Nightmares On Wax

When hip hop decided to chill out and go instrumental it became trip hop. British DJ and composer George Evelyn aka Nightmares On Wax was one of the earliest exponents of the sound and these two albums remain a testament to that sub-genre's enduring qualities despite its fall from fashion in the late 90's.

artist:
Nightmares On Wax

country of origin:
UK

style(s):
Trip hop, breakbeat, lounge, soul, funk, psychedelia

decades active:
90's - 00's

essential releases:

  • Smokers Delight (1995, Warp)
  • Carboot Soul (1999, Warp)

Reviewed by Mike G

When hip hop decided to chill out and go instrumental it became trip hop. British DJ and composer George Evelyn aka Nightmares On Wax was one of its earliest exponents of the sound and these two albums remain a testament to that sub-genre's enduring qualities despite its fall from fashion in the late 90's. That a Brit was among the first to explore and experiment in this way with essentially an American art form is, in retrospect, not that surprising. Evelyn's pioneering work was typical of the brave new genre-hopping world of UK dance and electronic music in the first half of the 90's, as defined by labels as diverse as Ninja TuneWarp Records, Mo Wax and Emit Records.

Nightmares On Wax was originally a duo and a very different entity to one most people recognise. The eclectic and generally uptempo debut A Word Of Science (1991) doesn't really belong here and is essentially a mashed-up club album that gleefully fuses a myriad of then-current rave and dance music sources including Evelyn's first love hip hop. If anything, the album's post-acidhouse free-for-all explains how Evelyn ended up on a bleepy techno label like Warp; the lounge and hip hop sound of later N.O.W. albums is an exception to most of Warp's techno and electro mutations. A Word of Science does display Evelyn's creative sampling and a couple of the more laid back moments hint at the stoned instrumental funk to come, particularly the lush strings of "Nights Interlude" (re-recorded twice on successive albums) sampled from a record by veteran soul producer Quincy Jones.

Four years later the second N.O.W. album appeared, the mostly instrumental Smokers Delight (1995). It's a sunny, laid-back retro samplefest ("more daydreams than nightmares" said one reviewer) that carves a niche quite apart from the similarly pioneering but darker trip hop stylings of the time by Massive Attack and Portishead. Soul and rare groove fans will have fun spotting all the samples; the rest of us can just sink back and enjoy the languid and surreal re-assembling of drum breaks and basslines with snatches of guitar, strings, vocals and spoken word. Alongside the best releases of UK label Mo Wax and its star signing DJ Shadow, Smokers Delight put stoned hip hop on the map. Despite the dictates of fashion since then - and heated debates about the trip hop tag - the genre today remains a wonderfully warm, creative and quirky form of chillout.

With more polished production and a higher melody count, the brilliant Carboot Soul (1999) is the best N.O.W. album for first-timers. "Nights Interlude" gets its 3rd and best remake in the shape of "Les Nuits" which ditches the original string sample in favour of a specially assembled live orchestra. The result is a sexy, lush, glowing piece of slow-mo instrumental soul with a simple drum break, electric piano, organ stabs and gorgeous strings. "Fire In The Middle" meshes its folksy and paisley-coloured guitars with a funk-rock groove as soft as a feather, and "Ethnic Majority" marries a crisp hip hop break with happy trumpet blasts and an insanely catchy group "do-de-do" singalong. Although a couple of straight soul songs with a female vocalist sound mundane by comparison, Carboot Soul remains a sweetly stoned masterpiece.

Later N.O.W. albums like In A Space Outta Sound (2005) suggest the pull of the mainstream. They're less surreal and much more song-dominated and fall into rather generic chillout at times. Even at their best, they're quite honestly better judged as vocal soul records.

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