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The Progressive Underground’s Primer to Trip-Hop

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Five essential tracks that shaped trip-hop, downtempo, and chill music.

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Over 26 years ago, before it was made famous by the likes of Massive Attack and Portishead, trip-hop was a new music genre that emerged from the early-90s music scene in Bristol, UK

Bristol, a western port known for its leisurely pace and laid-back lifestyle, was grounded in post-punk bohemia music for years. A multi-racial collective of DJs, singers and rappers emerged from this scene to band together to form the group Massive Attack who released “Blue Lines” in 1991, the album widely regarded as the first trip-hop album.

Trip-hops enduring legacy is found in numerous pioneering artists whom it has influenced such as the Gorillaz, Beck, Bjork and Radiohead.

Blue Lines” cited influences from Isaac Haye’s orchestra soul and the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s jazz-rock aesthetic all the way to the dub reggae of Studio One, but with an emphasis on not necessarily filling a dance floor but rather a focus on “chilling out” at a lounge.

Trip-hop continued to grow its global audience and become an international phenomenon well into the 2000s. Music from the genre appeared in movies, television series and commercials and spawned several subgenres including illbient, post trip-hop and IDM

But its enduring legacy is found in numerous pioneering artists whom it has influenced such as the Gorillaz, Beck, Bjork and Radiohead. Trip-hop is a form of electronic music that reinterpreted its possibilities with technology while capturing our imaginations and our ears with its richly atmospheric sound stylings that have enjoyed continued afterlife on film and television soundtracks. 

Click the player above to hear Chris Campbell’s history of trip hop and get a feel for the genre with these quintessential tracks.


The Progressive Underground’s Primer to Trip-Hop

1. “Protection” by Massive Attack

Massive Attack’s 2nd album, 1994’s “Protection” fine-tuned the formula for the yet-to-be-named genre.

The track features vocals from Tracey Thorn, lead singer of Everything But The Girl.  The song contained samples taken from “The Payback” by James Brown, namely the hi-hat beat and the recurrent wah-wah guitar element.

It was shortly after this that international music publication MixMag coined the phrase “trip-hop,” along with “downtempo” and “chill”, as a way of describing this emerging genre of music that utilized hip-hop samples, funk and other slowed down atmospheric elements that gave a torrid hip hop aesthetic and cinematic vibe to the music. 

2. “Numb” by Portishead

Around this time, another group who would also be considered one of the pioneers of the trip-hop, downtempo and chill genre emerged from the same Bristol scene: Geoff Barrow, Adrian Utley and lead singer Beth Gibbons, better known as Portishead.

Portishead’s 1994 album “Dummy” pushed the genre to an international audience through the use of a number of hip-hop techniques, such as sampling, scratching, and loop-making. Using those hip-hop techniques as a base, the group would record their own original music atop all of that using an analog format rather than a digital one, giving their work a vintage sound.

Dummy” was a masterwork that helped to cement the reputation of Bristol as the capital of trip-hop, a nascent genre which was then often referred to simply as “the Bristol sound.”

3. “Changeling” by DJ Shadow

Trip-hop, downtempo and chill continued to evolve with the release of another groundbreaking album that incorporated a high level of turntable artistry with cinematic sensibilities, but this time the artist was from the United States.

Joshua Paul Davis, better known by his stage name DJ Shadow, was an American producer and DJ out of Davis, Calif., who had a personal collection of more than 60,000 records. He first gained notice with the release of his acclaimed debut studio album, “Endtroducing,” which was built entirely from music samples of lost funk classics and bad horror soundtracks from his record collection.

The album employed tens of thousands of samples layered to beautiful melodic perfection and would expand the perspective of trip-hop, downtempo and chill, going on to heavily influence global producers who would show up on the music scene years later like Madlib and Flying Lotus.

4. “Flying Away” by Smoke City

Other artists and groups would continue taking the genre in several new and different directions. Smoke City, comprised of Nina Miranda, Mark Brown, and Chris Franck, blended acid jazz, slow samba and bossa nova into a wonderful melding of downtempo, chill and trip-hop.

5. “Teardrop” by Massive Attack

Massive Attack’s anthemic track “Teardrop,” is one of the most significant tunes from one of the most outstanding albums in the genre. The track was greatly enhanced by the vocals of former Cocteau Twin Liz Fraser, whose otherworldly voice is a perfect fit for Massive Attack’s ethereal mood music.  This song may be best known for becoming the theme song for the long-running television series “House.”

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Chris Campbell, Host, The Progressive Underground

Chris Campbell is a music journalist and nationally-renowned tastemaker. As host of the Progressive Underground, he takes listeners on a multi-genre musical odyssey by way of creative hand-picked playlists, exclusive artist interviews and atmospheric style mixes.

ccampbell@wdet.org Follow @cambeaux

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