Vox July 1995

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July 1995 #57

In Vox magazine's July 1995 issue they feature an article on Trip Hop which features James Lavelle and Mo' Wax.


Trip Hop: Where The Beats Have No Name, by Stephen Dalton.

Trip-hop is now part of pop's international language — but the pioneers of Britain's most successful musical export in years refuse to admit it exists...

THIS IS A journey into sound. It takes us from the biggest, loudest, ugliest urban sprawls in the western world to the tiniest provincial outposts of Britain's crumbling coastline; from New York ghettoes to Portishead via San Francisco, London, Manchester, Oxford and Bristol... especially Bristol.

This epic voyage begins with the hardest, most underground noise ever scratched into vinyl and ends, for now at least, with the coolest chart-topping coffee-table music in the world. Music that gobbles up old-school hip-hop and electro, gets drunk on jazz, wallows in blues, nods to psychedelia, kicks ambient house up the arse, steals the hypnotic edge from techno and watches far too many movies for its own good.

Provincial, punk-educated thirtysomethings arrive at this abstract hip-hop hybrid by a natural progression through reggae, dub, rap, film soundtracks and too much marijuana. Sharp suburban twentysomethings schooled on acid house, meanwhile, reach similar destinations by rejecting the indie, techno and acid jazz scenes imposed on them by haughty metropolitan cliques. Inspired by groundbreaking hip-hop albums like the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest and Massive Attack's Blue Lines, they create their own sound, start their own labels.

Soon, a slow, weird, heavily instrumental hip-hop suddenly comes to dominate both underground dance and left-field pop. This broad new genre was branded "trip-hop", a name immediately disowned by its purveyors. The name stuck nevertheless, and for the first time British hip-hop had its own distinctive voice. A smoky, bluesy, paranoid voice maybe, but unmistakably homegrown.

Under the auspices of Polygram-affiliated labels Go! Discs and 4th And Broadway respectively, the first singles by Tricky and Portishead made a negligible impact on the charts; Portishead's debut album Dummy made only a fleeting appearance at Number 32 when it was first released last September. Since Christmas, however, critical plaudits and word of mouth turned the trickle into a tidal wave. Dummy shot into the Top Five and refused to budge. The precedent set. Tricky's debut album Maxinquaye, surfed in at Number Three the next month, selling around 80,000 copies in its first two months of release. In the aftermath of their success, a third Polygram label, A&M, won the battle to sign the obscure experimental hip-hop label, Mo'Wax.

By then it was clear Britain was harbouring something with a worldwide appeal. Even America was hungry for it; Madonna had already seen the wisdom in working with Nellee Hooper on Bedtime Stories. At the time, Massive Attack had snuck in by the tradesman's entrance with the excuse of attending the World Cup, but a collaboration with Ciccone always seemed on the cards (they've since worked together on a song for the forthcoming Marvin Gaye tribute album). But by April this year, with US sales of Portishead's album eclipsing their success here, American music-biz magazine Billboard rolled out the red carpet for Britain's latest, innovative scene. As despised as it was by its protagonists, the term trip-hop was now in pop's international vocabulary.

But who fathered this runtish half-breed? Who are the genre's unsung pioneers, current stars and future hopefuls? How long can it survive? Here begins the scientific research to locate the common strand of DNA that links Britain's trip-hoppers...

BACK IN the mid '80s, US hip-hop impacted heavily on the UK's urban pop underground. Samplers and turntables gave us the modern cut-up collages of Big Audio Dynamite, Renegade Soundwave, Bomb The Bass, Soul II Soul and Depth Charge. Hip-hop beats with rock attitude, dub atmospherics with cinematic moods — this was the sound of London, not the South Bronx or South Central LA.

BAD percussionist Greg Roberts is now in Dread Zone, a band who take this dub-soundtrack formula to new heights with their new album Second Light. The Dreads share management with Tricky and Portishead, but Roberts only admits to similarities "in as much as we're all trying to do something new". He sees trip-hop as a culmination of ten years of diverse influences, especially dub.

"Dub's always been the dividing line between rock and dance," he reckons. "Put dub on at any party and it will work."

"A love of great music goes hand in hand with a love of great films," claims Roberts, "and having a sampler gives you access to wealth of possibilities, like grabbing a soundbite from a film. Film themes have so much drama and tension too, like Portishead."

J Saul Kane, aka Depth Charge, was scratching Ennio Morricone into hip-hop breakbeats a decade ago. He recently remixed Andrew Weatherall's Sabres and hangs out with Tricky, but refuses to call himself godfather of The Music With No Name.

"I don't think I should take credit for it, although people have told me I was an influence on them. My stuff falls somewhere in the middle, between the Bristol lot and Mo'Wax."

As for the dreaded T-word, Kane recalls: "Mark Moore of S'Express used to call it trippy hip-hop before it was trip-hop, but Renegade Soundwave were doing it before everyone. I used to DJ with Danny from the Renegades, and it was very underground, the original warehouse scene, with Soul II Soul and all those people."

For Renegade Soundwave's Danny Briochet, the dislocated feel and blunted beats of trip-hop derive directly from dub and 70s funk. "It wasn't done with computers, but some old funk records and soundtracks are very similar," he insists.

RSW released their trippy In Dub album in 1990. The sequel, The Next Chapter Of Dub, is out this month.

"I hope we've opened up the possibilities for people to do their own thing," says Briochet. "When we made our first dub album, it was just us, out on our own. But while we were in hibernation, a lot of people came through who grew up with us. You can put us, Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky and Mo'Wax all together, but I don't think people will think it's all the same thing..."

SLOWLY, THE Music With No Name drifted out to the suburbs and provinces, far from the high-rise clatter of hip-hop's urban origins. Many of the artists credited with defining what many now call trip-hop — Andrew Weatherall, The Chemical Brothers and Mo'Wax boss James Lavelle — came to London's hip dance circles via tranquil Thames Valley satellite towns.

Top DJ, producer and remixer, Weatherall abandoned house for harder beats by launching his Sabresonic label in 1992. Sabres Of Paradise singles like 'Smokebelch' welded moody cinematic ambience to a hip-hop undercarriage, while their atmospheric 1994 album Haunted Dancehall was virtually an entire movie in itself.

Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, aka The Chemical Brothers, follow a similar mix-and-match approach. Originally christened The Dust Brothers in tribute to the US production team behind the Beasties' seminal Paul's Boutique, the pair switched names under threat of legal action. This month they release their debut album, Exit Planet Dust.

As for the trip-hop tag, the duo joke: "It's an ugly term but we're an ugly firm." In one of their rare moments of seriousness, however, they're slightly more forthcoming.

"We're making hip-hop with an acid house attitude," they shrug, "adding that psychedelic dimension most rap lacks."

Lavelle, meanwhile, is careful to distance his label Mo'Wax from the Chemicals/Weatherall axis. His young and eclectic roster, launched in 1992, features innovative San Francisco DJ Shadow alongside his own UNKLE project, plus various experimental jazz, techno and rap outfits.

"Mantronix comparisons are more relevant than comparisons to Weatherall," protests this 22-year-old entrepreneur. "The kind of music we grew up on was real Detroit techno, which was very black, plus jazz and soul and R&B... even people like the Beastie Boys, who have always been highly regarded in black hip-hop circles; Paul's Boutique is regarded as one of the most classic hip-hop albums ever recorded."

Lavelle began DJing at a Community Centre in his native Oxford, then worked alongside Acid Jazz pioneer Gilles Peterson. He was inspired by the experimental diversity of the nascent Acid Jazz and Talkin' Loud scenes, but was appalled by what they eventually became.

"Mo'Wax was a kind of reaction against all that, because they were all so London. Talkin' Loud was going commercial and Acid Jazz went so retro. I wanted something to fit in the middle."

Lavelle hates to use the trip-hop label for personal reasons, he says because "the actual wording is so naff". Nevertheless, Mo'Wax has built an impressive network of links with the artists widely seen as genre figureheads. Massive Attack's 3-D designed the sleeve for their Headz compilation. Beasties keyboard player Money Mark recently joined Lavelle's stable, while the super-nerd trio are planning a Mo'Wax compilation on their own Grande Royale label. Lavelle even negotiated deals with Portishead and Tricky before the big money arrived.

"Portishead were around long before the majors fucking found out about them," he spits.

Lavelle's UNKLE project was recently remixed by the bluesy Bristolians, so clearly no bitterness remains, but the Tricky connection is more of a sore point.

"Tricky was actually advertised as coming out on Mo'Wax. Whether or not he wants to acknowledge that any more, I don't know."

DJ Shadow, meanwhile, virtually defined the Mo'Wax sound with his lengthy explorations of freeform ambient jazz. Shadow, aka 23-year-old Josh Atkins, grew up in the sleepy North California town of Davis. Did it influence his spooked, spacey music?

"Definitely," he enthuses, "if only because there was nobody to tell me I was doing it wrong. I didn't grow up in a club environment, I didn't get that peer group pressure with MCs on every street corner."

So does musical isolation explain the evolution of this new breed of hip-hop? Is trip-hop the sound of white kids in suburban backwaters imitating big-city black music? Unsurprisingly, Shadow thinks not. "I come from a more straight hip-hop background," he reasons, "but I never think of myself as imitating black culture. That's kind of a tired issue. This is just one of the main avenues that hip-hop can go down. In 1979, the hip-hop game changed forever. You can stand around arguing and crying about it or you can follow it in new directions."

"Anyway, we don't have labels like trip-hop over here," Shadow sighs. "I don't understand it; I've never heard Massive Attack in my life..."

AS EVOLUTION goes, Bristol is a case study to make Darwin proud. The famously laidback West Country capital has produced three of the genre's leading players — Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky — as well as Nellee Hooper, the production brain behind Soul II Soul's hugely influential style. Even newcomers with tenuous local connections, like Earthling and Ecstatic Orange, are being tied to the infamous Bristol Sound.

The current Bristolian wave actually began over a decade ago with the Wild Bunch, a spliffed-up multiracial sound system whose floating membership featured Hooper, Tricky and the Massive crew. Splitting and mutating into Massive Attack in the late '80s, they virtually wrote the trip-hop rulebook with their mighty 1990 debut LP, Blue Lines: dub and blues, soul and rap, broody soundtrack and heavy studio weather in one glorious, ground-breaking soundscape.

When Massive Attack's work rate slowed to a trickle, their extended family got restless. Tape-op Geoff Barrow used studio time generously donated by the band to begin assembling what would eventually become Portishead. Tricky left the group and pushed the Massive sound into strangely wonderful new territory. All three have clear links. All three hate being compared to each other. All three, needless to say, despise the trip-hop tag with a vengeance.

"Trip-hop is experimental music that can go on quite long, almost like acid house, but trippy," claims Portishead's Geoff Barrow. "It's people in their studios, doing what they want — smoking spliffs, drinking Red Stripe, going off on one for a couple of hours. Portishead is songs with an alternative backing track. That's it."

Tricky, meanwhile, dismisses the label as "sad, trendy shit".

"If you're going to call it anything, you might as well call it hip-hop," he claims. "Calling it trip-hop is like we're responsible for making this thing up, and we're not. Me, Massive Attack, Portishead... we aren't doing anything different to what people were doing a long time before us. I could play you hip-hop tunes that are 12 years old that are fucking better than most of our stuff."

But surely Tricky and his peers comprise a new wave of British hip-hop — perhaps the genre's first true homegrown voices?

"It's not hip-hop, though, is it?" he argues. "Maybe Portishead are hip-hop with a girl singing over it, but I wouldn't say Massive Attack are hip-hop. And my music... I would call blues. Blues for the technical age. Tricknology blues."

SO NOW we have a label nobody wants, a sound nobody can define and a scene nobody will admit even exists. All are solid indications that this nebulous concept is a solid force in 1995. Just check out recent dance compilations like Dope On Plastic, Give 'Em Enough Dope and — rather more bluntly — This Is Trip Hop. Tracks by Portishead, The Chemical Brothers and various Mo'Wax signings feature prominently. So where is this elusive, troublesome genre heading? Is it a passing fad or a totally new musical movement?

"It's several different movements," argues Bristol DJ John Stapleton, who compiled the Dope On Plastic series. "It's more a movement out of jazz crossed with house, techno and hip-hop elements rather than an outgrowth of British hip-hop. There's a far greater case for saying jungle is the logical development of British hip-hop."

Maybe so. Perhaps the current trip-hop wave is actually the culmination of something, a dead-end street. After all, look how long Portishead took to bear fruit with their strangely nostalgic blend of old-school scratching and blues wailing. Will the future bring a slow dilution of this sound? Or will we be inundated by second-generation clones, the true test of a genre's commercial appeal?

"It's inevitable with any successful act," admits Caroline Killoury, who manages both Tricky and Portishead. "That's not necessarily a bad thing. The bands themselves would probably object more than you or I would, but it's healthy that other people are trying to find a sound for themselves.

"All music is drawn from references in other music. There're only a certain number of chords you can play."

True enough. But if a dozen Tricky wannabes contacted Killoury tomorrow, would she snap them up?

"Probably not. I don't think the sound has peaked yet, but I don't know how much room there is at the top. It's like if you're a racing driver, there're only six seats a year. Tricky, Portishead and Massive are all up there in the top six cars, but I don't know who's going to have a burst tyre first..."

One group already revved up on the starting grid are Earthling, whose Bristol-born frontman Tim Saul worked on Portishead's Dummy and persuaded Geoff Barrow to return the favour on Earthling's just-released debut, Radar.

Saul is less gloomy about the genre's future.

"Does rock music still have mileage in the marketplace?" he asks, waggishly. "That's the problem with labels like trip-hop; people will soon start to think it's last year's thing. But nobody asks why we're still listening to rock music 30 years down the line. I think it will settle down with time.

"The next Portishead album will probably be a departure from the last one, and Tricky is likely to do fuck-knows-what next. He could make a country and western record for all we know. The quality people will keep redefining themselves."

Indeed, and outsiders will just keep on trying to define them, too. Because this journey has just begun; it's a voyage into abstract hip-hop, ambient blues, the new psychedelia, the new dub, the new jazz...

Call it what you want. Just don't call it trip-hop...


External Links

Vox Magazine on Wikipedia