In a 1998 feature for The New York Times, Guy Garcia posited Blue Lines as the blueprint for trip-hop, an argument that holds some weight if you consider that parts of the album were as old as the days of The Wild Bunch, from which the trio emerged. Whether or not you consider it trip-hop is at this point in time purely a matter of personal beliefs and largely irrelevant considering its legacy. In 2009, Daddy G told The Observer: “What we were trying to do was create dance music for the head, rather than the feet.” A statement of intent for trip-hop if there ever was one.
DJ Shadow’s first album for Mo’ Wax is the kind of debut that places the bar so high in its mastery of a new musical vocabulary that even its creator can never hope to better it, forever living beneath the weight of what he’s accomplished. Endtroducing is the lingua franca of trip-hop, an album crafted by a hip-hop fanatic outside of any direct sphere of influence but his own. Like all of the releases on this list, to define Endtroducing as trip-hop is to limit it, to take away the transformative powers it had to imbue listeners with a new understanding of the potentials of hip-hop as an instrumental music. It’s not just the music that made hip-hop suck in 1996, it was also the critics who couldn’t conceive that albums like Endtroducing were what they claimed to be and nothing more.
Portishead’s 1994 debut was soaked in the same DIY, melting pot approach that typified much of Bristol’s output at the time. From Massive Attack to Smith Mighty and early Full Cycle releases, the city’s greatest hits in that decade were all about the blending of aesthetics with a brazen irreverence for rules. As a result the music felt both impossible and irresistible. Two decades on, Dummy still sounds as hypnotic and engrossing as it did then, a gritty take on hip-hop, 1960s movie soundtracks and traditional songwriting that laid bare the potentials afforded by sidestepping rigid genre formats.
This is the one, really. Tricky named his debut solo album after his mother, Maxine Quaye, and that should already indicate just how personal the record is. He’d sharpened his skills as a member of Massive Attack (indeed some of his rhymes from Blue Lines were recycled here), but his solo material went far beyond his former collaborators’ Black Sites dating service scope. Tricky was pulling from a darker well, and allowed his struggles, both external and internal, to sit at the album’s epicentre. The result was some of the most tortured and original electronic music cut to wax which gave birth to an era where “weird” became fashionable.
He was assisted by his then-girlfriend Martina Topley-Bird, whose nonchalant purrs offered a foil for Tricky’s hoarse raps. She was the smooth to Tricky’s tab-addled rough, and grounded the project for many listeners, no doubt helping people to lump it in with the similarly located Portishead.
As boss of the Tummy Touch label, Tim ‘Love’ Lee had an important part to play in the development of downbeat and trip-hop, not least thanks to his discovery of future genre stars Groove Armada, but the less said about that the better
Tricky hated being labeled trip-hop (“This is not a coffee table album. I don’t think you can have dinner parties to it,” he stated in 1996) and has rallied against it ever since, but there can be no argument that, for better or for worse, he left an indelible mark on British music, electronic and otherwise. If covering Public Enemy’s racially charged ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’ and recasting Chuck D as a mixed-race female from Bristol (singing, instead of rapping) isn’t hitting the genre’s conceit squarely in the face, we’re not sure what is. “If I supposedly invented it, why not call it Tricky-hop?” he said, before releasing Pre-Millenium Tension. He wasn’t wrong.
London Funk Allstars’ Ninja Tune debut will likely sound dated to most who come across it for the first time today. And yet, amid the simple breakbeats, classic loops and obvious vocal chops there’s a real beauty that captures the essence of a simpler time when the possibilities seemed endless and technology was providing new ways to think about music.
Blue Lines made its mark thanks to a mix of ideas: England’s love affair with sound systems; the comedown from its own summer of love in 1989; and hip-hop’s nascent dominance and rapacious aesthetic
Released a year before the term trip-hop was coined in Mixmag, Justin Warfield’s first and only solo album is included here largely thanks to Strictly Kev, who recently pointed out its relevance with regard to the music’s supposed psychedelic properties. My Field Trip To Planet 9 is a rap album, cut from the same cloth as Check Your Head-era Beastie Boys and Digable Planets. But remove its vocals and behold music that sounds like it wouldn’t be out of place on Mo’ Wax or Ninja Tune a few years later. At its best, trip-hop was music for b-boys on acid, as Warfield sang on the album’s single. A year later, he provided the vocals for Bomb The Bass’s ‘Bug Powder Dust’, another bonafide rap-on-acid classic that got the trip-hop treatment via Paris’s La Funk Mob and Vienna’s Kruder Dorfmeister.
Confessions of a Selector might be his finest achievement, not quite reaching fully into the trip-hop cookie jar, instead relying on Lee’s estimable crate digging expertise. The hallmarks of the genre are there, but prettied up with luscious tropical vistas and an eccentric (but smart) cut-and-paste quality that isn’t a million miles from US duo Tipsy.
After a forgettable false start peddling iffy acid jazz, Mo’ Wax made a stylistic shift in 1994, kickstarting a four-year period that continues to resonate two decades on. The first Headz compilation is a neat 18-track digest of that transition, a bitions and comments on the status quo of the time are found in the slowed down grooves and samples as well as the track titles: ‘Ravers Suck Our Sound’, ‘Contemplating Jazz’, ‘In Flux’, ‘The Time Has Come’. The titular beatheads may have seemed like a stoned, uncreative bunch at the time but their aesthetic has proven resilient. Alongside obvious names like DJ Shadow, La Funk Mob and R.P.M, Headz also featured Nightmares On Wax, Autechre, Howie B. and various members of Major Force.
We™ formed by accident in the early 1990s after DJ Olive had been asked to contribute a track to Wordsound’s Certified Dope Vol.1 compilation for which he roped in fellow Brooklyn musicians Lloop and Once11. In the following years the trio became one of the emblematic acts of New York’s short-lived illbient scene, drunk off the possibilities afforded by the experiments that drove their creative ecosystem, where ambient, dub and hip-hop floated freely in a haze of smoke between cheap Brooklyn lofts and downtown squats. Their 1997 debut for Asphodel is a blistering run through hip-hop instrumentals, ambient lulls and drum bass exercises that highlight the music’s chill-out roots and breakbeat fetish.