POP MUSIC / So phwaah, so good: It's hip-hop, but you're not supposed to dance to it. Phil Johnson met the men who make the paradoxical sound of Massive Attack

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Some time after guest singer Shara Nelson left them to begin a solo career, the three partners who are Massive Attack placed an anonymous ad in Melody Maker in an attempt to find a new vocalist. 'We gave a brief of Tracy Chapman and Aretha Franklin,' says Robert Del Naja, also known as 3-D, 'but all we got was tapes from these white country and western geezers.'

'It was terrible,' chips in Grant Marshall, the oldest of the trio, aka Daddy G. 'There are probably a million brilliant voices out there and we got Billy Ray Cyrus soundalikes . . .' Even the departed Nelson had created problems as she had increasingly become identified as the lead voice and presence of the group, a project intended to accommodate guest singers chosen to fit the needs of each song. When they went on television to promote the singles from their debut album Blue Lines, it was difficult for the three main-men - who aren't musicians in the conventional sense - to know what to do with themselves. In one memorable appearance on the Jonathan Ross show, they skulked at the back pretending to play keyboards while a hired band played the studio track and Nelson stood up front.

The paradox of Massive Attack is that they come from the tradition of sound systems - beginning as Bristol's Wild Bunch crew in the early 1980s - but they make records for listeners rather than dancers. They create their music on sequencers, piecing together patterns and samples from a floppy-disc 'riff bank' and layering them to form sophisticated soundtracks which are then farmed out for further embellishment. The results have a wit and humanity lacking in most hip-hop, and the irony is that their digital methods have created a kind of delicate, designer-maker form of music that increasingly seems more hand-crafted than that of many pop artists. Blue Lines (1991) was one of the most acclaimed albums of recent years, setting hip-hop and reggae beats within a context of dreamy, atmospheric songs and urgent, rumbling raps that improved with each listening. Its successor, Protection, out this month, is perhaps even more listener-friendly, using the talents of Everything But the Girl's Tracey Thorn as vocalist and lyric-writer on two wonderful songs that more than stand up to anything she, or they, have done before. As they talk about their methods of working, like verbally imitating a particular analogue synth sound to the engineer by saying, 'like, a bit more phwaah, please', it's amazing to think the formula works at all, let alone so well.

Most of the basic instrumental tracks on the new album have been created by the third partner, Andrew Vowles (Mushroom), though songwriting credits are shared by all three, and their collaborators, on all of their productions. His methods are worth hearing. The title track, sung by Thorn, began, he says, 'with a drum track and a sample of a James Brown lick on an 808 bass drum. Then there was this Fender Rhodes riff I'd had lying around for ages that I got out of the old- riff catalogue. It was all a bit raggedy so I put some strings on to smooth the whole thing out and added a spacy 303 bass-line, which is one of those old acid bass-lines they use in house records. I then thought it would need to build towards the end so I wrote a piano pattern to sort of go against everything else.'

The tape of the song (less a song than a riff) was dispatched by post to Thorn. 'We faxed her about 15 pages of lyrics,' says Del Naja, 'but she politely said she'd rather use her own.' Thorn wrote the lyric, recorded her demo vocal over the track and sent it back; when she came in to the studio to sing the final version it was completed in 10 minutes. 'It was a real challenge for her,' Vowles says, 'having to work with these loops and patterns, because normally she writes with, like,' - his voice rises to a note of mild incredulity - 'an acoustic guitar.' The result is a triumph, a kind of MOR funk with a deeply impassioned vocal that is very commercial.

The other tracks on Protection include two further collaborations with the veteran reggae singer Horace Andy - one of them a 'live' studio version of 'Light My Fire'; two raps reuniting Del Naja with fellow rapper Tricky from the first album; two songs sung by a new discovery, Nicolette; and two impressive instrumentals that are like mutant versions of Sixties file sound- tracks. The album was co-produced by the band with Nellee Hooper, an original member of the Wild Bunch who went on to become half of Soul II Soul and then, with Bjork's album, to be the most in-demand producer of the moment (he recently completed work on Madonna's latest at Dave Stewart's studio in California). In July, Hooper invited Massive Attack over to meet his new employer. This led to some embarrassment because the band, despite staying at a house in the studio, were, in Del Naja's words, 'so out of it' that they failed to get up each day in time to meet Madonna, who had finished working and departed by the time they arose. They were pressed by Hooper to phone her afterwards and apologise.

They choose to work with an outside producer not only to share ideas, but also because they need someone to referee their arguments, which are constant, and to prod them into productive work. The choice of Hooper was an obvious though not always a helpful one. 'He knew he could have a bit of fun with it,' says Del Naja, 'working with his friends - which worked against us, because we wasted a lot of time. With Madonna, it was nine to five every day; with us, we would get to the studio at two o'clock, chat for two hours, do two hours work then get a takeaway in and go out for the night. He said he felt like Daniel Day- Lewis in My Left Foot, he couldn't do anything. He'd sit in the producer's position, reclining, with a hangover. At certain times we said, 'Look, we'll go back to Bristol, you do your thing.' ' 'It never happened,' says Marshall. 'Yes, it did,' says Del Naja, and they begin to argue again.

The release of the new album raises once again the dread question of live performance; this time they will stick to their roots and go out on a tour (their first in this country, dates to be confirmed) as a sound system, using acetate discs of the backing music, with live rapping and singing over the top. As the Wild Bunch, they were one of the first New York-style sound-system crews in the country, and they pioneered mixing frantic hip-hop with languid reggae, the pairing that first Hooper's and Jazzy B's Soul II Soul and then Massive Attack put on record, foreshadowing the recent boom in soul-reggae fusion. 'We went from the sound system to the studio and we'll go back again,' says Marshall. For the video for the first single from the album, they approached Quentin Tarantino, but although he liked the music and their previous videos (directed by Baillie Walsh), they were told he doesn't do videos. They are scrutinising a treatment by a less fussy director and another round of arguments looks likely.

'Protection' by Massive Attack is due out on 26 Sept on Virgin Records.

(Photograph omitted)