Personally, I always thought the term was just fine. Not only does 'trip hop' sound good, but it instantly evokes what it describes: a spacey, down-tempo form of hip hop that's mostly abstract and all-instrumental. Coined by Mixmag's Andy Pemberton (although others have claimed parentage), trip hop is a handy tag for a style that emerged in the early nineties (hip hop without the rap and without the rage, basically) and that, while not exclusively UK based, nonetheless remains almost totally out-of-step with current American rap, where rhymin' skills and charismatic personalities rule.
Designed for headphone-listening as opposed to parties, reverie rather than revelry, trip hop retains the musical essence of hip hop - breakbeat-based rhythms, looped samples, turntable-manipulation effects like scratching - but takes the studio wizardry of pioneering African-American producers like Hank Shocklee and Prince Paul even further. When not entirely instrumental, trip hop is as likely to feature singing as rapping. Widely regarded as the genre's inventors, Massive Attack deployed an array of divas both female (Shara Nelson, Tracey Thorn. Nicolette) and male (roots reggae legend Horace Andy) alongside rappers 3D and Tricky. The latter's solo work mixes singing and rapping, with Tricky often providing bleary 'backing raps' to his partner Martina's dulcet lead vocal. Generally, when trip-hoppers do rap, their style is contemplative, low-key and low-in-the-mix.
Opponents of the 'trip hop' concept often argue that it's nothing new, citing precedents for abstract impressionist hip hop like the early collage-tracks of Steinski & Mass Media and The 45 King, the sampladelic fantasia of Mantronix, cinematic soundscapes like Erik B and Rakim's "Follow The Leader', obscure one-offs like Red Alert's 'Hip Hop On Wax' or 'We Come To Dub' by the Imperial Brothers. True enough, but the fact remains that, with the twin rise in the late eighties of 'conscious' rap (Public Enemy, KRS1) and gangsta rap (NWA, Scarface, Dr Dre), the verbal, storytelling side of hip hop gradually came to dominate at the expense of aural atmospherics. Just as this was happening Stateside, the idea of instrumental hip hop was flourishing in Britain (perhaps because of the difficulties involved in rapping convincingly in an English accent). Some of these early collage- based 'DJ records' - M/A/R/R/S's 'Pump Up The Volume', Coldcuts 'Beats and Pieces', Bomb The Bass' 'Beat Dis' - were sufficiently uptempo to get swept up into the burgeoning house scene. But others, by the likes of Renegade Soundwave, Meat Beat Manifesto and Depth Charge, jumbled up elements of hip hop, dub reggae and film soundtracks to create a distinctly UK sound; a moody downtempo funk, high on atmospherics, low on attitude, and a precursor to today's trip hop.
In America, hip hop and rave culture are utterly separate and estranged subcultures. But in Britain, trip hop can be considered an adjunct to rave culture, just another option on the smorgasbord of sounds available to 'the chemical generation1. Like rave music, trip hop is based around samples and loops; like techno, it's the soundtrack to recreational drug use. In trip hop's case, that drug is marijuana rather than Ecstasy. Funky Porcini's James Bradell went so far as to define trip hop as 'the mixture between computers and dope'.
Living in my Headphones
Hip hop's influence in the
UK blossomed in the form of jungle and trip hop, distinctly British mutants
that Black Americans barely recognize as relatives of rap. Where hyperkinetic
jungle is all about the tension and paranoia of London, trip hop's mellow motherlode
is Bristol. Laidback verging on supine, Bristol is Slackersville UK, a town
where cheap accommodation allows bohemia to ferment; members of Portishead describe
it as a place where 'people take a while to get out of bed' and 'get comatosed'
of an evening. Because of its history as a port in the slave trade, Bristol
has a large, long-established black population. Combined with a strong student
and bohemia presence, this has made the town a fertile environment for genre-blending
musical activity. All these factors fostered a distinctive Bristol sound, a
languid, lugubrious hybrid of soul, reggae, jazz-fusion and hip hop.
The story begins with The Wild Bunch, a mid-eighties sound-system/DJ collective renowned for its eclecticism. Members included Nellee Hooper (who later brought a Bristol-ian jazzy fluency to his production work for Soul II Soul, Neneh Cherry and Bjork) and Daddy G and Mushroom, who went on to form Massive Attack with rapper 3D. Tricky contributed raps to both Massive albums, while Portishead's soundscape-creator Geoff Barrow assisted with the programming on Massive's 1991 debut Blue Lines.
Blue Lines was a landmark in British club culture, a dance music equivalent to Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, marking a shift towards a more interior, meditational sound. The songs on Blue Lines run at 'spliff' tempos - from a mellow, moonwalking 90 b.p.m. (exactly midway between reggae and hip hop) down to a positively torpid 67 b.p.m. Massive Attack make music you nod your head to, rather than dance. 'Right from the start, we never made music in line with the tempos that were required in clubs,' Daddy G told me in 1994. 'Our music's more like something to ... eat your food to, y'know. It's made for after clubs, when you want to chill out, learn how to breathe again.'
Distancing themselves from the party-minded functionalism of dance culture, Massive Attack cited instead conceptualist, album-oriented artists bands across the spectrum, from progressive rock (Pink Floyd) to post-punk experimentalism (Public Image Limited), from fusion (Herbie Hancock) to symphonic soul (Isaac Hayes). Hayes's influence came through on string-laden, mournful epics like 'Safe From Harm' and 'Unfinished Sympathy', both of which were hit singles in Britain. But Massive Attack's real originality lay in more tranquil tracks like 'One Love', with its mesmerizing clockwork rhythm and jazzy, electric piano pulsations. On 'Daydreaming', 3D and Tricky drift on a stream of consciousness, quoting from Fiddler On Roof and The Beatles and floating 'like helium' above the hyperactive 'trouble and strife' of everyday life. Expounding a Zen-like philosophy of sublime passivity and disengagement from the 'real', they rap of 'living in my headphones'.
Victims of 'Bristol time', Massive Attack took three years to record the sequel to Blue Lines. The title track of Protection and the album's downtempo despondency reiterated the basic Massive Attack anti-stance: the longing for refuge and sanctuary from external chaos, music as healing force and balm for the troubled soul. But in 1994, Massive were dramatically upstaged and outshone by two of their proteges, whose different takes on Bristol's 'hip hop blues' were more eerie and experimental (Tricky, about whom more later) and more seductively sepulchral (Portishead).
Throughout Portishead's debut Dummy, singer Both Gibbons sounds like she's buried alive in the blues. Dummy is like eavesdropping on the cold-turkey torment of a love-junkie; her lyrics are riddled with imagery of bereavement, betrayal and disenchantment. 'Biscuit' is at once the album's aesthetic highpoint and emotional abyss. Through one of Geoff Barrow's dankest, most lugubrious palls of hip hop noir, Gibbons intones a litany of lyric-fragments, disconnected shards of anguish. 'I'm scared / got hurt a long time ago ... at last, relief / a mother's son has left me sheer.' Compounding the faltering, fragmen- tary quality of this abandoned lover's discourse, 'Biscuits' pivots around a lurching stuck-needle sample of Johnny Ray singing 'never fall in love again', which runs at a grotesquely lachrymose 16 r.p.m., so that it sounds like the Nabob of Sob is literally drowning in tears.
Throughout Dummy, Barrow
expertly frames Gibbons' torched-songs with sombre soundscapes whose jaundiced
desolation is steeped in the influence of film noir and sixties spy-movies.
'I like soundtrack music, 'cos of the kind of sounds they use to create suspense,'
he says. 'Modern soundtracks, they're too digital and synthesizer-based, whereas
the stuff I like involves orchestras and acoustic instruments.' Perhaps in an
attempt to ward off the cliche applied to their kind of impressionistic, evocative
music - 'a soundtrack to a non-existent movie' - Portishead went ahead and made
an, er, existent film to accompany the single 'Sour Times'. Entitled To Kill
A Dead Man, the ten minute short aspires to a Cold War feel, in homage to seedy
espionage movies like The Ipcress File (starring Michael Caine). The thing about
that particular cinematic genre which fits Portishead's bleaker-than-thou mood
is that there's never a happy ending.
Can't Get No Satisfaction
'Ponderosa' and other Maxinquaye songs like 'Strugglin" are based on real depression, says Tricky, 'but not through something terrible happening to you, which is what most people think causes depression. It's easy to get a depression, if you don't have a job, don't have a passion, don't exercise your brain. After working on Blue Lines I was getting a wage into a bank but not actually working. Massive were paying me, so I had money, and that was the worst thing, 'cause it enabled me to have weed and drink. All I did was smoke and drink, hang around in town, kill time in bars. And go to clubs, from Wednesday to Sunday.' This two year weekender-bender nearly drove Tricky round the bend. After the party, utterly wasted, he'd contem- plate the waste of his life. until, in his weed-distorted paranoia, all that killed time would assume the grotesque shape of a spectre. He'd see demons in his sitting room. Out of this wasteland eventually emerged a dark magus, a sonic wizard conjuring up the paranoiascapes of Maxinquaye.
As with the East Coast horrorcore rappers, Tricky's blunted anxiety detaches itself from the particular and swells into cosmic, millenarian dread. Hence 'Hell Is Round The Corner', where the looped lustiness of an Isaac Hayes orchestral arrangement is hollowed out by a vocal sample slowed to a languishing 16 r.p.m. basso-profundissimo, impossibly black-and-blue. And hence 'Aftermath', which trumps the morbid vision of the Gravediggaz with what Tricky described as an attempt to see through the eyes of the dead. Pivoting around a pained flicker of wah-wah guitar and a wraith-like flute, Tricky's post-apocalyptic panorama harks back to the orphaned drift of The Temptations' 'Papa Was A Rolling Stone'.
Although there's nothing literally dub-wize on the record - no heavy echo or reggae basslines - it's clear that the influence of dub permeates Maxinquaye. The way Tricky works - fucking around with sounds on the sampler until his sources are ghosts of their former selves; composing music and words spontaneously in the studio; mixing tracks live as they're recorded; retaining the glitches and inspired errors, the hiss and crackle - is strikingly akin to early seventies dubmeisters like King Tubby. And of course there's also the fact that Tricky breathes sensimilla fumes like they're oxygen.
When it comes to the organization of sound, Tricky's only rivals are artcore junglists like Dillinja. More than the shared roots in hip hop and dub sound-system culture. Tricky and the junglists share a mood, a worldview even. There's a palpable aura of the demonic pervading both Maxinquaye and darkest drum and bass tracks like Dillinja's' Warrior' and 'The Angels Fell': a clammy -palmed apprehension that we're living through Armagideon Time, Babylon's last days.