Photo: DJ Shadow
Credit: MusicTour EU
I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine about the musical innovations that had been offered up by the UK over the last half century or so. Aside from heavy metal, progressive rock, Britpop and grime, I drew a bit of a blank. I realised afterwards I had forgotten one of the most interesting music scenes to ever emerge from the UK: trip-hop and the Bristol sound.
Trip-hop developed just up the road from Exeter, in Bristol, where some of the more experimental styles of electronic music began to take significant influence from hip-hop. Stylistically speaking, trip-hop drew from the infinitely deep well of electronic music, extracting from genres such as ambient, dub and house music. The genre is just as much a fusion of electronica and hip hop as it is a fusion of many different styles of electronic music. As for the hip hop aspect, it often incorporates the heavy drum beats and breakdowns, turntable scratching, and frequently rapped vocals of early hip-hop albums. Throw in some jazz and soul influence, and believe it or not – you’ve got yourself an artistic movement. The genre got its name from the supposed near ‘trip’ it induced in its listeners.
Bristol collective Massive Attack were the central pioneers of the movement. 1991’s Blue Lines (which turned 25 on Friday) was not only musically ground-breaking, but helped bring some attention to the burgeoning genre. Generally thought of as the first trip-hop album, Blue Lines was a perfect fusion of electronica and hip-hop, with some soul and rock touches thrown in for good measure. Yet despite the fact that Blue Lines was a masterpiece and a musical game-changer, the trip hop endeavours and artists that followed did not simply follow Blue Lines’ blueprint. Björk’s debut, released in 1993, embraced many of the trip-hop stylings gaining popularity in the UK at the time, perhaps as a result of her relationship with UK trip-hop artist Tricky, whilst retaining a wonderfully eclectic and unique style. Elsewhere, the term trip-hop was first coined to describe the 1993 single In/Flux by DJ Shadow, who would soon be one of trip hop’s key figures.
In 1994, Portishead released Dummy, which brought trip-hop fully to the UK’s mainstream attention and ultimately popularised the style. The band built on Massive Attack’s foundations with their neo-noir, dark cabaret style and mournful lyricism. Dummy not only won a Mercury Prize and garnered enormous critical acclaim, but peaked at number two on the UK Album Chart, and has since been certified double platinum. The fact that Massive Attack had already pioneered the genre didn’t stop Dummy from being one of the most innovative and ingenious albums of the 1990s, and one of the most commercially successful trip-hop albums of all time. Tricky’s 1995 debut Maxinquaye brought trip-hop even more exposure. Tricky’s challenging and abstract style, which grew in complexity and obfuscation with each release (perhaps that’s where he got his name), made him somewhat less popular than his contemporaries, but brought him a large cult following nonetheless.
Trip-hop as a mainstream genre had dwindled by the late 1990s, but that didn’t stop it from having a wide reach over the next decade and beyond. In 2000, Norwegian avant-garde collective Ulver released Perdition City, which wore its trip-hop influence on its sleeve, whilst Gorillaz’ 2001 debut owed much of its more experimental leanings to its trip-hop influence. Other notable artists to dabble in the style include Blur, Radiohead, London Grammar and Nine Inch Nails. Even today, trip-hop is alive and well, thanks to some serious innovators. The first of these is London-based singer FKA Twigs, who has attracted immense critical appraise, and who retains a captivating style steeped in trip-hop and embellished by alternative R&B and pop music. Another great example (albeit one completely different in style) is James Kent. Kent (under the name L’Enfant De La Forêt) released ABRAXAS in 2015 – an album of crushingly dark trip-hop, taking influence from black metal, industrial and folk music, ushering the genre into even more avant-garde terrain.
The fact that different artists under the same stylistic umbrella can sound so very unique is incredible. Check out the tracks below and acquaint yourself with a genre you may not have known existed and just might love.
Recommended Listening: DJ Shadow – In/Flux Massive Attack – Teardrop London Grammar – Sights Ulver – Porn Piece Or The Scars Of Cold Kisses Tricky – Hell Is Round The Corner Gorillaz – Tomorrow Comes Today FKA Twigs – Pendulum UNKLE – Be There Portishead – Glory Box