As with near everyone on the planet, much of my music tastes spans from my parent’s favourite genres. However, this was both a gift and a curse, while my Mum introduced me to pop stars that could maybe fall into the oldie categories such as Simply Red, Steely Dan etc. My Dad’s taste in music was about as closed off and confined as they get- nothing but rock music, mainly punk rock, leaving me with early exposure to legendary acts of The Ramones’, The Who’s, The Clash’s and The Jam’s magnitude. This was of course the gift, with the curse being that I missed out on everything else- I don’t think I’d even heard a proper rap song until I was a teenager, and genres like house, drum and bass, trip hop, indie and everything in between I simply missed out on entirely, and I’m embarrassed to say that Portishead and Massive Attack are a few of those acts I’ve missed out until the past few years- the two big pioneers of trip hop.
Both Massive Attack and Portishead are credited with near-enough single-handedly creating and popularising trip-hop. Both groups are from Bristol, England, and while it remains and forever will be the birthplace of one of the most elusive and critically respected genres, it is also my hometown. That bit of background aside, while Wikipedia and a plethora of other websites assign particular characteristics to the genre such as having ‘influences of soul, funk and jazz’. I’m not sure this is really an accurate representation, trip hop doesn’t really have distinctive confines that it must remain within, with an abundance of variety tumbling out of the genre with the name trip hop scrawled across it. If we look at (one of my favourite albums of all time) Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, the vast amount of diversity across the duration of the LP may leave a lot of new listeners wondering what exactly trip hop is.
Again, when focusing on Blue Lines more closely there is a plethora of distinctive sounds on near every track, let alone the entirety of the project. One Love samples Issac Hayes’ symphonic strings found on Ike’s Mood, yet in the Massive Attack context they are flipped into a haunting, creeping element, one that the track simply can’t manage without. Yet on the same song, we have record scratches and horns probing its way to your eardrum. Such a strange concoction of sounds, yet with the ever present drum clap and that subtle cementing baseline, the noises weave and twist their way into a perplexing journey of sound. Continuing with Blue Lines’ substantial array of inspirations, hip-hop is of course an omnipresent characteristic that’s very much the spinal feature of trip hop- Daydreaming is probably the best example of this.
As mentioned, Portishead fits the ‘pioneer’ label assigned to Massive Attack
just as much. With their debut album- Dummy, released back in 1994, it was announced post Blue Lines- at the forefront of trip hop’s refusal to peter out. Despite the genre still being an early concept, Dummy received the 1995 Mercury Prize Award, ousting the likes of household names such as Oasis, Van Morrison and ex-Massive Attack MC, and fellow trip hop pioneer, Tricky. While the LP is evidently trip hop, featuring elements often found in Massive Attack’s later work such as Mezzanine, Dummy pushed into darker regions, yet still retained a symphonic calming nature- two contrasting elements that gel so well together, it really is hard to get your head around.
Looking at one of Dummy’s most popular tracks- Roads, while it had the ever-present baseline holding the track together, the beautiful strings transform the song into a floaty journey that really is something indescribable. With Beth Gibbons’ ghost-like vocals delicately draped over the top of the album, she feels like a trapped soul lost in a confused world of pain, yet possesses that glimmer of hope that you feel is forthcoming. The hip-hop influences are just as prominent as in Blue Lines, with Illmatic-esque beats making up Pedestal, alongside those warped record scratches that would fit right in on The Dust Brothers’ Fight Club soundtrack.
While trip hop has petered out a bit over the last 5 years due to the two acts above’s refusal to conform to regular (or at least consistent) release of music, you can still hear infusions of trip hop in modern day music, even if the artist didn’t realise it. If you listen to Portishead’s It’s A Fire, there’s no way you can tell me that they aren’t the same chords used on Rudimental‘s Feel The Love. Massive Attack’s now-anthemic Teardrop is still constantly flipped, sampled, covered or remixed, with Foxes and The Collective being the most recent examples of this. Particularly recently, trip hop has had a contemporary revitalisation thanks to the release of London Grammar’s If You Wait, Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead, or the directly influenced tracks found on Chase & Status’ Brand New Machine. You could also easily argue that many elements of Gorillaz’ darker tracks such as Broken or Cloud of Unknowing stem directly from trip hop.
In my opinion, trip hop remains one of the most confusing, inconsistent, elusive and perplexing genres in popular music. While the honchos of the genre remain in their backseats here in the present day, I’m sure they’re more than happy to sit back and watch people have a stab at the genre they’ve crafted, only for them to pop out of nowhere with another critically-acclaimed, award-snatching album. One that will put them right back on the throne they’ve always rightfully owned. With Massive Attack pictured in the studio with Run The Jewels, and Portishead set to headline Latitude Festival this year, let’s hope that it’s sooner rather than later.