Underground scene

Bristol underground scene

The Bristol underground scene is a term used to describe the culture surrounding trip hop, drum and bass and graffiti art that has existed in Bristol from the early 90s to the present.

The city of Bristol in the UK has spawned various musicians and artists, and is typified by its urban culture. While the city is most associated with a group of artists who emerged during the 1990s, especially the 'Bristol Sound', the city maintains an active and diverse underground urban scene.

The city has been particularly associated with trip hop. Salon magazine has said that trip hop was spawned in "the bohemian, multi-ethnic city of Bristol, where restlessly inventive DJs had spent years assembling samples of various sounds that were floating around: groove-heavy acid jazz, dub reggae, neo-psychodelia, techno disco music, and the brainy art rap."

The Bristol scene is characterised by a strong relationship between music and art, especially graffiti art. A founder member of the band Massive Attack, Robert Del Naja, was originally a graffiti artist, and local graffiti artist Banksy has also gone on to produce album covers and artworks.

The 'Bristol Sound'

The Bristol sound was the name given to a number of bands from Bristol, England, in the 1990s. These bands spawned the musical genre trip-hop, though many of the bands shunned this name when other British and international bands imitated the style and preferred not to distinguish it from hip-hop.

The style was perhaps typified by the song "Unfinished Sympathy" which has frequently been described as one of the best songs of all time, according to polls produced by MTV2, NME, and various other magazines and reviewers. A reviewer for the BBC has said that: "More than a decade after its release it remains one of the most moving pieces of dance music ever, able to soften hearts and excite minds just as keenly as a ballad by Bacharach or a melody by McCartney."

The Bristol sound as a whole was characterised by a slow, spaced-out hip hop sound that a number of artists in the early and mid 1990s made synonymous with the city. These artists can include the aforementioned original Bristolians Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky and others such as Way Out West, Smith & Mighty, Up, Bustle and Out, Roni Size, and The Wild Bunch.

Urban graffiti

Many graffiti artists work in Bristol. One of the most notable is Banksy, who has also designed album covers for bands such as Blur. Banksy is considered by some to be a talented artist; he uses his original street art form to promote alternative aspects of politics from those promoted by the mainstream media. Some believe that his graffiti helps to provide a voice for those living in urban environments that could not otherwise express themselves, and that his work is also something which improves the aesthetic quality of urban surroundings; others disagree, asserting that his work is simple vandalism.

Banksy has produced work all over the world, including in Barcelona, New York, Australia, London, and the West Bank.

There has long been an interplay between the different music and art scenes. Robert Del Naja of the internationally successful band Massive Attack was initially a graffiti artist, "indeed, his first ever live gig was as a DJ accompanying artwork he had produced in a gallery in Bristol"

History of the Bristol Underground scene

Bristol has long been a multicultural city. In the 1950s and 1960s there were waves of immigration that made Bristol one of the most racially diverse cities in the UK. This mix included greater access to new strands of music such as reggae. "In 1980, following a police raid on the popular Black and White Café, the St Pauls riots erupted, the first of the decade's civil disturbances."

"Around this time, the Bristol underground scene was steeped in punk and reggae influences, and soon embraced hip-hop - and with it the colourful New York-style lettering at the most creative end of the graffiti art spectrum."

The 1990s was when the scene began to create work of international significance. 1991 saw the release of Massive Attack's Blue Lines, an album which has met international critical acclaim. Blue Lines was named the 21st greatest album of all time in a 'Music of the Millennium' poll conducted by HMV, Channel 4, The Guardian and Classic FM. Stuart Bailie of BBC Northern Ireland stated that "It was soul music. But it had bold, symphonic arrangements. It featured samples of the Mahavishnu Orchestra ... It had funky breaks and an emotional power that was hard to figure. It sounded anxious and lost. But there was a grandeur in the music also. People who came across the record became obsessed, spinning it endlessly." The release in 2006 of "Live With Me" is proof that the trip hop scene is still capable of producing great work.


The Bristol underground scene was characterised by a sparseness and darkness. Bands like Portishead and Massive Attack used sparse sounds - a simple bass line, a vocal and a few other effects, and usually very melancholy lyrics. Banksy also tends to use very few colours, concentrating on blacks and whites and sharp outlines, and often looking at controversial topics such as war.

Separately to this, some writers have talked of an undercurrent of darkness within the City due to its history.

Racial tensions within the City

An article in 2008 in The Telegraph stated that: "Racial matters have always carried a historical resonance in Bristol, a city made affluent on the profits of tobacco and slave-trading. Street names such as Blackboy Hill and Whiteladies Road remain as reminders."

"It's a past that we feel equivocal about", says Steve Wright. "It's a double-edged thing. There are the beautiful Georgian terraces that we love, but they were built on the profits of slavery. It's our shady past, and Bristolians are a bit self-effacing, a bit ashamed of it and are quite keen to layer new associations on top of it. There's always been a defiant, subversive streak in Bristol, and Banksy's work is very much in that tradition."

There has often been a slight undercurrent of tension both in the politics and creatively with artists and musicians in the merger of black and white culture. During the 1950s the Bristol evening post carried what many today would consider openly racist articles, warning of the dangers of black bus drivers.

Creative tensions within bands

Some of this tension spilled over into some of the artists creative work. Massive Attack for example were wrought with creative tensions over their 1998 album Mezzanine, which resulted in one of the three core members leaving. Robert Del Naja has described the dark atmosphere within the group: "There was always this tension between control and collaboration. Always... We were just trying to get the job finished... Everything became thinner and smaller. All that warmth being spun into a tiny little thread, then that thread just being cut."

Artistic use of darkness

The music and art of the Bristol underground scene has often used dark imagery and lyrics. Arguably Massive Attack's best song, Unfinished Sympathy talks of a lover's unhappiness, and the mood is soulful, downbeat and emotional.

Banksy within his pictures has used images of civilian casualties of war, and his work often talks of frustration and anger.

Arguably Portishead's most successful song Glory Box includes the lyrics "Give me a reason to love you" and speaks of a lover's unhappiness with her current situation Another successful song "All Mine" speaks of forcing a lover to be unable to escape making them "tethered and tied" until "the day they die". Suggestions of the songs meaning have included the idea that it is either "scary or incredibly romantic. It can be about the initial obsession you get in fresh relationships."

Massive Attack's most recent single Live With Me features a vocal performance by a deep soul singer and again includes soulful lyrics such as "Nothing's right, if you ain't here" The video includes images of a young woman drinking herself into a stupor, on her own, in a dark city. The video finishes with a shot of her tumbling over and over down a staircase until she is out of shot. One review of the video described it as follows: "It's uncomfortable viewing, but I found it really haunting. It features a young (mid twenties) professional-looking woman drinking herself into oblivion on her own in her flat. I can’t really put my finger on what it is about it that I find so arresting, but I thought it was an incredibly powerful four minute film."


By definition the underground scene tends to be slightly apart from the mainstream and this is reflected in the politics of some of the artists and musicians associated with it. Robert Del Naja, one of the most influential artists and musicians of this scene has openly declared his opposition to the Iraq war for example. Del Naja and Banksy have both submitted art works to the War Paint exhibition which showcases anti war art work.

Bristol Indymedia

Bristol has a flourishing independent media scene. One of the more interesting aspects of this is the Bristol Indymedia web site . Bristol Indymedia (like the wider Indymedia network), provides a mix of news and articles that often tend towards a left-wing, progressive or anarchistic perspective. Bristol Indymedia volunteers have also produced films and run community media days (often at the Cube Microplex).

On the 27 June 2005 the Bristol Indymedia server was temporarily taken off line by the police due to a vandal using it to boast of his activities and inciting others to do likewise. (See the Indymedia entry for more on controversies surrounding Indymedia's open newswire policy, or The Register's coverage for more on the police raid.) The seizure of the server was carried out under a search warrant (police and criminal evidence act 1984, ss.8 and 15). The police also arrested of a Bristol Indymedia volunteer for the common law offence of incitement to criminal damage. The raid removed a computer that also hosted a number of other sites including Euskalinfo (a Basque news service) and Wildfire, the blog of a prominent Bristol peace activist Jo Wilding. Following the seizure the Bristol Indymedia collective released a statement saying, "We are outraged at the actions of the police. They have completely disabled the entire Bristol Indymedia news service...This situation has serious implications for anyone providing a news service on the Internet." On October 26, 2005 the police had returned the seized equipment. By January 2006 the police had not charged the arrested volunteer with the offence arrested for and had decided that no further action is to be taken. During the server seizure many local groups and individuals responded warmly to Bristol Indymedia's plight with solidarity and donations.

Other Bristol Independent Media

Bristol also has a well-established tradition of print media, now best exemplified by The Bristolian and Bristle magazine.

The Bristolian news sheet achieved a regular distribution of several thousand, pulling no punches with its satirical exposés of council and corporate corruption. The Bristolian, 'Smiter of the High and Mighty', even spawned a radical independent political party that polled an impressive 15% in Easton ward in 2003. In October 2005 it came runner up for the national Paul Foot Award for investigative journalism

The anarchist-oriented Bristle, ‘fighting talk for Bristol and the South-West’, was started in 1997 and celebrated its twentieth issue in 2005. Its pages especially feature subvertising and other urban street art to complement news, views and comments on the local activist scene as well as tackling issues such as drugs, mental health and housing.

1970s women's liberation paper Enough, was succeeded in the 1990s by the environmental and pagan Greenleaf (edited by the late George Firsoff), West Country Activist, Kebelian Voice, Planet Easton, the anarcho-feminist Bellow and present-day punk fanzine Everlong, all of which have been published in Bristol.

Urban radio projects such as the 1980s pirate, Savage Yet Tender and Dialect Radio (ceased October 2004) have proved to be more short-lived.

Notes and references

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