Massive Attack is opened up, and its insides are revealed to be made of muzak and precious stones.
Lurking like an ectothermic creature slithering through the dense, fern-laden jungle, the drums of unofficial Level 42 member and session musician Wally Badarou’s lead-in track to the compilation Protected are more black mamba than its titular “Mambo”. Those bare congas are dark and mysterious in a way that could either be wildly seductive or deadly. The moment of recognition is instantaneous. It’s easy to pinpoint where the listener first heard this rhythm. With this specific kind of evocation of dread and allure, it has to be something off of Massive Attack’s Blue Lines. “Daydreaming”, to be precise. As the songs begins to run its course, the listener begins to wonder whether the track is a complete heft, with Tricky simply scatting a deejay “version” above the Badarou original like the old Jamaican soundsystems the band so adored.
Then the synth horns stroll on in, and you’re transported, nay re-transported from that place of temporal displacement, trying to figure out whether this was the Massive Attack cut or the original to somewhere arguably darker. The song suddenly grotesquely transforms, and you begin to see the thin line where trip-hop could turn into muzak. The jungle soon just becomes a mid-'80s leopard-print outfit at the nearby Bradlees or Caldor. The drums, once slightly subversive, begin to take on a yuppie Amazon café feel. All the listener can think of at this point is just how important context is for a riff or a break.
Unlike Daft Punk, the subject of the Rapster’s only previous sample identification project, Discovered, Massive Attack rarely embarked on rescue missions for orphaned grooves born at the wrong time, on the wrong album or by the wrong artist. Their choice of source material has hep written all over it, as does Protected, with songs by royalty of soul (James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Al Green), quintessential dub selections (John Holt, Lewin Bones Lock) and forgotten obscurities (Lowrell, the Blackbyrds). Perhaps, unsurprisingly, the band often sounded like a mishmash of its sampled styles, though Protected lacks a few of those genres that defined them most (notably hip-hop, post-punk and techno).
The album falls demographically heavy on material eventually culled from Blue Lines. Only four of the album’s 12 tracks are referenced outside of that album (everything after Mezzanine gets ignored completely), including the original of the band’s 1988 debut single and cover of Rufus & Chaka Khan’s “Any Love” and the Paragons’ “Man Next Door” (credited here solely to Paragons show-runner John Holt), a cut covered on Mezzanine with vocals by Horace Andy, who once recorded a version of the song. The latter two tracks are dynamic contrasts of one another. The pure joy of the disco diva wail of “Any Love” and the inertia-creeping paranoia of “Man Next Door” are reflected, even protracted, in Massive Attack’s versions of the respective songs. It shows all the space the band sought to conquer.
Not all the sources will immediately jump out at the listener, even those who’ve worn its styluses down to blunted edges from spinning Massive vinyl so many times. It took a couple listens through to discover the dubby ripple-mirror reflection of “Better Things” in the wiry guitars of James Brown’s unusually downcast “Never Can Say Goodbye”. “Rock Creek Park” by the Blackbyrds is a wonderfully hot and ecstatic little funk number with a sizzling Moog line, tribal drumming, liberating flute solos and a divine bridge, but which part of the song was used and just where remains a mystery (sources suggest “Blue Lines”). It doesn’t hinder the appeal of the tunes themselves, but an album like this seems to exist solely for re-recognition, that moment of artifact recovery.
It can both intensify and redefine one’s listening experience when they realize what they’ve been listening to for years is composed of precious stones, particularly when the collision of sources becomes entirely accidental. When one stumbles upon a sample source in a song, and is not directed from a Web site or an archival disc like Protected, a beautiful parity of experience exists between two people having arrived at the same, usually obscure, piece of sound. It reminds one music is as much about the psychosocial element of listening as it is about the noises carved into the grooves. Sampling is all about this process of living through music manifested as secondary art. It takes a small piece of sound neglected by history or unemphasized by its own players and states, “This bears repeating”.
This compilation points out the foundational bass line from “Safe From Harm”, the lead-off track from Blue Lines and one of Massive Attack’s all-time greatest songs, comes from Billy Cobham’s “Stratus”. That bass, perhaps the most exciting and iconic element of the Massive Attack song, is the most static part of the frantic 11-minute prog-fusion jam by the former Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles Davis percussionist. All over the track, elements completely alien to a Massive Attack or any trip-hop tune- virtuosic drum solos, computerized sound effects, Harold Budd-style ambience, guitar noodling, et.al. As such, it seems excessive in all the ways that Massive Attack is not and, surprisingly, showcases just how conservative an outfit the Bristol boys really were.
Even though it contains a host of great songs (and a few cheeseball ones), Protected proves more instructive than essential. It doesn’t really function as well as a mix as it does a guide to understanding the band, never mentioned in full anywhere on the album it references. Not many bands classify as fully a product of their sound as the former Wild Bunch Crew were, perhaps owing this to their former soundsystem roles in UK hip-hop culture. Protected cheats a little by putting the listener in front of the music that took the band 20 odd years to stumble upon but forces its audience to imagine the context that lead Massive Attack to re-imagine these tunes in the ways they did. As such, they’ve grown the etymology of pre-recorded sound and, thanks to albums like this and the curiosity of those who continue to dig out the bottom of crates, protected it from total disappearance.