Trip-hop is a sound that originated out of Bristol in the early ‘90s. The bustling port city is located close enough to London to be pertinent but far away enough to do its own thing. Portishead, among others, did exactly that. The UK cultural hub of Bristol is a multi-ethnic menagerie with a bohemian vibe. It is decorated by its many graffiti artists and it is home to Banksy.
Lead vocalist Beth Gibbons and her boys revolutionized the trip-hop sound as did ‘90s bands Massive Attack and Tricky, also from Bristol. Haunting and poetic vocals over melodic electronic beats distinguish the musical style sometimes called the Bristol sound. It’s known everywhere now thanks to artists like Billie Eilish who incorporate trip-hop into her recordings.
Portishead’s Geoff Barrow first began experimenting with hip hop and electronica in 1991. Bandmate Adrian Utley joined him, rounding out the Portishead trio. Unique tracks created by the emerging musicians epitomized the trip-hop genre. The nascent vibe would find its place in the category of alternative music. Prominent genres like grunge made way for the new style.
It was over 25 years ago when the Bristol boys were captivated by hip hop sounds. This was the late ‘80s and hip hop music was coming into its own. Experimenting with these beats and an array of electronic samples, in harmony with Beth’s hauntingly complex voice, the trip-hop masterpiece called “Dummy” was spawned. It features an unadulterated intensity buoyed by industrial beats. Songs like “It Could Be Sweet” and “Sour Times” identify the soundscape. It’s gritty yet melodic.
The State of Art Studio
On August 22, 1994, Dummy was released. It was produced on an extremely tight budget. The Portishead trio rented a small studio named “State of Art” on their own dime. The ironically named studio was located in Bristol. Portishead made it legendary, but it was quite primitive at the time. One problem with the facility is that it lacked proper ventilation. All three bandmembers smoked two packs a day so the tiny studio would fill up with smoke. One time, when they went to air the place out by opening a window, the smoke flowed from it like a factory chimney. The British fire brigade came rushing over to put out the fire!
Celebrating 25 years of “Dummy,” the Bristol lads joined KEXP for an interview about the magical first moments of Portishead. Talking about electronic beats and how trip-hop manifested, Geoff said, “We were into this thing that we called ‘hip hop tuning.'” This was a DJ style that would sample orchestral movements from Shostakovich, for example, and mix it with riffs from Miles Davis or Fred Wesley. Adrian said he was obsessed with those sounds too. “It was a new kind of tonality really,” he said, “It was kind of two things forced together […] If it sounds cool, then that’s kind of all you need to know,” Adrian said.