Essential albums: Bonobo

British DJ/composer/producer Simon Green aka Bonobo creates a unique, tuneful and intimate brand of instrumental hip hop...oh alright then, trip hop. At once stimulating and soothing, it perfectly encapsulates breakbeat label Ninja Tune's more downtempo side.


country of origin:

Trip hop, breakbeat, cinematic, exotic lounge, world beat

decades active:
00's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Animal Magic (2001, Ninja Tune/Tru Thoughts)
  • Dial M For Monkey (2003, Ninja Tune)
  • Days To Come (2006, Ninja Tune)
  • Black Sands (2010, Ninja Tune)

Reviewed by Mike G

British DJ/composer/producer Simon Green aka Bonobo creates a unique, tuneful and intimate brand of instrumental hip hop...oh alright then, trip hop. At once stimulating and soothing, it perfectly encapsulates breakbeat label Ninja Tune's more downtempo side.

Animal Magic (2001) and Dial M For Monkey (2003) may as well be two halves of the same album despite the two years that separate them. Both are masterworks of eclectic instrumental mood music, more hip hop for their sampling and looping techniques rather than their actual sound. Bonobo doesn't just simply nick sounds from other people's records anyway; he also plays many instruments himself which allows him to fashion exactly the sounds he hears inside his no doubt considerable head.

A roll call of his tools and instruments doesn't really tell you much; drum loops with guitars, piano, flute, sitar, strings, synths and sundry other instruments. More revealing is how he puts his drum breaks noticeably further back in the mix than most of his beat-science contemporaries. That creates more room for colouring and subtlety and therein lies the key to his music. Its a muted, lo-fi pastoral sound where light and shadow shifts and flickers, like looking at the sky through the gaps of a leafy tree. This tapestry is what binds his music together, whatever beat patterns he happens to be using. From the stoned hip hop beats of "Sleepy Seven" to the menacing waltz of "Wayward Bob"...from the odd jazz-Balinese fusion of "D-song" to the lovely Euro soundtrack meanderings of "Nothing Owed". It all gels magically.

His third album Days To Come (2006) marks a shift. It was was released amid much ballyhoo about "songs" and vocalists, the kind of talk which sets off alarm bells among some lovers of instrumental trip hop. It's a familiar story: bedroom DJ/hip-hop enthusiast start off making distinctive instrumentals and then "progresses" to using singers and writing "proper" songs. Result: a certain loss of what made the music in special in the first place.

Good news, however, because Days To Come is magnificent. The mixture of songs and instrumentals is still unmistakably Bonobo's own, with most of the sounds sampled from his live playing, cut up and reassembled in his own beguiling and very organic way. Most crucially, his chosen vocalist fits like a silk glove. German poet and singer Bajka's slightly smoky tone, purry delivery and the way she curls her r's all sits perfectly here, whether or not you engage with the actual lyrics. As for the album's instrumentals, they're as beguiling as ever. "Ketto" loops a harp melody and indistinct child-like vocal byte around a solid drum break to touching effect. "Transmission 94" is a mini 8-minute epic that builds and unfolds layers of keyboard, woodwind and violin melodies with undeniable brilliance, not unlike the Cinematic Orchestra's most epic moments.

His 2010 release Black Sands is also strong - as strong as anything he's released - and this time the balance tips back in favour of instrumentals with only three songs featured. "Kiara" features a truly lovely oriental melody played on violin. The frantic breakbeats of "1009" carry a wonderfully trippy concoction of bleeps, samples, keyboards and strings. "Animals" sounds like an epic rock jam, winding down for a sax solo before storming back into its dense, loose groove. The title track is pure grace, a wistful instrumental waltz led by guitar, oboe and brass. The songs are good, too, with guest Adreyena Triana's warm, slightly husky voice acquitting itself well on three contrasting songs. The arrangements on Black Sands show little touches of brilliance everywhere - like the jazzy complexity of the drumming - and this kind of detail keeps rewarding with repeated listens. Coupled with Green's patient dedication to great writing, his soulful ambient grooves remain timeless and alive.

If you like Bonobo's style then another must-have album on Ninja Tune is the one-off masterpiece Music By Cavelight (2004) by New York hip hop producer Blockhead. The early instrumental albums of fellow Brit beat scientists QuanticNightmares On Wax and Jon Kennedy will also appeal.

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