Tricks of the Trade

Sick of fighting the music industry, Tricky's decided to use it instead

Selling out hasn't been as simple as Tricky imagined.

The former Adrian Thaws made reviewers swoon with 1995's Maxinquaye, a moody, atmospheric tour de force that helped establish the trip-hop genre worldwide. But although he clearly felt worthy of the praise he received (his ego is as juicy and robust as an overripe peach), he wasn't much interested in accepting it graciously. Instead, he tested journalists and fans by pushing his songs into increasingly dark realms and daring them to follow, only to discover that with each succeeding album, fewer and fewer were willing to do so even when the music was strong. Finally, after the belly flop of 1999's Juxtapose, a collaboration with rap producer Grease and Cypress Hill's DJ Muggs that richly deserved the dismissal it received, he realized he needed to make some alterations, and pronto, if he wanted to avoid a one-way booking on the Obscurity Express. So he ditched his longtime label, Island Records (he swears Island didn't drop him, as has been widely reported), and after a stopgap EP for Anti, a subsidiary of Epitaph, he signed up with Hollywood Records, an imprint whose parent company, Disney, represents everything he'd spent his career attacking.

Subsequent changes were just as unexpected. Blowback, released on Hollywood in July, is loaded with big-name guest stars with little underground cred; the roster includes Alanis Morissette, most of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Live's Ed Kowalczyk and, oddest of all, Cyndi "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" Lauper. Moreover, the sound, achieved by an A-list of producers, engineers and mixers, is smoother and lighter than ever before, trading the power and mystery of Tricky's best work for overt accessibility.

Tricky: Determined to be more than a cult artist with his new radio-friendly release, Blowback.
Tricky: Determined to be more than a cult artist with his new radio-friendly release, Blowback.

Tricky hasn't tried to hide the motivation behind these creative shifts: In his Hollywood bio, he said straight-out that he wants to appear on MTV, VH1 and corporate radio outlets. Clearly, the bad man is ready to make nice. But although a few mainstream stations have given a spin to Blowback tracks like "Evolution Revolution Love," sales have been modest and notices are split between raves for the CD's murk-free sonics and accusations that Tricky is now more interested in airplay than art -- a charge to which he essentially pleads guilty.

Still, writing off Tricky would be a mistake. While Blowback may disappoint loyalists, it's not the qualitative meltdown it might have been, and Tricky remains among the most riveting performers in music today. In conversation, he's just as entertaining -- a master of self-love eager to confirm his genius at both music and manipulation. In 1996, he released a disc titled Nearly God. Today, he'd probably leave off the qualifier.

New Times: The people who've said negative things about Blowback have pegged the album as, "This is Tricky trying to be commercial." What do you think of that kind of commentary?

Tricky: That's stupid, because when the record went out and we sent everybody the press kit, I told everybody, "Yeah, this is Tricky trying to get radio." And what they've done is gone and repeated me and used it as a way of getting at me, to show they're knowledgeable. But the thing is, there isn't any music like this out there -- no music like this album. So it's breaking boundaries, the fact that it's getting on the radio.

NT: A lot of critics cling to the starving-artist myth. They think a true artist shouldn't care about having success and they should be satisfied with the hope that they'll be appreciated after they're dead. But that doesn't do an artist much good while he's alive.

Tricky: That's right. But those critics are going to trip over that myth in two to three years' time, when this album is still being played. Because I hyped this album up. I'm the one who said this is my first commercial album, this is my first radio album. And people can't get past that. People don't like the words "Tricky" and "commercial" together -- especially the hard-core fans. But in a couple years, when all the hype dies down, people will realize what this record is. It's better than anything I've ever done. It's better than Maxinquaye; it makes Maxinquaye look silly. And I don't think that's going to become apparent for two or three years.

NT: Comments like those really get to your fans, because they see Maxinquaye as a great album, and they can't believe you'd say anything even semi-negative about it.

Tricky: You're right; when I say that, people really don't like it. But I know it's true. See, when I first made Maxinquaye, it might have given you a vibe like, "Wow, I've never heard anything like this before." Now you play it and it sounds like everything else on the planet. I'm not disrespecting the album. It's just the way everything's gone.

NT: What kind of acts and artists out there do you think are lifting things from Maxinquaye?

Tricky: Timbaland has definitely got that vibe off of me. And Portishead and Massive Attack -- their new stuff just sounds like my stuff. And those people are heard worldwide, so people are getting an influence from them. And I know I've influenced some rock stuff, because a lot of different people are into my music. I've influenced garage music and jungle music. It's only in the last year or so that I've noticed it. I've had my friends around me for ages telling me this, but it's hard to see that, because I just see myself as a little kid from Bristol. It's hard to see myself as a person with the power to influence all of music. But now I can hear it; I listen to stuff and I can see what's going on. But this new album is so much more complicated than Maxinquaye. Maxinquaye is like a baby to me, and there's so much more going on with Blowback. There's a lot more depth to Blowback."

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