Illustration by: Mat Pringle
Like it or not, trip-hop is a thing. I say this as someone who, for the past 18 odd years, has loved the music just as much as I’ve hated the term.
Coined in June 1994 by Andy Pemberton in a feature for Mixmag, trip-hop was used to describe the recent stylistic shift of the Mo’ Wax label and that music’s popularity in dance circles, particularly in after hours sessions. Pemberton heralded trip-hop as a psychedelic take on hip-hop and the first valid alternative to America’s dominance of the music.
The DNA of trip-hop was more complex than its reduction to bite-sized adjectives. One strand came from hip-hop, which had fed the musical imagination of a new generation for over a decade, while another strand came from rave, which had provided further stylistic possibilities with its fusion of drum machines, breaks, samples and synthesisers. Sound systems, digging, dub, chill-out rooms, early globalisation and technology also acted like so many molecules attaching themselves to a new idea of what hip-hop could be. Trip-hop was a logical evolution in a decade during which everyone came down from a partying high to face the reality that hip-hop and dance music were being co-opted by the mainstream; dreams of a new sonic utopia crushed by the relentless onslaught of capitalism.
Just as techno had become a synonym for dance music, trip-hop soon became a crutch for journalists and marketers wanting to signify hip-hop without rappers. Most notably, it became a byword for the Bristol sound epitomised by bands like Massive Attack and Portishead. In 1998, The New York Times retconned Massive Attack’s debut album Blue Lines as the so-called genre’s inception point.
On the ground, the sound did resonate in a genuine way among a new generation of musicians seeking freedom to experiment. In London, Ninja Tune played yin to Mo’ Wax’s yang. Both labels crafted a unique visual dimension and assembled expansive rosters. In Paris, DJ Cam pushed out his own blunted beats to eager continental heads. In Austria, Kruder & Dorfmeister added an extra layer of dub and turned trip-hop into downbeat in a haze of weed paranoia. In New York City, a loosely linked group of artists, thinkers and musicians spread from downtown Manhattan to Brooklyn’s cheap warehouses to imagine their own version of the sound, which The Wire magazine dubbed illbient. No matter the names or the execution, the DNA was the same.
It was always going to end badly. Mo’ Wax, often seen as responsible for the sound, originally kicked off riding the acid-jazz wave, a sound that soon exhausted itself into a creative cul-de-sac. By the late 1990s, trip-hop had become nothing more than limp, often stoner-friendly, coffee table hip-hop beats. It was music for people who felt rap was too dangerous. To those who believed in it though, it always held a promise of things weird and wonderful.
Alongside IDM (another etymological faux pas from the 1990s), trip-hop presaged the beat scene of the late 2000s, a continuation of the ideas and aesthetic it first articulated. When I spoke to Daddy Kev in 2012, he pointed to Mo’ Wax as one of the key influences for Low End Theory. Flying Lotus has cited DJ Krush as an influence. And tastemakers like Gilles Peterson have championed the music’s evolution across decades.
In putting together this list, we tried to take all of this into account. There is no purism to indulge in, because there is nothing pure about trip-hop. As DJ Food’s Strictly Kev put it recently, at its best the music was “psychedelic beat collages, usually instrumental, embracing samples, analogue electronics and dub FX.” The list is contained to the 1990s for historical accuracy and tries to steer away from the music’s strongholds to show the width and breadth of the sound. As such, you’ll find artists from France, Northern Ireland, Japan, America, Denmark and Brazil represented as well as releases from Asphodel, Wordsound, Rephlex, Warp and a handful of majors. It’s also worth noting that when an artist had multiple worthy albums (for instance, Portishead or Massive Attack), we only included their most definitive moment.
Read next: the 100 best indie hip-hop records of all time.
50. London Funk Allstars
London Funk Volume 1
(Ninja Tune, 1995)
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.
49. Bomb The Bass
(4th & Broadway, 1994)
Tim Simenon might not be the most obvious pick for a trip-hop list, but Clear exhibits plenty of the genre’s hallmarks. Tossing away the rave collage aesthetic that had made ‘Beat Dis’ such a massive success, Simenon weaves an ambitious narrative, tying together dub and hip-hop-influenced tracks with heady spoken-word clips from writers Benjamin Zephaniah and Will Self. There are also notable contributions from influential figures such as Leslie Winer (if you haven’t heard her 1993 album Witch, you should seek it out immediately), Bernard Fowler and Bim Sherman, opening up a dialogue between New York, Jamaica and the UK that would remain at the center of the genre for years to come.
Confidence in Duber
John Hughes’s Chicago-based Hefty imprint was crucial in cementing the relationship between Chicago’s burgeoning post-rock scene (led by Tortoise) and the seemingly more experimental (and more European) IDM and trip-hop genres. This union would reach its peak in 2001 with Telefon Tel Aviv’s massive Fahrenheit Fair Enough, but a few years prior, Hughes himself was making similar strides under his Slicker moniker. Confidence in Duber sits firmly alongside Scott Herren’s early Delarosa & Asora experiments, snatching the breaks ‘n’ blunts from trip-hop and injecting them with digital belches cribbed from the IDM playbook. Oddly enough, it’s aged better than you might expect, and is well worthy of re-investigation.
47. Meat Beat Manifesto
Subliminal Sandwich is Meat Beat Manifesto’s fourth album and their first on a major label via Nothing Records, a subsidiary of Interscope helmed by Trent Reznor that was intended to capitalise on the success of Nine Inch Nails. The album proved a critical and commercial flop, though it remains an interesting offering, drawing links between trip-hop, dub, industrial and ambient with a touch of psychedelia. Split across two CDs, it’s the first half that’s of most interest here as the rest focused on drone and ambient compositions. The 18 tracks draw heavily on samples and breaks combined with pulsing basslines, heavily processed vocals and an overall gritty finish that makes it sound like the bastard child of Mo’ Wax and Bill Laswell’s Axiom Records.
46. 9 Lazy 9
(Ninja Tune, 1994)
Early Ninja Tune beatmakers 9 Lazy 9 might not sound as crucial now as they did back in the mid 1990s, but there’s still fun to be had on Paradise Blown, their second album. The Italy-based group (including Funki Porcini’s James Braddell) added a distinctly light-hearted lounge quality to a genre that could often dwell in the darker crevices, and as such Paradise Blown can be filed alongside offerings from Tim ‘Love’ Lee and Tipsy, even if it’s not anywhere near as endearingly experimental.
(Mo’ Wax, 1998)
Mo’ Wax boss James Lavelle’s pet project, UNKLE, remains a controversial part of the trip-hop canon. With distance, Psyence Fiction is possibly more enjoyable than it was back in 1998, and it highlights the genre’s crossover potential with guest spots from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft (then riding high after the success of ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’) and Badly Drawn Boy, but it’s hard not to see it as a slightly cynical marketing exercise. DJ Shadow, who was drafted to co-write the album, was quick to speak out about his unhappiness with both the process and the result, but Psyence Fiction is representative of a time and place, and shows trip-hop’s promise as it was being co-opted and transformed into something that labels could whitewash and monetize. Zero 7 was just around the corner.
Trip Tease – The Seductive Sounds of Tipsy
It might be a stretch to classify Tipsy as trip-hop, but the Californian duo of Tim Digulla and David Gardner certainly used many of the same tools as their European peers. Pillaging loops from a wide variety of lounge and exotica records, Digulla and Gardner came up with a dusty, defiant and undoubtedly downbeat look at sound collage. Since it veered away from obvious breaks and beats, Trip Tease actually holds up markedly better than some other records of the era, and ends up sounding closer in style to David Holmes, with a smoky, cinematic quality.
43. Justin Warfield
Field Trip To Planet 9
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.
42. Smith & Mighty
Bass Is Maternal
(More Rockers/!K7, 1995)
You can’t have a conversation about trip-hop without mentioning Bristol, and you can’t talk about the Bristol scene without giving a nod to Smith & Mighty. The West Country duo took soundsystem culture and a hefty scoop of the ideas informing an increasingly popular jungle scene and helped formulate an entire sound. Without them, Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack simply wouldn’t sound the same. Bass Is Maternal is the best representation of their scope, and illustrates their experimentation as they attempted to summarize the meeting point between UK rave culture and Jamaican dub. It’s not always successful, but to ignore it is to disregard an important chapter in British musical history.
41. DJ Vadim
U.S.S.R Repertoire (The Theory of Verticality)
(Ninja Tune, 1996)
The first of Vadim’s four albums for Ninja Tune, U.S.S.R Repertoire is a weeded-out take on an American musical form by a Russian immigrant living in the English capital – an instrumental microcosm of hip-hop’s globalisation. Beneath a layer of simplicity, there is depth to Vadim’s approach; the beats feel expansive, the music inviting the listener to cradle in the grooves of the breaks and warmth of the bass. Much of this debut also acts as an echo of what Wordsound and We™ were doing across the ocean at the same time. As Vadim’s 1995 debut on his own Jazz Fudge imprint proclaimed, heads weren’t ready.
40. Funki Porcini
Hed Phone Sex
(Ninja Tune, 1995)
After a decade penning film and TV music in Italy, British producer James Braddell decided to head to London and set up his own studio, where he would use some of his commercial writing tricks to come up with Funki Porcini, one of the most recognizable names on Ninja Tune’s early roster. This was trip-hop with a side helping of very English humour, from the moniker itself to the record’s awkwardly suggestive cover. Musically, Braddell laid out a template that would be traced over for years to come with his combination of dusty hip-hop rhythms and booming dub bass. The swirling, reverb-drenched samples just added an extra layer of thick smoke to an already bloodshot premise.
39. Red Snapper
If the elephant in the room here is acid jazz, Red Snapper are one of the rare acts who addressed it head-on. Prince Blimey is their first full-length and is certainly more overtly jazzy than most of the records we’ve highlighted on this list. That’s not a negative though, the trio – a bassist, guitarist and drummer – had genuine chops, and managed to inject their musical training into a more contemporary mode, touching on trip-hop and drum & bass without ever sounding forced. It’s a concoction that might now sound too close to the coffee table dreck that sat next to a copy of American Psycho and a rolled up tenner at the close of the millennium, but Red Snapper managed, somehow, to keep things edgy and unusual. They even, somewhat inexplicably, ended up touring with The Prodigy.
38. Various Artists
DJ Kicks: Kruder & Dorfmeister
Despite becoming the figureheads of Austria’s downbeat scene (a continental take on trip-hop), Viennese duo Kruder & Dorfmeister never released an album. Instead it was through their debut EP, G-Stoned, and absurdly popular mix CDs that they accrued fame. Their 1996 contribution to !K7’s DJ-Kicks series captured the sweet spot between the blunted grooves of chill-out rooms and the rolling breaks of jungle, an approach they’d refine two years later on The K&D Sessions. K&D’s arrival on the scene came at a time when trip-hop had started to resemble a safe version of hip-hop for those seeking thrills without effort, and their mixes remain as close as you can get to the bland, coffee table take on the genre without feeling too sick.
37. Wagon Christ
(Rising High Records, 1994)
With releases under a variety of aliases on seminal labels like Ninja Tune, Mo’ Wax, Planet Mu and Rephlex throughout the 1990s, Luke Vibert is one of the artists that best connects the dots between the various styles and ideas that fed into trip-hop. His second release as Wagon Christ pieces together elements from hip-hop, the burgeoning UK dance music scene and electro into a colourful sonic puzzle that glides along in splendid fashion. Or as Select put it at the time, “the missing link between Aphex Twin and Mo’ Wax.”
36. Tim ‘Love’ Lee
Confessions of a Selector
(Tummy Touch, 1997)
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. 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.
(Mo’ Wax, 1998)
Psychonauts were Mo’ Wax’s secret weapon, so much so that James Lavelle had them provide mixes under his name – ghost mixed, if you will. Time Machine was his payment for services rendered, and it’s a fine document of the era, not only rounding up some of Mo’ Wax’s finest moments, but also showing just how important turntablism and truly creative mixing was to the scene’s development. Most songs don’t get more than a minute of air time as the duo power through almost 50 tracks in half an hour, blending together cuts from genre luminaries DJ Krush, Luke Vibert, DJ Shadow, La Funk Mob and more. If you need a quick-to-digest taster of the genre, this is as good as it gets.
34. Prince Paul
Psychoanalysis (What Is It?)
We can already hear the furious typing of wronged hip-hop heads asking with disgust why Prince Paul is even on this list. Psychoanalysis is here for a bunch of reasons: it was originally released by Wordsound, a label most associated (wrongly or not) with illbient, NYC’s answer to trip-hop; it’s a rare example of a fully instrumental hip-hop album from a city that, in the 1990s, had no time for anything that didn’t have rappers on it (Skiz Fernando Jr., who ran the label, recounted stories of Fat Beats refusing to stock the album at the time); and it’s basically 15 tracks of Prince Paul taking his whole skit philosophy to its most absurd conclusion. For all these reasons and more, Psychoanalysis remains a slept-on classic from the 1990s, a half-way point between trip-hop’s European roots and its infatuation with American hip-hop.
33. The Herbalizer
Blow Your Headphones
(Ninja Tune, 1997)
Jake Wherry and Ollie Teeba’s The Herbalizer project was a fine example of trip-hop’s most visible back-and-forth with “proper” hip-hop. They weren’t afraid to work with emcees, and on Blow Your Headphones, their second album, they found a kindred spirit in Natural Resource’s What? What?, now better known as Jean Grae. She added an important element to Wherry and Teeba’s jazz-flecked backdrops, and while it’s certainly true that many of trip-hop’s consumers were looking for a safer alternative to charged US rap, The Herbalizer walked the tightrope admirably, and were markedly more successful in bridging the genres than many of their peers, who buckled when attempting to integrate emcees.
32. The Bug
Tapping the Conversation
Another release that will likely raise a few eyebrows for its inclusion, The Bug’s debut album nonetheless fits within the wider idea of what trip-hop could, and should, be about. There are a few other reasons too: it was released on Wordsound; DJ Vadim provided the drum samples; and, like the best trip-hop releases of the 1990s, it was a soundtrack for life, with the listener invited to let their mind fill in the blanks. The blend of hip-hop, dub and industrial influences that would go on to characterise Martin’s work is found here at its rawest and tracks like ‘Those Tapes Are Dangerous’ show a darker side to trip-hop’s blunted potential.
Mr Brubaker’s Strawberry Alarm Clock
Riz Maslen is often more widely associated with electronica (no doubt thanks to her early association with Future Sound of London), but her second Neotropic album Mr Brubaker’s Strawberry Alarm Clock is one of the trip-hop era’s hidden gems. The record appeared on the Ninja Tune sister label Ntone, and is one of the few full-lengths on this list that still sounds truly bizarre and alien. On top of the usual dusty breaks, Maslen lavished elements absorbed from IDM’s palette but left behind its seemingly random, artificial bent. The conversation between trip-hop and IDM was very visible in the late 90s – Plaid being the most obvious example – but Maslen avoided many of the trappings of both scenes, emerging with a record that was probably “too future” for most beatheads.
30. Various Artists
Headz (A Soundtrack Of Experimental Beathead Jams.)
(Mo’ Wax, 1994)
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 declaration of what was to come. Influences, ambitions 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.
29. Various Artists
Eleven Phases is a true gem, a little-known compilation of downtempo and instrumental tracks from many of Detroit’s finest techno artists including Robert Hood, Kenny Larkin, Eddie Fowlkes and Anthony Shakir. Originally released in Japan only, the compilation makes for a fascinating snapshot of the hip-hop roots and leanings of the city’s dance music pioneers. Will Web’s ‘Cosmic Kung-Fu Funk’ slows down techno’s rawness to a blunted, hip-hop-influenced slouch while Robert Hood’s ‘Mystique’ wouldn’t be out of place on a !K7 compilation. Despite emerging entirely outside of the 1990s trip-hop world, Eleven Phases shows how the core ideas and principles of the aesthetic bled into various scenes and cities throughout the decade.
Solex vs. Hitmeister
It makes sense that one of the best (and weirdest) records in a genre that deifies crate diggers should come from a record store owner. Elisabeth Esselink’s debut album was hard to categorize when it landed in 1998, there were elements pilfered from plenty of genres but not really enough of one or the other for categorization. Not only this, but Solex vs. Hitmeister emerged on the Matador label, then best known for releasing indie records. It was certainly aimed at a different crowd from the usual green-thumbed beatheads with a complete collection of Mo’ Wax 12″s and a line of Gundam figurines on their desk, and that was a good thing. Esselink was a breath of fresh air, and Solex vs. Hitmeister‘s peculiar charms still resonate as she tangles her voice through hiccuping collages of unwieldy samples and collapsing drum machine loops.
27. Various Artists
(Ninja Tune, 1995)
Released in 1995, the first Ninja Tune compilation arrived between the two Headz volumes from Mo’ Wax, providing a perfect counterpoint that showed how similar yet different the London powerhouses were at the time. Focused largely on early Ninja artists such as 9 Lazy 9, The Herbaliser, Coldcut and DJ Food, it also features appearance from Austria’s downbeat kings Kruder & Dorfmeister and Attica Blues, who had just joined Mo’ Wax. As with the first Headz volume, Funkjazztical Tricknology also marked the beginning of a shift for Ninja Tune with its releases becoming essential not just for the music but also their design, packaging and words of in-house scribe Shane Solanki, who invented the Ninjaspeak that played into the label’s growing mythos.
26. DJ Food
Recipe For Disaster
(New Breed, 1995)
No other artist embodies Ninja Tune quite like DJ Food, the multifaceted DJ project set up in the early days of the label by its founders, Coldcut. As its name implies, DJ Food was set up to provide DJs with the necessary ingredients to do their thing. For the first five years, the collective – Coldcut, Strictly Kev and PC – released loops and other tools via the Jazz Brakes series, some of which is great, while some is just as forgettable as the more tepid early Mo’ Wax releases. In 1995, DJ Food went for a meatier offering with their debut album, A Recipe For Disaster. Using the same approach that had made their Solid Steel mixes and live appearances unmissable, they pieced together 16 tracks that veer from downtempo moody to breakbeat furious and proved that they knew their way around the trip-hop kitchen just as well as the best of them.
25. DJ Krush & Toshinori Kondo
The collision of avant-garde jazz and trip-hop was bound to happen. Experimental players throughout the world were desperate to open up a conversation with younger producers, and trip-hop (as well as drum & bass) was an obvious crash-pad, considering its liberal pilfering of the genre via sampling. Ki Oku is one of the best examples of this collision, despite trumpeter Toshinori Kondo turning in a surprisingly straightforward performance throughout. (This is a musician who had gone head to head with Peter Brötzmann and John Zorn – we weren’t exactly expecting him to toot out a cover of Bob Marley’s ‘Sun Is Shining’.) But it works. What could, in the wrong hands, have been one of the worst abuses of both jazz and trip-hop tropes, is actually remarkably measured and incredibly listenable.
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.
23. Amon Tobin
(Ninja Tune, 1997)
Known for his virtuoso sound design and increasingly complicated A/V shows, Brazilian producer Amon Tobin might seem like an odd addition to a list of trip-hop albums, but bear with us. His second album Bricolage emerged from the dust of trip-hop, appearing on Ninja Tune and offering a view of the scene through cracked glass. Tobin provided a more precise (and, let’s be honest, less stoned) take on the trip-hop sound, absorbing drum & bass and IDM influences without batting an eyelid. The result is an accomplished midpoint between the edit-heavy trickery of Squarepusher and Aphex Twin and the moody soundscapes of Krush, Vibert and Shadow.
22. Third Eye Foundation
(Linda’s Strange Vacation, 1996)
Matt Elliott may have been a total outlier to most of the scenes that piled up to intersect at trip-hop, but Semtex is an example of how certain musicians could absorb familiar tropes without sacrificing originality. Elliott’s Third Eye Foundation debut fused breaks and booming sub bass with sounds more common to shoegaze: endless reverb, screaming and grizzled distortion. Traces of drum & bass (which would emerge more clearly on Elliott’s follow-up album Ghost) slipped in-and-out of focus, and Semtex doesn’t really feel like part of one movement or another, rather adjacent and dizzy from ether and cheap draw. If anyone tries to tell you Bristol was just Portishead, Tricky and Roni Size, play ’em this burner.
21. Attica Blues
(Mo’ Wax, 1997)
Like many of the artists and albums featured in this list, Attica Blues is trip-hop thanks to the location and affiliations of its creators at the time. A trio composed of producers Charlie Dark (then D’Afro) and Tony Nwachukwu (of CD-R fame) alongside singer Roba El-Essawy, Attica Blues made jazz-influenced hip-hop that happened to have a woman singing on it instead of emcees rapping. In the 1990s, thanks to genre purism, that meant your shit wasn’t rap and therefore wasn’t hip-hop. Attica Blues is one of Mo’ Wax’s better and more slept-on full lengths, a deft exercise in sampling, programming and arranging, back when doing so took more than a few clicks of a mouse.
20. Coldcut & DJ Food vs. DJ Krush
Cold Krush Cuts
(Ninja Tune, 1996)
The best trip-hop owed plenty both to the art of mixing and the cut-and-paste aesthetic of the 1980s, which is why a handful of releases on this list are mix CDs rather than albums. Cold Krush Cuts is a perfect example of how those two ideas influenced the music at its peak, and has the bonus of acting as a handshake between the two London labels most associated with the tag. Krush was Mo’ Wax’s Japanese weapon, and Coldcut and DJ Food were Ninja’s own zen masters of audio collage. The result is a still-classic double CD with the London boys arguably edging it thanks to a wide selection and craftsmanship reminiscent of their acclaimed Journeys By DJ entry; DJ Krush goes for the mind, limiting his selections to only six of Ninja Tune’s artists and slicing the cuts up in his trademark less-is-more approach.
19. Depth Charge
9 Deadly Venoms
(Vinyl Solution, 1994)
A natural progression from the movie-obsessed NY rap of Wu-Tang Clan et al, 9 Deadly Venoms used a backbone of cult film samples to underpin gritty hip-hop instrumentals that helped inform a fast-growing scene. This was the blueprint for the Mo’ Wax 12″s to come: music based around the kind of nerd fandom that in 1994 was still a counter-culture. It still plays like an authentic labour of love for Jonathan Saul Kane, as he blends chops from The Evil Dead and Dirty Harry with collapsing breaks and ominous textures – it’s hardly surprising that the producer ended up establishing a company to issue UK versions of Hong Kong action movies.
18. Nearly God
Described by Tricky as “a collection of brilliant, incomplete demos,” Nearly God is a bright, often-forgotten reminder of just how unmatched Tricky was in the 1990s. He called the record Nearly God, for fuck’s sake, and that wasn’t far from the truth. The album acted as a stop-gap between Tricky’s genre-defining Maxinquaye and his difficult (but almost equally brilliant) about-turn, Pre-Millenium Tension. It stands apart simply because of its scope – there are appearances from regular collaborator Martina Topley-Bird, but also tracks with Alison Moyet, Björk, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Terry Hall. What sounds like it could have been a self-indulgent victory lap for (back then) one of the UK’s most notorious stars is somehow a coherent, exemplary document of a peculiar time in British music. Tricky also has to be commended for having the good sense to veto a collaboration with Damon Albarn (and then Suggs) which could have easily been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
#2: 1999 “Large As Life And Twice As Natural”
(Eye Q , 1999)
Skylab was a short-lived collective composed of Matt Ducasse, Howie B and the Japanese duo of Tosh and Kudo, aka Love TKO from Major Force. They released two albums on Sven Vath’s Eye Q label before disappearing, and their work was among the better but lesser-known of the trip-hop era. Ducasse has gone on record to state that their attachment with the genre was unintentional and that he saw their work as “more expansive, […] more in common with collage music […] or soundtracks.” And yet, those ideas were also at the heart of what the best trip-hop could be. In many ways Skylab were not so different to Portishead in both their intentions and execution. Their second album was released just as the label folded, leading it disappear into the cracks of time until a reissue by Tummy Touch earlier this year. Howie B had left by this point, and vocalist Debbie Sanders joined the trio to craft a beautiful record which really goes out there and was praised by both critics and knowledgeable fans.
Silver Apples of the Moon
(Too Pure, 1994)
Emerging from post-rock band Moonshake, Laika orbited the trip-hop genre without succumbing to many of its less flattering trappings. When guitarist and vocalist Margaret Fiedler commented in 1995 that her band was “just like trip-hop, but much much faster,” she was doing herself a massive disservice. A cursory listen might not even reveal too many obvious similarities – like Portishead, Laika were taking elements of post-rock, krautrock and certainly hip-hop to provide something reactionary, and different from the pervasive, laddish Britpop that was polluting the charts at the time. While their contemporaries Stereolab (and later, Broadcast) were experimenting with drum machines and synthesizers, Laika were integrating samples and a deep passion for jazz and dub. Silver Apples of the Moon is one of the most singular albums on this list, and one of the most rewarding.
15. Nightmares on Wax
Few records from this era quite capture the nexus of styles that trip-hop could represent at its best than Nightmares On Wax’s second album for Warp. Pulling from the same influences that defined the late 1980s rave explosion, Smokers Delight reconfigured the UK’s summer of love for the Discman generation while remaining just as suited to chill-out room comedowns or Ibiza sunset sessions.
Sure, Skint might still be best known for breaking Fatboy Slim, but don’t turn away just yet. Brighton-based producer (and sometime graf writer) REQ offered up one of the most blunted takes on the genre, almost by accident. His compositions didn’t pander to the popularity of the growing trip-hop scene, instead dwelling in a noisy, near-ambient back room. He made hip-hop instrumentals that sounded like they were being beamed in from a parallel universe via 14.4kbps modem, and in doing so, avoided being both pigeonholed and, well, popular. His brilliant debut album One has barely dated, fitting as well alongside DJ Spooky or even Dälek as it does anything the Bristol scene had to offer. One sounds, at times, like an MPC tumbling down a distant stairwell into a muddy lake, and we couldn’t think of a better recommendation than that.
13. Crooklyn Dub Consortium
Certified Dope Vol.1
Skiz Fernando Jr.’s Wordsound label was in many ways the dubbed-out New York answer to Mo’ Wax, a home for what its founder coined dub-hop: music that blended the dusty boom bap that ruled the city at the time with the mixing desk mysticism of Jamaican dub. Certified Dope Vol.1 was Fernando’s attempt at cataloguing the music of like-minded artists who populated the Greenpoint and Williamsburg neighbourhoods in the early 1990s, including the likes of We™, Dr. Israel and Bill Laswell. Swinging like a pendulum between full-on dub and head-nod instrumentals, the compilation was one of the first to highlight the parallels between hip-hop’s sampling aesthetic and Jamaica’s dub.
12. DJ Krush
(Mo’ Wax / Sony, 1995)
I imagine that choosing a favourite DJ Krush album is a little like asking parents to pick their favourite kid. A perfectionist who infused an American cultural import with the meticulousness of his own culture, the Japanese producer was the Far East’s answer to DJ Shadow, and together they would become Mo’ Wax’s flagship artists. On Meiso he dug for samples and looped them with the same precision, sensitivity and attention to detail as the finest calligrapher or ukiyo-e artist. The addition of CL Smooth, The Roots’ Black Thought and Malik B as well as Big Shug and Guru showed that trip-hop’s instrumental aesthetic could also provide the backdrop for some fine rap moments.
11. David Holmes
Let’s Get Killed
(Go! Beat, 1997)
For his second album, Belfast’s David Holmes walked around New York on acid recording voices and sounds. The results were weaved into the music for Let’s Get Killed which, like his 1995 debut, acts as a sort of soundtrack for an imaginary movie. The process also resulted in one of the best albums of the era – a psychedelic collage of rhythms, textures and styles that jumps between hip-hop, dub and dance music and rests on the back of Holmes’ urban trip. Let’s Get Killed has aged gracefully and still sounds just as engrossing as it did nearly 20 years ago.
10. DJ Spooky
Songs of a Dead Dreamer
Say what you like about Spooky and his over-explanation (those liner notes) and academic slant, Songs of a Dead Dreamer might sound better now than it did back in 1996. Hobbled at the time by the “illbient” tag, Spooky had come to the same conclusions as many of his European contemporaries: that a blend of hip-hop rhythms, dub bass and ambient soundscapes sounded pretty damn inspiring. Songs of a Dead Dreamer is his crowning achievement, and while its construction is relatively simple – loops fed through Spooky’s desk and piped through various effects – the effect is hypnotic and beguiling. While others may have pilfered from dub at a surface level, Spooky was using the Jamaican techniques (mixing board trickery, tape delay etc) to produce alien soundscapes that were a million miles from the comparatively safe sounds of Up, Bustle and Out or Funki Porcini.
9. DJ Cam
Soon after his debut in 1994, Paris’s DJ Cam positioned himself as the European equivalent to DJ Krush and DJ Shadow – a hip-hop enthusiast capable of weaving together abstract, blunted beats with finesse. Within a few years, he’d parlayed his underground kudos for an attempt at more standard rap fare. Abstract Manifesto is one of his lesser-known releases, a Japan-only album that tapped into the same minimal approach as Krush with added jazz flourishes and junglistic detours. ‘No Competition’ remains one of his best compositions to date, and a staple of sets from the era.
8. Major Force West
(Mo’ Wax, 1999)
It’s testament to the power of the ideas underpinning trip-hop at the time that this list includes an album spearheaded by a Japanese pop musician who had a hand in the new wave movement. Major Force was the name of Toshio Nakanishi’s hip-hop project, originally conceived in 1988 after a near-decade long infatuation with the music. Comprised of Nakanishi and former Melon bandmates Gota Yashiki and Masayuki Kudo, Major Force released new material as well as an anthology titled The Original Art-Form on Mo’ Wax in the mid-to-late 1990s. The latter is well worth your time, featuring early work and collaborations with Bristol’s DJ Milo, another link in the global thread that supported the music’s most daring leaps. In a 2014 interview, Nakanishi admitted that his fascination with hip-hop stemmed from recognising its links with Burroughs’ cut-ups, stating that “in collage, something happens where you never expected it to.”
93-97 compiles the group’s work during their years living in London, hence the twist to their name. It’s a brilliant and bizarre collection of ideas from a culturally out-of-place trio, who got it because they were so far from the “it” everyone was talking about. In those same years, Nakanishi and Kudo also worked as part of Skylab and you can hear similarities in this collection with the latter’s #1 debut album, especially in how the best of it isn’t the downtempo beats but the drawn-out compositions which have the feel of improvised studio jams. Later on in his interview, Nakanishi points out that London, at the time, felt as psychedelic as the 1960s, with the group seeking to inject some of this spirit into hip-hop, which in England was called trip-hop.
7. Various Artists
(Mo’ Wax, 1996)
Just as the first Headz marked Mo’ Wax’s ascendance, the second compilation crowned its achievements and enshrined its best-known artists in an expansive collection of 53 tracks. While the first volume feels a little dated, Headz 2 has aged remarkably well, in part thanks to its broad representation of what trip-hop could be and where it came from. That means music from the Beastie Boys, UNKLE, Money Mark, The Black Dog, Dillinja, DJ Shadow, Danny Breaks, Tortoise and Urban Tribe among many. Headz 2 is also testament to James Lavelle’s impeccable A&R skills, and his talent for making sense of the various 1990s post-rave threads that informed the music.
Leila Arab’s debut album stuck out like a sore thumb when it appeared on Rephlex in 1998. Not because it was more extreme than Rephlex’s usual fare, but because it was actually a proper album, with songs, a narrative and little of the label’s usual tongue-in-cheek antics. Arab had pieced together a hazy, underwater daydream of a record with half-heard soul, pop and chiming ice cream truck electronics swirling together in a soup of memory and emotion. Not quite trip-hop and not quite illbient, it certainly wasn’t IDM either, despite an intriguing “post production” credit from a certain Richard D. James. It’s one of the most disarming records of the era, and manages to fulfil the promise of trip-hop without succumbing to its trappings. Like Weather might be the one record on this list that has the most in common with Maxinquaye, and that should tell you something about its quality.
5. Luke Vibert
(Mo’ Wax, 1997)
Luke Vibert’s first record under his real name, Big Soup summed up the Mo’ Wax catalogue perfectly, even if Vibert was only casually adjacent to the scene. Maybe that helped, as his productions have stood the test of time, sitting somewhere in between the sample-rich collages of DJ Shadow and the tight, precise constructions of DJ Krush and Major Force. The thing that Vibert had and which many of his peers always lacked was a sense of humour, and as track titles like ‘No Turn Unstoned’ might suggest, that helped remove some of the inherent pretentiousness of the scene, breaking down another barrier that walled it off to potential listeners. Vibert’s produced more complicated records since, and he’s produced more successful records too, but Big Soup is a perfect picture of a certain moment in time, painted with a British eccentricity that cuts through the posturing that would later derail the scene.
4. Massive Attack
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. 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. Blue Lines was all of these things and more. 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.
3. DJ Shadow
(Mo’ Wax, 1996)
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.
(Go! Beat, 1994)
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’ 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.
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.