Illbient and Beyond

In the late 1990s, a variety of subterranean sounds had a brief but potent moment in the cultural spotlight. Across the globe, artists who were combining dub, hip-hop, techno, drum ’n’ bass, industrial and raw noise in unprecedentedly aggressive combinations emerged in what seemed like the next evolution of bass-heavy, atmospheric music. Some were collaborators and part of actual scenes, while others worked in isolation and connected to their peers thanks to mutual interests and sonic obsessions.

One of the key scenes at the time was the “illbient” movement, based out of two Brooklyn neighborhoods, Williamsburg and Greenpoint (where Bill Laswell had a studio). The term, which combined “ill” and “ambient,” was allegedly coined by DJ Olive, who recorded on his own and as part of the trio We. Other big names at the time included producer Raz Mesinai (who recorded as Badawi and was half of Sub Dub) and DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, a co-founder of the Soundlab collective, which included the various members of We and other artists who would become affiliated with illbient. 

Working along similar lines at the same time was Skiz Fernando, a hip-hop journalist and beatmaker who pioneered an extremely dark, ominous style under the name Spectre. He founded the WordSound label with some spiritual and financial encouragement from Laswell, and released dozens of CDs that laid out the parameters of a kind of dark mirror universe where dub, hip-hop, and industrial became one rumbling, paranoid style. Mick Harris of Scorn appeared on a couple of WordSound discs, and Kevin Martin first adopted the alias The Bug on 1997’s Tapping The Conversation, but Dub Syndicate drummer Style Scott recorded for the label, too, as did Laswell himself, and the indescribable avant-garde rapper Sensational.

In Europe, Achim Szepanski (of the early ’80s German industrial group P16.D4) formed Force Inc., a label that focused on electronic music, often of a noisy and pounding style. One of Force Inc.’s sublabels was Mille Plateaux, named for the philosophical concept described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their book of the same name. (Short version, kinda: history and culture are a vast map of discrete objects and circumstances which connect in a million impossible-to-predict ways; there is no master narrative and anything can potentially connect with any other thing.) Mille Plateaux released six volumes of compilations called Electric Ladyland (subhead: Electric Soul For Rebels) full of tracks that took thunderous hip-hop beats and married them to electronic noise and samples full of violent machismo; the first batch of artists were mostly European, and included Atari Teenage Riot founder Alec Empire, Andre Gurov, and DJ Vadim. There were some quieter pieces, too, by Gas and Mouse On Mars. As the series went on, illbient figures like Spectre, Slotek (another WordSound act), and DJ Spooky began to crop up, as did Kevin Martin.

Martin, who had first emerged leading the postpunk/free jazz ensemble God, had shifted his interests toward electronic music, in partnership with close friend Justin Broadrick of Godflesh. They formed Techno Animal to explore beats and mind-warping sonic frequencies (both low and high), as well as the throbbing industrial-dub group Ice, which took a more aggressive but still slow-burning approach. Martin curated several compilations in the mid to late ’90s that fell under the illbient umbrella, most notably the two volumes of Macro Dub Infection and Ambient IV: Isolationism, a sprawling set that brought acts from Aphex Twin to legendary British improvisers AMM to post-rock act Seefeel together, all joined in his mind by their ability to conjure dark, foreboding atmospheres. In the early 2000s, he would shift his attention from dub to dancehall as The Bug and Razor X Productions, but his interest in sternum-crushing levels of bass remained a constant.

The styles explored on these compilations, as well as individual albums by DJ Spooky, grimy hip-hop duo New Kingdom, Badawi, We and various WordSound artists (Roots Control, Slotek, Scarab and more) plumbed a dark vein of underground beat culture. Unsurprisingly, given its intensity, the moment only lasted a couple of years, but its reverberations continue to play out — the influence of WordSound, illbient, and the ultra-hard drum ’n’ bass of Witchman, Panacea, and the No U Turn label can be heard in dubstep and the darkness that continues to permeate certain corners of the electronic music multiverse.

Re-Entry cover

Techno Animal, the partnership of producer Kevin Martin and Godflesh guitarist Justin Broadrick, evolved considerably over their roughly 10-year existence. This, their second full-length, was a magnum opus of mind-warping psychedelic trance music, layers of shimmering and squelching electronic harmonies (and, on two tracks, guest trumpet from Jon Hassell) creating a kind of radioactive cloud floating over beats that tick with the implacability of a countdown clock. Two fully loaded CDs add up to nearly two and a half hours of astral traveling, and while the first may be a little more energetic and the second a little more drifty, it’s sort of like climbing slowly into the sky, then floating gently back down.

Collision Course cover

Though it’s less well known than the two Macro Dub Infection sets, this 1999 compilation, also put together by Kevin Martin, is just as powerful and gripping. It’s slightly more oriented toward avant-garde hip-hop than dub, featuring tracks by Antipop Consortium, Mike Ladd, Sensational, and Rubberroom, but some tracks — particularly “Total Destruction,” by DJ Scud and Nomex, 2nnd Gen’s “Statutory Angels,” and Bio Muse’s “Socially Bankrupt (’99 Mix)” — are whirling storms of thunderous beats and shrieking electronic noise, as loud and disruptive to the mind and spirit as anything on the Electric Ladyland sets. Some might quibble with the way some of the (white, European) artists use samples of dancehall records and kung fu movies as exotic totems, but Martin’s own work with dancehall DJs as The Bug and Razor X Productions proves that his heart is in the right place, anyway, so it’s worth giving the other performers here the benefit of the doubt and letting them smash your skull in for an hour.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer cover

DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid took his name from William Burroughs’ 1964 novel Nova Express, and his music often had the same disorienting effect as the author’s “cut-up” prose. Songs Of A Dead Dreamer was a dark storm cloud of an album, combining a sci-fi exploratory spirit tied to, if not necessarily rooted in, Afrofuturism (tracks bore titles like “Galactic Funk” and “Hologrammic Dub”) with a thoroughly grounded urban paranoia. The beats often sounded like they were coming through a wall from the next apartment over, as vinyl crackle washed through as loud as a rainstorm and gongs and synths rang and hummed and beeped from deep within the mix. For all its thumping power, it was far better suited to headphones than dancefloors, putting the “ill” in illbient by creating a vague queasiness in the listener.

Paradise Don’t Come Cheap cover

One of the heaviest hip-hop albums ever made, the second and final statement from this New York duo (and producer Scotty Hard) sounds like Westbound-era Funkadelic laid over slow-and-low beats hard enough to crack the sidewalk. Rappers Nosaj and Sebastian are hoarse and out of breath, shouting their lines in an old-school style like Run-DMC crossed with thick-necked hardcore punk. Samples sound warped, like they’re being played underwater or like the tape is coming unspooled as you listen, which gives many of the tracks a woozy, head-spinning quality that suits the lyrics’ imagery of alienation, disorientation, and doom (“Gonna ride a charger into Armageddon/When I get there, Satan gonna be there waitin’”).

Certified Dope, Vol. 1 cover

Back in the mid to late 1990s, when Brooklyn was still dangerous, the WordSound label crept out of the Williamsburg/Greenpoint sewers. Run by journalist and producer Skiz Fernando and a crew of like-minded explorers, they made dub with impossibly deep bass (sometimes with help from Bill Laswell) and a mystical, psychedelic perspective. This compilation lays out a sound and a worldview that the label would explore for several years. Tracks like Sub Dub’s “Monuments On Earth,” Qaballah Steppers’ “Majesty Dub,” and Automaton’s “Painless Steel” were crawlingly slow and trafficked in a kind of visionary paranoia, while Dr. Israel’s uniquely New York spin on ragga and jungle made “Saidisyabruklinmon (Nobwoycyantess)” a rare uptempo outburst, and Fernando’s dark hip-hop alter ego, Spectre, appeared on the final track, “Crooked.”

Macro Dub Infection Volume One cover

This 2CD compilation, assembled by producer Kevin Martin of Techno Animal (pre-The Bug), treats the dub aesthetic as a virus traveling through every form of popular music, mutating as it goes. He’s just the selector, not the producer, so the bass here is frequently warm and enveloping, not concussive. But the range of acts is surprisingly wide: from the expected, like Bill Laswell (under his Automaton alias), Mad Professor, and the Rootsman to more leftfield choices like Coil, Scorn, Tortoise and the Golden Palominos, with a creepy, beatless remix of Tricky’s “Pumpkin” a particular standout. There’s some traditionally dubby material, some jungle and drum ’n’ bass, some trip-hop, and some experiments by postpunky noise-rockers (Bud Alzir is a Terminal Cheesecake side project). It’s less about stylistic cohesion than about pointing out sonic commonalities.

Bedouin Sound Clash cover

Bedouin Sound Clash, Raz Mesina’s debut as Badawi, is a sugar-coated fishhook. While the hypnotic dub basslines, steadily pulsing grooves, and mellow vocals on two tracks (by Carolyn “Honeychild” Coleman) all blend together into something almost pop — at least in the mid ’90s era of trip-hop and stonerish R&B — Mesinai’s remixing skills turn it into something darker and more foreboding. On “Suspicions” and “Suspicions Dub,” there’s a staticky hiss crinkling in the left-hand speaker that subverts pleasure by making you think there’s something wrong with your system. Despite its title, there’s almost nothing Middle Eastern or North African about the music; it’s cybernetic dub throughout, with the more uptempo tracks striking a balance between dancefloor friendliness and undersea ominousness.

Secrets of the Past and Future cover

Scarab was a collaboration between WordSound Recordings founder/mastermind Skiz Fernando and Professor Shehab, an Iranian refugee and art school graduate. The Professor’s collection of tablas and Middle Eastern hand drums, and deep knowledge of Persian music, blended well with Fernando’s interest in dub and trance states; this album, which originally came packaged in a blue leather sleeve meant to evoke a passport, takes the listener on a journey full of looped rhythms, throbbing sub bass, samples of traditional stringed instruments and chanting monks, and more. The beats and melodies (such as they are) are laid out in minimal and subtly shifting patterns, sometimes using tape rewind or vinyl crackle as compositional elements. The album creates an ominous mood that somehow draws the listener in, almost hypnotically.

Loaded With Power cover

Sensational’s original rap name was Torture; he first got on the mic with the Jungle Brothers, at the sessions for their unreleased Crazy Wisdom Masters album. His debut is one of the murkiest albums in hip-hop history. Sensational’s lyrics follow no conventional rhyme scheme and seem entirely freestyled; there are moments when audibly loses his train of thought, or simply trails off. The minimal, looping rhythm track continues without him for a few seconds, and then he’s back. But there’s absolutely a method to his madness; a track like “Hardcore” might consist of nothing but a rumbling bass line and a ticking drum machine, with a single note of piano pinging on the beat, but Sensational layers two or three vocal tracks, some of them heavily treated with echo and reverb, like he’s having a conversation with himself inside his own head.

Macro Dub Infection Volume 2 cover

The second and final volume in producer Kevin Martin’s Macro Dub Infection compilation series casts an even wider net than the first. It must be said that there are a lot of German artists, though, including minimal dub techno wizard Maurizio, noise/breakcore sound-terrorist Alec Empire, ambient IDM duo Mouse On Mars, and producer Jammin’ Unit. You also get a typically deep and esoteric piece by Bill Laswell, a very early track from Brooklyn’s Spectre (aka Skiz Fernando, founder of the WordSound label), Martin himself remixing a song by Appalachian folk weirdo Will Oldham, and much more — two dozen tracks sprawling out for more than two hours of dark atmospheres and rumbling bass.

Dub Terror Exhaust cover

Automaton was a short-lived Bill Laswell project, one of his darkest dub excursions. Positively low-end-obsessed, Dub Terror Exhaust featured Blind Idiot God bassist Gabe Katz, legendary reggae drummer Sly Dunbar, and DJ Spooky (credited as The Alchemist), with unspecified contributions from Skiz Fernando of WordSound Recordings. Like Slotek’s 7, it features samples of unnamed male authority figures talking about mystical matters over deep, slow bass lines and patiently ticking and thumping percussion. The four long tracks’ titles are filled with references to apocalyptic millenarianism, science fiction, and the writings of William S. Burroughs. Ideally built for speakers the size of walk-in freezers, but decent headphones will do.

Optometry cover

Some time after the illbient movement that brought him to prominence had faded away, DJ Spooky moved in a surprising-but-not-really direction, joining forces with pianist Matthew Shipp as part of the Thirsty Ear label’s Blue Series. Optometry features tracks by a group consisting of Shipp, bassist William Parker, drummer Guillermo E. Brown, and saxophonist Joe McPhee, with guest appearances by saxophonist Daniel Carter, violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, rapper High Priest of Antipop Consortium, and poet Carl Hancock Rux on the stunning “Asphalt (Tome II).” Spooky chops the performances up and remixes them, contributing turntables, electronic noise, kalimba, and a dash of upright bass, and turning the whole thing into a swirling odyssey that’s not jazz, hip-hop, psychedelia, or sound art, but all these things and more at once.

Electric Ladyland VI cover

The Electric Ladyland series (slogan: “Electric Soul for Rebels”) numbered six releases in all — four single CDs and two doubles — and was a kind of meeting ground for a range of producers and artists interested in pushing hip-hop, dub, and electronic music into new realms of bass, aggression, and punishing sonic impact. There are no bad volumes, but the final set encapsulated the whole series’ strengths, with booming, roaring tracks from Techno Animal, WordSound Recordings acts Spectre and Slotek, post-hip-hop philosopher DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, crushingly heavy German noise/drum ’n’ bass producer Panacea, and many more. This is music best experienced at terrifying volume, with the aid of a subwoofer the size of a canoe.

Heavy Traffic cover

John Roome, aka Witchman, released a string of 12" singles and EPs in the late 1990s that were gathered on this two-CD compilation. His music combined booming instrumental hip-hop beats, dark-tinged drum ’n’ bass, and horror-movie-soundtrack-style synths into a uniquely unsettling and aggressive style. Tracks like “Hammerhead” and “Chemical Noir” take the ominous, threatening vibe of Mobb Deep tracks and stretch them out to six or seven minutes, allowing the beat to wax and wane and the melodies to warp and drift. Meanwhile, faster pieces like “Light At The Edge” or “Offbeat (Fire Mix)” turn drum ’n’ bass into the stuff of nightmares, while dark ambient pieces like “Destiny” may appeal to fans of Lustmord.

Torque cover

No U Turn was a UK jungle/drum ’n’ bass label started by producer Nicholas Sykes (aka Nico) that existed for roughly a decade, releasing brutally aggressive 12" singles by artists like Ed Rush, Fierce, Gunshot, Trace and others. This 1997 compilation, released as a 2CD set (a collection of individual tracks paired with a DJ mix), never lets up. The No U Turn house style featured manic, relentless drum breaks, eerie synths, a few ominous samples deployed very sparingly, and massively distorted bass lines (check “Mothership” for a particularly potent example; it’s like having your head sucked into a jet engine). This is music designed to be heard in a hot, crowded room long after midnight at eyeball-melting volume, and to make you feel like you’ve taken the wrong drugs. In the decades since its release, it’s lost none of its power.

7 cover

Slotek (pronounced “slow tech”) represented WordSound label founder Skiz Fernando’s mystical side; the album was constructed around themes of numerology and esoteric religion. The usual deep, dark bass tones and minimal, looping drum tracks are overlaid with philosophical monologues, movie dialogue, and spiritual lessons, talking about reincarnation and the eternal spirit and whatnot; when a mournful trombone breaks through the murk on “Jumbo,” or a bass clarinet tootles through on “Smoke & Mirrors,” or “Electric Soul Controller” conjures powerful zaps and explosions, it draws you even further into the music’s unsettling world, making you receptive to the sampled voices eager to tell you about mankind’s destiny and the unseen forces guiding us all.