Sounds to Send You to Mars: Trip Hop

Staff Writer: Hannah Johnson 

Trip hop which is also sometimes used together with “downtempo”, is a music genre that began in the early 1990s in the United Kingdom, especially Bristol. It has been described as “a fusion of hip hop and electronica until neither genre is recognizable,” and may incorporate a variety of styles, including funk, dub, soul, psychedelia, R&B, and house, as well as other forms of electronic music. Trip hop can be highly experimental in style.

Deriving from later idioms of acid house, the term was first used by the British music media to describe the more experimental variant of breakbeat emerging from the Bristol Sound scene in the early 1990s, which contained influences of soul, funk, and jazz. It was pioneered by acts like Massive Attack, Tricky, and Portishead. Trip hop achieved commercial success in the 1990s and has been described as “Europe’s alternative choice in the second half of the ’90s.” “This genre of music has always been a staple in my playlist, the beats and sounds that these artists produce are so relaxing and dreamy…”-Christopher White, Junior at Woodstock High school. 

the term “trip-hop” was coined in 1989, though it first appeared in print in June 1994; Andy Pemberton, a music journalist writing for Mixmag, used it to describe Mo’ Wax Records Artist United Kingdom RPM and American DJ Shadow’s “In/Flux” single. 

In Bristol, once one of the most important ports in the Atlantic slave-trade and as of 2012 among Britain’s most racially diverse cities, hip hop began to seep into the consciousness of a subculture already well-schooled in Jamaican forms of music. DJs, MCs, b-boys and graffiti artists grouped together into informal soundsystems. Like the pioneering Bronx crews of DJs Kool Herc, Afrika Bambataa and Grandmaster Flash, the sound systems provided party music for public spaces, often in the poor council estates from which some of their members originated. Bristol’s soundsystem DJs, drawing heavily on Jamaican dub music, typically used a laid-back, slow and heavy drum beat or “down tempo”. 

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Massive Attack performing on stage, giving their audience not only a show, but also an experience.

 

Bristol’s Wild Bunch crew became one of the soundsystems to put a local spin on the international phenomenon, helping to birth Bristol’s signature sound of trip hop, often termed “the Bristol Sound”. The Wild Bunch and its associates included at various times in its existence the MC Adrian “Tricky Kid” Thaws, the graffiti artist and lyricist Robert “3D” Del Naja, producer Jonny Dollar and the DJs Nellee Hooper, Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles and Grant “Daddy G” Marshall. As the hip hop scene matured in Bristol and musical trends evolved further toward acid jazz and house in the late 1980s, the golden era of the soundsystem began to end. The Wild Bunch signed a record deal and evolved into Massive Attack, a core collective of 3D, Mushroom and Daddy G, with significant contributions from Tricky Kid, soon shortened to Tricky, Dollar, and Hooper on production duties, along with a rotating cast of other vocalists. “Although he is not on this list of artists, I really enjoy the trip hop artist ‘SwuM’, he tends to mix up older songs, but still seems to be able to put his own twist on them.”- Haley Schoffer, sophmore at Cherokee Highschool. 

Another influence came from Gary Clail’s Tackhead soundsystem. Clail often worked with former The Pop Group singer Mark Stewart. The latter experimented with his band Mark Stewart & the Mafia, which consisted of New York session musicians Skip McDonald, Doug Wimbish, and Keith LeBlanc, who had been a part of the house band for the Sugarhill Records record label. Produced by Adrian Sherwood, the music combined hip hop with experimental rock and dub and sounded like a premature version of what later became trip hop. In 1993, Kirsty MacColl released “Angel”, one of the first examples of the genre crossing over to pop, a hybrid that dominated the charts toward the end of the 1990s. 

Massive Attack’s first album Blue Lines was released in 1991 to huge success in the UK. Blue Lines was seen widely as the first major manifestation of a uniquely British hip hop movement, but the album’s hit single “Unfinished Sympathy” and several other tracks, while their rhythms were largely sample-based, were not seen as hip-hop songs in any conventional sense. Produced by Dollar, Shara Nelson featured on the orchestral “Unfinished”, and Jamaican dance hall star Horace Andy provided vocals on several other tracks, as he would throughout Massive Attack’s career. Massive Attack released their second album entitled Protection in 1994. Although Tricky stayed on in a lesser role, and Hooper again produced, the fertile dance music scene of the early 1990s had informed the record, and it was even more significant shift away from the Wild Bunch era. 

In the June 1994 issue of UK magazine Mixmag, music journalist Andy Pemberton used the term trip hop to describe the hip hop instrumental “In/Flux”, a 1993 single by San Francisco’s DJ Shadow, and other similar tracks released on the Mo’ Wax label and being played in London clubs at the time. “In/Flux”, with its mixed up bpms, spoken word samples, strings, melodies, bizarre noises, prominent bass, and slow beats, gave the listener the impression they were on a musical trip, according to Pemberton. Soon, however, Massive Attack’s dubby, jazzy, psychedelic, electronic textures, rooted in hip hop sampling technique but taking flight into many styles, were described by journalists as the template of the eponymous genre. 

In 1993, Icelandic musician Björk released Debut, produced by Wild Bunch member Nellee Hooper. The album, although rooted in four-on-the-floor house music, contained elements of trip hop and is credited as one of the first albums to introduce electronic dance music into mainstream pop. She had been in contact with London’s underground electronic music scene and was romantically involved with trip hop musician Tricky. Björk embraced trip hop even more with her 1995 album Post by collaborating with Tricky and Howie B. Homogenic, her 1997 album, has been described as a pinnacle of trip hop music. “Artists like these, particularly Bjork, always seem to have some of the most creative and visual ideas for music and videos.”-Marcus Holland, local music enthusiast and frequent trip hop listener. 

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Post is one of Bjork’s most famous works, the psychedelic music mixed with intense lyrics really creates a sense of originality.

 

1994 and 1995 saw trip hop near the peak of its popularity, with artists such as Howie B and Earthling making significant contributions. Ninja Tune, the independent record label founded by the Coldcut duo, would significantly influence the trip-hop sound in London and beyond with breakthrough artists DJ Food, 9 Lazy 9, Up, Bustle & Out, Funki Porcini and The Herbaliser, among others. The period also marked the debut of two acts who, along with Massive Attack, would define the Bristol scene for years to come. 

In 1994 Portishead, a trio comprising singer Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow, and Adrian Utley, released their debut album Dummy. Their background differed from Massive Attack in many ways: one of Portishead’s primary influences was 1960s and 1970s film soundtrack LPs. Nevertheless, Portishead shared the scratchy, jazz-sample-based aesthetic of early Massive Attack (whom Barrow had briefly worked with during the recording of Blue Lines), and the sullen, fragile vocals of Gibbons also brought them wide acclaim. In 1995, Dummy was awarded the Mercury Music Prize as the best British album of the year, giving trip-hop as a genre its greatest exposure yet. Portishead’s music, seen as cutting edge in its film-noir feel and stylish, yet emotional appropriations of past sounds, was also widely imitated, causing the band to recoil from the trip-hop label they had inadvertently helped popularize. 

Tricky also released his debut solo album Maxinquaye in 1995, to great critical acclaim. The album was produced largely in collaboration with Mark Saunders. Tricky employed whispered, often abstract stream-of-consciousness murmuring, remote from the gangsta-rap braggadocio of the mid-1990s US hip hop scene. Even more unusually, however, many of the solo songs on Maxinquaye featured little of Tricky’s own voice: his then-lover, Martina Topley-Bird, sang them, including her reimagining of Public Enemy’s militant 1988 rap “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, while other songs were male-female duets dealing with sex and love in oblique ways, over beds of sometimes dissonant samples. Within a year Tricky had released two more full-length albums which were considered even more challenging, without finding the same popularity as his Bristol contemporaries Massive Attack and Portishead. Through his brief collaborations with Björk, however, he also exerted influence closer to the pop and alternative rock mainstream, and he developed a large cult fan-base. Musician Poe released her 1995 debut Hello, an album that featured trip-hop elements, to critical praise. Although not as popular in the United States, bands like Portishead and Sneaker Pimps saw moderate airplay on alternative-rock stations across the country. 

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Portishead on stage intensely using their creative lyrics and sound to enchant the audience.

 

 Trip hop continued to influence notable artists in the 2000s. Norwegian avant-garde band Ulver incorporated trip hop in their ambient/electronic/jazzy album Perdition City. Atmospheric rock band Antimatter included some trip hop elements in their first two albums. Australian composer Rob Dougan proposed a mix of trip hop beats, orchestral music and electronics. RJD2 began his career as a DJ, but in 2001, began releasing albums under El-P’s Def Jux Label. Zero 7’s album Simple Things, and, its lead single “Destiny”, was regarded highly by underground listeners and achieved significant popularity.  In 2006, Gotye debuted his second studio album, Like Drawing Blood. The songs on the album featured down-tempo hip-hop beats and dub style bass reminiscent of trip hop. Hip hop groups Zion I and the Dub Pistols also displayed heavy trip hop influence. Norwegian singer and songwriter Kate Havnevik is a classically trained musician, but also incorporates trip hop into her work. 

The London-based band Archive began as trip hop, before developing into progressive rock, employing elements of both hip hop and orchestral music with the album Controlling Crowds (Part I–III and Part IV). 

Common musical aesthetics include a bass-heavy drumbeat, often emulating the slowed down breakbeat samples typical of hip hop in the 1990s, giving the genre a more psychedelic touch. Vocals in trip hop are often female and feature characteristics of various singing styles including R&B, jazz and rock. The female-dominant vocals of trip hop may be partially attributable to the influence of genres such as jazz and early R&B, in which female vocalists were more common. However, there are notable exceptions – Massive Attack & Groove Armada collaborates with vocalists of mixed genders, Tricky often features vocally in his own productions along with Martina Topley-Bird, and Chris Corner provided vocals for later albums with Sneaker Pimps. 

Trip hop is also known for its melancholy sound. This may be partly because several acts were inspired by post punk bands; Tricky and Massive Attack both covered and sampled songs of Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Cure. Tricky opened his second album Nearly God by a version of “Tattoo”, a proto-trip-hop song of Siouxsie and the Banshees initially recorded in 1983. 

Trip hop tracks often incorporate Rhodes pianos, saxophones, trumpets, and flutes, and may employ unconventional instruments such as the theremin and Mellotron. Trip hop differs from hip hop in theme and overall tone. Instead of gangsta rap with its hard-hitting lyrics, trip hop offers a some more aural atmospherics with instrumental hip hop, turntable scratching, and breakbeat rhythms. Regarded in some ways as a 1990s update of fusion, trip hop may be said to “transcend” the hardcore rap styles and lyrics with atmospheric overtones to create a more mellow tempo. 

**All pictures are from Creative Commons**

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Akira, SwuM’s latest album that has broken boundaries in music.

 

 

Comments

  1. GOATS2BDazee says:

    Thanks for posting this. It’s great break down of the history of trip hop in the U.k.

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