For me, this is Tricky’s masterpiece: a B-side on an EP that was itself a footnote to the much-hyped and rightly-loved Maxinquaye album. If you’ve never heard it before, I’m jealous; what a wonder it would be to experience it again for the first time:
Tricky – Tonite Is A Special Nite (Chaos Mass Confusion Mix), 1995, Fourth & Broadway
Written & Produced by Dobie (T.Campbell), RZA (R.Diggs), Tricky
In many ways, ‘Tonite Is A Special Nite’ is the photographic negative of the material on Maxinquaye. Where that album was sensuous and polyphonic – with a magpie spirit that sampled and combined material to weave a textured tapestry – ‘Tonite…’ is brutally stripped bare: three piano chords, a sparse rhythm, four men taking turns on the mic, distant wolf howls, mutterings and warbled falsetto the only other accompaniment. For many Tricky fans it’s probably little more than a curio, noteworthy for the collaboration with RZA and company. Others might value it as a harbinger of the darker paths that Tricky would later follow; a demented, hazy, horrorcore experiment thrown together over the course of one wine-soaked weed-fugged night:
‘At midnight we met at the studio… And we just did the tracks, man. Drank some red wine, started mixing. We set up four mikes and just went down the line, shouting at the engineer.’ (1)
And yet, ‘Tonight Is A Special Nite’ is so much more than Tricky’s modest description implies. After listening to it time and again for 18 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that Tricky is using the track to do nothing less than deconstruct the self-mythologising spirit that lies at the heart of hip hop. Like a demonic little cousin, he co-opts the big boys of American rap into setting fire to their family home, before scurrying off to cackle dementedly in a corner. It’s collaboration in both the traditional and the traitorous sense – of undermining something from deep within.
At the beginning, the tune sets out its stall in highly conventional terms. RZA starts off. He’ll be the introducer and chorus, orchestrating the entrance of the other MCs. And yet, something’s awry. He’s telling the crowd to throw their hands in the air – yet the track is not only a studio track with no crowd present, but a studio track that’s going out of its way to cultivate the impression that there’s nothing left in the world but these deranged men ranting in a claustrophobic room. RZA then, is going through the motions, falling back on a body of standard tropes – as if we’ve entered the hip hop equivalent of Waiting for Godot.
The Gatekeeper comes in on the first verse proper and, once again, sticks to convention, adopting the braggadocio form typical of old-school freestyling:
‘Yet my style is known to catapult like a jet, like an F-15,
Yo! My gleam is bright and hard when it strikes,
Niggas get caught in the dare of the nightmare,
Ah! You’re scared, duck away,
Don’t get too close or you just might get roasted, toasted!’
But this too quickly turns absurd. ‘I piss through your toe, your knee and your cap,’ he remarks. After all, this kind of bragging can serve no purpose in the context of the track. Originally, bigging yourself up was central to the culture of battle rapping, one MC’s boasts winning out over another’s. But ‘Tonite Is A Special Nite’ is patently not a battle rap; no one’s trying to outdo anyone else; it’s more like a relay, the baton being passed from one MC to another before Tricky brings them home. So the first verse too, like RZA’s introduction, adopts old forms but only for form’s sake: there’s no discernible purpose behind them.
In the second verse, it’s The Grym Reaper’s turn to take the baton: once again, it’s conventional braggadocio but delivered sardonically, openly mocking the tradition of sexual boasting:
‘Away we go to the mo-tel oh swell.
Look my jimmy is so swelled up it’s steamin,
And the girls that been scheming: gonna get the cream when I…
When I say I’m coming in the house – ha ha ha – I’m coming in the house
I’m out… ‘
– the ‘I’m out’ at the end delivered so quickly, as if to say: ‘Well, I did what I needed to do – but there’s not much juice left to wring from this thing.’
Finally, the stage is set for Tricky, stumbling, fried, zoned out, just waking from a dream – or on the verge of passing out, who knows which. Not even attempting to end his lines with rhymes, Tricky questions the authenticity of the whole enterprise:
This is so…
Is it real?
I don’t know how I feel.
Do you know how you feel?
Are you yourself?
Are you someone else?
‘Cause I am me, ha haaa!
I am me – yeah yeah (Drop it Tricky!)
I don’t have to pretend: I don’t need a friend
I don’t need… back up! Ha ha!
It’s a, it’s a rack-up, it’s a…
Do you really believe?
Or do you deceive? Ha ha.
[Throw your hands up high in the air!]
Is it the real one? The funky real one?
Is it the real one? The funky real one? Ah ha ha ha ha.
Is it the real one ? The real funky real one? Ha ha
Are you the real one, the real funky real one? Ay hey!
Are you are you…?’
‘Do you know how you feel?’ he asks both himself and the others. ‘Are you yourself?’ he wonders in disbelief as the beat stops to leave his question isolated, hanging in the air. He marvels at the self-mythologising of his American cousins; he can only dream of adopting a different persona for himself, so trapped is he in a self that he loves to hate: ‘Are you someone else? ‘Cause I am me, ha haaa!’
In a recent essay in the Paris Review, Chris Wallace summed up what Tricky doesn’t have the ability to be – another persona:
‘Hip-hop has always been a sort of test kitchen for the art of self-mythology. Maybe because execs force artists into adapting personas that play to some tired trope that consumers recognize, but there is nary a given name or suburban softy in the bunch. Every practitioner has invented an outsized, super-gritty, superhero pseudonym for themselves. And, like Australian aborigines who, during dream time, sing the world into being, rappers spend the bulk of their bars bragging about the exploits of these avatars.’ (2)
For Tricky, self-mythologising in this way is a dream. How terribly self-conscious and English he sounds next to the Americans – the true representatives of hip hop, the real men towering over this effete, effeminate Brit, physically so much smaller and bent double by the weight of his irony and self-deprecation. Subverting rap conventions and clichés was hardly something new – but to do it in this way, with this group of men, in this context, was extraordinary.
Speaking to Melody Maker in December of 1995, Tricky had openly discussed how different he was from RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan:
‘They are men, and I feel like a kid being in the same room as them, because they’ve been through a lot more than me, and l don’t face up to my responsibilities sometimes, and I’m a coward about certain situations… just the way I lead my life. I’m not a man, and they feel like men, you know.’ (3)
To be a man in hip hop is to have to pretend to be someone else. Think of Tupac Shakur in his ballet class at the Baltimore School of the Arts before he invented – and grew into – the new form of ‘2Pac’.
Tricky wants you to know all about this irony: that to be yourself – so craved and so idealised in the mid 90s – is, in his milieu, a curse (4). And so he plays the impish, Shakespearean clown to the major protagonists in this tragedy of a tune. The Clown: the only one who is openly permitted to speak the truth between cackles. The Clown: the man who can mock his superiors to their faces and still get away it. And so, the whole tune becomes a court jester’s trick in which everyone participates, where four men pull the rug out from under their own feet without falling over.
For Tricky, the solution to his problem was to take the singular path that he subsequently chose to follow, leaving behind a world he could never truly belong to and heading into darkness, abstraction, wilful difficulty, brute chaos. And if that meant, as he himself has put it many times, that every record would be a ‘fuck you to the world’ then so be it (5). He didn’t belong here; he didn’t belong anywhere, save the liminal zone that was truly himself (6). As he put it on his next release – another one-off curio recorded under the name of Starving Souls – he was long gone, ‘already on the other side’:
(1) Interview with Spin magazine, 1996
(3) See Moon Palace, the unofficial Tricky fan site, for this and other interviews
(4) In 2013, ‘being yourself’ is an ideal less spoken of – not least because the online world has allowed us to explore the possibility of cultivating many selves and we are not yet sure, if we ever will be, whether this new plurality is a wonder or an irreversible nightmare.
(5) Interview with The Wire, August 2008
(6) David Bowie, writing in Q magazine in 1995, had described Tricky at this time as ‘A shaman who’d never slept with the Others, he was still pure, his spells unblemished.’ This period I take to be the end of this innocence.