Bristol underground scene

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The Bristol underground scene, referred to in Bristol as Bristol massive, is the culture associated with drum and bass, trip hop and graffiti art that has existed in Bristol from the early 1990s to the present.[1]

The city of Bristol has spawned various musicians and artists, and is typified by its urban culture. While the city is most associated with a group of artists having 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 the music genre 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, neo-psychedelia, techno disco music, and the brainy art rap".[2]

The Bristol scene is characterised by a strong relationship between music and art, particularly graffiti art. A founding member of the band Massive Attack, Robert Del Naja, originally a graffiti artist, and local graffiti artist Banksy, have gone on to produce album covers and artworks. Inkie, collaborator alongside Banksy, also took part in Bristol's counter-culture scene.[3][4]

The "Bristol Sound"[edit]

The Bristol sound was the name given to a number of bands and producers from Bristol, in the late eighties and early 1990s.[5] These bands spawned the musical genres of drum and bass and especially trip-hop, though many of them shunned its name when other British and international bands imitated the style, and preferred not to distinguish it from traditional hip hop.

The Bristol sound has been described as "possessing a darkness that is uplifting, a joyful melancholy".[6] As a whole, the Bristol Sound 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 include Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky and others such as Way Out West, Smith & Mighty, Up, Bustle and Out, Monk & Canatella, Kosheen, Roni Size, and The Wild Bunch.

Urban graffiti[edit]

A work by Bristol artist Banksy

Many graffiti artists work in Bristol. One of the most notable is Banksy, an anonymous, English graffiti artist who designed album covers for bands like Blur and Monk & Canatella. Banksy is a world-renowned artist, having produced art work worldwide in places like Barcelona, New York, Australia, London, San Francisco and the West Bank. He uses his original street art form to promote alternative aspects of politics from those displayed 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 simply vandalism.

There has long been an interplay between the different music and art scenes in Bristol. 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".[7]

History of the Bristol underground scene[edit]

Bristol has long been a multicultural city. In the 1950s and 1960s there were waves of immigration[citation needed] 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.

Other Parts of the city were equally mixed with areas like Ashley Down and Bishopston, attracting huge waves of Italian, Irish and South American immigrants who were to work in the industrial section just north of the city after the war. The immigrants also put their stamp on the city through their late night drinking clubs, where like St Paul's police would tend to turn a blind eye.


The Bristol underground scene was characterised by a sparseness and darkness. Bands like Portishead and Massive Attack are known for using sparse instrumentation: a prominent bass line, vocals with what are usually melancholic lyrics, and sometimes other effects commonly associated with hip-hop, such as samples and scratching. Banksy also tends to use very few colours, concentrating on black and white with sharp outlines, covering topics such as war, politics and inequality.

Separately to this, some writers have talked of an undercurrent of darkness within the city due to its history.[8]

Racial tensions within the city[edit]

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."[8] However, common knowledge that both Whiteladies Road and Blackboy Hill had connections with the slave trade is untrue; both names are derived from pubs.[9][10][11]

"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."[8]

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.[citation needed]


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.[7] Del Naja and Banksy have both submitted art works to the War Paint exhibition which showcases anti-war art work.

Bristol independent media[edit]

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

Anarchist Ian Bone's 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.[12]

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 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.

Bristol based magazines, Trap, and Crack are popular and have emerged from the Bass Music culture scene, alternative fashion scenes and alternative art scenes, all of which feature a heavy student and post graduate membership.

Urban radio projects such as the 1980s pirate, Savage Yet Tender, and Electro Magnetic Installation,[13] have proved to be more short-lived. Dialect Radio, however, as Bristol's first community internet radio station, is still going and is broadcast over BCFM 93.2fm most weeks, and is available to download over the internet. It is put together by the Bristol Radio Co-op, and is run entirely by volunteers on a not-for-profit basis, and covers local arts, music, political issues, and local people of interest.


  1. ^ Baker, Lindsay. "Banksy: off the wall – Telegraph". The Daily Telegraph. UK: Telegraph Media Group. Retrieved 24 June 2009.
  2. ^ Miles, Milo (12 November 1995). "Trip-Hop". Salon. Salon Media Group. Retrieved 24 June 2009.
  3. ^ "Street art show comes to Bristol". BBC News. 9 February 2009. Retrieved 31 August 2011. Street art [...] erupted in the UK in the early 1980s [...] active on the Bristol scene at that time included Banksy, Nick Walker, Inkie and Robert del Naja, or '3D', of Massive Attack.
  4. ^ Reid, Julia (6 February 2008). "Banksy Hits Out At Street Art Auctions". Sky News. London. Retrieved 31 August 2011. Along with Banksy, Bristol's graffiti heritage includes 3D, who went on to form Massive Attack, Inkie, and one of the original stencil artists Nick Walker.
  5. ^
  6. ^ "Peter Webb". Exploring The Networked Worlds Of Popular Music. Routledge. Retrieved 30 August 2010.
  7. ^ a b Blake, Veronica (20 March 2008). "War Paint Exhibition – Preview and Robert Del Naja interview". IndieLondon. Retrieved 24 June 2009.
  8. ^ a b c Baker, Lindsay (28 March 2008). "Banksy: off the wall – Telegraph". The Daily Telegraph. UK: Telegraph Media Group. Retrieved 24 June 2009.
  9. ^ Winstone, Reece (1966). Bristol As It Was 1874–1866. p. Photos 82, 83.
  10. ^ Hammersley, G. H. Survey of the Manor of Clifton. in Clifton and Durdham Down: A Landscape History, p. 6, Plan 2.
  11. ^ Smith, V. (2002). Street Names of Bristol. Broadcast Books. ISBN 1-874092-90-7.
  12. ^ Hooper, Dickon (14 October 2005). "Scurrilious magazine scoops top award". BBC News. BBC. Retrieved 24 June 2009.
  13. ^ "Electro Magnetic Installation Bristol". The Pirate Archive. Retrieved 24 June 2009.

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