Earlier this year I pitched a feature idea to RBMA magazine that evolved into a month-long project and would ultimately result in an oral history piece as well as material for a new part of the book.
The subject is illbient, an oft-forgotten mid-90s genre that emerged out of New York City during the city’s last permissive decade. I’d first known about illbient in the early 2000s after a recommendation from my friend Mr Trick led me to the work of The Agriculture label, founded by DJ Olive, one of the central figures in the illbient scene and one of two people widely recognised as having coined the name alongside DJ Spooky.
Illbient originally caught my ear thanks to its instrumental nature and clear roots in both dub and hip hop. I dug around and listened to what I could at the time, but it wasn’t until recently – when I started working on the book – that I thought about it again. As I looked at important movements in the 1990s that could form part of the story I’m trying to tell I made a note to go back to it, especially as I’d interviewed and spoken with Raz Mesinai and Skiz Fernando, who were both involved in the scene via Sub Dub and the Wordsound label.
The original idea was to interview DJ Olive, and perhaps one or two other people, and run those as single features. Very quickly though it became clear that there was more to the story than simply some interviews with artists reminiscing about a time gone by. That’s when it became an oral history. From there I spent a month tracking down people who’d been involved, following recommendations and then trying to put together an oral history that could do justice to what happened as well as reconcile the conflicting memories, points of views and agendas of all involved. Anyone who has attempted something similar will know that last point is far from easy, but it’s also what makes historical writing so much fun, to me at least.
The need to do this properly seemed all the more important to me as there is very little information about illbient and what happened during that period that can be verified. The Wikipedia page for the genre is frought with errors I could see even before I’d started collecting stories, and by and large there seems to be no documentation of what happened since the 1996 The Wire magazine cover which helped to cement the name and, as I soon found out, foment distrust within the community it was shining a light on.
This idea that The Wire magazine cover did more hurt than good proved a fascinating side effect of the work. It really got me thinking about how, especially in the 1990s before the internet, one journalist’s vision, and inherent biases, was so often central to painting the historical image of an artistic movement. A few years before The Wire helped to coin illbient, Mixmag did the same with trip hop. One article by one journalist put together the setting of a scene, and going back to that particular article in 2014 provides a fascinating insight into just how essential these articles were at a time when information moved slowly and in a top-down direction.
As I worked on this I realised that not only was there a fascinating story to be told but that the story I was looking at was also in a way a needed addition to the book. The story of the illbient scene is an integral part of the wider story of experimentalism in New York City in the 1990s and very much acts as a counterpoint to the trip hop movement that took place in the UK, and Europe, at the same time.
In many ways illbient’s experimentalism, its focus on the instrumental format and the sweet spot between dub, hip hop and ambient, is the flip side to New York’s sonic dominance within underground, and mainstream to a degree, hip hop in that decade. This idea only solidified as I interviewed more people and gained a better picture of just how intertwined movements, people and scenes were during that decade. For example WeTM member Lloop, and Akin from Byzar, both worked as engineers in recording studios at the time whose clients were primarly rap artists. They would engineer beats and rhymes by day, and craft their own experimental versions by night.
The similarities, and differences, between illbient and trip hop – as well as the importance of jungle and early drum n bass to the sonic aesthetics of NYC’s experimental electronic scene – ended up unfortunately being edited out of the published version of the oral history. I may publish that particular part of the work in the future, as I think there are some particularly key comments from Spooky, Olive and Lloop about the dynamics and tension between what was going with Mo’ Wax et al in the UK and what was happening in New York.
One last key point is the importance of chill out rooms, both the concept and physical representation of it that took place in the 1990s. It was in those rooms that the likes of The Orb rose to prominence in the late 1980s in the UK and, in an unsurprising delayed echo a few years later, it was chill out rooms that provided one of the most fertile grounds for illbient-related artists to experiment and find ways to make sense of the ideas they were so fascinated by. They may be widely derided today, but chill out rooms were key to the development of various experimental music, the ghosts of which inhabit much of today’s underground and mainstream music.
Ultimately I came to realise that while trip hop and Mo’ Wax found a place in the historical pantheon of music genres, their US counterparts didn’t. Illbient was, as I put it in the introduction to the oral history, “just another cold body in the great morgue of modern music categorization.” Yet its importance shouldn’t be denied, especially when put into context with the idea of tuning that I borrowed from Raz Mesinai and which frames the feature. New York City has always thrived on detuning, a practice that was integral to the hip hop sound that emerged from the city in the 1990s. New York hums, it vibrates, it’s uncomfortable, and the music reflects that. And it’s that tuning itch, that uncomfortable feeling I came to learn to love about 1990s rap productions, that acts as a foundation for a lot of what came after and which is the focus of the book.
Anyways, I was planning on keeping this short and focused but here I am 800 words later.
I’ve put together a short YouTube playlist of key albums and tracks from the era that acts as a nice introduction for those unaware of the artists or the music. Spotify also has a few of the albums, look up Olive, Sub Dub and the Wordsound label on there. Sadly it would appear that the Asphodel back catalogue is not available digitally anywhere, a real shame as they were key to pushing forward not just weird sounds from NYC but also the early turntablist scene and more. Theirs is a catalogue rich in history that I recommend anyone check out.
And head here for the interview with WeTM member Lloop, which touches on quite a lot of ideas relevant to the book, and here for extracts of my interview with promoter Matt E. Silver, which is a fascinating insight into night life in 1990s NYC and early electronic and dance music movements.
Update: I’ve also now published the transcript of my interview with DJ Olive, which was originally mooted as one of the add-ons to the oral history. It’s a great addition to the stories from Lloop for those who like filling the gaps.
I’m going to close this with the back of a flyer Matt E. Silver sent me for Ravestock ’94, the rave version of the Woodstock revival. That show was one of the early ones to bring together many of the actors who would prove central to the sonics and development of the illbient scene. The text on the flyer was written by DJ Spooky, for what I believe was a show that also involved DJ Olive, Howard from Soundlab and Akin from Byzar.
For those of you aware of the supposed ‘beef’ between Spooky and Olive – one of the very few facts about illbient that has lasted to this day – the text of the flyer indicates that things at the time were somewhat different.
Many thanks to all the artists who gave their time for the project, to Raz for his ongoing ‘motivation’, and to Todd and RBMA for giving it a platform.