Tricky: 'I've found my calling. It's helping the youth'

After tiring of life in California, Bristol's trip hop king is back in Europe, determined to help disadvantaged teenagers in Paris find their voice. Nick Duerden meets Tricky

For much of the past year, Tricky has been in Paris exercising a little philanthropy. Sitting in the living room of his city-centre apartment on a bright October afternoon, and inhaling deeply on the kind of cigarette one doesn't find in the local newsagent, he nevertheless cuts quite a different figure to the trip-hop maverick whose 1995 album Maxinquaye is frequently hailed as one of the decade's best (it's re-released this month). In fact, he can't keep the zeal from his voice.

"I think I've found my calling in life," he pronounces. "I'm supposed to be helping the youth. That's why I'm here. On Earth. Definitely."

Which is quite a departure for the man who could so easily have chosen to follow the path of a proper pop star following the success of Maxinquaye. But then he has proved a bit of a wandering minstrel ever since, recording here and there, and even occasionally acting in films. Then, in January this year, he was invited to visit 104, a youth centre for underprivileged teenagers in the French capital's 19th arrondissement.

"They were doing things like art and photography and sculpture," he says, "but I didn't see how things like that were going to help the community." Instead, Tricky had his own suggestion. "I said they should let me build a studio, then throw open the doors to anyone who wanted to come down and record with me."

A nice idea, but there were complications. Tricky couldn't speak French, and many of the French-speaking immigrants who make up much of this neighbourhood couldn't speak English. And even if they could, they might have had struggled with his heavy Bristolian vowels.

"I took a translator out on the streets with me, but it was a bit dodgy at first," he recalls. "No one knew who I was, and they were reluctant to follow some stranger to the youth centre in case it was a trap. They were very suspicious. But then one day I approached this serious-looking geezer, Amadou his name was, and threw down my invitation. He just stared at me, but a couple of hours later he rolled up with 40 mates. I pointed to the microphone, and what they came up with was brilliant, amazing. After that, I was welcomed into the community; I was one of them."

His eight-week unpaid posting stretched to 12 as word spread: "We had people come visit us from Tunisia and Morocco, from New York and Los Angeles," he beams. When the sojourn was over, he took with him 16 highly eclectic tracks on disc; he is now earnestly trying to sell the album to a record label in Paris, where he has temporarily settled, having tired of his previous base, Los Angeles.

"But it ain't easy," he complains. "All the record companies want a standout track, a hit single. I keep telling them that this project's not about hit singles: it's about giving voice to all walks of life, and that's what makes it so special." He cackles. "Any record company expecting somebody like me to give them hit singles is not very realistic, is it? Haven't they heard my back catalogue?"

Maxinquaye sounds as remarkable today as it did on its release back in 1995, at the very height of trip hop. Its creator had already served his musical apprenticeship as a featured vocalist on the first two Massive Attack albums (1991's Blue Lines and 1994's Protection). A year later he felt ready to go it alone with a record that would turn out to be the high-water mark of trip hop, the loping, beat-driven music that put Bristol on the musical map. The album was named after his mother, Maxine Quaye, who committed suicide when Tricky was four years old, and it's an appropriately disturbing concoction of dub and twitchy inner-city hip hop that blends his own frog's croak with the dreamy croon of Martina Topley-Bird with whom he had a child, a daughter who is now 14.

He welcomes its re-release, which is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of its Island label, and hopes that his music will now reach new ears. But the man himself will not be revisiting it.

"I never listen to my music once I've finished with it," he says, "and it never was the kind of thing you'd hear in clubs or on the radio. Actually, having said that, I did hear one song in a gym in Los Angeles recently. I can't remember which, but I didn't like it."

If Maxinquaye afforded him a credibility he has been living off ever since, then it also brought him a level of attention that very nearly contributed to his downfall.

"It was the loss of anonymity that hit me hardest," he says. "I'd be walking down the street and I'd hear someone whisper my name as they passed me. I'd turn back, and could feel their eyes on me. When you have people's eyes on you, it changes everything about you: the way you walk, the way you talk, the ability to stay natural. I didn't like being talked about, I didn't like the eyes. It made me unbelievably paranoid."

As did the marijuana he spent much of every day and night smoking. "Well, no, that certainly didn't help," he concedes. One might have expected him to cut back on the drug, but instead Tricky turned his back on fame. Over the next decade, he released a succession of determinedly daring but difficult albums, the music creeping into a sonic murk and lyrical gloom that spoke volumes about his mental state.

"Everything just got on top of everything else," he says. "Besides, what most people never realised about me was that I was a very, very shy person. Recognition was hard, and so was adulation." Appearing live proved particularly punishing. "I never got why people would cheer the moment I walked out on to the stage. It made me feel unworthy. I carried around with me a lot of guilt."

If he continues to smoke marijuana today, he says, "it's strictly for recreational purposes. It helps me relax. But don't worry about it, my mind is OK. I don't have any of those kind of problems."

After last week's furore over the resignation of the British government's chief drugs adviser, who accused the Prime Minister of having "made up his mind" to tighten cannabis regulation against the scientific evidence, one might expect Tricky to side with the scientist. Not so.

"Actually, I can't condone the drug any more. The trouble these days is that you have bad people growing it right across the UK. They cook it over crack, or sprinkle shaved glass into it to make it heavier, or else put acid in it. I'd steer well clear. You know, if you're talking about weed from Jamaica, straight from the earth, that's one thing. Or there are these places in LA where you can buy it organic, so you know exactly where it's grown, and how. But in England right now? It's spiked, it's hallucinogenic, it's dangerous. We need to regulate it more."

If this all runs somewhat contrary to his public image – he once claimed to be a "preacher of spliff" – then it shouldn't come as much of a surprise: Tricky always was the most singular of artists. This is perhaps why he retains an unusually high profile. He has also taken unlikely acting roles (in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element, John Woo's Face/Off), drawn to the camera, he says, largely by the opportunity to lose himself in another character. The man born Adrian Thaws always did endeavour to keep "Tricky" a deliberately amorphous creation. Why else would he dress up in drag, as he still frequently does?

"If I want to stick on a dress and look like a girl, I will," he beams. "And I'll tell you something: putting on full make-up is really relaxing. I love it."

Does it not compromise his masculinity? "I know who I am."

And what he is, right now, is a philanthropist. He wants to take his Paris 104 model to cities across the world "because kids need some kind of direction, don't they? If I can help in that, I will."

He says that the project has taken him to new levels of inner happiness. But what Paris 104 has helped him achieve within himself was started long ago in Los Angeles. All that sunshine, all that Californian magic.

"I changed a lot over there," he says. "You know, I'm 41 years old, and a lot less confused about life. I'm more spiritual, less lazy, fitter. And I'm disciplined now. I never used to have any kind of discipline at all. That's self-improvement for you, eh?"

Tricky's trip to the top

1968 Born Adrian Nicholas Thaws in Knowle West, Bristol. The musician-producer was raised by his grandmother after his father abandoned the family and his mother committed suicide.

1987 Met DJ Milo and the sound system called the Wild Bunch, which later evolved into Massive Attack. Tricky Kid, as he was later nicknamed, rapped on Massive Attack's debut album Blue Lines, released in 1991.

1991 Recorded the singer Martina Topley-Bird on the song "Aftermath", which resulted in his introduction to Island Records.

1995 Release of Maxinquaye, his debut solo album. Named in honour of his mother Maxine Quaye, it was nominated for the Mercury prize and won the NME album of the year award.

1996 Released his second album, Nearly God, featuring collaborations with singers such as Bjork, Terry Hall and Neneh Cherry.

1997 Began his acting career, appearing in a supporting role in the Luc Besson film The Fifth Element and also briefly in John Woo's Face/Off.

2008 Titled Knowle West Boy, his newest album is inspired by his childhood on a Bristol council estate.

Katya Davis

Maxinquaye is out now on Island Records

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