Trip hop has gotten a bad rap. I was there when it became the blandest fodder for the tasteful elite, becoming background music for dinner parties and art openings. Most of its finest practitioners have not only denounced the name (which fits the style perfectly, but more on that later), but have moved on to other styles, attempting to distance themselves from the loping haze of the style they themselves pioneered. Massive Attack's Heligoland was an overguested step in the right direction after the stuttering glitch of 100th Window, Tricky has gone off the rails into critical respectablilty and tasteful irrelevance, Portishead disappeared for a decade before returning with a great album that they have yet to follow up, and Nightmares On Wax have been hit-or-miss, with solid moments next to missteps like 2002's vocals-heavy Mind Elevation. While I agree that market saturation might have instigated a holdoff, what happened to turn this into a musical whipping boy?
Trip hop, the term, has been much derided, but I have to agree with Simon Reynolds' assertion that not only is it a handy shorthand, but it's a highly descriptive term. The hallucinatory spatial disorientation caused by the presentation of mutiple samples with multiple ambiences is grounded by a steady, loping breakbeat, taken from the funky grooves of hip hop's history, then rubberized, tenderized, and left to gather dust. It's psychedelic and resolutely urban - sure it sounds good in the 'burbs, but this is human music for concrete jungles. The edgy darkness of some of the best records make you wonder what's around the corner in the alley, and the soulful samples and oft-present "haunted diva" provide some human reassurance. It's groovy, it's not in a hurry, and it's been known to tickle one's brain and alter their mood. When I find myself listening to Mezzanine on repeat in the grey, rainy late autumn, I know I've got to pull myself out a funk.
What happened? There's always the theory that if it was cool ten years ago, it's lame now, sure. We're in the midst of a DayGlo Revolution, and things have been pretty grim. The economy's in the toilet, the housing market dropped out, unemployment is spiking, nothing is getting done cause everyone's stubborn - this is not the time for a grim 'n' gritty soundtrack. People need to dance their troubles away to popclash or whatever today's irono-disco-new-wave hybrid is. If Maxinquaye were a "major label new release" album today, it would inspire mass suicides, cause that is DARK, man. But for whatever reason it's out of vogue right now, mark my words that some variation of it will be back in a BIG way in a few years.