Andy Pemberton’s Mixmag article from June 1994 highlights an important turning point in the history of dance music. ‘Trip hop’, the genre whose emergence it pinpoints, is rarely spoken of today, because the musical ideas it brought into play were so momentous they quickly became just part of the furniture. The notion of hip hop without lyrics was a green light to producers worldwide to crack on without worrying about finding a convincing rapper – handy in the UK where we’d tired of bad imitations of the Bronx.
Producers of all styles were suddenly free to bring hip hop-style drum loops into their work. The result would be the ‘big beat’ explosion, which raised Fatboy Slim and the Chemical brothers to fame (here introduced under their earlier name of the Dust Brothers). Though not mentioned here, Bristol also figured large in the sound, as Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky and Nellee Hooper had already laid important trip hop foundations. Key, also, was Coldcut’s Ninjatune label.
IT'S INSANE, SCARY, TRIPPY, VERY DOPE AND THE MOST EXCITING THING TO HAPPEN TO HIP HOP FOR YEARS. DR DRE ON MAGIC MUSHROOMS? SVEN VATH DOING JEEP BEATS? YOU'RE GETTING THERE. ANDY PEMBERTON DIGS THE NEW BREED.
“It’s so fucking excellent at the moment,” enthuses Mark, that guru of all things techno from Happy Daze Records on the Isle Of Wight. “That stuff is just wicked. La Funk Mob, RPM, it’s excellent.”
He’s not talking about the latest ‘Technoid Implosions Volume 12’ LP, or the new ‘Die Pantaloons Trancenfurher’ 10 inch cyberdisc. He’s talking about a new kind of hip hop record.
It would be unheard of for technoboffs to enthuse about hip hop just six months ago. The beats were far too slow, and the rhymes just got in the way for dancefloor fun or bedroom appreciation. Hip hop was out there on its own, a whole culture and musical genre best left to low riding Americans obsessed with guns and girls with big bottoms. But now all that is changing. London’s bastion of techno Fat Cat Records is selling these new hip hop records like hot cross buns, sussed trance and techno-heads like Mark Daze and Andy Weatherall are sitting up and paying attention, and house producers like Slo Moshun, whose ‘Bells Of New York’ slowed right down to a hip hop break, are realising there’s more to life than four to the floor beat fascism.
Cut to Friday night at the London citadel of trance, Sabresonic and Bob Jones, erstwhile soul and jazz dude DJ, is on the decks. That in itself is surprising enough, but he’s playing some weird music. Slow and crunching hip hop beats, no vocals, just strange swirling noises over the top. The Sonic faithful look utterly confused. It’s like taking acid at a hip hop gig. Weird.
This is trip hop, a deft fusion of head-nodding beats, supa-phat bass and an obsessive attention to the kind of other-wordly sounds usually found on acid house records. It comes from the suburbs, not the streets, and with no vocals you don’t need to be American to make it sound convincing. All you need are crazy beats and fucked up sounds and you’ve got the most exciting thing to happen to hip hop in a long time. Right now there are bedroom homeboys making innovative, tripped out hip hop that is nothing like the US blueprint of slamming beats and cunning rhymes. And it all started with one strange record.
‘IN Flux’ was first heard late last year, released on the left of field and jazzy Mo’ Wax label. A 12 minute epic, ‘In Flux’ feels like an intelligent techno or ambient record. It’s got the mixed up bpms, snatches of spoken word samples, the epic strings and tinkling melody lines, plus some bizarre sounds floating in and out of the mix - all designed to give your cerebellum a run for its money.
But there’s no doubting its full-bloodied hip hop credentials - the slow (and I mean slow) dope beats and the wigged out scratching make sure of that. It’s hip hop in a flotation tank, possessing a mystical vibe that after just one listen tells you it’s time to open the box marked ‘groundbreaking’. It’s a goddamned musical trip.
”I don’t take acid,” states DJ Shadow, as clearly as he can after 30 hours in the studio and no sleep. ”When I was working on ‘In Flux’ people told me the music took you somewhere that may be similar. It’s the track I’d always wanted to do, not heeding any unwritten laws of hip hop. “
Instead the 21 year old Californian just laid down some beats he liked and then used the sampler as an unlimited instrument, putting down melodies, inventing noises and throwing in snippets of spoken words whenever he felt like it.
“The beat has to carry it,” explains Shadow, “I rarely have a musical loop in mind. When I go into a studio to do tracks my emotions carry me.”
The result is hip hop untouched by the vagaries of West Coast rap fashion. It bears no resemblance to Dre, Snoop or any of that mob. Neither does it resemble the jazzy side of things expounded by the Japanese backward-cap boys across the Pacific. How did Shadow escape the influence of his peers? Easy. He didn’t have any.
Brought up in Davis, California, a small college town of about 40,000 inhabitants and almost none of them into hip hop, Shadow had one close friend in the 7th grade who shared his love of rap. There were no block parties for Shadow to DJ at, so crowd pleasing was never going to be high on his list of Things To Do Today. Working in classic bedroom boffin stylee, Shadow reckons his splendid isolation was a blessing in a beany.
“I think one reason I could develop my own thing was because I was without any competition,” he says simply.
After messing around with four track tapes for years, it was only when the first hip hop boom dropped off that an 18 year old Shadow felt he had something to offer and decided to to step into the hip hop fray. He remixed Zimbabwe Legit’s ‘Doin’ Damage’, a mix which came to the ears of Mo’ Wax supremo and youthful jazz Don Juan James Lavelle.
“It changed my attitude,” says Lavelle. “Jazz lacked the power of beats. Shadow had that.”
Lavelle persuaded Shadow, who was only dimly aware of Acid Jazz and house music, to do the damage for his label and hey presto, the distilled bizarritude of ‘In Flux’. Now artists like Paris’s La Funk Mob and RPM are turning Mo’ Wax into one of the most progressive, on it labels in Britain. At Fat Cat Records - London’s One Stop Techno Centre - the stuff’s getting snaffled up like nobody’s business.
“That Mo’ Wax stuff is very, very popular “ says Andy at Fat Cat. “ It’s a very open minded label.”
Listen to the ‘Parisian Funk Technicians’ by Le Funk Mob on the ‘Tribulations Extra Sensorielles’ EP and it’s not hard to understand the popularity. For the first time funk services your feet and your head with bumpy, chunky beats and trippy effects dancing happily over the top. Or check RPM on their new single ‘2000’. An intro drifts on the ambient tide before being turned over by waves of chunky beats and weirdo effects that include morse code, Hammond organ snatches, Cape Canavaral radio messages and God knows what else. There’s a new obsession with original sounds previously unheard of in rhyme-centred hip hop, and usually found in the twin towers of techno and house.
“We are very inspired by sound,” confirms Stef who with Jo 2000 and Adjay makes up Brighton’s RPM. ”It can be anything, but rather than drift off into ambient we are very much into beats.”
Mark from Happy Daze agrees “It’s as experimental as house stuff and techno stuff. We can sell it alongside our techno stuff.”
Move away from the core of trip hop and you find a host of British artists influenced or encouraged by its rise. Take the Dust Brothers, currently one of the most exciting production teams in the UK. With the rough house, sonic bully boy tactics displayed on ‘Chemical Beats’ or the darkly smooth menace and beauty of their remix of St Etienne’s ‘Like A Motorway’ and you can hear all the trippy weirdness of trance combined with the galloping excitement of hip hop beats. The Brothers are quick to give props to Shadow.
“I really like DJ Shadow,” enthuses Dust Brother Tom. “It’s a really weird way of approaching hip hop. I like records that make you feel like you’re on drugs but you’re not.”
Just like Shadow they are two children of the suburbs (Tom is from Henley-On-Thames and partner Ed from the London suburb of Dulwich), both are fans of early hip hop, and they too work in isolation from the rest of the British straight-up hip hop community. Like all pioneers the Dust Brothers are inspired by two different musical forms - acid house and hip hop, fused for maximum head and feet satisfaction.
Then there’s that bloke Weatherall. Blending of musical styles has never been lost on Andy Weatherall and his Sabres Of Paradise’s excellent ‘Theme’ single utilised skidding beats and speeding guitar and horn effects for a massive pile-up of coolness. And there’s more - the bizarre Austrian Simon and Garfunkel lookalikes Kruder And Dorfmeister and their multi-tempoed ’G-stone’ EP, or the exotic sounding Fila Brazillia who are actually two house bods from Hull.
Trip hop heralds the first time hip hop from anywhere other than the United States has enjoyed any real credibility. With the exception of Brit hop producer Underdog, British hip hop in particular has usually sounded hollow and flat, content to model itself on its far superior US counterparts. As Tom Dust Brother puts it:
“British hip hop, it’s not very British is it? It’s very difficult to find someone who can rap convincingly in the UK. ”
Mo’ Wax’s James Lavelle agrees.
“British hip hop lacks the lyrical skills of US counterparts, but British kids have got the musical side, ” he says. “They know about records. That’s the step forward. Now they can do their own style, they don’t have to copy anything.”
By getting rid of all the vocals, and replacing them with some abstract trippery, trip hop from all over the world has found its own voice.
The last word goes to Stef from RPM.
“We’re not about what comes out of America, we reflect how we do things, our own way. You’re limiting yourself working with vocals. We don’t have a rapper. We create sounds - it’s our voice. ”
– Andy Pemberton
TRIP HOP TEN FROM OUR SHOP