then you’re really making it a competition, and I’m not competing. It’s become about business and success — but success has got nothing to do with happiness.
In the press release for Fall To Pieces, you said that “Fall Please” was the closest you’ve gotten to making a pop song. Do you think pop is still like a dirty word for you? Do you not want to be associated with it?
I don’t think it’s a dirty word, and I’ve got nothing against pop artists either because I’ve been in the studio with a pop producer — it’s not easy to do. I can’t do it, and I know I can’t do it. “Fall Please” is around eight, 10 years old, and it didn’t get on the False Idols album because I found it too pop. It’s the best single to happen to me in many years. I knew that 10 years ago. So it’s not that I got anything against pop, but I just don’t fit in that world. So why would I try?
Being a pop artist usually means you’re expecting recognition and accolades, although certain institutions have been known to exclude Black artists.
Whether it’s things like the Grammys or the Oscars, you’re not receiving an award because you’re an outstanding musician. You’re receiving an award because you’ve made the industry a lot of money. It’s like a pat on the back…like, yeah, you’ve been a good boy and gone out and sold millions and millions of records. So that’s just all stroking ego stuff. Rakim had a wicked lyric years ago. He said, “There’s one thing I don’t like / It’s the spotlight / ’Cause I already got light.” Black artists need to forget about that — don’t worry about the Grammys. Stop wanting what other people want. They make these things so important, and artists fall into the trap.
You’re known for being vocal about how music is a release for you. Did you feel that way when making Fall To Pieces?
Some people might jog or do meditation or massage or acupuncture. My meditation has always been making music. Like imagine if I didn’t have my music — I probably wouldn’t be here. “Hate This Pain” is about my daughter who died on 8th of May last year. So some of it was difficult, you know? “Hate This Pain” is hard for me to listen to. You know the song “Thinking Of?”
I love that song — it’s one of my favorites on the record.
There’s a distorted noise that happens a couple of times in it. It’s got like a screeching sound. That was my brain when my daughter died; that’s what my brain was like. I used to think that after losing someone, nighttime would be the worst, right? Sometimes you associate nighttime with the sadness. But the worst time for me was waking up. When you first wake up, you don’t know what’s going on. Your brain hasn’t kicked in. So soon as my brain kicked in, I knew my daughter wasn’t there. So doing the album…I’d wake up into hell. But then I could record to get me away from it for a little bit. And then I did therapy. It was not easy doing it, but it helped.
It’s like you went into a zone for Fall To Pieces, but I’ve seen you live and you definitely go into a zone onstage as well. Is that something you plan out or do you just default back to that?
If I don’t go in the zone, I’m just a guy who stands on stage. I can’t sing. I can’t dance. I have to really go somewhere to be able to do it ’cause it don’t feel natural to me. And also I have a problem with performing. I love performing, but I ain’t your clown. So there’s a fine line. I’m not here to amuse you. I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder. Like if the crowd ain’t into it, I ain’t trying to impress.
It was still very engaging and a great show…it was just different.
It’s almost like it becomes my own personal show. But it’s not just you and the band — it’s the crowd as well. It’s a relationship you’re sharing at that time. But if it’s one-sided, I ain’t going to bloody try too hard, you know? So it either happens or it don’t happen — I can’t do what Lenny Kravitz does.
Lastly, how have you been dealing with the world being shut down during COVID?
Do you know what? My daughter, Mazy — the one who died — always says, “You’re such a loner”…she’s funny. If I say to her, “I’m going to work today,” she’ll say, “You don’t work; please don’t say you work! You’re going out for coffee, and then you go in and write some rhymes.” My life hasn’t really changed except I can’t go and do a show. Like I’m not going to get a call next week to say, “Oh, can you do a live radio show or do you want to do this?” Like, nothing is turning up now. It is really kind of strange. But I’m quite lucky — I spend 98% of my time by myself anyway.