Trip Hop (Still) Don't Stop (Melody Maker 23rd December 1995)
NOBODY would admit to it of course. Nobody was going to put their hands up and confess to makiog trip hop, but at times it seemed that no one was doing anything else. Trip hop may not have been the biggest trend of the year, but it was certainly the hippest.
The Maker ran its trip hop special in January featuring what were then the three most recognised practitioners. PORTISHEAD had just topped our critics album poll, and "Glory Box" was about to make the run at the charts that would propel "Dummy" into orbit. "Dummy" was to become 1995's "Debut", an LP from the left field that crossed over to the high street. You can always tell a dance-based album's broad potential by the clothes shops it gets played in. By the summer, "Dummy" was everywhere from up-market boutiques to tiny designer streetwear emporia to chain stores.
MASSIVE ATTACK were old hands by comparison having all but invented the genre with 1991's "Blue Lines" LP, which had recently been succeeded by the moulden-ng !nsistence of "Protection". They were already chart regulars. And if "Protection" and "Dummy' didn t prove that Bristol was currently the centre of the universe, associate Massive member TRICKY (above) was releasing his third solo single, and those fortunate enough to own advance tapes of his debut album, "Maxinquaye", had played them ragged over the previous weeks, proclaiming it the most extraordinary experience to have engulfed their ears in living memory.
Anyone with their ecirs cocked knew Tricky was on his way; the previous year he had put out two singles,"Aftermath", an exquisitely bleak hip hop blues, and "Ponderosa", which was so jarringly odd that you had to persuade yourself you had heard it rather than dreamt it following a late-night pizza. Typically and brilliantly contrary, the new single, "Black Steel", was to prove a near- unrecognisable metallic-rush cover of a Public Enemy track. If Portishead and Massive Attack were the drivers in trip hop's pop vanguard, then Tricky was clinging to the suspension, a cutlass gripped between his teeth.
Once we figured out what trip hop was, we realised it had been with us for longer than we knew. Take NEW
KINGDOM, whose "Heavy Load" album had been a guttural, spaced-out precursor to the coming wave. Then there was the almost unendurably hip MO'WAX label. It was a constant problem with trip hop that by expressing a passion for the music you might find yourself lumped in among the most appalling wankers and poseurs in or indeed outside of Christendom. Mo'Wax provided a good litmus test; roughly a third of its output dazzled the senses and restrung the soul like an old tennis racket. Much of the rest sounded as if it should be filling vacancies on Acid Jazz B-sides. Anyone who couldn't tell the difference could be safely fitted with a turtleneck and high-top sneakers and banished to The Jazz Cafe for the balance of their natural lives. What was good on Mo'Wax? DJ SHADOW, for a start, a middle and an end. if Mo'Wax had been devoted solely to the works of DJ Shadow, the occasion of its founding should still have been declared a public holiday. Shadow had treated hip hop like origami, had folded it into six - dimensional shapes. Like Elizabeth Taylor in full bloom or the bumblebee in flight, "In/Flux" and "Lost & Found" could not possibly, scientifically exist, but did anyway. In 1995, Shadow topped them both with March's "What Does Your Soul Look Like", a 40-minute "single" which somehow failed to re-order the universe as we know it, but which may be operating on time delay. There was yet more to Mo'Wax, such as the Californian BLACKALICIUOUS, who in May came here to support their marvellous "Melodica" LP and proceeded to play almost none of it. And, to prove that trip hop is a truly international movement, Japan's DJ KRUSH turned out to have been making something of the kind for years. His work with jazz guitarist Ronnie Jordan ought to have been melted down to make coffee tables, but his Mo'Wax output was a different story.
As the year progressed, trip hop collections and compilations flung themselves upon record shop shelves like old-fashioned Hindu widows at a mass suttee. As "ambient dub" had been to previous years, a cottage-industry marketing catch-all, so "trip hop" was to 1995. The difference: the music was by its very nature more strongly defined, producing whole albums by individuals or bands which stood apart from the Various Artists grab-bag. WAGON CHRIST released the ambitious and fluid "Throbbing Pouch" LP. The estimable NINJA TUNE label justified itself by gwing us both DJ FOOD and FUNKY PORCINI. HOWIE B, when not busy being SKYLAB, became as quietly ubiquitous as Tricky was conspicuously so. Both found their way onto the new BJORK album.
In fairness, May's "Post" was not a trip hop album by any stretch of the imagination, but it shared with the premier trip hoppers a taste for the re-knotting of idioms that must have greatly appealed to them. That Björk herself greatly appealed to Tricky was to be revealed later in the year, via a musically royal romance. Like Björk before him, Tricky, through no fault of his own, was now the token "arty" name to be dropped by those whose interest in the stranger end of pop would usually have stopped somewhere around - well, Portishead, this year.
Portishead themselves had swiftly become the kind of act whose records are bought bypeople who don't usually buy records. But then this was the year that Maker favourites not only infiltrated this market, but almost dominated it. And if "Dummy" gets played in such households in preference to the Annie Lennox album, that can only be a good thing.
The fact that Tricky is black enabled old-school white indie and rock fans to kill two birds with one stone. Not only did "Maxinquaye" allow them to demonstrate their openness to "weird" music, it also enabled them to defensively announce, without being asked, that, yes, they did listen to "black" artists. The fact that Tricky is just as strongly influenced by metal and Tom Waits' later albums as by any rap or soul act you could mention is by-the-by. Again, the more people who heard "Maxinquaye", the better; it's simply ironic that such an innovative album should provide moral earplugs to ward off further innovation.
By the end of the year, trip hop and the year's other celebrated genre, jungle, were edging towards each other. The lafter's figurehead, Goldie, was publicly proclaiming Tricky to behis collaborative destiny. In fact, the two strands had already met in the form of MORE ROCKERS, an outfit from - but of course - Bristol, where the streets are paved with ingenuity. But while jungle had originated in the capital years before and spread out into a massive underground movement before reaching the music press, trip hop had been nurtured in print from the very start, giving it a distinct lack of cachet among those to whom journalism is one step down from the leprosy virus.
Between them, trip hop and jungle have provided the British musical milestones of the last year. Britpop ransacked the past. Romo is even now offering us the paradoxical but giddy experience of seeing the aged futurist and aesthetic manifestos of, respectively, Marinetti and Wilde disinterred and sent careering into battle, propped upright in the saddle like El Cid. But it is trip hop that has helped place British music at the forefront of true modernism.
And, perhaps more pertinently, it has produced a handful of improbably records.