Trip-hop was an atmospheric but soulful, downtempo genre of electronic music that sprang from the English port city of Bristol and went on to enjoy major UK chart success in the mid-90s. A handful of the more prominent trip-hop acts even made waves in America, after being carried over by the same trade-winds that were at the time bringing Britpop to U.S. audiences.
In the same way that ska music was partially born from Jamaican producers and musicians attempting to imitate American R&B, trip-hop is a genre that emerged in part as a result of early ‘90s Bristol DJ crews and producers trying their hand at aping American hip hop. One of the biggest DJ crews in Bristol at the time was the Wild Bunch, who eventually went on to evolve into two of trip-hop’s pioneering acts: Massive Attack and Tricky.
But although Massive Attack and Tricky both released groundbreaking trip-hop albums in 1994’s Protection and 1995’s Maxinquaye respectively, it would be another Bristol group who would take trip-hop to the top of the UK charts and make it commercially viable in the States. With the release of 1994’s Dummy, Portishead thrust trip-hop into the UK mainstream and went on to lend the genre creditability when they won the 1995 Mercury Music Prize for the best British album of the year.
Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead were obviously the big three where trip-hop was concerned. Other important artists to have contributed to or been lumped in with the genre include U.N.C.L.E., Morcheeba, Howie B, Cibo Matto, the Sneaker Pimps and DJ Shadow. There were also a handful of labels that were integral to the trip-hop’s success including Mo’Wax, Ninja Tune and Cup of Tea.
Unlike in America, where hip-hop had largely severed itself from the Jamaican influence of early pioneers like Cool Herc, hip-hop in the UK was largely informed by dub and dancehall. Thus trip-hop’s slow, almost stilted downtempo beat was at least in part derived from the pervasive influence of dub reggae on UK DJs at the time.
Floating above trip-hops dub-wise, downtempo hip-hop beats were atmospheric layers of strings, synths, samples and vocals. It was these layers that lent the music its ethereal, often psychedelic quality, effectively putting the “trip” in trip-hop.
Vocals in trip-hop tended to be female voiced such as in the cases of Portishead singer Beth Gibbons and Tricky collaborator Martina Topley-Bird who both called upon a variety of jazz, rock, soul and pop inflections as needed. Male vocals on trip-hop records tended to be either of the dancehall reggae variety, as in the case of longtime Massive Attack collaborator Horace Andy or low, menacing, nearly whispered raps that are best exemplified by former Massive Attack MC Adrian Thaws, better know to the world as Tricky.
Must Have Albums
Trip-hop was founded on a holy trifecta of albums comprised of Tricky’s Maxinquaye, Portishead’s Dummy and Massive Attack’s Protection. Other notable releases include Morcheeba’s Who Can You Trust?, the Sneaker Pimps’ Becoming X, Massive Attack’s Mezzanine and Cibo Matto’s Viva! La Woman.
Trip-hop relies on essentially the same musical mechanisms as hip-hop, namely turntables, sampled beats and vocals. However musically it has nearly as much in common with genres like dub, ambient techno, chill-out and in the case of Portishead especially, film soundtrack music from the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Trip-hop’s Influence Today
Although the days when Tricky, Massive Attack and Portishead competed with each other for space atop the British pop charts have long since passed, trip-hop and its influence are still prevalent. Massive Attack released Heligoland in 2010 and their song “Teardrop” is currently in use as the theme song for the popular Fox TV drama House. Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori went on to become a founding member of the Gorillaz and their laidback “virtual hip-hop” sound owes a heavy debt to the trip-hop genre.
Portishead, meanwhile, have just completed their first American tour in more than a decade and are currently rumored to be working on a follow-up to 2008’s Third. Tricky has likewise remained active and also released his latest album Mixed Race in 2010. Last summer the eccentric rapper even guested in Beyonce’s headlining spot at the Glastonbury Festival, joining the singer onstage during the track “Baby Boy.”