What is Hip Hop?
Hip hop is many things to many people. From backpack to drill, trap to hip life, gangster to golden age and now the chill hop sub genre but first let's go back, all the way back, to the roots of hip hop. Hip hop was spawned in the late 70s when DJs like Cool Herc started using two copies of the same record to extend the drum break in a track. This is the part of a song where all or most of the instruments stop playing except for the drummer. Herc wanted to extend this section because this was the part of the track when the dancers went really wild. Those drum breaks mostly came from classic soul and funk records and for many years those drum breaks were the backbone of hip hop, sampled by thousands and heard by billions. Check out this nicely put together selection of some of the most famous hip hop drum breaks:
So there you have the original back bone of hip hop - the drum break. I'm guessing if you've been checking some chill hop it sounded familiar. Would be hip hop producers who were checking out the early DJs duly noted the power of a drum break, and luckily for them music technology at that time was quickly developing and rapidly becoming more affordable. A basic E-mu or AKAI sampler and a basic Roland drum machine was now within financial reach of your average wannabe producer and meant those that has skipped music lessons could now get involved with making a tune. So not only did they start programming and sampling drums they also started sampling other breaks, maybe a trumpet, guitar or vocal from all sorts of records to add some melodic interest or a hook to give their chosen MC a good ride.
If you want to explore this phenomena more then I suggest that you kick back for an hour or so one day and listen to the following mixtape from Arthur King & Uncle T, two great French hip hop DJs. This is an incredibly skillful mix and, though many have tried, one of the best ever mixes of old soul and funk tracks containing famous sampled breaks mixed back to back with the legendary hip hop tracks they inspired. I can't tell you how many times I've listened to it. In fact I used to sell this mix CD on Camden market but that is a whole different story!
In many ways chill hop is a regression to hip hop's early days. Nowadays a hip hop track can be, and often is completely synthesized to avoid costly sample clearing. Different rhythms have evolved in different parts of the world - grime in the UK, reggaeton in Central and South America and a lot of what are now called urban artists are even making songs with EDM producers over cheesy dance beats. But chill hop is keeping it simple, it is focusing on the those classic laid back hip hop style drum breaks or close approximations to them and, rather than a rapper, introducing a chill out element.
so what is chill out?
Before you get reading I've pulled together another playlist of some classic and personal favourite chill out tunes to accompany this next section. I've put a few thoughts on the playlist in it's description if you're interested. It's a work in progress and will be developing but it's a good start & reasonable overview.
Chill Out music's history is as long as the history of music itself. Ever since early man started making drum sounds I dare say there were always times when a slower rhythm prevailed, even if it was just because the players needed a rest. Chamber music, monastic choirs, classical, jazz and more have always had quieter moments. It certainly wasn't called Chill Out music then, it was just plain old music but played at a slower pace. The obsession with genre classification is more a late twentieth century phenomena. This is also the time period that I am going to focus on in my brief history of the roots of Chill Out music.
The 60's are the roots of modern culture that we know today. Post war society started to get a big rethink, mainly due to the efforts of a group of acid inspired hippies in the West Coast of America. Free thinking was encouraged, new ideas about sex, literature, religion, war and gender equality were discussed, rules and norms rewritten and different approaches promoted. The rule book on so many things got torn up and music was no exception. Things got really cooking in the second half of the 60's as the movement grew and spread across the world.
Again, as with hip hop, technological innovation played a massive part and the incorporation of synthesizers, effects pedals, tape machines, theremins and echo chambers into modern music is a key moment in the history of chill out. It just so happened that a lot of the effects you could get from these machines sounded really good to your average, frequently stoned hippy. Bands like Donovan, Pink Floyd, The Doors, Steve Reich, The Grateful Dead, Terry Riley all started to record long tracks with weird effects that sounded great to this new generation slumped on their Afghan rugs and bean bags smoking bongs. Another thing these artists with their newly opened minds did was to incorporate drones into their music. Drones are long sustained notes that were originally found in Australian Aboriginal didgeridoo playing. It was also a technique found in South Eastern Asian music, well before the 60's. It was hugely popularised by early psychedelic adopters and musical adventurers The Beatles used the technique in a few of their songs. Naturally with such advocates it wasn't long before it became widely used by musicians and producers the world over.
Perhaps the first chill out record though can be traced to a man called Eden Ahbez and his album, Eden's Island. Recorded in 1960, it incorporated a lot of dreamy moods, drifting sounds and ethereal vocals that would later come to help define what we term today as Chill Out music. It might not sound so ground breaking but if you research what most people were listing to in the late 50's and early 60's then you'll soon realise how far out and progressive it was.
Music changed as the 70's progressed and the hippy dream slowly faded. New darker and heavier genres emerged, but the cat was out of the bag and bands kept developing these new electronic and chilled motifs with Europe arguably leading the way. People like Popol Vuh & Tangerine dream, both part of the Kosmische scene in Germany, Brian Eno in England and the incredibly influential Vangelis from Greece. Progressive soul, jazz and funk groups incorporated synthesizers into their setup to push their sound in new directions. Progressive Rock certainly loved a synth and the developing soundtrack industry also kept the electronic and chill out seeds alive and watered. Meanwhile on a little island in the Caribbean dub was being invented and consequently was spread across the globe by the Jamaican diaspora. Little did they know that dub was going to play such a massive part in not only chill out but dance music's future as a whole.
Along came the 80's and suddenly every pop band in the game had a synthesizer but it wasn't until the dance music revolution and the early days of acid house that modern Chill Out, the Daddy of Chill Hop, was born. As part of the UK's dance music movement some pioneering artists, a bit like their 60's hippy forebearers, decided a chill out room at a rave and relaxed music during the post rave come down was a good idea. Step up The Orb, Mixmaster Morris, Jose Padilla, KLF, DJ Food and Biosphere to name a few pioneers. Chill Out in its modern form had well and truly arrived.
A lot of these artists were making Chill Out much like the early hip hop crews, without formal music training, just passion and vision. They started using the ever cheaper music technology to cut and paste samples, although their influences tended to be more esoteric, wide ranging and driven by their opposing, horizontal agenda. Their mission wasn't to make people dance or produce beats for rappers, it was to provide people who wanted to relax with ethereal, transportative and calming music to do just that. The drums got a little slower, the textures softer, psychedelic twists and the ever effective dub effects all helped turn the chilled, spacey atmosphere up to 11. Now who's got some papers?
so we know what hip hop is and what the history of chill out is. So what is chill hop?
OK so there are hundreds of playlists promoting Chill Hop and most have a slightly different musical agenda. No one is right and no one is wrong, it's all opinion but here's how I see it. Chill hop has essentially been named, not invented, due to the popularity of hip hop culture. From it's underground New York roots, hip hop has grown into a global phenomena that has been bossing the charts for decades now. It's the musical soundtrack of two generations, and with any movement so large it's cultural impact on many areas is inevitable. We see this in fashion, art, vocabulary, right through to hand shakes. So hip hop has also infiltrated and molded chill out music in its own image.
Chill Hop needs to have a recognisable hip hop beat to it. Nothing too fancy or boundary pushing, but something familiar sounding and mildly engaging. It also needs to be relaxing. Chill hop is not pre-club let's do some shots before hitting the town music. It's more, I need to study for 4 hours and need some background music that won't be distracting, I want to chill with my partner and need some nice vibes or I just want to kick back and not think too hard after a long day. So gentle sounds, soft synth pads, simple melodies are the order of the day. Nice and easy like Sunday morning.
To be honest most of the the Chill Hop on the popular playlists or Youtube channels is largely generic and undadventurous. I guess with a genre so influenced by the mainstream, money obsessed sound of hip hop there is an inevitability to that. It's a bit like what smooth jazz is to the jazz from the 60's or 70's, Coldplay are to Led Zeppelin or what Drake is compared to Milo or Rakim but it is what it is, does a job and I see the sense in it.
So there you have it, my take on the Chill Hop genre. To understand any genre though it also helps to know who the main players and promoters in the game are and realise their motivation. If you want some further reading then I highly recommend you head over to these two articles:
OUR MISSION STATEMENT GOES SOMETHING LIKE THIS
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