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Tricky Biography

Last updated: 02/18/2008 11:00:00 AM

AFTER gaining prominence with a debut album that all but defined the trip-hop genre, Tricky has come to be recognized as one of the vanguards of a new musical revolution. Influenced as much by torchlight jazz as the beats of hip-hop, his style has literally opened the door to numerous artists that fill the electronica landscape today. Tricky is a unique and enigmatic musician, a celebrity in a genre that has few, and his story has been echoed by the many that have followed after him.

Born Adrian Thaws, he began his career in Bristol, England, home to old-guard musical eccentrics like Liz Frazer of the Cocteau Twins, as well as acclaimed newcomers like Roni Size and Reprazent. Tricky grew up in the tough neighborhood of Knowles West, raised by various members of his immediate family, as his father left before he was born, and his mother committed suicide when he was 4. Though not a thoroughly bad kid, by his own admission, Tricky was a mischievous adolescent. He quit school at 15, returned two years later, and then got thrown out. This inconsistent, tempestuous upbringing no doubt contributes to the dark complexion of his work.

Around the age of 19, Tricky first started making music. He was heavily influenced by the American hip-hop being exported to England, as well as the music of Prince and Tom Waits. He began working with a coterie of DJs, MCs, singers, and producers in Bristol known as the Wild Bunch ?a collective that would later spawn the influential crew Massive Attack. In 1991, as a surrogate member of Massive Attack, Tricky penned and performed on songs like "Karmacoma" and "Five Man Army" from the group's brilliant debut album, Blue Lines, which was hailed by many UK critics as the saving grace of British pop music. Despite working on a couple of tracks for the group's subsequent 1994 follow-up, Protection, Tricky didn't feel comfortable working within the Massive Attack confines. Questioning the group's dedication to making "music true to the streets" and citing a passionate hatred for the incestuous music scene of Bristol, Tricky left the group and the city, and moved to London to begin his solo career.

On one visit back to Bristol, Tricky came across a free-spirited, 16-year-old schoolgirl named Martina. After striking up a conversation, Tricky recruited the girl to sing some lines he had written over a beat, a musical whim that spawned his first single, "Aftermath." Released independently, "Aftermath" became one of the U.K. underground's hottest dance singles. With ethereally murky yet groovy beats and Martina's subversive pleading, the song pulsated with sexuality.

His debut album, Maxinquaye (named after his mother, Maxine Quaye), followed suit as a darkly melodic and intoxicatingly sexy masterpiece. Tricky and Martina crafted a positively hypnotic sound, reliant upon the coupling of his musical direction and her innocent seductiveness. British critics, in an attempt to define this new style, which combined hip-hop's production aesthetic with ambient and other musical elements, coined the phrase "trip-hop," and applied it to Tricky, as well as Portishead and Massive Attack. Maxinquaye was heralded as one of the new genre's cornerstones.

The mercurial artist followed up this early success with a pair of vanity projects, a new album, and a headline-grabbing romance. The first of his two side projects was Grassroots, a trio of UK rappers that Tricky put out through his production company, Durban Poison. But a cluttered, confused sound prevented Grassroots from registering on the radar screens of even the most ardent Tricky fans. His other experiment, however, was more successful. Nearly God utilized the same "beats and vocals" mold as his brilliant debut, but instead of Martina, Tricky collaborated under the collective name Nearly God with various singers, including Alison Moyet, Terry Hall, Neneh Cherry, Kate Shaw, and Bj鰎k. His brief relationship with the latter ?who has a reputation of pairing up with her producers ?resulted in near fisticuffs between Tricky and her former beau, jungle DJ Goldie, backstage at a New York music convention.

Pre-Millennium Tension, Tricky's full-length follow-up to Maxinquaye, made huge strides in exposing him to mainstream audiences, but did little to impress music critics, who felt the album was a virtual replay of the tricks and formulas employed on its predecessor. Nonetheless, Tricky saw several signs of his emerging celebrity, including heavy rotation on MTV and a cameo in the film The Fifth Element. He was also getting a considerable amount of work producing and remixing other artists. His eclectic clients included Bush, Wu-Tang Clan, Elvis Costello, and Porno for Pyros. And in 1997, his Durban Poison company inked a distribution deal with DreamWorks Records.

Tricky's nomadic nature and a desire to become an entertainment icon contributed to his move to New York City, accompanied by his vocalist and girlfriend Martina (along with the couple's baby girl). It was in the Big Apple that he recorded his latest album, Angels With Dirty Faces, regarded by many as a return to form. Tricky told MTV News that this album was probably his last with Martina, who wants to concentrate on raising their daughter. The first single from Angels, "Broken Homes," features the vocals of Tricky's Island Records labelmate PJ Harvey, with whom he had toured in 1995. According to Tricky, the song was inspired by the tragic assassination of Brooklyn rapper the Notorious B.I.G. In fact, many songs on the album are inspired by real life events, including "Record Companies," a tirade and unequivocal statement of distrust in the music industry.

Tricky's contempt for the business appears well-founded. In 1997, the president of PolyGram Records, Eric Kronfeld, made a disparaging remark about blacks in the music industry, and Tricky took him to task by recording a retaliatory song, "Divine Comedy," which he released as a bootleg. Kronfeld was subsequently demoted (though the impact the song had on that decision is still in question). He is also very protective of his lineage. In early 1998, an artist by the name of Finley Quaye became the toast of Britain with his pop-reggae sound. Claiming to be Tricky's uncle, Finley gained a lot of attention from the press and radio ?attention that surely helped catapult him above many other young, struggling, and talented artists. Angered by someone's attempt to take advantage of his mother's name, Tricky continues to deny that there's any relation.

The trip-hop Renaissance man has many plans for the near future, including recording an album of firsthand Bristol gangster stories told over beats, and a release by a hip-hop group called Drunkensteins. He has also been offered several roles in upcoming movies, none of which have been confirmed. Composer, singer, producer, and actor ?Tricky transcends the lot of typical musicians and manages to keep his own air of mystery intact.