Fuse hip-hop instrumentals with dark ambience and you have trip hop, the seedy underbelly of electronica. Originating from 90s UK bands like Massive Attack and Portishead, trip hop (or “downtempo”) draws from funk, soul, rap, house, and dub, creating an abominable amalgamation of experimentalism. Trip hop is its own genre entirely.
While some tracks could make a DJ’s club playlist, others could coax you to sleep. Through the breadth of trip hop, there seems to be one unifying theme in every artist: the grimy, eerie, dark ambience. Kodomo paints the ambience with unsettling abstraction, DJ Shadow blends old R&B and classical music samples for a haunting, alluring dissonance, and Boards of Canada replicates the psychedelic experience of preverbal infancy with washed-out, chaotic beats under samples of nonsensical English. Many of these albums deserve their own articles for their mastery of experimentalism, but considering many haven’t even heard of trip hop, this is an introduction.
One artist, Bonobo, has seen remarkable success recently with his chill-out electronica. His origins, however, are rooted deeply in trip hop. His first album, “Animal Magic,” samples gorgeous jazz bass lines, funk beats, and non-Western instruments, creating an incredible fusion. “Noctuary” opens with dissonant thrums on the harp, building with an orchestra of grime until the bass completes the nocturnal vibe. “Kiara,” a more recent release, pumps with bounding bass between exhalations of female vocals and warm synths.
My favorite music video of all-time features “Dayvan Cowboy,” a track by Boards of Canada, accompanying first person footage of Colonel Joe Kittinger’s 19-mile parachute jump from space. Open guitar chords build with airy white noise as the camera tumbles through space with miles of clouds rolling off to the blue aura of the horizon. When the beat jumps on, a viola soars with august melody. The footage becomes engulfed in massive, tumbling waves that dolphins and surfers ride.
Boards of Canada is far and away the most visual artist I’ve ever listened to. Though the music video for “Dayvan Cowboy” is expansive and beautiful, it falls short of what the music can inspire in your mind. Listen to the track “You Could Feel The Sky” with your eyes closed and see what kind of sci-fi hellscape is conjured.
DJ Shadow is considered one of the best samplers in hip hop. His first album, “Entroducing,” was almost entirely composed with samples, yet it’s so unique in its aesthetic and sound that it can strongly stand on its own. As such a haunting masterpiece, tracks from “Entroducing” have become the soundtrack to countless TV shows and films.
The most dancy of the lot, Crystal Castles uses analogue synthesizers, a driving beat, haunting melody, washed out vocals, and a heavy dose of reverb to create what some have called “Witch House.” The name comes from the band’s resemblance to sinister choir music and the house-like rhythmic elements. Whatever you want to call the band, Crystal Castles’ “(II)” is a catchy masterpiece.
Despite its obscurity, trip hop is an interesting genre with a lot of potential. It is definitely worth checking out for any music lover.