Bristol, England, Mid Eightees. A huge caribbean community populates the streets of the city. This neighborhood took to the UK a widespread phenomenon born in Jamaica in the fifties and slowly spreading around the world: the Sound System. Groups of party people gather around dj sets in some places to mash up the caribbean sounds with the emergent styles of english music. Reggae and Tribal meet Punk and House.
It’s in S. Paul, one suburb of Bristol, that one of the most interesting and prolific Sound System rises up. They call it the Wild Bunch and it’s made up of Robert Del Naja, Grant Marshall, Andrew Vowles, Tricky, Nellee Hooper, Miles Johnson, Claude Williams. It’s a bit different from the others as this SS not only blends different genres; it also has some kind of a peculiar trademark in its down tempo and mysterious atmospheres.
After five years of constant collaboration as it may sometimes happens, everyone make his own way. Four of these guys will keep collaborating, still nurturing the peculiar sound of the Wild Bunch. Andy Vowles, Grant Marshall and Robert Del Naja release Blue Lines in 1991 with the collaboration of Tricky: Massive Attack are born. A new genre starts to shine in the underground of England, they call it Trip Hop, a blending of hip hop, dub, electronica, house, downtempo rhythms and much more.
Songs as “Daydreaming” and, most of all, “Unfinished Sympathy” became a Manifesto of this new music. Massive Attack’s story is pretty well known: books, blog’s articles and documentaries spoke about the evolution of this band that is considered the long lived and constant witness of Trip Hop. Passing through unique collaborations with voices as Horace Andy, Shara Nelson, Sinead O’Connor and many others, releasing a masterpiece album (Mezzanine) twenty years ago that completely changed the panorama of music, it would probably need an entire article to describe the story of this trio (now a duo).
Collaborating with Vowles, Del Naja, Marshall and Tricky since 1991, another young guy from a small town next to Bristol called Portishead, will become a father of this new genre. His name is Geoff Barrow. As he will meet with the young, delicious voice of Beth Gibbons, another milestone of trip hop will be born in 1994. It’s called Dummy and it’s another fundamental album to approach this style. Less constant and definitely less prolific than MA, Portishead will only release three albums in over 20 years, but nonetheless they are considered nowadays parents of the genre as much as Massive Attack and Tricky.
The nineties have been deeply marked by these underground witnesses. Movies scores of those years were studded with TH tracks: The Jackal main theme is “Superpredator” by MA, Sneaker Pimp‘s “6 Underground” appears in The Saint OST, not everybody recognized that “Dissolved Girl” by MA plays in the headphones of Keanu Reeves at the beginning of The Matrix, Portishead’s “Roads”, “Numb” and “Strangers” depict the musical panorama of many tv spots, Dj Krush‘s “Dig This Vibe” inspires a chilling scene from Blade. A plethora of musicians have been fascinated by Trip Hop and have tried to reply the same atmospheres, sounds and rhythms: just consider Madonna‘s track “Frozen” from Ray of Light, Bjork‘s first releases, or even Drum’n’Bass Bristol artist Roni Size, who will be deeply influenced. Norwegian rock band Ulver auto-shocked its own sonority after the spreading of TH.
As it very frequently happens, reviewers have started labeling as Trip Hop a lot of releases, albums, bands. It was easy as it was not a musical genre delimited by specific borders: Massive Attack themselves started back with a deep reggae influence and hip hop lyrics, then they stumbled in the massive change of Mezzanine, introducing a deeper electronic trend, making massive use of guitars, something that Tricky probably did even before them (Is at this very point that Vowles will leave the band and he did it precisely because of this profound change in the artistic choices of Del Naja and Marshall). Portishead have never released a song with hip hop like lyrics, they’ve always been much more intrigued by the sampling of lo fi, old, jazzy and orchestral sounds in the making of their tracks (In this way we may say Dummy is probably even more breakthrough then Mezzanine itself for years in which it was released). Moreover is pretty clear that Gibbon’s struggling voice is a distinctive sign of the band.
It’s a huge waste of time trying to compare the fathers and mothers of Trip Hop, as it is impossible to find a defined pattern to identify it. The only anchor is probably the atmosphere that sorrounds a Trip Hop track or album. That’s why sometimes it makes a little more sense talking about a scenario rather than talking about a category, probably.
If we want to be very strict, we could say the only real Trip Hop artists are Portishead, Massive Attack and Tricky: all born in Bristol, all involved in the definition of the first albums at the beginning of the 90s, all connected, way or another, to the Sound System culture. But the truth is that their work nurtured the mind and souls of guys like Dj Shadow, Dj Krush, Bonobo, Hooverphonic, Morcheeba, Kruder and Dorfmeister, Herbaliser, Thievery Corporation, Nightmares on Wax, Howie B, The Cinematic Orchestra and who knows how many other important names I’m forgetting at the moment while I write this article.
The first three of this list started back in the nineties releasing instrumental albums which sometimes are quoted in the field of Trip Hop (especially Entroducing by DJ Shadow), but some other reviewers say their music is, instead, closer to turntablism. Hooverphonic and Morcheeba are those who deserve the merit to have brought the influence of Trip Hop to the Pop mainstream audience. Especially Morcheeba, starting from a very trippy sound in the first couple of albums (Big Calm is sometimes considered another must in the field), then left slowly this style to become more and more poppy. Skye Edwards once stated, after the release of their third album, that Morcheeba couldn’t be defined Trip Hop any more, as their music was too happy to be that dark. Kruder and Dorfmeister have never been defined as trip hop, but their lauded K&D Sessions got huge influences from this musical stream. The same could be said for Nightmares on Wax’s Carboot soul or Smoker’s Delight.
Moreover, it would be a great mistake to forget Lamb and Sneaker Pimps whose first albums are frequently labeled as Trip Hop.
Even if their sounds is sometimes closer to electronic, drum’n’bass, pop or rock, not considering them in the definition of the Trip Hop stream could be a great loss.
Eventually, some record labels, like Ninja Tune or Tru Thoughts, became promoters of the Trip Hop word as well.
As we don’t care being too critic and too precise in identifying the borders of this genre, we will try to recount in a short series, how Trip Hop influenced in recent years artists which we may not say are TH representatives, but in some way they are sons of it. We want to give some tips and recommendations for all the lovers of this genre, trying to introduce and talk about those who fell in the trap, captured and fascinated by the lowest common denominator of this sound: dark and mysterious atmospheres, slow and sensual armonies.
Let’s try to find what happened in the post trip hop era; let’s have a trip in the hop.