Trip-hop was not a felicitous name. The first artists to find it stuck to their shoes -- Depth Charge, Tricky, Portishead, Massive Attack -- all had unique sonic IDs (they get their own sections in the store) and directions to their destinations, none obvious. When British crate fillers like James Bong and Monk & Canatella (anonymous enough to need some mutually advantageous retail grouping) trotted out their wordless beats, the name trip-hop became an insult to hip-hop; these Euros didnt want the beats for anything more than timekeeping and cred. If this was actually a genre, it was suited to late-night crashing and early-morning creeping, not bouncing, nodding or party starting, never mind the part where there are no words. These beats dont rouse, they keep you in place. So downtempo, sure, this was a better name, and a rack divider was born. And the records did keep coming.
What happens in downtempo is normative; to deviate from the template would make it something else. A beat, more or less related to hip-hop, is set up, sounds and melodic fragments float above it, and things go on for a while, sometimes a really long time. Making downtempo records is more like cutting lengths from a bolt of cloth than writing songs. Dynamics, chord changes, lyrics, rhythmic buildup -- these things do not generally intrude. Its background music, but more specifically, downtempo is physical music, geared to feel like a rubdown, a hot washcloth on your neck, a cold ice cream bar. If it sounds like Calvin Klein ad music in the aggregate, think of how bad you feel after, say, six Dove bars. Responsibility begins with the user.
The undisputed kings of downtempo are Viennese studio weedheads Peter Kruder and Richard Dorfmeister. (Air dont count, because they sing.) Their 1998 double-CD compilation of contracted remix work, The K&D Sessions (Stud!o K7), has moved 350,000 copies (according to their label), but six years into the game they have yet to release an album under their own name. When K&D are on, their impeccable engineering, luscious bass and acoustic sounds are positively tactile. When they leave easy comfort and ambient ready-mades behind, K&D get to something perilously close to music. This usually happens when they obey their love of hip-hop thump and dub dread and abandon the d&b beats they dont have the balls to plug in. The swirling latter half of Disc 2 of The K&D Sessions is like a dub motorcycle stripped down to a light, powerful aluminum street bike, gently riding back and forth over your head.
On their own, K andor D get closer to true and varying degrees of lost. Tosca is Dorfmeister when hes working with friend Rupert Huber. Tosca walk heavier than K&D and have nothing against a laugh, which makes their 1998 compilation Opera one of the few sure things in a modest genre. The vocal samples and mouth noises on Fuck Dub and Chocolate Elvis deliver the feel-goods without conjuring visions of sophistos. The sound skills and audio resolution are, again, much of the story: Brand names sometimes do deliver. On the latest, Suzuki (Stud!o K7), Tosca tone down the hip-hop and make it smoother and creamier, alas, but keep the vocal chunks for Annanas and Suzuki, the latter as addictive as whatever evil dairy-based dessert you favor. Its consumerist comfort music, music for polishing your expensive hi-fi, sounds for fattening your wallet and ass. No wonder I misheard the chorus of Honey as I want my money: This is music that could only come in a boom time.
Peter Kruders Peace Orchestra (Stud!o K7) hits both higher and lower. After a pleasant spy-theme intro, Meister Petz rolls in. Its a delicious oboe beat (you know those oboe beats), all rubbed linen and shorthaired fur surrounding a shiny center. You will gobble it umpteen times. After that, dude gets way gone with the anonymous female vocals and Putumayo world jungle. Things come around at the end with a bit more dub and some slightly peeved female vocals. These guys know to finish strong.
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For less physical but slightly thicker backgrounds, try Poles 3 (on Matador, wait till June 20, then point and click) or Walter Marchettis Nei Mari del Sud (Alga Marghen) (try www.forcedexposure.com for that one). Im sure theyd be shocked to be considered background music, but Poles bubbling gray caramel and Marchettis silty piano thuds are simply different ways of changing the world around you with stereo speakers. When theyre better than K&D, its because theres something there to hang on to if you want to listen closely. (Listen closely to The K&D Sessions and you will drive right off the road.) Good background music can be functionally transparent in a supporting role but reveal content when strongly lit. Kruder and Dorfmeister can do it -- keep your weight up, fellas, and stop worrying about cracking 500,000. You deserve that Dove-bar endorsement more than anyone.