The 20th anniversary of Britpop has been exercising the nation recently, but there was another UK scene emerging around the same time that we believe should be celebrated. A lot of the artists hated the name, but the music press called it Trip Hop…
By 1995, Britpop was firmly established, with likes of Oasis, Blur and Pulp becoming household names. They shifted albums by the shedload and played to huge crowds at iconic live shows. In the process, they gave UK guitar music the leg up it needed to gatecrash the mainstream permanently.
But Britpop wasn’t the only significant musical movement making waves some 20 years ago. There was another, altogether darker pop stalking the land. It came from Bristol, a vibrant, idiosyncratic and fiercely independent community with a potent culture and history of its very own, and they called it trip hop. Actually, the music press called it that – its first use being by Mixmag writer Andy Pemberton in 1994 – and while it wasn’t a popular tag with its proponents, the label stuck.
“Trip hop is a mash-up of so many different things,” asserts long-term Massive Attack producer Neil Davidge. “Punk, funk, soul, hip hop, blues, folk, dub, acid house, psychedelia, film scores, TV themes…”
It was this eclecticism, accompanied by an energetic determination rooted in the experimental ethos of post-punk and fuelled by the passions of its aspiring musicians, artists, DJs and producers, that created some of the most celebrated and innovative popular music of the last 50 years. While Britpop’s anthems were often concerned with hedonism, snapshots of British culture and tributes to the rock sub-cultures of yesteryear, the music coming out of Bristol regularly addressed the concerns, ambitions and perspectives of its often marginalised and neglected lower classes and ethnic communities.
As legendary Jamaican musician Horace Andy sang on Massive Attack’s ‘Hymn Of The Big Wheel’, “The world spins on its axis / One man struggles while another relaxes”.
A s with most cultural movements, the initial development of the Bristol sound was the result of a series of chance encounters and meetings rather than any conscious design. The city’s relatively small size meant that like-minded people tended to visit the same places.
“Everything is close by in Bristol, with all these rich cultures and personalities in very close proximity to each other,” explains Neil Davidge.
If there was a single starting point, it was probably when Milo Johnson and Nellee Hooper, the co-founders of the legendary Wild Bunch sound system, met in 1983. It was at a gig with Magazine and Bauhaus on the bill – a post-punk dream ticket if ever there was one. The pair subsequently became firm friends and hatched a plan to nurture their musical ambitions by organising house parties and club nights. After a few months, they were joined by Grant Marshall, aka Daddy G, who had access to records that few people had heard before though his job at Bristol’s Revolver Records, and he equipped the trio with an arsenal of sounds that swiftly made The Wild Bunch the stuff of legend.
“We all had friends from different walks of life,” says Milo Johnson. “We all liked similar music in general, as eclectic as that was. I know my West Indian influence had a major influence on how I listened to music personally, whether that was punk, new wave, funk, soul, disco, hip hop, whatever.”
In the early 1980s, music was characterised by a huge array of sub-cultures, be it punks, skinheads, new romantics, goths or metal kids, and that strictly dictated the music its clansmen liked. The Wild Bunch set about appropriating a range of influences to create something new, inclusive and forward-looking. It was a philosophy that informed the Bristol sound and the city’s artists embraced that ethos when they began to make music.
W ith the reputation of ‘Blue Lines’ continuing to grow and to delight swathes of new listeners, Massive Attack began work on their follow-up album, 1994’s ‘Protection’. Several other Wild Bunch and Massive Attack associates meanwhile started crafting their own unique interpretations of the Bristol sound. Principal among these were Geoff Barrow, who had worked as a tape operator on ‘Blue Lines’, and Tricky, whose husky, poetic raps had added another rhythmic dimension to the album.
Arguably, 1995 was the year that the Bristol sound achieved its imperial phase with a number of key releases. Chief among these was ‘Dummy’, the debut album from Portishead, a group who started out as a collaboration between Geoff Barrow and Beth Gibbons until co-producer Adrian Utley became a full time member. ‘Dummy’ represented another sonic milestone and appeared at the end of 1994 to unanimous critical acclaim. It shared some similarities with ‘Blue Lines’ in terms of atmospheres, multiple textures, a post-punk attitude and lots of low end bass, but it was more removed from conventional pop music structures, with a sweeping, cinematic quality that sounded as though it could have been composed for film noir.
“Personally, I thought what we were trying to do was quite angry,” says Geoff Barrow. “It was my equivalent of punk, which is funny because it doesn’t necessarily sound like that listening back to it.”
Also in late 1994, Massive Attack unleashed ‘Protection’, which marked a significant change of direction. Co-produced with their old Wild Bunch pal Nellee Hooper, who was now enjoying a career as a sought-after sound wizard, the band had gradually started to shed the more overt hip hop influences of the previous album, making a delicate shift towards a soulful and at times melancholic dub-oriented electronica. Shara Nelson, who had signed a solo deal with Cooltempo Records, was replaced by several guest vocalists, including Tracey Thorn of indie downbeat popsters Everything But The Girl and the distinctive tones of Shut Up And Dance protege Nicolette. Electric guitars were also more audible, hinting at the direction Massive would subsequently take on 1998’s ‘Mezzanine’.
‘Protection’ once again featured Tricky, who made his own first long-playing contribution to the Bristol sound with ‘Maxinquaye’, released towards the end of 1995. Voted as the NME’s album of the year, the recording was as innovative, challenging and groundbreaking as anything produced by his counterparts.
“I can say without question that Tricky, out of everyone who has had success thus far, is the most talented,” says Milo Johnson.
Thematically, ‘Maxinquaye’ engaged with the darker side of British culture in an often disturbingly explicit manner. Tricky’s lyrics frequently dealt with alienation, family breakdown and rampant inequality, subjects a million miles away from the comparatively trivial concerns of Britpop.
By 1996, the term trip hop was being used widely in the music press and was ensnaring the likes of Morcheeba from London, Nightmares On Wax from Leeds and Sneaker Pimps from Hartlepool, all of whom had constructed their own accomplished versions of the sound, with subsequent releases from Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky departing further from the genre they had created.
While there is common consensus that Britpop collapsed in 1998 after many of its most important bands started to pursue radically different musical directions, the influence of the pioneering Bristol artists reverberates to the present day, although not so much by artists copying or imitating their sound, but more by the sonic possibilities that they helped open up.
Trip hop has become the go-to template for mainstream indie bands moving into electronic music, including Elbow, Coldplay and Arcade Fire. In recent years, Damon Albarn’s work has been informed by the Bristol approach of splicing multiple genres and styles together, while Radiohead have also acknowledged their admiration. From 2000’s ‘Kid A’ to 2011’s ‘King Of Limbs’, Radiohead’s albums are characterised by the sort of angular song arrangements, multiple textures and use of exotic instruments often associated with trip hop.
Its influence can also be heard in the electronica of newer artists such as Jon Hopkins, Modeselektor, Mount Kimbie and Zomby, who deploy off-kilter rhythms and an appropriation of different genres to hypnotic effect. However, the Bristol sound is perhaps most clearly evident in Burial’s work, which includes a collaboration with Massive Attack on ‘Four Walls’ in 2011.
Burial is far from a copyist, he’s produced some of the most original electronic music in recent years, but there’s something about the vivid atmosphere he conjures up that is not a million miles away from what Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky have been doing for the last two decades. Somewhere in the noise he creates there’s a compelling otherness that many people have struggled to define in words. It’s music that evokes a sudden heightened sense of emotions and it often makes you think it’s not quite like anything you’ve ever heard before.
Call it trip hop or call it something else, the Bristol sound of the first half of the 90s created a genre that was as much an attitude and a state of mind as it was a musical movement. It reflected the paranoia of living in a world of increasing surveillance culture, yet it provided the ideal soundtrack for a gentle post-club comedown. It dealt with the dark corners of the psyche, but it still managed to celebrate the best of contemporary British multiculturalism.
Trip hop, we salute you.
The Past, Present And Future Of Trip Hop
Public Image Limited – ‘Metal Box’
One of the most astonishing and original albums of all time, ‘Metal Box’ sounds as contemporary today as it did on its release in 1979. Malevolent atmospherics, hypnotic bass, primal drumming, screeching guitars and acerbic, snarling vocals. Bristol took the clash of spacious dub with post-punk aesthetics to its heart.
Massive Attack – ‘Mezzanine’
Massive’s most guitar-orientated album was released at a time when they were becoming one of the best live acts around. By this point, they’d largely eschewed their hip hop influences, but still had a mighty collection of low-end bass, imaginative samples and artful
raps at their disposal. The best record of 1998.
Smith & Mighty – ‘Bass Is Maternal’
A furiously paced record with pleasing drum ‘n’ bass influences, the use of unlikely source material by Bristol artists is illustrated by ‘Drowning’ and ‘Accept All Contrasts’, the former a U2 cover and the latter featuring samples of U2’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’.
Portishead – ‘Dummy’
A masterpiece that is still captivating after 20 years. Beth Gibbons’ perfect vocals soar and swoon, the production is lush but not over-baked, and there’s not a duff track on it. Simple as that.
Tricky – ‘Pre-Millennium Tension’
A radical musical departure from his ‘Maxinquaye’ debut, this twists and turns in unexpected directions and is much more sonically abrasive, but it’s still underpinned by an innate melodic sensibility and Tricky’s completely unique vocal style.
Gary Clail – ‘The Emotional Hooligan’
Perhaps one of the lesser known records in this list, Clail’s second long-player is a thrilling collision of punk, funk, dub and electronica. Also features magnificent contributions from Adrian Sherwood and Dub Syndicate.
Various Artists – ‘Pay It All Back Volume 4’
This is perhaps the finest of the many On U Sound compilations. It includes choice cuts from the likes of Mark Stewart, Dub Syndicate, African Headcharge and Bim Sherman –
and there’s no shortage of righteous and fiery polemic.
Morcheeba – ‘Big Calm’
Morcheeba’s second album combines uplifting vocals with bluegrass flavoured slide guitars and chunky beats to create what has been touted as the ultimate chillout album of the genre.
Burial – ‘Untrue’
Burial’s second album is a dense and sometimes unsettling triumph, dragging electronica towards the 22nd century and well beyond. Broody, moody and evocative of
late night experiences you may wish to forget.
London Grammar – ‘If You Wait’
London Grammar’s 2013 debut channels the spirit of Portishead. With its haunting vocals and distinctive arrangements, this is an effortlessly cool and engaging listen.