‘This Is Not Trip Hop!’ – Nightmares On Wax And The Late 1990s Most Laidback Beats
Nightmares On Wax's Smoker's Delight album has just been re-released in a delicious 25th anniversary package. Its deluxe packaging with mirrored card, heavy multi-coloured vinyl and all the rest is a treat for fans – but it’s also a good chance to re-assess a record and era of music that maybe hasn’t quite had its critical due.
Obviously, given the title, it’s been easy to think of it as a purely functional record: background music for stoners. The idea that it’s just laid back drug music was also used to write off a lot of the music of the time, an attitude crystallised in the dread phrase “trip hop”. But this was something that George Evelyn (pictured in the lead visual), the prime mover behind Nightmares On Wax railed against, even at the time.
“I was always against that,” he says. “I even wrote a quote for the back of Smokers Delight: ‘This is not trip hop!’ Hip hop is hip hop, this is not trip hop. I was listening to instrumental hip hop tracks back in 1989, Hip Hop On Wax volume 1, 2 and 3 are all instrumental hip hop tracks made up of samples. There’s so many classic hip hop tracks like that. They were galactic-sounding and were never perceived as ‘trip hop’ – so I never got into bed with this being some new thing.”
Listen back to the record now, and yes it is trippy. There’s a reason it soundtracked so many hazy after-rave sunrises so perfectly back in the day: it really captures that sense of blissed-out afterglow as well as any record of the time. But first, that’s no bad thing. Just because music is predicated on the pleasure principle is no reason to assign it lesser value. Late night and early morning basking in sound is a foundational musical experience for many people, and Smoker’s Delight delivered – and still delivers – a particularly rich and warm-hearted version of that experience.
But second, it can’t be written off as generic. Though Evelyn’s immediate background was in hip hop and rave music, Smoker’s Delight is as rooted in dub, dancehall, lovers’ rock, smooth soul, and all the other sounds that a young working class Briton growing up in a city in the 1970s and 80s would have been surrounded by. Perhaps the fact that it was released on a label – WARP Records – best known for techno and electronica eclipsed this, but it’s actually as elegant an expression of black British music as Sade and Soul II Soul.
A lot of the time, the downtempo music of the late 90s is thought of as “of its time”, an expression just of particularly current trends or recreational habits. But just as Evelyn’s accumulated musical knowledge and the playing of the musicians he gathered to embellish his beats created something that fit into a longer, deeper tradition, so much of the other music bracketed as “trip hop” had its own stories, and was much more than just a passing fad or something that existed purely to soothe over-excited brains. So here we present ten other diverse artists making low-and-slow beats in the era and aftermath of Smoker’s Delight, each with their own set of influences and connections, and each rich with unique musical personality.
Depth Charge – Legend Of The Golden Snake (1995)
West Londoner J Saul Kane, a man not keen on taking nonsense, would likewise have no truck with being called “trip hop”. Like George Evelyn, he’d been exploring heavy instrumental hip hop beats since the late 80s, and many of his experiments mixing dub bass, breakbeats and exploitation movie samples were highly influential on the birth of rave. Many, too, were low and slow and much beloved of DJs in rave backrooms and after parties.
Luke Vibert & BJ Cole – Nice Cave (2000)
Luke Vibert is a contemporary of the Aphex Twin’s from Cornwall, and impossibly prolific in a dozen different styles, from jungle to disco - but much of his work, whether as Wagon Christ or under his own name has been focused on lazy breakbeats, often with exotica or easy listening elements. The Start The Panic album with veteran exploratory slide guitarist BJ Cole remains a weird and wonderful treasure.
Tranquility Bass – They Came In Peace (1993)
Made in 1991 by a Chicagoan duo, but really picking up steam when it was picked up by the UK label Mo Wax in 1994, this one remained a chillout staple right through the 90s. It marked the meeting point between out there hippie music, jazz and hip hop, and its bass melody, rolling rhythm and easy ambience still sound amazingly advanced now.
Earthling – Echo On My Mind (1995)
Bristol became known as the epicentre of trip hop – but though, yes, there was (and is) a definite love of big bass and lazy beats in the city, it wasn’t just an identikit sound. Smith & Mighty, Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky each forged their own very distinct identities – like Nightmares On Wax, channelling the various elements of sound system culture that existed in the background. Rapper Mau and producer Tim Saul, aka Earthling, also forged a peculiar sound of their own, often highly experimental, but sometimes, as here, extremely infectious.
Red Snapper – One Legged Low Frequency Guy (1995)
Essentially a jazz-rock trio, Red Snapper nonetheless were tied to all kinds of parts of the UK dance and beats scene, and most of their releases featured tracks which fit nicely with slowed-down breakbeats. This dubwise spaghetti western groove in particular is a bit of a head nod classic.
Rae & Christian – The Hush (Feat Texas) (1998)
Manchester duo Rae & Christian are another act who explicitly refused to be bracketed with trip hop - Mark Rae says they were more like a soul production team. But like N.O.W. and like the Bristol acts they channelled a uniquely British mix of soul, hip hop and dub influences into songs like this - which would also find its way to becoming the title track of Scottish mega band Texas’s fifth album the following year.
The Cinematic Orchestra – Channel 1 Suite (1999)
Jason Swinscoe’s Cinematic Orchestra are the ultimate in “grown up” downtempo - lovingly arranged live instruments blending seamlessly with hip hop DJ technique and electronic production, with a penchant for soundtracking black and white art movies to boot. It’s the sort of thing people love to call “too tasteful” and “coffee table”, or would be if, starting with this, their debut single, their records didn’t tend to pack a devastating emotional punch.
Four Tet – No More Mosquitoes (2001)
He’s mostly known now for finely crafted four-to-the-floor beats - but Kieran Hebden’s first couple of albums leaned heavily to hip hop rhythms. In particular, this from his second album Pause, really demonstrated his unerring ability with a lazily swung beat and deeply weird sound processing.
Funki Porcini – Long Road (1995)
The Ninja Tune label was a haven for more interesting producers of downbeat music, including later Cinematic Orchestra, and Funki Porcini aka James Braddell was one of the most interesting among those. Where identikit chillout and triphop acts were deadly serious in their relaxation, he brought the kind of urbane wit and charm you need if you’re going to be stretching out jazz and dub motifs over lengthy tracks. This classic soundtracked more late nights and early mornings than is healthy, and its Robert Mitchum dialogue sample is etched on a generation’s minds.
Quantic – Time is the Enemy (2001)
Taking the sound forward, Brighton’s Will “Quantic” Holland added more and more musicianship until eventually he was forming full soul/funk bands (the Quantic Soul Orchestra, Flowering Inferno etc). But his early releases were very much in the slowed down breakbeat tradition, notably this one which uses the tough “Amen” break beloved of drum’n’bass producers to potent effect, under heartstring-tugging arrangements.
Love the 90s? Read more from the decade:
Cover Image: WARP Records
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs