90s Trip Hop

The 90s blossoming of dance and electronic music saw a corresponding rise in artists using the techniques, sound palette and musical tropes of dance floor genres like house, techno or hip hop in new, non-dancefloor music like ambient, chill out, downtempo and trip hop.  

Trip hop is something of a maligned 90s electronic music genre, to the point that many ‘classic’ trip hop artists reject the label entirely. And it’s kind of understandable; trip hop is a clever pun, but it doesn’t really adequately sum up the serene beauty of much of Massive Attack’s work, or the deep emotion contained within the lovingly trimmed samples in DJ Shadows’ Endtroducing…... And its reputation hasn’t been helped by the fact that since its birth — Mixmag journalist Andy Pemberton first coined the term in print in 1994 describing DJ Shadow’s In/Flux single — there have been plenty of landfill-quality trip hop releases. However, there are also many musical gems that broadly fall into the genre, particularly from its first early/mid-90s flowering, albums that cleverly drew together a number of related, and disparate musical elements to craft a fresh, immersive and influential sound. 

So it’s a journalist-created genre that was applied to some music retrospectively, but with that caveat in mind, were we to sum it up, trip hop is essentially instrumental hip hop, often with a psychedelic bent, variously incorporating elements of dub reggae, ambient, soul, funk, noir soundtracks, spy film/cop show themes and jazz. It’s a heady mix, one that generally explores an introspective, often unsettling aesthetic, with an oft-otherworldly sonic palette of bass, abstract atmospheres, mutant sampling and a focus on the emotional possibilities of texture and timbre. Languishing in sleepy tempos between 70 and 90 bpm, trip hop emerged, much like ambient, as a club-adjacent genre for after-club listening, a tripped-out, soporific audio balm to soothe clubbers returning from a night of the ‘mentalism’ of early 90s UK clubbing. 

Obviously hip hop was the main genre parent, passing on the traits of sampling, scratching, a certain tempo range, and a particular rhythm — the boom bap beat, adapted and repurposed from 70s funk — but other musical DNA was involved too. The space, depth, pace and bass of dub reggae, were all crucial elements in the sound and feel of much trip hop. Trip hop shared ambient music’s non-dancefloor, psychedelic and experimental approach. And besides sampling 70s soul and funk in the hip hop tradition, lots of trip hop also drew from library music, nostalgic 60s TV themes and mod-ish film soundtracks, often producing a slightly queasy, out-of-time and unsettling feel to the genre. 

There were trip hop antecedents — Double Dee & Steinski, Coldcut and Bomb The Bass for example all produced sample-based instrumental hip hop collage records in the late 80s — but bohemian-friendly UK city Bristol with its long-established reggae sound system culture was the birthplace, and Massive Attack’s debut album Blue Lines is the original. A smouldering, glowing gem in UK electronic music history that emerged from the city’s sound system and underground party scene, Blue Lines was released in April ’91 and became ingrained in a generation of clubbers’ psyches as it looped around on repeat, the soundtrack to countless post club sessions. 

Blue Lines is a contradiction in the trip hop story though; whereas much trip hop that followed was largely instrumental, it featured beautifully delivered vocals, rapping, and premium quality songs. But much of what was pioneered on Blue Lines would become codified in many future trip hop releases: the funereal tempos, dub-derived sense of space, the same rhythmic bare bones used in hip hop, and the science of drum beat reconstitution and recycling. It also, in contrast to much of the party-friendly vibe and ‘wacky’ samples of outfits like Coldcut, pioneered a very different aesthetic. Defined by smoked-out, edgy, introspective raps to match the smoked-out, edgy, introspective soundscapes, Blue Lines exhibited a soft sensitivity to the fragility of the post-rave soldiers, mixed with the paranoia-tinged unearthly oddness of the comedown. 

Different artists took the template in their own particular direction. Portishead released Dummy in August ’94 which went on to win the Mercury Music Prize the following year. It was a dark, cinematic, sombre opus, with home-made beats (they recorded new rhythms then treated them like samples, cutting them up, looping, re-editing them and running them through fx equipment to add a layer of audible studio grit and grime) the basis for their updated take on heartbreaking, bluesy torch songs. DJ Cam on the other hand produced a series of dreamy, uncomplicated, instrumental hip hop albums using a sample palette of jazz piano, horn, vibraphone and strings, while DJ Food pursued a more upbeat direction packed with brash beats, turntablism and rhythmic experimentation that went far beyond the original trip hop template. 

DJ Food, along with artists including Funki Porcini, The Herbaliser and London Funk Allstars recorded on UK label Ninja Tune, whose mid-90s output was a gloriously eclectic collision of hip hop, dub, drum & bass, electronica and turntablism. Ninja, along with Mo Wax — home to DJ Shadow, La Funk Mob, Attica Blues, DJ Krush, U.N.K.L.E., and Palm Strings Productions — released much of the best mid-90s trip hop. Manchester’s Grand Central Records also put a series of lovingly crafted instrumental hip hop tracks in the mid-90s, less ‘trippy’ than say, the sonic experiments of Luke Vibert on Mo Wax, but beautifully put together, with pristinely produced rhythm tracks and a snare sound you could cut glass with. And French producers like La Funk Mob, Kid Loco and DJ Cam also created their own, respectively, minimal, lounge and jazzy takes on the genre.  

At its best, trip hop has produced some extraordinary albums; from DJ Shadow’s pioneering Endtroducing….., a haunting and emotive debut that truly demonstrated the possibilities of sample-based hip hop, to the cold, minimal, distilled goth-hop of DJ Krush’s Meiso, to the hushed, enigmatic, nocturnal light and shade of Massive Attack’s Protection, the genre with the bad name includes some truly beautiful music.

A Recipe for Disaster cover

Released in 1995, DJ Food (Kevin Foakes aka Strictly Kev) had already released a series of DJ tool/beats/sound effects records on UK label Ninja Tune and A Recipe For Disaster was his first ‘proper’ album. Reflecting the contemporaneous growth of cross-genre and eclectic club nights and DJing, Recipe… is an album of day-glo, sample-heavy beat-science cross-pollinations. There’s plenty of abstract instrumental hip hop, expert turntablism and sample-aided reconstituted funk, Foakes filling in the gaps where rappers would have rapped with layers of recognisable instrumental samples and all sorts of synth and studio trickery too. He also includes some Latin and drum & bass-influenced tracks and, in an album with a generally party-friendly mood, a couple of quieter introspective moments too. Fun, super-funky and with never a dull moment.

No Protection cover

UK dub producer and engineer Mad Professors’ dub version of Massive Attack’s second album was an extremely successful reworking that transformed the original into a deep, powerful, grinding dub / electronic adventure. Mad Professor took the soulful, melancholy and introspective tracks of the original apart and abstracted them, emphasising some elements, subduing others, rebuilding them using his studio as an instrument. He lays the dub reggae effects on thick, rebounding echos and delays flow around the headphones, sounds are placed in huge reverberating spaces and there’s depth and distance in the gaps between the synthetic and sampled audio. Mad Professor continually locates either the precise location of the groove or the true shape of the emotion in each song and then brings his chosen elements to the fore. A dub album superbly done.

Attica Blues cover

The debut album from Attica Blues came out on trip hop label Mo Wax in 1997 and is a quietly unassuming, high-class UK hip hop-soul-down-tempo-beatology-hybrid. Their presence on Mo Wax and their sliced and diced break beats qualify this album as trip hop, but Attica Blues clearly had higher aims than simply chopping up some old funk drums and adding abstract soundscaping on top. This is an album of stark and stately soul, jazz, instrumental hip hop and turntablism, a set of tracks with a seriousness to them. Attica Blues was a transitional release, something of a musical bridge between hip hop, trip hop, soul and the emerging club sound of broken beat and remains a confident, bold, uncompromising and undervalued album in UK Black British music history.

Protection cover

Bristol’s innovative and influential Massive Attack opened their second album with the title track, a luminous eight-minute street soul lament graced by a wistful vocal from Every Thing But The Girl’s Tracy Thorn floating above a soft bed of warm synth pads, all held down by a sample from, paradoxically, one of James Brown’s toughest beats. And that tension between the soft and the hard repeats throughout the album, as the band pair a familiar warmth with a sense of bittersweet yearning, matching abstract, gaseous synth/sample backing tracks with big vocal statements from Horace Andy and Thorn, and blending soothing strings with deep bass. Low tempo but high temperature, detached but cautiously open, Protection is nocturnal music, lit by streetlights and strobes rather than sunlight.

Meiso cover

Japanese hip hop evangelist and turntablism specialist DJ Krush dropped Meiso, his fourth studio album, in 1995. It’s a mix of vocal hip hop tracks — C.L. Smooth, Malik B, Deflon Sallahr and Big Shug all make guest appearances — and instrumentals. The feel is reflective and inward-looking, the sound palette is pure, distilled underground hip hop. The sampled and reprogrammed drum beats pop out of the mix, having clearly been the subject of much attention in the studio, the cut and thrust of the kick-snare combo fetishised and moved to centre stage. Simple, foreboding bass tones sit under the beats while slices of sampled audio and vinyl scratches drop in and out on top, always tastefully placed, everything arranged in neat order. Stand-out track is the collaboration with DJ Shadow Duality, a nearly 9-minute epic of brooding beatology, turntablism, studio beat juggling and abstract audio. Cool, clean, minimal underground hip hop.

Endtroducing….. cover

A pioneering and influential album built entirely from vinyl samples, most of them lifted by DJ Shadow from records in the basement of now-defunct Rare Records store in Sacramento. Endtroducing is perhaps the most hip hop of all trip hop albums, the beats bonafide, the scratching true to the craft, his Akai MPC sampler mimicking hip hop DJ beat juggling. It’s an album built from parts of lost b-sides, last-ditch efforts, records that failed and that no one ever heard, reconstructed into new forms, each sample a snippet of someone’s long-forgotten hopes. In the 2001 hip hop documentary Scratch, DJ Shadow refers to the piles of old, obscure vinyl where he painstakingly hunted for the raw materials for his debut album as “like a big pile of broken dreams” and there’s a genuine sense of yearning contained in his reassembled beats and chords, which is all the more impressive when you remember how they are created. Easily one of the finest trip hop albums.

DJ-Kicks cover

Austrian DJ/producers Kruder and Dorfmeister released their DJ Kicks compilation in summer 1996, and it remains a highlight of the long-running DJ mix series. As with any DJ mix compilation, the music is obviously the most important, and K&D picked the absolute cream of mid-90s dub, trip hop and electronica, a highly complementary series of languid, unhurried and introspective electronic releases. What was particularly ear-catching at the time was that they also mixed in smooth, laid-back drum & bass tracks at twice the tempo of the dub and trip hop tunes, producing a mix that really flowed and moved, a dubbed-out progressive journey through the various flavours of mid-decade downtempo electronic music. One of the best commercially released DJ mixes of the period.

A Grand Love Story cover

The first album from French producer, DJ and electronic musician Jean Yves Prieur is a charming collection of dense, fuzzy, trip hop and electronic sample-based tracks that occasionally tip over into gentle folkish, lounge and easy listening territory in a most agreeable fashion. Prieur’s take on the trip hop template included the requisite sluggish tempos, crusty drum breaks and sleepy, slightly narcotic mood, but he dispensed with its smoked-out paranoia, revelling instead in a cheery, sunny disposition. The ghosts of pop, lounge and acoustic folk are contained here, and although it’s sometimes difficult to discern the original flavour of the overlapping sampled parts he’s assembled, there’s a soft and familiar easy-listening musicality to the whole album. Not all trip hop is calming or soporific because it’s stoner music, some of it, like A Grand Love Story, is calming and soporific because of its lullaby qualities: there’s a warm heart at the centre of this album.

Blue Lines cover

The start of a brand new, introspective, circumspect and softer approach in UK dance music, Blue Lines’ sample-heavy weaving together of dub, hip hop and soul defined a new post-club aesthetic. Considered the trip hop originator, it actually contains way more vocals — rapped and sung — than most of the genre it spawned. Featuring a distinctly British take on hip hop with rhythm tracks created from pieces of soul, funk and reggae history, repurposed into gentle but powerful musical collages, and decorated with a light dusting of bittersweet synths. In an album full of beautiful moments, Shara Nelson’s career-defining anthem Unfinished Sympathy shines like the brightest star in the clearest of night skies. Loved by a generation of clubbers, its influence spread out across 90s dance and pop music and on into the next century: a genuine classic.

Maxinquaye cover

Tricky’s debut long player takes some elements of his former band Massive Attacks’ approach — hip hop-derived rhythms, slow tempos, close-up, intimate, low-key rapping, and that anxious, noir atmosphere — and twists and stretches them to his own, bleak, unique purpose, resulting in a claustrophobic, tense hip hop / trip hop / goth hop album. Each song features vocals from Martina Topley-Bird and it’s her voice that really makes this album — certainly without her humanity, melody and hooks to balance out the intense sonic soup of murky atmospherics, grimy beats and Tricky’s bristling, subdued raps, it would be a much plainer and darker listen. Separated from its initial shock impact by nearly three decades, Maxinquaye remains a stark and striking original.

Smokers Delight cover

Smokers Delight is a largely instrumental collection of funky, multi-layered sample collages, pulling together most of the strands of influence that led to the late 80s / early 90s dance music explosion: reggae, dub, soul, jazz, funk, hip hop, boogie, disco and electro. The tempo, hip hop beats, and sample-based style all qualify Smokers Delight as trip hop album, but the gloom and angst present in much trip hop is largely absent here. NoW instead choose a much sunnier, laid-back take on the trip hop vibe, one more redolent of an Ibizan sunset than the bleaker landscapes oft conjured by the likes of Portishead or Tricky. Congas and bongos double up with dusty breakbeats, while the sampler provides snatches of keys, horns, guitars, and pianos from long-forgotten 45s, repurposed into new configurations. A relaxed, unhurried montage of the musical building blocks of dance music that feels warm and welcoming.

Dummy cover

Released at the tail end of summer 94, Portishead’s debut was highly accomplished, highly acclaimed — it would go on to win the Mercury Music Prize the following year — and highly strung, perhaps one of electronic music’s most angst-ridden albums. Mixing up hip hop beats (homemade in the studio rather than sampled), dub, 60s spy movie and film noir influences, it was a haunting, melancholy listen, lifted to wonderfully lonely heights by the mournful chanteuse vocals of Beth Gibbons. Dummy delighted in dirge tempos, haunting, tremelo’d guitars redolent of countless spaghetti soundtracks. and a dark, desolate gothic aesthetic. The soundtrackesque feel of many of the tracks, together with Gibbons’ alternating touching frailty and torrential passion make for one of the 90s most affecting and emotional electronic albums.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer cover

1996’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer was the debut from turntablist and ‘illbient’ artist DJ Spooky and is an album from the darkest reaches of the trip hop universe. Taking the edgy, anxious and paranoid feel that defined much early trip hop further than it had ever been, he constructed an uneasy, haunted and frankly dark soundtrack for a non-existent horror film. Fragmentary snippets and transitory slivers of sampled audio fade in and out of the mix and drones and unearthly sound effects fill the sound field while distorted loops creep in and out of focus. Songs Of A Dead Dreamer is a child of hip hop but the family resemblance is hard to see, as though the album was taken from its parents as a baby and chained up in a cellar.

Abstract Manifesto cover

The third album from Paris’ DJ Cam is an elegant, minimal trip hop affair, deftly blending raw drum breaks, vinyl scratching and abstract textures with live jazz playing and jazz samples. Abstract Manifesto also includes a few drum & bass experimentations that explore the half-speed/double speed possibilities of mixing super fast and super slow genres (jungle/drum & bass and trip hop respectively). There’s a purist sensibility to the tracks: the beats feel like authentic MPC or SP1200 boom baps, the jazz playing on tracks like opener Maiden Voyage, the swinging Un été à Paris and the silky smooth Yes Yes No is a real, breathing part of the productions, and there’s no musical fat, every track is lean, efficient and classy.

Frying The Fat cover

From 1995, this compilation drew together some of the best previously released instrumental hip hop from Manchester’s Grand Central/Fat City record labels. The tunes on here fall under the trip hop banner but didn’t exhibit much of the ‘trippy’, noir, or soundtrackesque trip hop tropes; this was the party-friendly, funky end of the trip hop continuum, with some of the chunkiest, most sound-system-friendly beats of the mid-90s. Highlights included First Priority’s Jazz Hypnosis and Pure Arithmetic, a pair of, respectively, hard-hitting, moody and jubilant, funky cuts taken from their debut 12" release. The slower, more introspective tunes are drowsy, soulful and slinky, a couple of selections in particular from Funky Fresh Few beautifully realised soulful sample cut-ups, and three high energy forays into the smoother end of drum & bass are also included. Top-notch head-nodding sample funk and dexterous instru-hip hop.