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What IS trip-hop?


Trip-hop (also known as the "Bristol sound") is a term coined by British dance magazine Mixmag, to describe a musical trend in the mid-1990s; trip hop is downtempo electronic music that grew out of England's hip hop and house scenes. Characterized by a reliance on breakbeats and a sample-heavy sound pioneered by Coldcut's remix of Eric B. & Rakim's "Paid in Full", trip hop gained notice via popular artists such as Portishead, Massive Attack, Tricky, and rock-influenced sound groups such as Ruby, California's DJ Shadow, and the UK's Howie B. Londoners Morcheeba and Glideascope are also often associated with this sound. The latest additions to this line of performers are Jem and Australia's Spook. The Bristol Sound came out of the wider Bristol Urban Culture scene.

The “trip” in “Trip-Hop” refers to the “out-of-this-world” state following the use of a drug. This provides insight into Trip-Hop’s strong connection with the senses. Furthermore, the “hop” in “Trip-Hop” explains how Trip-Hop is derived from Hip-Hop.

Trip-Hop originated in the 90's in Bristol, England, during a time when American Hip-Hop was taking over Europe's music industry. British DJs decided to take Hip-Hop to a whole new level. They developed Hip-Hop into a different style, marking the birth of Trip-Hop. The originators in Bristol devloped Hip-Hop with a laid-back beat (down tempo). Bristol Hip-Hop (Trip-Hop's predecessor) is characterized by the emphasis on slow and heavy drum beats, the sampling of old records, and the elimination of all rap elements that exist in American Hip-Hop. The group Massive Attack, by releasing their debut album "Blue Lines" in 1991, spear-headed the "Bristol Hip-Hop movement" (known as the "First Coming of Bristol Sound"). One also has to note that the inventors of Bristol Hip-Hop did not intend to create a "dark" atmosphere with their music.

1994 and '95 saw Trip-Hop near the peak of its popularity. Massive Attack released their second album entitled "Protection." Those years also marked the rise of Portishead and Tricky. Portishead's female lead singer Beth Gibbons' sullen voice was mixed with samples of music from the '60s and '70s, as well as sound effects from LPs, giving the group a distinctive style. Tricky's style was characterized by murmuring and low-pitched singing. Artists and groups like Portishead and Tricky led the second wave of the Bristol Movement (a.k.a. "Second Coming of Bristol Sound"). This second wave produced music that was dreamy and atmospheric, and sometimes deep and gloomy. The British press termed this style of music "Trip-Hop," refering to this evolved style of Hip-hop.

Incidentally Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky actually had a common history. Massive Attack's three members used to work with Tricky, under the group "The Wild Bunch" (headed by Nellee Hooper in 1982), explaining why many Massive Attack songs feature Tricky. Portishead member Geoff Barrow also previously helped produce Massive Attack's "Blue Lines."

The style is perhaps typified by the early Massive Attack song "Unfinished Sympathy" which has frequently been described as one of the best songs of all time, according to polls produced by MTV2, NME, and various other magazines and reviewers. [1] A reviewer for the BBC has said that: "More than a decade after its release it remains one of the most moving pieces of dance music ever, able to soften hearts and excite minds just as keenly as a ballad by Bacharach or a melody by McCartney."


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The Sound

Trip-hop is known for its moody, dark, yet lyrical sound.

The trip-hop sound relies on jazz samples, usually taken from old vinyl jazz records. This reliance on sampling has changed the way record labels deal with clearing samples for use in other people's tracks. Trip-hop tracks often sample Rhodes pianos, saxophones, trumpets, and flutes, and develops in parallel to hip hop, each inspiring the other.

Trip-hop production is historically lo-fi, relying on analog recording equipment and instrumentation for an ambience. Portishead, for example, record their material to old tape from real instruments, and then sample their recordings rather than recording their instruments directly to a track. They also tend to put their drums through considerable compression.

Later artists have taken inspiration from many other sources including world and orchestral influences.

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Frequently Asked Questions About Trip-Hop


1. What is it?

1a. This is by far the most commonly asked question, and the most difficult to answer, but I will try my best to sum it up. Triphop is a blend of electronica and hip-hop, urban and ethereal, street and ambience. It is music that is thought-provoking, sexy, sensual, and deep. Defining triphop is so difficult because the music is so amorphous, and it spreads across such a wide range of emotions and sounds. Some groups will have you nodding your head and tapping your feet while others will possibly lower your blood pressure (joke, sorta ;)

1b. Some triphop is narcotic - extremely mellow strings, a gentle brush beat on the drums, spacey bass lines echoing in the background with sullen female vocals at a whispers volume. Some triphop is loud - in your face with turntables burning themselves up, bass driven hip hop beats, thumping bass lines and rapping. A good deal of what is between these 2 examples would classify as triphop. That is indeed a big pill to swallow, so I will now attempt to describe triphop from a different point, the mood and messages evoked.

1c. While it would not be correct to assume that all triphop lyrics focus on anything in particular, a good deal of groups express sentiments on love, the loss of love, relationships in general, life in general, city life, escapism, etc. Not all, but a good deal of groups also approach these topics from a somber or regretful standpoint. This isn't to say that all triphop is for heartbroken souls who want to stay couped up in a studio apartment, chainsmoking and drinking all night because they are now damaged. There is triphop which deals with the good things in life as well: good times in life, worthy experiences, the pleasure of a certain herb, etc... but just about every triphop album out there will have at least a song or two that will focus on the downfalls of love. It seems to be quite a universal theme within this music. Hopefully this is starting to shape up into something that can actually be grasped.

1d. While these are all my personal perceptions of the genre, being a diehard devotee to the blissful beats of triphop going on eight years now, I think it would be wise to add some comments of others who have something to say on this subject. Below I have listed some quotes that appear on Tripnotic's message forum (

"Triphop is smooth beats, moods, emotions... Engeneered music, not trance or techno though (yaaark..) It' wavy music, it takes you through those waves, i love it, its some kind of relaxing music that helps you think. I feel it like city music, night music, thoughful music."
Anonymous Guest

"imo...i say what hip hop is to rap...triphop is to dance.... its just toned down more. basically a slow electronic sound usually accompanied with female vocal. just great music to chill to."

- snow_san

"i think the simplest consensus could be its laid back&relaxing electronics/synths accompanied by a beautiful female (for the most part) voice. usually one might think some dark but w/ bands like Morcheeba...can be refreshing too ahhhhh. i'm thinking of "sao paulo".."

- snow_san

"To me Triphop or downbeat or whatever your linguistic choice is, is not affronting or accosting, but enveloping and open. It is Like all other music in that it creates a mood and emotion in the listener. For Me Rap and lots of rock and heavy metal type stuff tend to incite a certain primality, rage and rawness. MTV pop tends to evoke symptoms of happiness (fake happiness in my mind) although often it seems to be a hollow happiness. Triphop evokes a melancholy, contemplative feel inside of me (by the way most people that I know that like triphop tend to have a sad tint on life, not depressive or negative, just feel pain a little stronger). The picture on the front of the actual CD of Goldfrapp's album best personifies Triphop to me. An unassuming set of trees in the forest, blanketed in soft white snow. It's cool shit."
- I know nothing (dont let his name fool you... this is by far one of the best descriptions i have seen).


Hopefully you have an idea of what triphop is now. If you've never heard it, then I think even the best description in the world wouldn't really do justice to actually listening to the music, and if you have heard some triphop songs already, then what you have just read most likely reaffirmed what you were already assuming about the genre.


2. Who coined the term "TripHop"?

Almost akin to ancient folklore, the tale goes something like this... Back in the early 90's, electronic music began to blossom on labels such as Cup of Tea, Ninja Tune, and Mo Wax, spawning new styles such as downtempo, lo-fi, and dub. Around 1995, the British zine scene could no longer bear to let this music continue on without giving it a name to clearly define its existence and give it its own personal niche, and the name was given: triphop. Why they chose the word "trip" is anybodies guess. Does it refer to herb or drugs in general? The overall trippiness (or dare I say, pschyedelia) of the music? Maybe by "trip" they just meant music to let your mind float away to? Nobody knows for sure. The "hop" part is quite obvious however, seeing that the term "triphop" was given to the initial groups who were slowing down hip hop at the time.


3. How long has this style been around?

Since the early 90's. Of course, it wasn't called triphop back then, but the slowed down and more melodic forms of hip hop with vocals which were actually sang/whispered rather than rapped was blossoming in Europe in the early 90's. Even before the 90's there existed Wild Bunch (pre-Massive Attack) and Smith & Mighty (also a part of Wild Bunch), who were around back in the 80's. But as for the actual "triphop" style, the early 90's was the definitive turning point.


4. Who are the originators?

The most important and early triphop groups/projects which come to mind are Smith & Mighty, Dj Shadow, Portishead, and Massive Attack. There is also one other who didn't exist (in his own right) until slightly after these 4 (mainly because he was a former member of Massive Attack) and that is Tricky. Smith & Mighty came from an electronic/dub angle, Dj Shadow came from the turntable/emcee angle, Portishead came from the jazz angle, Massive Attack came from the electronic angle, and Tricky came from the gritty hiphop/rap angle. These 5 (along with Wild Bunch) could most likely get away with being called the staple of triphop, and if it was not for their existence, the genre would most likely be much different (or even nonexistent!) than it is today.


5. Where did triphop start?

England, primarily in a city about 100 miles west of London called Bristol. In reading reviews or articles of triphop albums, you may see constant referencees to something called "The Bristol Sound" (basically another term for triphop, although for the purists, relating more to the darker material which bands like Portishead and Tricky create. It's not a very pretty city). Smith & Mighty, Portishead, Massive Attack, and Tricky all hail from Bristol by the way.


6. What is the best album to start with?

Well there are a few "essentials" that everyone must try on for size:

Massive Attack - Mezzanine
Portishead - Dummy
Tricky - Maxinquaye

Ahhh the holy trinity...... also recommends:

Archive - Londinium
Bowery Electric - Lushlife
Canidas - Golden
Sneaker Pimps - Becoming X
Hooverphonic - A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular
Esthero - Breath From Another

and everything else on the "essential recordings" section. ;)