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Saturday, July 09, 2005
Sunday Morning Playlist: Trip Hop
Trip Hop is a subgenre of electronica that first appeared in the U.K. in 1989. Its roots lie in American techno and house, but unlike those dance oriented forms of music, Trip Hop is generally a downtempo experimental breakbeat music, familiar to chill rooms and late night clubs.
The term was coined by the English press as an attempt to classify its two biggest influences, hip hop and psychedelic ambient music. Its characteristics are hip-hop styled drum samples, with distinct jazz, funk, and soul inflections. Electronica atmospherics and sensibilities are employed, and the end product is music with a slow groove that routinely topped the charts in the U.K. and became the first form of electronica to find a mainstream audience in America.
Its birthplace is generally believed to be Bristol, England. Soul II Soul's "Keep on Movin'" is often cited as the original trip-hop recording, with its sensual groove, soft scat vocals, hypnotic beats, and sinewy bass. Massive Attack's 1991 album Blue Lines is the first classic long-form recording of the genre and launched the career of electronica pioneer Tricky. Other early trip hop groups included Breakbeat Era, featuring Roni Size, and Nightmares on Wax.
The biggest trip hop act of the early 90's, also from Bristol, was Portishead, whose 1994 release Dummy became the first trip hop album to sell in big numbers in America; it set desolate, depressive vocals agains a backdrop of syncopated beats, electronic music, and atmospheric textured guitar. There are also elements of dub.
Trip Hop's greatest era spanned from about 1994-1999 which saw such acts as Morcheeba, the Sneaker Pimps, Lamb, and Wagon Christ reach audiences that extended beyond the usual club goers.
Trip Hop has also had something of a druggy image, particulary relating to marijuana and ecstasy, an outgrowth of its club roots.
Some important/influential trip hop artists/songs include:
1. Portishead: Glory Box iTunes
Portishead helped make electronica/trip hop palatable for many who had been resistant to the genres before. Dummy, their 1994 debut album, peaked at #79 on the Billboard chart in 1995, making it the most successful trip-hop release in America up to that point. They combined the slow grooves Massive Attack had explored, and combined them with a dark musical sensibility that incorporated cool jazz and soundtrack music. The draws are Adrian Utley's expressively biting guitar, Beth Gibbons' smoky vocals, and Geoff Barrow's hip-hop informed turntables. Hypnotic, alluring, and trance inducing, the album remains a milestone. In America "Sour Times" was the big single, but in England "Glory Box" hit big. John Martyn has also done an excellent version of it. Dummy was selected Album of the Year 1994 by Melody Maker, beating out some heavy competition.
2. Massive Attack: Inertia Creeps iTunes
Massive Attack's 1991 debut album Blue Lines helped define the genre, and was an electronica milestone itself. The sounds on the album bore a direct influence on Portishead, the Sneaker Pimps, and Massive Attack member Tricky, who left the group after its debut to launch a very successful and influential career of his own. Mezzanine, from 1998, marked the commercial high point of Massive Attack, reaching a solid #60 in America. On it, they re-define the genre they helped define with their debut. The first four tunes on this album in particular are noteworthy, with "Inertia creeps" being something of a masterpiece. Eastern flavored, slow and menacing, hypnotic, and featuring some tasty guitar as well, it is a very ambitious recording, and spellbinding. Appearing on the album is dream pop heroine Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, who shares vocals with reggae singer Horace Andy.
3. Beth Orton: She Cries Your Name iTunes
Beth Orton first appeared as a member of the duo Spill, with William Orbit, and then did some work with the Chemical Brothers. Her solo debut was She Cries Your Name, an EP in 1996; the song, "She Cries Your Name" also appeared on her 1996 album, Trailer Park. Orton fused standard singer/songwriter conventions with the cool jazz of trip hop to come up with an easily accessible sound, she could also be categorized as adult alternative pop/rock. However, she is also an innovator; her brand of trip hop has an organic feel that gives it somewhat more warmth than one usually finds in the genre. She has slowly become a household name in America as well. While her debut didn't chart, her most recent release, Daybreaker, edged into the top-40 album chart.
4. Moloko: Fun For Me iTunes
From Sheffield, Moloko is a duo of Irish singer Roisin Murphy and mixer/producer Mark Brydon, who were also romantically linked. Brydon was a music veteran, having worked with Cloud 9, House Arrest, Eric B & Rakim, and Psychic TV. "Fun For Me" was featured on the soundtrack to Batman and Robin in 1997 and was one of the standouts on that dense and varied collection; it had originally appeared on their 1995 debut album, Do You Like My Tight Sweater? (also the come-on line Murphy used on Brydon at the party where they met). Musically, they favor bottom heavy fat basslines and dramatic, somewhat androgynous vocals from Murphy. Danceable and tranceable.
5. Soul II Soul: Keep on Movin' iTunes
This was Soul II Soul's third single, and became a major hit in England in 1989; many trip-hop devotees point to this recording as the start of it all. Caron Webster supplies the vocals, which bear a strong urban r&b flavor but are given a spaciness by the oddly trippy lyrics and a propulsive melody. Jazzie B. serves as writer, arranger and producer. In America, the album was a hit, selling mainly to the Urban and Soul crowd, but also gained significant club airplay. Five semi-successful albums followed, but only the first two are classics; their last release was in 1997.
6. Kruder & Dorfmeister: Bug Powder Dust
Better known as the producers and remixes of others' work, Peter Kruder and Richard Dorfmeister have also gained acclaim for their own two mid-90's albums. Their best track is "Bug Powder Dust", from Clear, the 1995 release by Bomb the Bass, which features a druggy lyric, some bluesy raps, heavy bass, and a trip-hop ambience. Guest Justin Warfield raps over some aggressive and gritty guitar-work; the sound has been compared to Black Sabbath in hip-hop mode. Kruder and Dorfmeister included it on their own 1997 release The K&D Sessions, with substantial remixing. Either version is worth the listen; it will appeal to rock fans as well.
7. Olive: You're Not Alone iTunes
Olive is another smoky ambience, late-night singer/songwriter influenced trip-hop group, featuring producer Tim Kellett and Robin Taylor-Firth and vocalist Ruth-Ann Boyle. Kellett had been a member of Simply Red, and Taylor-Frith an alumni of Nightmares on Wax. "You're Not Alone", from 1995, was a #1 hit in England, and peaked at #56 in America, a good showing for a trip hop group at the time. Featured on their 1996 debut, Extra Virgin, the song is melodic and not overly experimental, making it an easy introduction for novices to the genre; a comparable sound might be mid-90's era Everything But The Girl.
8. Sneaker Pimps: 6 Underground
The Sneaker Pimps, a trio from Reading, England, sound like a cross between Tricky and Portishead; Kelli Dayton supplies the sensual vocals, while guitarist Chris Corner and keyboardist Liam Howe supply some excellent backing. Their best effort is their 1996 debut, Becoming X, which has a breezy cool soul sound helped along by an edgy guitar attack. "6 Underground" is the highlight, and nearly made top-40 in America, reaching #45. The band never quite delivered on the promise of the debut, sounding more derivitive than innovative, but they retain a cult. Their most recent album appeared in 2002.
9. Propellerheads: Bang On! iTunes
The Propellerheads hail from Bath, England and made a splash with their 1998 collection Decksandrumsandrockandroll, which very neatly sums up its aesthetic in its title. No, it isn't rock 'n' roll, but it comes close; the sound is more akin to the Chemical Brothers' big beat, and there's the requisite funk, soul, hip-hop, rap, and house elements. However, their gigantic sound, which goes straight for the central nervous system is rock in spirit, if not in execution. "Bang On!" is also revealing in its title; it's a loud, enormous dance floor wallop. Propellerheads were a duo of keyboardist/bassist/DJ Alex Gifford and drummer/DJ Will White. Gifford has a rock pedigree, having played keyboards for Van Morrison and The Stranglers.
10. Death In Vegas: Dirt iTunes
A project of deejay Richard Fearless, Death In Vegas is one of the most eclectic "groups" on this list. Involving a revolving door of guest musicians and vocalists, the second and third Death In Vegas full-length albums are exciting collections of dance oriented trip-hop, big beat, and even hard rock with superstar casts. "Dirt" comes from their less realized debut, Dead Elvis, from 1996, but became an MTV near-hit, exposing a new audience to trip-hop. Those looking for a meatier experience ought to try their 1999 release The Contino Sessions, which features "Aisha" with Detroit-rock hero Iggy Pop on vocals; Oasis fans might prefer Scorpio Rising from 2002, which features Liam Gallagher on the title track.
11. DJ Krush: Skin Against Skin
DJ Krush, born Hideaki Ishi, is from Japan, making him one of the few internationally successful Japanese trip-hop deejays; trip-hop was embraced in Japan's thriving club scene earlier than it was in America, and still remains popular there. Usually his music is instrumental, and aggressively experimental. "Skin Against Skin" is from his 1998 album, Milight, which consists of 28 tracks, many under one minute. Jazzy, druggy, ambient, it has all the elements; Deborah Anderson is co-writer and vocalist. Hallucinatory and textured.
12. Skylab: Seashell
Skylab is an English/Japanese hybrid, featuring English DJ/experimentalist Mat Ducasse, producer "Howie B." Bernstien and the Japanese duo Love TKO. Their sound is a mix of hip-hop and musique concrete, heavy on ambient texture, and reliant on propulsive break beats. "Seashell" is one standout among several on their 1994 debut, conveniently called #1. According to legend, Ducasse spent a few weeks tripping in his attic while working on the basic tracks, to get the somewhat freaked out sound that underlies their music. Howie B. has gone on to a fruitful solo career.
13. Tricky: Ponderosa iTunes
"Ponderosa" is co-produced by Tricky (ex-Massive Attack) and Skylab's Howie B. Featured on what is arguably Tricky's greatest album, Maxinquaye, his solo debut from 1995, it features a tape loop heavy arrangement, and fine vocal exchanges between Tricky and his young collaborator and muse, Martina Topley-Bird. Underneath roils a busy and noisy arrangement, but the duo find the groove it hides, creating a tense counterpoint to the beat and sound; the result is a real winner. The album itself is a studiously constructed masterpiece that avoids convention whenever it can, making Tricky both a leader and maverick outsider to Trip Hop. Subsequent releases have earned him less acclaim, but his sizable cult remains; his most recent release was Back to Mine in 2003.
14. UNKLE: Rabbit In Your Headlights iTunes
UNKLE, an experimental hip hop group from England, were also among the pioneers of trip hop. Featuring James Lavelle, who founded the influential label Mo' Wax, which became known for its cutting edge trip-hop roster and sound, the trio also featured Lavelle's childhood friend Tim Goldsworthy and Japanese-born Kudo, from Skylab and Love TKO. Their sound borrowed from New York hip-hop and electro, and usually featured an array of guest stars, as well as a mix of styles that ran far and wide, from melodic ambient to a rock-tinged edge. "Rabbit In Your Headlights" features Thom Yorke of Radiohead, and is a moody, atmospheric classic. Included on the outfit's long-delayed debut, Psyence Fiction, which didn't gain release until 1998.
15. Kid Loco: Relaxin' With Cherry iTunes
Kid Loco is a French guitarist/producer, who had played in a number of French punk bands in the 1980's as Jean-Yves Prieur. He explored reggae and trip hop in a band called Mega Reefer Scratch in the early 90's. In 1996, he had his own studio and a new name, and gained notice with his 1997 release, A Grand Love Story , which includes "Relaxin' With Cherry". It features sampled instrumentation, plus live guitar and bass, and the vocals of both Loco and Katrina Mitchell of twee-pop legends The Pastels. Light, airy, pop-oriented, Kid Loco's work is fairly accessible by all.
16. DJ Shadow: Stem/Long Stem
Another Mo' Wax trip-hop pioneer, DJ Shadow is another worldwide eclectic dabbler, who manages to take wildly diverse sounds and piece them together into something that sounds effortlessly seamless. Born Josh Davis in the working class town of Hayward, CA, outside of San Francisco, he was one of the few Americans active in trip hop in the early 90's. Stem/Long Stem is an 8-minute work that takes trip-hop in an almost modern classical direction, featuring distinct movements and motifs, created by judicious sampling of Vangelis, Gorgio Moroder, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Nirvana (the British Nirvana, not the American one). The beats are spare and sometimes absent; strings are present, and the vocals are limited to short samples. The result is almost unclassifiable, but is a remarkable, and richly rewarding listen.
17. Howie B: Cry
Howie B. is a name that turns up everywhere in trip-hopland. He worked with Soul II Soul, Massive Attack, Skylab, Bjork, U2, and many others in the 1990's. Technology driven, his music always tended to try to reach the cutting edge; more times than not, he succeeded. In 1996, he launched his solo career with Music For Babies, whose laid back grooves mask a restless experimentation; "Cry" is a 9-plus minute opus of slow downtempo with high-register turntable scratches that reach frequencies that will deeply disturb any dogs in the house. His 1999 album, Snatch, is another challenging and rewarding classic of the genre.
18: Jimi Tenor: Outta Space
Classically trained Jimi Tenor hails from Finland, and probably takes some getting used to for most listeners. His influences tend towards 70's soul and blaxploitation soundtracks, and he delivers them with an almost lounge lizard-like croon. He came to the attention of British listeners in the mid-90's, and was signed to Warp records. "Outta Space" leads off his 1997 full-length Warp debut, Intervision, and was recorded on outdated Russian equipment in a former Communist dancehall. Sounding like minimalist jazz, featuring beefy organ and slight vocals, it's an oddity that grows on you, given a chance.
19. Nightmares On Wax: Les Nuits iTunes
Nightmares on Wax are one of the essential trip-hop outfits, representing a vortex where the New York, Detroit, and London schools of techno/house/electronica merge. From West Yorkshire, the group originally consisted of George Evelyn and Kevin Harper; Harper would eventually depart. "Les Nuits" is from the 1999 album Carboot Soul, and is a reprise of sorts; an earlier version appeared on their 1995 Smoker's Delight album. Soulful and languid, but with an underlying grit underneath, it avoids the criticism that was leveled against late 90's trip-hop, which is that it had become easy listening. Almost all of Nightmare On Wax's releases provide challenging and interesting music; its soulful groove is merely a hook onto which they hang their many hats.
20. Money Mark: Hand In Your Head iTunes
Money Mark (Mark Ramos-Nishita) is a Japanese-Hawaiian-Chicano keyboardist who specializes in retro-sounding keyboard riffs. He was working as a handyman when he was hired to repair the Beastie Boys' Los Angeles digs, and wound up joining the band as a semi-official member. "Hand In Your Head" is from his solo sophomore effort, Push The Button, from 1998, and features his jazzy, somewhat distorted keyboards, and a nice shuffle beat, with a laid back aesthetic that makes it chill out music of an entirely different flavor than the English artists. His most recent effort, Change Is Coming, appeared in 2001.
Sunday Morning Playlist, now expanded to 20 songs, appears weekly.
Listen to Portishead: Glory Box [live, Roselands] (1998)