Jonny Dollar: Musician and producer whose work with Massive Attack pioneered the genre of trip hop
Thursday 18 June 2009
With its moody, ominous sound and pioneering mix of beats, samples and strings, Blue Lines, the debut album by the Bristol collective Massive Attack, defined a new musical genre, trip hop. Released in April 1991, the landmark album contained three hit singles – "Unfinished Sympathy", "Safe From Harm" and "Hymn Of The Big Wheel" – spent the next 18 months in the British charts and became part of the soundtrack of the early Nineties alongside grunge and Britpop.
As well as establishing Massive Attack, Blue Lines launched the careers of their collaborators, the singer Shara Nelson and the maverick figure of Tricky. Alongside his co- producer Cameron McVey, the musically-minded and gifted producer Jonny Dollar played an important part in helping Robert "3D" Del Naja, Grant "Daddy G" Marshall and Andrew "Mushroom" Vowles, the founder members of Massive Attack, realise their vision and bring the project to fruition.
"Jonny was really important," Del Naja said. "There was a chemistry between us which made the first album. We were bringing the DJ world we were coming from – how we used to present music, cutting up on decks on a sound system, chucking instrumentals with vocals, very much a hip-hop way of sampling small pieces of music – and then linking them and making them into whole tracks. It was a completely new way of working. Jonny and Cameron were vital because they took something very raw and helped to fashion it into something a lot more sophisticated."
Dollar also worked with McVey on the Neneh Cherry albums Raw Like Sushi (1989) and Homebrew (1992), and co-wrote the anti-racist message song "7 Seconds", her haunting duet with the Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour, which became a worldwide hit in 1994. Five years later, Dollar produced several tracks on Gabrielle's chart-topping Rise album, in particular the single of the same name which featured a sample of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and went to No 1 in Britain.
Born Jonathan Sharp in Cornwall, Dollar met McVey, a model turned producer and manager looking after his partner and future wife Neneh Cherry, who had just scored a major hit with "Buffalo Stance". The couple were looking for collaborators to complete Cherry's first album. Sharp came on board alongside McVey – billed as Booga Bear – Vowles and Del Naja.
"Cameron liked what he heard," Del Naja recalled. "He thought it was a good idea for us to work with Jonny. We all camped out in Cameron's house in Kensal Rise, in London, for more than six months, pretty much all in one room, working on a few synths and early samplers. We were a very loose bunch of characters with very disparate ideas, not very fully-formed either. We had a lot of concept and not a lot of experience, and Jonny brought some much-needed experience. He was more musically literate than us and he had the skills to see an idea through."
Having submitted a few tracks to Circa, the label distributed by Virgin, Massive Attack secured a record deal and finished what became Blue Lines with McVey and Dollar, who co-wrote the group's debut hit, "Unfinished Sympathy". According to Del Naja, "it started out as a jam in the studio in Bristol. It was just break beats, a percussive line. Jonny started playing a keyboard, just a couple of chords, and we developed the song. When we got to do the vocal, we removed the chorus and we decided to fill the dead space with strings. That's how it changed from a conventional pop song into something sort of symphonic. Jonny got in touch with Wil Malone and he helped to score it out. We recorded the strings at Abbey Road. A lot of the beauty of the track was in the arrangement and the removal of certain parts was as vital as the writing of other parts. We had that philosophy about taking things out. We'd write more than we wanted and remove it, leave the bare bones. That was the way we wanted to hear the music."
As well as programming and keyboards, Dollar also played guitar
but most of his guitar parts didn't make the final mix. "Sometimes he was simply helping us articulate what we were trying to do and other times he was having more input in, particularly on 'Hymn Of The Big Wheel'," Del Naja recalled. "Jonny worked really hard on the string quartet motif. He was really integral to the whole project. He was the person who provided us with the key to finishing several tracks. Jonny had a very dry sense of humour which suited us because we're a bunch of piss-takers really. He knew how to handle us, he could to take it and give it back."
Massive Attack considered continuing with Dollar and demoed some of Protection, their next release, with him, but since he and McVey were hard at work on Cherry's second album, they ended up working with Nellee Hooper, their original partner from the Wild Bunch sound system days.
Throughout the Nineties, Dollar was an in-demand mixer and remixer for Carleen Anderson, Depeche Mode, EMF, Galliano, Kylie Minogue and Pulp. The Polydor president Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, who collaborated with Dollar on the Gabrielle album, called the producer an unsung hero and innovator. "As committed and driven a producer as I've ever met, I literally had to take the tracks by force back off him, he was so determined to make them perfect. The result was a No 1 single and album, Rise. He was as tough artistically as he was gentle a person."
Ashley Newton, now at Sony but one half of the Circa team which signed Cherry and Massive Attack, recalls Dollar as "this incredible sonic shape-shifter. He was a man of few words but had a beautiful and almost hippy outlook on life. We all grew enormously fond of him. I vividly remember listening to Blue Lines with him, Jonny with those intense dark eyes, spliff in hand, totally immersed in the art. He'll be much missed."
Dollar was diagnosed with cancer last August and died at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London.
Jonathan Sharp (Jonny Dollar), record producer, programmer, guitarist, songwriter: born Cornwall 1964; married (four children); died London 29 May 2009.
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