Tricky – Black Steel
Tricky – Black Steel

October 12th, 2021

Classic Tracks: Tricky – Black Steel

Each month we take a look at a classic track or album and discuss it from a music production perspective, examining any innovations that took place during its recording. This month we take a look at Tricky's 'Black Steel' – a radical re-imagining of Public Enemy's 'Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos'.

Tricky had already appeared on Massive Attack's first two albums, before securing himself a record deal with Island as a solo artist. His debut album, Maxinquaye, was a blistering collision of influences that sounded unlike anything that had come before, and it became hugely successful – much to its creator's surprise. In the midst of the Britpop craze, the album beat records from the likes of Blur, Oasis, Pulp, and Elastica to the top of most critic's end-of-year polls.

As is often the case, the record sounded so new, so unusual, because Tricky didn't really know how to produce a record, and was therefore completely unconstrained by established working methods. Mark Saunders, who engineered ten of the album's twelve tracks, describes the process in an interview; 'It was a complete un-learning experience and it was also a total re-learning experience. Think of how to make a record, then forget everything you've learned and start completely backward and upside down.'

'Black Steel' is a track that showcases an approach that was common to much of the album. It started with the concept – Tricky wanted to cover the Public Enemy track, and he had a drum sample from a tape recording of some '80s Indian music that he wanted to use.

On top of this, Saunders laid down a guitar track. While he is hazy on the details, he recalls that 'you couldn't play a riff without him going, 'No, no, that sounds too normal,' whereas if you made a mistake he'd go, 'Yeah, I love it, I love it! Now put it down an octave and make it backwards.' That's probably how that part came about.'

When it came to vocalist Martina Topley-Bird adding the vocals, astonishingly, she had never heard the track before she went into the booth. Tricky handed her the lyrics to the first two verses of the Public Enemy original, and she went in and laid down the first melody that came into her head.

Most of the vocals on the album are the first takes of Topley-Bird following exactly this process, and it's truly extraordinary how memorable almost all of those performances are. The track was finished off – unusually for the album – with the addition of live instrumentation; drums, keyboards, and guitar. 

Maxinquaye's sound was one that would come to define mid-90s music. It sounded so remarkable precisely because its creator didn't know what was expected of him or his collaborators in a studio context; he forged his own path, and many, many others followed. 

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