Bristol for some may bring to mind the cake topping of Clifton Village, the Suspension Bridge and quaint Georgian buildings, but the city has a dark underside which is reflected in the diverse music scene. The elusive ‘Bristol Sound’ has put the city firmly on the UK’s musical map, and has showcased a darker alternative to the mainstream for many years. Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky represent the Bristol Sound for many, displaying the gritty realism of the city’s musicians, and the firm links with West Indian soundsystem culture. In reality the Bristol Sound’s roots can be found further back than the 1990s success of trip-hop, and continue to spread in the newer sounds of dubstep, techno and electronica.
The influx of West Indians into Bristol in the 1950s and 1960s laid roots for a diverse and vibrant scene, particularly in Easton, Montpelier and St Pauls, where immigrants tended to settle. The St Pauls carnival, which began in the late 1960s, showed off that diversity in a fantastic celebration of culture, music and dancing in and around St Pauls. The procession is an extraordinary visual display of the different cultures on offer in Bristol, but it is the soundsystems which really make up the heart of the carnival. Reggae soundsystems, and the influence of Jamaican music in general, explains the city’s obsession with bass which runs through trip-hop, drum ‘n’ bass and dubstep to the present day.
The late 1970s and 1980s saw the development of hip-hop crews, such as the Wild Bunch, who went on to become Massive Attack. Parties in warehouses and clubs like the Dug Out on Park Row allowed this sub-culture to flourish, and economic recession in the 1980s meant more empty buildings to party in. This was a reggae and hip-hop scene which preceded the acid house rave explosion of the later 1980s, and laid the roots for a darker sound emanating from Bristol streets. Taking influence from black communities in Jamaica and New York, the Bristol scene combined street art, ‘b-boy’ breakdancing and djing, united under a heavy bass sound.
The Bristol Sound blew up in the 1990s, with the unprecedented success of Massive Attack’s ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ single and the album Blue Lines. The single displayed a melancholy which was to characterise Bristol’s music scene, and displayed a profound dissatisfaction with Thatcher’s Britain. As the rave scene exploded and permeated mainstream culture in the early 1990s, Bristol’s music refused to lighten up and be taken in by the catchy piano riffs and cheesy vocals which permeated rave music. Blue Lines looked deeper, its lyrics displaying the paranoia of inner city life and the party scene, and its influences firmly in Jamaican reggae and hip-hop. Massive Attack member Tricky broke away from the group and released his debut album Maxinquaye in 1995 with local vocalist Martina Topley-Bird. The album is similarly gritty in sound, and explores drugs, war and broken relationships in a singularly moody fashion. Tricky has yet to match the commercial success of Maxinquaye in his subsequent releases, displaying a profoundly dark take on late twentieth century Britain, and an unwillingness to engage with melodic arrangements.
The award of Mercury Music Prize to Roni Size for New Forms in 1997 brought drum ‘n’ bass into the mainstream consciousness, having hitherto operated at the margins of dance music culture. The sparse, bass-driven sound impacted heavily, and the hook of ‘Brown Paper Bag’ proved to be a winner. Size’s label Full Cycle drove the dance scene in Bristol for years to come, with MCs Dynamite and Tali, and DJs Krust, Die and Suv enjoying the responses of jubilant crowds across the city. The Full Cycle raves at Level stick in my mind, with sweat dripping off the ceiling and the walls vibrating with the strength of the bass. Bristol found its sound with drum ‘n’ bass, and put the city at the centre of a growing global scene.
In the last ten years drum ‘n’ bass has fallen to the wayside, overtaken by its slower and bassier successor in dubstep. Dubstep is largely thought to have come out of London and the demise of the UK garage scene at the start of the 2000s. However, concurrently a distinct group of DJs and producers from Bristol developed their own take on the dubstep sound. Characterised by deep bass, dark progression and minimal melody, the Bristol dubstep sound has seen pioneers like Pinch, Joker and Headhunter receive critical acclaim. Bristol dubstep goes back to the roots, with reggae and dub samples inflecting the tracks of Pinch and Peverelist. Meanwhile Joker displayed a love of grime and electro, creating a new ‘purple’ dubstep sound.
At the turn of a new decade the scene is evolving and developing further, with dubstep crushed under the weight of commercial sell-outs, and fragmenting into a variety of sub-genres. What has come out of the end of the dubstep scene is however more exciting than ever, with a rediscovery of house music, techno and garage, subsumed under the heading ‘bass music’. It’s as an inadequate label as any, with bass influencing a whole spectrum of music since the birth of the soundsystem. It displays the difficulty, however, with describing a musical scene which is broadly diverse, reaching into the past with a retro nod towards 1980s rave music, as well as a futuristic take on garage and house. Brighton label boss Jamie Russell has described his excitement about the Bristol music scene, saying “you’ve got clubbers going to events there where they’re listening to house, techno and bass all under one roof.” It’s true, with club nights such as Crazy Legs, 51.27 and Deepbeat showing off a love of house, techno and garage as well as reggae and dub, there’s something to be genuinely excited about in Bristol right now.
Reach beyond the brash bars of the centre and waterfront and there’s something deeper going on in Bristol. The Bristol Sound never really died out in the late 1990s, despite the demise of commercially successful bands such as Massive Attack. Take a walk down Stokes Croft and see what’s on offer in Bristol in terms of street art and culture, or visit the streets of Easton and St Pauls to see a side of the city not in the tourist guidebooks. Bristol’s got an alternative voice which runs deep through its music, and an exploration of this dark underbelly of the city is highly recommended.