What is Downtempo Music?
Downtempo is a killer subgenre of electronic music, with little to no vocals and simple beats. It’s laidback like ambient music but has a beat you can groove to, unlike ambient music.
Okay, that is a total lie. At the bottom of the article we have included several of the best downtempo artists and some of them include vocals, but for the sake of this brief introduction to the genre, and to help familiarize you with it, let’s go ahead and say that most downtempo music uses soft vocals for audible texture but not so much to tell a story.
Partygoers, ravers and clubbers will be familiar with this genre, as well as DJs, of course.
The music is a lot more chill than others in the electronica genre. Seasoned DJs will leave downtempo to the end of the set when the party draws to a close.
This music is also played in side rooms of clubs or designated “take five” areas. The beats are slower and super groovy, perfect for a break from dancing or wrapping up a party.
Most clubgoers, whether they recognize and know downtempo or not, will automatically get the signal from this type of music that it’s late into the night.
If you’ve ever seen Portlandia, the theme song is a prime example of downtempo music with a chill beat that is easy to listen to and very enjoyable. There are some vocals but they’re airy and non-dominant.
Non-dominance is a good way to define downtempo. It’s got elements of ambient music and serves listeners the same way: it can be enjoyed either as a focal point or be ignored while still providing an atmosphere. It neither overpowers nor disappears.
It’s a beautiful genre for summer driving.
You will often hear downtempo in lounges.
It’s great for a casual hangout with friends or any time you need to relax.
A bit of history
It all started with the synthesizer. This instrument became more affordable to people in the late 1960s – early 1970’s and so musicians, being the experimental and curious artists they are, ever-searching for the perfect tool for self-expression, fell in love with it. We had the beginnings of ambient music in the 1970s;
Electronic music really came into huge popularity in the early 1990’s. The club scene brought in all kinds of new genres after the : electronica ruled the soundsystems everywhere because it didn’t require a live band and provided dancing crowds with non-stop movement to inspire their dancing.
It was an obvious new experimentation with the synthesizer, which at the time had only been around for a couple of decades. There was plenty left to explore on that instrument with so many options.
Downtempo is usually played on a synthesizer as well as a drum machine and a few other things.
Electronica is typically faster paced, and so downtempo was created not as an antithesis but simply as an alternative for lounge areas and chill-out rooms at festivals and nightclubs.
Dancers could go into these rooms and sit for a while, taking a break from the intense energy of the dancefloor and enjoying a drink.
You’ll notice rather a hypnotizing element to downtempo, the same way electronica brings you in and holds you.
The genre originated on Ibiza, a Mediterranean island, well known for its nightlife and electronic music. Tourists from all over the world come to Ibiza as a destination for this type of holiday.
DJs have always known how to read a crowd (or, they should) and know how to bring up the energy and bring it down. On the island of Ibiza, where they party til sunrise, the DJs start playing downtempo to bring the crowd down after a full night of partying.
Here’s a “Best of Ibiza” chillout downtempo playlist if you want to feel a little bit of that vibe for a while.
Oh, and downtempo is sometimes called trip hop, taking elements from hip hop, drum and bass and ambient music: these are combined altogether over a lower tempo. These days the music also incorporates more melodic instrumentals.
Now that we are familiar with the genre, let’s have a listen, shall we?
Here are some of the best downtempo artists out there. Some were around for the advent of the genre and helped shape it; others showed up along the way and furthered the genre’s popularity by keeping it alive.
Thievery Corporation has been around since 1995. This electronic duo has opened for Paul McCartney and worked with artists such as David Byrne and Wayne Coyne.
They bring an overtly political message with their music and actions, performing at the Operation Ceasefire concert and supporting human rights and the World Food Programme.
Flume is a young’un, born in 1991 and has been making music since 2004. He has risen to popularity rather fast, having remixed several famous songs by artists like Lorde and selling 40 000 tickets for his first national tour.
He is from Australia and his work incorporates many electronic elements from hip hop to dub. Here is his self-titled debut album.
Blue Sky Black Death
Another duo on our list, Blue Sky Black Death hails from San Francisco, California. They produce their music with a drum machine, sampler, keyboard, synth and guitar. They’ve been on the scene since 2003.
The phrase “blue sky black death” is a skydiving phrase alluding to beauty and death. They got their start making beats to rap over but soon gave up rapping to pursue producing. Below you can hear their third full-length album, Noir.
Kruder & Dorfmeister
Kruder & Dorfmeister get automatic points from us for their G-Stoned cover, which resembles the famous Bookends cover by American duo Simon & Garfunkel.
Peter Kruder & Richard Dorfmeister comprise this Austrian duo and have been making music together since 1993. They got their start playing big festivals and were instantly loved by the audience. They have gone on to tour the world and continue producing music to this day. They’ve also put out their own solo albums and albums under aliases. They have at least 9 studio recorded albums available.
Here is their first album, G-Stoned.
Samantha James stands out from others on our list for her vocal style. Many downtempo artists are producers and rarely feature vocals in their work. Rather the vocals are presented as a soft ambience over the beat.
Samantha’s singing is incredibly soulful and gives a whole new life to this style of music. Coming from Los Angeles, she became involved with the underground dance scene there as a teenager.
She has been making music of her own since 2007. Her first single, Rise, was an instant hit in 2006 and she has since toured the world with her wonderful blend of electronic and soul music.
She has two full-length albums and has reached #1 on the US dance charts.
Listen to her first album, Rise, here:
Helicopter Girl is a Scottish musician and has been active since 1993. She gives downtempo a unique spin incorporating elements from several genres, including dance music, indie pop and jazz.
Helicopter Girl is widely revered for her vocal style and the lyrics offer a listening experience that speaks utter truth. Straight badass. You’ve just got to give a listen and experience this for yourself.
We’ve included a link to her video for Glove Compartment but we also recommend listening to her song Angel City.
Glove Compartment is mysterious and fateful; Angel City is rockier than everything else on this list, but the vocals are cool, calm and sultry, chilling you right out with icy proclamations.
Portishead are one of the better known artists on this list. They remind us of Helicopter Girl a bit – with their infusions of other genres like indie rock laid on top of downtempo – and a bit of sex appeal.
This is music you can throw on for driving or grooving out at home, and works just as well in a lounge setting. Portishead has been around since 1991, taking a brief hiatus from 1999 through 2005. They took up music again after the break.
They’re an English band, well known in this genre because they were one of its pioneers. Despite their dislike for press coverage, their music has been successful internationally.
Even Rolling Stone referred to them as Gothic hip-hop. They’ve been around so long making this kind of music that they have been played in all kinds of underground clubs and gothic scenes.