NINA SIMONE / “Black Is The Colour Of My True Love’s Hair” (Jaffa Remix)

2005. Trip Hop is at least a decade old. Some would say quite a bit older. Anyone even vaguely interested in the genre already knows Massive Attack, already knows Morcheeba and Portishead. They know about Tricky and the other British names that either created or perfected the style. What interests me is that even now—long after the ‘newness’ of Trip Hop has faded—the music still grabs at me. The thing is, Trip Hop as a style shouldn’t work. A good written description of it sounds cloying, pretentious, almost pointless. Musically, it’s simple. Emotionally, it’s distant. So why do I like it so much?

At it’s essence, Trip Hop is a union—an awkwardly negotiated, perhaps even dysfunctional union, but a union nonetheless. It’s all about tension. The heavy drums pushing forward. The cool, mournful vocals refusing to be hurried. The drums are looped in place (nearly all good Trip Hop is based on loops), unable to move, change, expand or shift. The voice is free to roam—free to shift in pitch, in tone, in color, in style.

Listen to electronica producer Jaffa’s remix of Nina Simone’s “Black Is The Colour Of My True Love’s Hair”—a Trip Hop record if there ever was one. Listen to the way the track begins. The guitar line introduces the drum loop which settles immediately into its function: to provide the bottom, the stability, the over-and-overness that categorizes not only Trip Hop, but nearly every other style of music born of hip-hop. Nina’s voice—as cool and as mournful as any ‘true’ Trip Hop vocalist—positively soars. She begins with an effortlessly intoned ‘black,’ before swooping lower and lower until, by the end of the phrase (‘hair’), she’s dropped several delectable octaves. And it isn’t just the mournful sound of Nina’s voice that identifies the Jaffa remix has Trip Hop. It’s also the lyric. Trip Hop songs are invariably about loss, or absence or longing. There’s always something the singer wants, but cannot have. Nina initially recorded “Black Is The Colour” decades before anything that we might accurately call Trip Hop even existed, but the sentiment expressed could easily be from a Portishead or Massive Attack record. And, the similarity may be more than coincidental. Nina’s version of “Black Is The Colour…” is based on a traditional Scottish tune that made its way (probably via Irish immigration) to the Americas. Perhaps it’s something about that part of Europe, an area of the world where women must have spent many years of their lives lamenting the absence or maiming or passing of lovers at war, that created this sort of exquisite melancholia.

Of course, the feeling isn’t exclusive to the English. Res (pronounced ‘Reese’ in deference to her given name, Shareese Renee Ballard) is a young Black singer-songwriter from Philadelphia whose 2001 song “700 Mile Situation” is as identifiably Trip Hop as anything else. “For all the time you must go,” the song begins, “Notice all the things you leave.” Right away, it’s archetypal Trip Hop—the longing, the sadness, and, of course, the absence. True, the accompaniment is more dynamic than standard Trip Hop fare—there’s an uptempo dub/ska feel to the drums and bass—but the chorus describes perfectly the fatalistic and melancholic nature of a long-distance relationship. “Everybody wants to know what’s wrong,” Res sings. “It’s just the 700-mile situation.” Whenever I hear this song, I find myself drawing an imaginary 700-mile compass line around my spot on the globe and wondering….

handsome boy.jpg
The ironically-named Handsome Boy Modeling School (no one in the band is either particularly handsome or in school) is a collaboration between eclectic hip-hop producers Prince Paul (of De La Soul fame) and Dan ‘The Automator’ Nakamura. For their foray into Trip Hop—the enigmatically-titled “I’ve Been Thinkin’ ”—Dan and Paul enlist the talents of the fiercely independent qausi-folk singer Chan Marshall BKA Cat Power.


Cat’s usual tunes are minimalist in style and quirky in application—none of them sound even vaguely like Trip Hop. Therefore, it’s simultaneously surprising (given her usual style) and predictable (given her iconoclastic nature) that she would depart so far from her norm to record a post-Trip Hop record with two hip-hop jokesters. With not much more than a simple drum pattern and an almost inaudible jangling noise, Dan and Paul create a perfect Trip Hop soundscape. Complementing the somber tone of the track, Cat’s lyrics veer back-and-forth between haughtiness (“You can try…but I’ll never be on my knees”) and fear (“Am I losing control? … Am I losing you?”), but through it all, her tone carries the sorrowful detachment that typifies the genre.

In the end, I like Trip Hop not in spite of its odd, discordant nature, but because of it. I like the idea that quietly sung female vocals can work when accompanied by thumping drum samples. I like that a white Canadian producer can create new music for a black jazz vocalist’s version of a centuries old Scottish ballad. I like that a young, classically-trained pop/R&B singer from America can bring a dub twist to a style of music that is essentially British in origin. And I like that two practical jokers from the world of hip-hop can join forces with an intense and serious alternative/folk vocalist to create something that sounds unlike anything either of them has recorded before or since.

—Mtume ya Salaam

Bonus tracks:

Res - “700 Mile Situation” from What I Do (Geffen - 2001)
Handsome Boy Modeling School feat. Cat Power - “I’ve Been Thinking” from White People (Elektra - 2004)

          Here’s where I get off the bus         

I’m glad you broke it down because that’s as close as I’m going to come to understanding what you are hearing that makes you like this stuff as music. I’ve always been suspicious of music that looked better than it sounded—and I could easily be talking about The Supremes, so I don’t mean to imply it has anything to do with this current generation.

nina 13.jpg
For me the musical content is so deeply thin that it just plain holds no interest for me as music, and because I’m not interested, I have nothing more to say, except… how the hell do you put any of this stuff into a conversation about Nina?

Hey, man, this my stop. Let me off this…

—Kalamu ya Salaam


This entry was posted on Sunday, November 6th, 2005 at 4:32 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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