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Trip-Hop—or Something Close to It—Is Making a Comeback

Second Floor

A new generation of artists has rejuvenated the sultry, slow-moving 90s genre, and they’re taking it into decidedly weird new places.

By Shawn Reynaldo

2023/11/20

Shawn Reynaldo is a Barcelona-based writer and editor who specializes in electronic music. His First Floor newsletter often zeroes in on developments in the genre’s corresponding industry and culture, but the Second Floor column is designed to spotlight the music itself, examining trends, recommending releases, and keeping tabs on what’s happening both on and off the dancefloor.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, the electronic music discourse has been dominated by observations of just how fast everything has become. Happy hardcore. Gabber. Breakcore. Hard house. Jungle. Chipmunk-voiced edits that marry disembodied pop divas with brain-splitting beats. Is it simply the latest nostalgia loop in a musical sphere that’s long been predicated on recycling? A natural musical evolution during a time of shortened attention spans and a culture that’s generally consumed in rapidfire, 30-second increments?

Perhaps it’s merely a reflection of how the latest generation of ravers were weaned on streaming platforms, their tastes shaped by a space in which genre lines are nonexistent,  curation has largely been left up to algorithms, and there’s effectively zero divide between mainstream and “underground” sounds. Whatever the reason, the average dance party in 2023 is likely to be soundtracked by garish—and quite possibly nosebleed-inducing—tunes. And while that’s caused all sorts of consternation amongst older heads and the genre’s various (some might say self-appointed) arbiters of good taste, all the focus on rising bpms has obscured a much different resurgence within the electronic music world:

Trip-hop, or least something resembling trip-hop, is very much making a return.

Cue someone yelling, “But trip-hop never went away!”

It’s true: Trip-hop has been something of a mainstay since the 1990s, when it first emerged in the UK (primarily in Bristol). An unorthodox blend of hip-hop, street soul, R&B, dub, and UK soundsystem culture—which, of course, had its roots in Jamaica—the genre became a global phenomenon during the mid 90s, its popularity fueled by groundbreaking albums from the likes of Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky, and numerous other (primarily British) acts. (Oddly enough, the term trip-hop was first used in print to describe the work of DJ Shadow, who hailed from California. That said, his music was being released at the time by London label Mo’ Wax, which quickly became one of the nascent genre’s key outposts.)

This music was slow, soulful, and often sultry. Moreover, it was tangibly human. Much like their rave-addled peers, trip-hop producers loved their machines, but they also recognized that the tortured wails of Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, Tricky’s scratchy growls, and the provocative come-ons of Martina Topley-Bird offered something that not even the most advanced piece of gear could reproduce. That realness proved intoxicating, and in combination with the music’s palpable sense of bassweight, the music coalesced into something resembling a patient, late-night strain of lust-filled boom-bap.

Somehow, trip-hop felt both futuristic and retro at the same time. And though it flirted with pop structures, its appeal cut across a wide range of musical subcultures—including the notoriously nitpicky digger crowd, who delighted in its frequent use of samples lifted from vintage jazz and funk records.

As the 90s wore on, the stature of its leading artists grew—it’s telling that the names of the artists listed above still ring out today, nearly 30 years later. But the genre itself became something of a victim of its own success, particularly once the mainstream music industry cottoned on to its woozy grooves. Within just a few years, trip-hop was forced to share shelf space with a flood of “downtempo” and “chillout” releases, many of them pushing sounds that were safer, blander, cleaner, and noticeably whiter than what its Bristolian originators had first cooked up. The grit, the sweat, and, in many cases, the soul of trip-hop sounded like they had been excised, replaced by something better suited to polite coffeehouses and corporate compilations.

Buried under an avalanche of easily digestible, lounge-ready downtempo and, eventually, the faceless tedium that populates the average “lo-fi beats to relax/study to” playlist, the genre gradually lost much of its cultural currency. And though it never disappeared completely—celebrated originators like Massive Attack and Portishead would re-emerge every once in a while with new music, and traces of the genre’s dusty rhythms and soulful yearning could be detected in the work of everyone from Flying Lotus to FKA Twigs—it never quite regained its former prominence, even as ambient music went through a seemingly endless series of revivals. For most, trip-hop remained something of a 90s-era curio, which perhaps explains its recent resurgence, particularly amongst Gen Z crowds (who seem to have a serious passion for all the 90s sounds/styles they were too young to experience the first time around) and older millennials (who likely remember getting their mind blown by Massive Attack’s Mezzanine album after first hearing “Dissolved Girl” in The Matrix).

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the latest wave of trip-hop-influenced sounds began to take root, but the network of artists and labels that Philip Sherburne once dubbed the West Mineral Cinematic Universe feels like a good place to start. Centered around Huerco S. and his West Mineral Ltd. imprint, it’s grown to include labels like 3XL and Motion Ward, and its leading protagonists (Special Guest DJ, Ben Bondy, Pontiac Streator, Ulla, perila, Mister Water Wet, Exael, and others) all appear determined to combine and collaborate in a seemingly endless number of permutations. Their music isn’t trip-hop in the traditional sense—terms like “weirdo ambient” are perhaps more fitting—but it certainly shares some of the genre’s aesthetic sensibilities, leaning heavily on hip-hop beats and hazy atmospheres while charting a heavily blunted course towards oblivion.

Although there are still prominent contemporary UK acts referencing the trip-hop canon—Manchester duo Space Afrika are arguably leading the way in this regard—there’s no question that current iterations of the genre often have a distinctly American orientation. Traces of soundsystem culture remain in the mix, but the music is now more likely to take clear cues from Southern rap, along with the fuzzy textures that defined both 90s grunge and the formulaic alternative rock that followed in its wake. It’s not a coincidence that Shinetiac—a collaboration between Shiner, Pontiac Streator, and Ben Bondy—dropped a freaky rework of the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong” on West Mineral Ltd. earlier this year, or that naemi (an alias of Exael) teamed up with perila in 2022 to put together a cover of Puddle of Mudd’s “Blurry.”

Not everyone so blatantly wears their childhood influences on their sleeve. But whether we’re talking about a dance music upstart like Maara or an ambient-loving rap fiend like 3XL affiliate Nueen, today’s trip-hop experimenters do share an affinity for distinctly digital—some might say artificial—sounds. Samples often take the place of human vocals, and even when actual singing is involved, it often takes a backseat to beatmaking and sound design. That’s likely because most of these artists are producing on laptops and working on a budget, but it does lend even their haziest tunes a sheen that their 90s predecessors could never muster in the studio—and likely didn’t want to. 

That’s not a knock on the new class. Some of their tunes may lack a certain degree of organic gloom and erotic allure, but they double down on weirdness and sonic experimentation, tapping into the hybrid spirit at the core of trip-hop while expanding their palettes to bring in bits of new age, ambient, pop, and even emo. It’s escapist, yes, but there’s also a genuine vulnerability to the work, a willingness to embrace messiness that runs counter to the often hyper-curated nature of the wider cultural landscape. These artists aren’t making music for the club or the cafe. They’re making tunes that capture the existential loneliness of being home alone with a broken heart, longing for connection but having no one to talk to but some randoms on the internet. It’s music for feeling something, and perhaps that’s what makes it so potent.

Below are a smattering of recent-ish releases that reside in that lane. Regardless of whether they technically qualify as trip-hop, they’re definitely trip-hop adjacent. And they’re all very much worth a listen.

Yushh - Look Mum No Hands

[Wisdom Teeth]

Given the geographic origins of trip-hop, it feels right to begin this round-up with an actual Bristolian, and Yushh is one of the city’s most promising young bass manipulators. Head of the Pressure Dome imprint, most of her productions are aimed at the dancefloor, and the title track of her Look Mum No Hands EP could certainly flex a bassbin or two. Rather than unleashing low-end mayhem right out of the gate, though, it initially takes a more relaxed approach, filling its spaced-out confines with gloopy textures and ghostly groans. Is trip-dubstep a thing? Maybe it is now.


A.s.o. - a.s.o.

[Low Lying]

The closest thing to a prototypical trip-hop project on this list, a.s.o.. is a collaboration between singer/songwriter Alia Seror-O’Neill and producer Lewie Day, who’s also spent years making reliably sunny house grooves as Tornado Wallace. Following a series of low-key singles, the Berlin-based duo dropped their debut album earlier this year, and its sensual grooves might make the listener feel as though they’ve stepped into a time machine. Seror-O’Neill’s breathy tones land somewhere between Stevie Nicks and what Shirley Manson was going with Garbage during the 90s, and they’re perfectly complimented by Day’s moody beats and gauzy melodies. Toss in hints of shoegaze, some 4AD-style melodic elegance, and a smattering of subtle pop hooks, and this record is poised to warm even the coldest of hearts.

Niecy Blues - Exit Simulation

[kranky]

Most musical tales of woe tend to revolve around romances gone awry, but Niecy Blues has a much deeper well of torment to draw from, having spent part of her childhood in a Christian cult in Oklahoma. Now based in South Carolina, she’s gone a long way toward exercising those ghosts on Exit Simulation, an album that combines the devotional grace of gospel with gently clattering rhythms, softly strummed guitar, and the spellbinding tendrils of her own reverb-soaked voice. There are no clever winks or internet in-jokes here—just a nakedly human expression of grief and gratitude by an artist who’s steeped in a number of Black musical traditions, and appears determined to push them into hypnotic new territory.

Tirzah - trip9love…???

[Domino]

Magic happens pretty much anytime Tirzah and her longtime collaborator Mica Levi get together, but ‘trip9love…???’ is a boldly stripped-down effort, one that sees the pair use literally the same, trap-indebted drum loop throughout the entire album. In less skilled hands, that might seem lazy, but the blown-out beats provide the perfect foundation for Tirzah’s dreamily aching vocals. Someone like Sade feels like an obvious reference point, and Tirzah exudes a similar sense of confident cool, but she does so while operating within a persistent fog of scratchy static and tonal squall. Others in her position would be forced to tromp in the muck, but somehow Tirzah manages to glide right through it.

Malibu Beach Club - “Fighter Mode”

[Malibu Beach Club]

Having spent more than a decade crafting various shades of house, disco, and techno, Austrian producer Demuja recently unveiled his new Malibu Beach Club alias, stating that the moniker would be devoted to “all kinds of different genres,” but namely ambient, glitch, trip-hop, and IDM. (If this guy is now making trip-hop-indebted tunes, I defy anyone to say that the genre hasn’t come back into fashion.)  “Fighter Mode” was the project’s debut single, and though the lack of vocals might prompt some to say, “This isn’t trip-hop,” it sounds like a particularly sparkly take on what DJ Shadow and any number of leftfield West Coast hip-hop producers were doing during the 90s, and wouldn’t have been out of place on one of Mo’Wax’s seminal Headz compilations.

Title Image: Niecy Blues - 'Exit Simulation'

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