“I always saw a divide between music that was based purely on sound design and tunes that were written to physically move people. A challenge for me has been to try and make ‘tunes’ using aspects of sound design normally associated with highbrow academic studies in this area. I don’t know how successful I’ve been but that was a goal anyway.” – Amon Tobin, in his MySpace blog.
A Picture Worth a Thousand Beats: The Early Years
The roots of electronic music are planted in the theoretical and experimental camps of early 20th century composers. Edgard Varèse, Stockhausen, Pierre Schaeffer, and the like were primarily concerned with sound as sound rather than pure notation, expanding beyond tonality and traditional song structure with the aid of technological advances. Then, somewhere between Kraftwerk in the early ‘70s, disco in the late ‘70s, and the Madchester rave scene in the late ‘80s, electronic music became synonymous with ‘dance’ music. While not credited with the creation of a genre, Amon Tobin has sought to unite these two dichotomous sides of electronic music, to satisfy both the dancing feet and the theoretical minds of audiences worldwide. Tobin’s contributions to forms such as trip-hop, drum & bass, acousmatic, and video game music cannot be considered anything less than a complete success.
Like his music, Tobin came from scattered origins. Born in Brazil in 1972, his family started a whirlwind tour of relocation after his second birthday, including stays in Morocco, Portugal, Madeira Island, London, and the Netherlands. Eventually, around the time he graduated from high school, he set up shop in Brighton.
Kraftwerk - Numbers (Computer World, 1981)
Tobin’s early musical tastes were as varied as his residences. Though he had no formal music training, he developed an infatuation with the blues as a teen and performed on the streets as a busker. In university, while he was supposed to be studying photography, his interest in music persisted, though his blues-based focus shifted dramatically upon discovering his new favorite instrument: the sampler. In his third year at university he received a positive response for his sample-based recordings from NINEBARecords. He dropped out shortly thereafter to focus on his recording, and subsequently issued a small selection of EPs and 12-inches under the moniker of Cujo in the mid-‘90s. Many of those tracks ended up on Tobin’s debut album Adventures In Foam, released by NINEBAR in 1996.
Although the NINEBAR pressing only numbered five thousand, Adventures In Foam caught the ear of Coldcut, the heads of influential London label Ninja Tune. Signed under his own name, Tobin produced two more albums in quick succession. Bricolage appeared in 1997 and Permutation in 1998, both to widespread critical acclaim. Around this time, two important electronica movements were peaking: trip-hop and drum ‘n’ bass.
Something Wicked This Way Comes: The Scene
The term “trip-hop” was not coined until 1994, when, in the June issue of UK magazine Mixmag, music journalist Andy Pemberton described a single by DJ Shadow as such. However, the genre had been building steam for years by then. The groundwork for trip-hop was laid in large part through the development of American hip-hop in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
DJs created the hip-hop beat by looping drum breaks from jazz, funk, rock, and disco records. The more popular of these breaks, such as those from “The Funky Drummer” by James Brown and “Apache” by The Incredible Bongo Band, would go on to appear in dozens of tracks. Though forms of sampling were among the oldest forms of electroacoustic music, with movements such as music concrète and artists like Joe Meek and The Beatles incorporating samples in the ‘60s, hip-hop marked the introduction of entirely sample based music into the mainstream.
Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force - Planet Rock (Planet Rock: The Album, 1982)
In 1981, “Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels of Steel” became the first charting record made exclusively from other records. Music such as Cybotron’s 1983 album Enter, Afrika Bambaataa’s Kraftwerk sampling “Planet Rock” from 1982, and the unreleased 1982 track “Party Machine” by Canadian techno legend Bruce Haack with Russell Simmons (who appears before he co-founded Def Jam with Rick Rubin) signaled that a massive change was afoot. Coldcut’s remix of Eric B & Rakim’s “Paid In Full” in 1987 solidified the connection between electronic and rap music, a connection previously hinted at by pioneering electro producers.
Also known as the Bristol sound, trip-hop bubbled out from UK DJs enamored by hip-hop’s signature scratching and sampling, as well as the synthesis and programming of downtempo house. Massive Attack’s Blue Lines from 1991 is widely considered the first true album in the genre, cracking the top 10 in the UK charts, spiritually followed by Dummy, the 1994 Mercury Prize winning retro cinematic debut of Portishead. These albums, and the slew that followed, slowed down breakbeats from the hip-hop standard 80-90 beats per minute to under 70bpm, focused on atmospheric production, and often featured sultry post-lounge singers rather than rappers.
Portishead - Sour Times (Dummy, 1994)
Drum and bass also took a great deal of inspiration from hip-hop, which was as much an influence on the fusion genre as reggae and jazz. As early as the late ‘80s, London area producers incorporated sampled breakbeaks with the technology that produced the typical British house sound. However, instead of going the blunted, mellow route trip-hop pursued, they sped up the tempo to 130bpm and eventually over 160bpm, while often embracing the bravado of rap lyricism.
Initial variations were labeled with such menacing terms as hardcore [a distinct genre precursor] and jungle [which came to represent more ragga influenced tracks]. Eventually, drum and bass became a widely accepted umbrella term. More than any other, the drum break from “Amen, Brother” by the Winstons became the defining sample of the genre, simply known as the Amen break.
Early albums in the genre, like Sonz of a Loop Da Loop Era’s Flowers In My Garden LP in 1993, found a cult audience amidst a flurry of likeminded singles, but drum and bass remained underground much longer than trip-hop. As some major names started to rise, it established itself in the mainstream by the mid-‘90s. Goldie’s progressive jungle opus Timeless crossed over in 1995, clearing the way for Roni Size/Reprazent to win the Mercury Prize in 1997 with the lively [but ultimately repetitive] New Forms.
Roni Size/Reprazent - Brown Paper Bag (New Forms, 1997)
Clean Up Your Act: Adventures In Foam
This confluence and comingling of influences provided the breeding ground that spawned Tobin’s debut album Adventures In Foam. Granted, the album showed signs of a young man learning his way around a studio and the increasingly impressive sampler technology, but his style was immediately apparent. Like “Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel”, Tobin’s early albums were made entirely from prerecorded music, largely discovered on dusty vinyl records.
For years, Tobin worked without microphones, exclusively using vinyl samples as source material. The obligatory pops and clicks that accompany vinyl playback were consistently present in his works. Unlike Grandmaster Flash, however, Tobin’s treatment of the samples was not based in turntablist scratching. He employed extensive studio processing and sequencing, treating samples so intensely as to leave the vast majority of them virtually unrecognizable.
Cujo - Cat People (Adventures In Foam, 1996)