Ophthalmic Sympathy: Why trip-hop is the eminent aural suitor of visual arts.

At the dawn of the 1990’s, Bristol amalgamated everything it knew about electronica, ambient, dub, house, soul, shoegaze and psychadelia (to name but a few influences) and answered to the US’s gangsta rap scene. The result was something which dealt in subdued, tonal surreality as opposed to observations of reality, was more passively menacing than overtly aggressive, and more broodingly sensual in tone than explicitly sexual in content. Some may argue this emotionally ambivalent response to hip hop was only befitting of a country in which poverty is never quite allowed to slip into ghetto standards.

That’s not to say that trip-hop is apolitical. For example, in Tricky’s ‘Valentine'[1], one can sense a suppressed antipathy as his abstract sprechgesang husks a kitchen sink realist take on Chet Baker’s traditional notions of romance – ‘My Valentine, take me away, Council flats make me blind, I try but these towers so grey, Nowhere for my children to play’ [1]. However, perhaps more progressive is his image. Tricky’s album art and publicity photos tend to favour mugshots in which he appears confused or emotional as opposed to threatening or ‘cool’ – in the case of A Ruff Guide, he even dons makeup in utter rejection of hip-hop’s braggadocio notions of masculinity. Indeed, trip-hop floats free from vocalist’s self-referential assertions of identity (one can only chortle at the prospect of Massive Attack’s 3D and Daddy-G promoting their names in the opening beats of ‘Teardrop’[2]), with many artists opting for different guest vocals on each track.

Due to this de-emphasis on artist persona, trip-hop artists have seized the opportunity to fill the visual void with imagery and even fictions over which they’ve endlessly more control than their physical appearance. When one thinks of U.N.K.L.E, it’s not the faces of James Lavelle and Tim Goldsworthy that spring to mind, but more likely the iconic cinematic endeavours of acclaimed directors John Hillcoat [3] or Johnathan Glazer [4] that not only accompany the music but, in the case of ‘The Answer’ [3], preside over it, with dialogue taking the foreground (also true of Toby Dye’s video for Massive Attack’s ‘Paradise Circus’[5]).

With the likes of Portishead’s George Barrow working on a Judge Dredd inspired album [6] and Neroche lacing his tracks with obscure film dialogue [7], it’s clear that trip-hop artists are inviting of and inspired by visual artists. But why is it that the most renowned music video directors’ portfolios feature such a disproportionate level of material made for this genre? My best guess is a simple one; it’s cool, and it lends itself to the spectacle of motion exceptionally well. The ‘cool’ can be attributed in part to the break beats and faintly retained links to the ‘cool’ of gangsta, but its lack of ostensible ties to a specific subculture make trip-hop more applicable to an endless variety of settings. As for the motion, that perhaps has something to do with the genre’s penchant for prowling bass and lo-fi, heavily tape-saturated drums doused in reverb; the results are beats that pulsate, creep and swoop in a manner that somehow sounds kinetic.

Trip-hop at its best also goes along way towards creating a sense of suspense, be it menacing or emotional – especially when combined with hypnotic sampling and moody, atmospheric synths. Tracks have a tendency to retain the same down-tempo throughout, but, to the same effect as a film score, build layers into an emotional crash which lends itself beautifully to narrative peaks. A function that trip-hop scores offer filmmakers that traditional orchestral/piano scores cannot is the inherent ability to contextualise an image in the current technological age or beyond, simply due to its overtly electronic sound – something Chris Cunningham must have been acutely aware of when directing Bjork’s ‘All is Full of Love’ video [8], for which the track was vastly ‘trip-hopped-up’ from the original version.

However, music video directors and visual artists are not alone in noticing how these elements compliment visuals. In recent years, the once alternative genre has faced mainstream assimilation in no small way. As well as trip-hops influence on modern espionage, action or futuristic cinema (a notable example being Havasi Balazs’s ‘Clubbed to Death’ [9] in The Matrix) and video games such as Akira Yamaoka’s Silent Hill soundtrack [10], it has also crept into popular television, with ’Teardrop’ [2] colouring the opening credits of House M.D. and trip-hop influenced Alabama 3 opening The Sopranos [11]. Furthermore, much to the confusion of many who follow Massive Attack’s political endeavours [12], their singles are perhaps some of the most prolifically used liscenced music in the advertising world.

It’s no wonder, then, given that some of the most distinctive aural motifs of the genre are now synonymous with various car [13], perfume [14] and clothing [15] adverts (not to mention a plethora of arguably sub-par Spy movies), that there exists speculation as to whether the trip-hop is still alive and kicking, let alone the ‘alt’ force it once was.

There’s certainly argument for the genre having become less distinctive. In fact, many would argue that drawing distinctions between electronic genres has never felt more like picking atoms from sand. One could be forgiven for weeping into Music For Airports, mourning simpler times after a glance at the ocean of youtube playlists concisely and elucidatingly entitled something akin to:’AMBIENT/TRIPHOP/ELECTRONIC/CHILLWAVE/PSYBIENT/ILLBIENT/CHILLSTEP/DOWNTEMPO MIX 2014!!!’.

However, though trip-hop may be only one of many genres under which they are listed, one need only look to the likes of post-2000 artists such as Bonobo, Boards of Canada, Gorillaz or FKA Twigs to see that the genre not only endures, but is more bound to the visual realm than ever. Kitty Empire summates that FKA Twigs ‘…introduced herself as less a new girl singer than a series of fascinating visual and auditory manipulations; a work of art’ [16] and indeed, it’s arguable that the ‘trip’ factor and positive alternative reception of FKA Twigs is somewhat contingent on her visuals. Similarly, Gorillaz’s Jamie Hewlett created such a meticulous virtual fiction that the music has become inseparable from the visage of its virtual band members.

Furthermore, when we consider how the likes of DJ Shadow and visual artist Ben Stokes have forged cohesion of sound and vision that ‘…grew into a single symbiotic entity’ [17], we begin to see the formation of a new, all-inclusive medium. After all, it was but a year ago that United Visual Artists saw the collaboration of Filmmaker Adam Curtis and Massive Attack in an immersive, politically charged fusion of a gig and a film that was attributed to each artist equally and thus described as a ‘gilm’[18].
Though it may no longer sit so distinctly and iconically upon the throne of ‘alt’ as it once did, its contradictory concoction of simultaneously menacing and sensual tones continues to pervade not only neighbouring genres, but fuse with entirely different mediums. If hip-hop’s hypnotic half-sibling is dead, it went out like a sandwood tree capsule, and it would seem that its legacy mesmerises not just our ears, but equally, our eyes.
[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VIqmIMcXrQ
[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7K72X4eo_s
[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yeEEH_h2RE
[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNWFHpPu1qs
[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6F9pydomWOE
[6] http://www.nme.com/news/portishead/62558
[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qvChPUNVbE
[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjAoBKagWQA
[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFS4zYWxzNA
[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fPjuuVOGqxI
[11] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nW3LikcBL68
[12] http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/massive-attack-makes-gaza-statement-using-headline-stage-at-longitude-festival-9622836.html
[13] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwlzyMrmtzU
[14] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KwHd1GZkoY
[15] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3VCfcTpFHk
[16] http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/jun/29/fka-twigs-ica-london-review-compelling-ecstatically-filthy
[17] http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/en_uk/blog/an-in-depth-interview-with-dj-shadow
[18] http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/jun/30/massive-attack-adam-curtis-manchester-festival

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