Downtempo – A Guide to the Great Artists and Their Best Songs and Albums

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.

downtempo music

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.

The Artists

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

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.

Visit the Thievery Corporation official website


Flume

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. 

Visit Flume’s official website 


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.

 Visit the Blue Sky Black Death Bandcamp page


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.

Check out the Kruder and Dorfmeister Facebook page


Samantha James

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:

Check out Samantha James on Om Records


Helicopter Girl

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.

Check out Helicopter Girl on Dharma Records


Portishead

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.

Visit the Portishead website here

What are the Main Genres of American Music?

“Good” music means something different to everyone these days, and this is highlighted by the growing number of genres and sub-genres that circulate in both mainstream and underground circles.

Most of these genres have evolved over the years due to several cultural and societal influences, and this is why every region of the world has its own particular “flavour” when it comes to music, from the Latin music of Mexico, to the Goan trance music of Southern India.

Today, however, we want to focus on the many musical genres of the United States of America.

For a person who has just started to explore the vast reaches of music, it can get very confusing at times learning what’s what, since every major genre does break down into smaller and more select sub-categories.  Upon closer inspection, some of these genres seem fairly ridiculous.

crunkcore cuddlecore cowpunk

To accurately depict the thousands of sub-genres that exist all around the world is a fairly impossible task, so we have learned to generalize into a reasonable number of “main” genres of music.

What Are The Main Genres Of American Music?

Each genre has its own favoured instruments that operate in particular scales or modes, a certain style of vocals (or lack thereof), and a definite rhythmical pattern behind the beats.  An experienced music lover will be able to tell the difference in genres simply by listening to a song, but, from time to time, a new permutation will always surface, eschewing convention.

Blues

What began as the Mississippi Delta Blues quickly became the biggest and most influential American music genre there is.  Adopted by the African-American population from traditional African music, blues became a medium of expressing agony through slow moving rhythms and emotional, and sometimes tragicomic lyrical situations.  The genre attained massive commercial success when artists from Chicago created a variant called Chicago blues.  You’ll find the influence of blues on other genres such as jazz, gospel, RnB, and hip hop.

Jazz

This genre of music evolved in the early 20th century.  The early artists were all African-Americans.  It has also lead to the birth of many genres in its time, but jazz music is primarily associated with the use of blue notes, performed on instruments like the saxophone and the massive double bass.  The boundaries and scope of jazz is something that has lead to various debates in the music community, and the fact is that no one has yet settled for an accurate description that accurately encompasses the entire genre.

Rock n’ Roll

Rock music started hitting the streets in the 1950’s, and it evolved as a subset of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, classical and folk music that had been around since the 1940’s. The primary focus in rock is on the electric guitar, and the many solos that can be created with it.  The bass guitar and drums are also highly in focus here, and, for some time, even synthesizers were the rage (and they’re coming back!).  Today, we relate any music that is slightly ‘heavy’ with it, and this has also lead to the combination of rock with other various sub-genres.

From rock, we get the birth of folk rock, classic rock, punk rock, blues rock, jazz rock, soft rock, heavy metal, hard rock, alt rock, and prog rock.

Let’s hear from the puzzled panther himself, Darby Crash, famous punker.

Rock is something that is omnipresent in all cultural references today, and it is no secret that we associate rock musicians with a rebellious lifestyle, incessant substance abuse, tremendous fan bases all around the world, and an ever present sense of self-destruction.

Back when rock started, it was decidedly more light-hearted and fun, with only a slight edge.

Country Music 

Country music is certainly one of the oldest forms of commercial music.  It originated in the 1920’s in southern parts of the United States, and it has slowly spread to all parts of the world.  It is also known as country & western music, and has been embraced by countless artists, including The King himself, Elvis Presley.

The defining characteristic of early country music was an acoustic guitar, with just the vocals of the singer to accompany it.  In this way, it is similar to blues music, however, a different group of Americans were responsible for creating it – those who lived south of the Mason-Dixon line.

These days, country music expresses itself as rock, as pop, or even dance music, but the original version of country music was much simpler and expressed the feelings of those in the south.

Folk Music

Also called “roots” music, folk music is both similar to country and blues, in that it has historically found its origins in the lower social classes of people in society.  That said, folk music has always had a revolutionary streak, as it has typically been used as a means of protest, telling stories, and providing political commentary.

Instrumentally, folk music can be said to be similar to both country and blues, with the primary instrument of folk music often being an acoustic guitar (mouth harp can also frequently be heard).  However, folk music is not limited to simply just guitar, and there are other specifically instruments which often turn up in folk songs, such as banjos, jugs, spoons, and the accordion.

In more recent times, folk music has been embraced by anyone who appreciates what the genre stands for.  For instance, when Bob Dylan hit the scene in the early 1960’s, he fancied himself a folk singer like his hero Woody Guthrie, but Dylan didn’t come from poverty, as you might expect a true folkster to be.  By the time Woodstock rolled around in ’69, folk music was practically mainstream, but no less affecting.

Today, folk music can even refer to a sort of throwback to this hippy movement in the ’60’s.  For example, if you hear mild mannered acoustic music where a male and female are singing “la la la” or “whoa, whoa, whoa” in harmony, you could try to call that folk music, but, by its original meaning, it clearly is not.

Hip Hop and Rap

Relatively new to the growing list of American musical genres is hip hop, or rap music. The primary focus here with hip hop is on hard beats and DJ scratching, as well as a type of rhythmic spoken word put overtop.  Also, synthetic sounds are a big part of hip hop music, as well as samples, which involves clips from other recordings re-purposed to create new artistic expressions.

Although hip hop evolved out of the urban ghettos of the United States in the 1970’s, today it has come to symbolize success and has spread far into mainstream culture, not just in the U.S.A., but all around the world.  Hip hop has become a multi-billion dollar industry.

Pop Music

Pop music is perhaps the most confusing of any genre, because it really isn’t a genre at all. Pop is short for popular, and referring to music with popular appeal.  Thus, pop music can refer to any song from any genre, so long as it is popular.  There is, however, a conflicting idea that “pop” is a genre, and has its own characteristics.  For our purposes today, we will go with the former definition.

As it refers to popular music, pop music usually is considered to be offensive to some hipster music fans, who revile anything enjoyed by the masses.  This is almost a fair assessment of pop music, since it often strives to appeal to broadest group of people possible, in order to sell the most records possible.  This is generally done by targeting teenagers, who are the most impressionable fans out there (except for pre-teens, children, and babies).

Of course, it is possible for well crafted music to be “pop” music, but the basic premise of pop music is that it is meant to please the most people possible.  As such, it is frequently about everyone’s favourite topic – sex, whether it be directly mentioned or implied.

Pop music isn’t just about sex.  In fact, sometimes it can be about violence as well. Actually, whatever it is about, it doesn’t matter.  Pop music is the only genre where the characteristics of the music itself is secondary to its popularity.  Imagine if there were a genre of music called “rich”, where the only quality the music needed to have was being written by rich people.  How obnoxious…

Conclusion

There are, of course, more genres of music out there.  Many of them are sub-genres of the genres we’ve already mentioned, such as soul, gospel, funk, zydeco…the list is practically endless.

We hope you found this article interesting.  If so, please leave us a comment below!

The Worst Rap Group Ever of All Time Award Goes To…

jake paul and team ten

Bad rappers are not rare.  They are out there, spitting lame rhymes, repping awkward flows that go nowhere and say nothing.  A lot of times, the worst rappers are kids or teenagers, like good ol’ Raindrop if you remember him at all from YouTube.  Here he is in all his rap battle glory… 🙂

When it comes to rap groups, specifically as in a bunch of bad rappers banded together to suck ass, there’s a wide selection of those to choose from as well from over the years.  Now, have you ever wondered – who is the worst rap group ever of all time?  So did I, so I looked into it.

Of course, “worst” depends on your definition of what that means, but I’ll throw a few names out at you and see if they stick. 

Crazy Town 

For example, there’s pseudo rap group Crazy Town, that group from the late 1990’s that wrote the mostly-rapped song “Butterfly”. The song was picked up by alternative rock radio and featured some rather bland rap verses from Shifty Shellshock.  I don’t think it was picked up on hip hop stations though…

The problem is the “worst rap group ever” tag doesn’t really stick with these boys, because, for one thing, they’re not really a rap group.  They’re more of a nu metal / rock band.  Also, this song only half sucks.  The backing music ain’t half bad, which was written by Flea and John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  After hearing the sweet RHCP track “Pretty Little Ditty”, Crazy Town sampled the song, eg. airlifted it wholesale over into their song so they could rap over it.  This song was a surprise smash from the new band at the time.  I hope John and Flea got paid a little something for that band ruining their song’s integrity, assuming they gave permission to the band for using it.  As for the rapping itself in Butterfly, it’s pretty basic – nothing to write home about. That said, I can’t rightly call this band the worst rap group of all time, although I desperately want to.

Will Smith / Dru Hill / Kool Mo Dee

Next I want to nominate Will Smith, Dru Hill, Kool Mo Dee for the award of most terrible rap group of all time, with their over the top mega rap hit, Wild Wild West.  

Of course, everyone loves Will Smith.  He’s a beloved part of American pop culture known for his early years of Slick Rick-inspired narrative raps from the ’80’s where he raps about parents just not understanding, and Freddy Krueger.  Soon after, the world saw Will become the loveable Fresh Prince of Bel Air, with everyone’s favorite theme song.  Will Smith’s resume for being an affable dude goes on and on, as he starred in more big movies, and gave birth to Gettin’ Jiggy With It.

In 1999, the year Prince predicted as “over, oops, out of time” for our planet, the shit hit the fan and Will Smith finally jumped the shark, teaming up with Dru Hill and Kool Mo Dee to bring us Wild Wild West.  The song is essentially a piece of shit, but luckily it’s a light-hearted one, so I guess I’ve got to cut it some slack.  That said, the trio of Will Smith, Dru Hill, and Kool Mo Dee somehow combined to suck as much as possible for this track.  But, like a turd sailing through the air and into a lake, their time together was so brief, I must excuse them from being the recipient of the award for worst rap group of all time ever.  

Ok, who’s next?  Why, look, it’s…

The Bloodhound Gang

The Bloodhound Gang, were a “gang”, strictly speaking, but since a gang is a group, I want to suggest that they now be hoisted up above the rest as the shittiest rap group in the history of mankind.  In their why-is-this-song-popular mega hit, “The Bad Touch”, we hear lots of rapping, and so that, in effect, makes them a rap group.

While this song is technically a rap song, it’s more of a really bad pop song with monotone vocals spoken quickly that, for some reason, people seem to like.  I never really understood why people took to this track, but it definitely put The Bloodhound Gang in the spotlight where they (did not) belong.  

I will admit, I mostly wanted The Bloodhound Gang on this list because this song is so awful, but, truth be told, they are not a rap group, just a terrible pop / rock band.  So, they have no real place here – get them out of here right now!

Jake Paul and Team 10

I know what you must be thinking.  This is it.  Jake Paul and Team 10 are simply the worst thing ever, so we have now arrived at the worst rap group of all time.  After all, they’ve got what it takes to be the worst, don’t they?  That “Disney channel flow”, the are-you-kidding-me rap lyrics, the super-cringe levels of arrogance, the mystifying levels of popularity.  It’s all there.  

Clearly, no self-respecting person would actually listen to Jake Paul, but, I happen to know there’s a lot of people out there who lack self-respect, which might explain why this video has so many views.  Of course, it has a really healthy level of dislikes, which is another reason we are reaching for the crown to place it on all ten of their heads (with an extra big McDick’s crown for Jake).

<military style drumroll>

And The Worst Rap Group Ever of All Time Award Goes To…

You won’t believe this, but NEWSFLASH – this just in!  A rap group has been found that basically is worse than all of the above groups. So, move along child rappers, pre-teen rappers, joke bands, metal bands that include rapping, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, and Jake Paul. The award goes to…

Try Hardz

Try Hardz are a Canadian rap group consisting of two guys – J.K., Y.C., and their “owner”, Randiddleydoodley (a dog).

worst rap group ever of all time

The Try Hardz are definitely weird, and their raps are most heinous and dumb.  They claim to be from another solar system, like the group Gwar.  Perfect.  They also claim to worship the “Three Kings” – Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, and Alec Baldwin.  Whatever that’s supposed to mean!

Here is a video by the band for a song called “Gordo Surfaces Keppler 22-B Forever”.  Pretty weird, and not in a good way.

Try Hardz have a number of shitty “rap” albums that they have posted on a errant Bandcamp account, none of which we would recommend you listen to (but if you want to torture yourself, here’s the link).  

If you want more evidence that this is the worst rap group of all time, here’s a song we dug up from YouTube called “Series: Safe by the … Beach”, featuring general whackness.  

We hope you enjoyed our walk down memory lane.  Hip hop music can be so awesome, but only when the artists have real talent.  Luckily, there are so many of those out there, there’s no reason to ever have to listen to the stuff we have listed here above.  Whether you do or do not agree with our ultimate decision, we would love to hear from you, so please leave us a comment down below. 

How To Wield The Mini Moog Voyager Like J Dilla

j-dilla
 

There are many great Hip-Hop producers who stand out from the crowd in the genre’s relatively short history, but the man known as “your favourite producer’s favourite producer” is the late J Dilla.

j-dilla

Unknown to many modern Hip-Hop listeners, Dilla revolutionized the music’s direction with his Mini Moog Voyager and samples to create gritty, off-beat hi-hats and bass sounds, jazz-infused samples and soulful synth backing. Dilla inspired countless artists to progress with his direction of Hip-Hop, and among those that know he is revered to this day.

Known for using various MPC samplers, with a range of synths, drum machines and acoustic instruments in his setup, Dilla became synonymous as much with the soulful Hip-Hop movement as the gritty rap underground and club scenes.

He was a driving force behind the Soulquarians group, who worked together to produce some of the most acclaimed soulful Hip-Hop projects of all time. He was a deep inspiration for artists like The Roots, 9th Wonder and Hi-Tek, and he worked closely with legendary artists like MadLib, Slum Village, The Pharcyde and even Busta Rhymes. The scope of Dilla’s influence in Hip-Hop is enormous.

The J Dilla Moog Programming

Dilla frequently programmed the Moog Synth in a special way to get his iconic bass sounds. It is generally known that he would use square and triangle wave oscillators; a typical starting point for his bass would be as follows:

  • OSC 1 – triangle at 32”
  • OSC 2 – square at 16”
  • OSC 3 – square at 16”

He would usually detune OSC 2 & 3 very slightly to get that signature off-key sound and get a little extra resonance. The other setting would be as follows:

  • FILTER cutoff approx. 95%
  • Emphasis (resonance) 0-10%
  • Attack: 0
  • Decay: 60%
  • Sustain: 35-40%
  • LOUDNESS attack: 0-10%
  • Decay: 60%
  • Sustain: 60%

(NOTE these percentages are based on where the dial is positioned, from left to right)

There is simplicity to the way Dilla programmed his Moog synths; there wasn’t a whole lot of science in terms of programming, he just knew what worked for him and applied his unique style of rhythm and melody to every track.

The Dilla Setup

It is generally accepted that Dilla’s keyboard of choice was the Mini Moog Voyager, as well as a MicroKORG that would sometimes come into play.

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In addition to using this gear for producing basslines, Dilla also used to compose chord patterns and melodies based around jazz chords like the minor 9. Incidentally, backing vocals on the more soulful of his songs would be based around those same chords, giving us that soulful gospel sound that was so prominent.

In the last year, Dilla’s own MPC 3000 and his Mini Moog Voyager have been donated to the Smithsonian as part of its Museum Of African American History.

Here’s a video showing how to make a beat on one of these bad boys.

This Moog was custom-built for him, by no less than the great Robert Moog himself; in fact, it was one of the last Moog synths that Robert Moog built for anyone!

The preceding video gives a stunning tour of J Dilla’s personal studio. The man himself is accompanied by his regular collaborators Frank-N-Dank, along with famous rapper-actor Common.

As the camera peers around the studio, we can see the aforementioned MPC 3000, MicroKORG and Mini Moog Voyager. We also get a glimpse of some Technic Turntables, ProControl, ProTools TDM software and a Motif-Rack ES. There is also a drum booth and vocal booth, completing a unique and professional setup where many of Dilla’s classics were spawned.

J Dilla was a groundbreaking, enterprising music producer who progressed Hip-Hop into the new millennium. He is arguably the most influential producer whose name never truly breached the mainstream, while his sound became something that permeated the Hip-Hop and RnB circuits to become industry standards that permanently changed the course of those genres. You could do a lot worse than drawing on his techniques as inspiration for your own music.  We’ll leave you with this..