by Jay Sandwich
Right in the middle of the 20th century, the music started to change. And as the technology progressed, it seemed that, somehow, the music just followed.
And along with it also came the culture, fusing into one and delivering a whole experience. The period from the 1970’s to the end of the 1990’s was crucial, as so many different genres appeared.
What was previously thought impossible, or that was just unimaginable – it all suddenly came to life during this period.
The one particular musical style that we’re interested in here is downtempo. This is actually a subgenre of electronic music, and it emerged sometime in the late 1980’s and the early 1990s’.
Of course, the exact lines are kind of blurry, but we’ll take some time to explain a few things about this style and find out more about some of the most important artists. So let’s get into it.
So what is exactly downtempo music? Downtempo is a killer subgenre of electronic music, with little to no vocals and simple beats. It’s pretty laid back, just like ambient music, but it also has a beat you can groove to, unlike conventional ambient music.
Okay, look – that is kind of a 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.
We can kind of refer to it as ambient music with its own flavor, or a mix of ambient and EDM or trance. Some would maybe think of it as trip hop, but it’s still a bit of a different genre. We’ll get to that soon.
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’ll also often hear downtempo in lounges. It’s great for a casual hangout with friends or any time you need to relax.
So where does the genre come from? To explain it, we’ll need to go way back to the old days. 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 that 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 as we know it today really came into huge popularity in the early 1990s. The club scene brought in all kinds of new genres after the electronica ruled the sound systems everywhere because it didn’t require a live band and provided dancing crowds with non-stop movement to inspire their dancing.
It was 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 also notice somewhat of a hypnotizing element to downtempo, the same way electronica brings you in and holds you.
If we go digging a little deeper, we can see that the genre originated on Ibiza, which is a Mediterranean island that’s 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. And downtempo music blends perfectly with the laid-back Mediterranean lifestyle and the beautiful scenery.
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 ’till 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.
Like we mentioned above, and downtempo is sometimes referred to as trip hop, taking elements from hip hop, drum and bass, and ambient music.
These are then combined together and played over a slower tempo. These days the music also incorporates more melodic instrumentals. However, no matter all the comparisons between downtempo and trip hop, these are still two distinct genres.
They take elements from one another, but they are still not the same thing. But quite often, you’ll see the genres interlapping, with many artists covering both in their body of work. This is, for instance, the case with Portishead. But we’ll explain it all below.
The genre has been around for about three decades now. Of course, it also saw its evolution over the years, especially during the 2000s and 2010s.
Some have even referred to it as “downtempo pop,” which is somewhat of an umbrella term for laidback music with slow tempos, mellow beats, and vintage-oriented synths.
Yes, the exact genre definitions are kind of loose, which is not uncommon for many different music styles. But the true lovers of downtempo know what we’re talking about and have more “feel” over the more precise definition of the genre.
Now that we are familiar with the genre, let’s have a listen, shall we?
After some lurking and weighing, we dug up some of the best downtempo artists out there. Some were around for the advent of the genre and helped shape it, and some others showed up along the way and furthered the genre’s popularity by keeping it alive.
Of course, the genre has so many different great artists, but we can’t really have them all in one brief guide. The choice was not easy, but here’s the list that we came up with.
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 younger artist, 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.
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 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 ambiance 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.
There is no exact definition of their musical styles though, and you’ll find many different descriptions of their work. For instance, Rolling Stone magazine 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. They’re considered to be one of the originators of trip hop music, but they’ve also pioneered downtempo at the same time.
However you define them, it’s pretty clear that their creative style was revolutionary. And even to this day, they still remain one of the most important artists of these genres, despite not being as active as they were back in the 1990s.
Now going over to something more contemporary, we have Emancipator. Based in Portland, Oregon, he goes by the name of Douglas Appling.
He officially started his work back in 2006, releasing his debut album “Soon It Will Be Cold Enough” when he was only 19 years old. As of 2020, he has released 6 albums, 2 EPs, and 2 remix albums.
Making music for the sheer love of it, Emancipator also started his own label and has even formed his band Emancipator Ensemble that plays live with him.
Overall, Emancipator’s music is different compared to many of the artists we mentioned here. The further you go in his discography, you stumble upon a lot of different elements.
It’s a pretty thin line between trip hop and downtempo. Nonetheless, Emancipator is one at the frontier of this genre, pushing it into new territories.
Released in 2020, the “Mountain Of Memory” album is a great example of how he respects the old style while also adding in new elements to it. It’s really interesting how he also blends some elements of world music in there.
Coming from San Francisco, California, Scott Hansen started his music career back in the early 2000s. The first album under his name Tycho came out in 2006, and was titled “Past Is Prologue.”
The most exciting part is that he’s such a versatile musician, and he relies on a lot of “conventional” old school analog approaches. At the same time, he’s also a guitar player, which is the instrument that he adds to his music.
In addition, you’ll also find a lot of ambient sounds in his music, including random dialogues and even sounds of weather.
After releasing his debut, he became known among the lovers of both electronic and post-rock music. Many have also compared him with artists like DJ Shadow and Boards of Canada.
He first started performing all on his own, combining both analog and digital instruments and gears during live shows.
When things got more complex, he hired his own band. Now, he has 6 studio albums in total, with “Simulcast” coming out in 2020.
Of course, it’s impossible to avoid mentioning Boards of Canada on this list. This duo, consisting of brother Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison, has been active since 1986.
Although starting very young, it took them a while to actually release their official music. In 1995, they launched their debut EP “Twoism.” Between then and now, they have released a total of 6 EPs and 4 full-length studio albums.
Although regarded as part of the downtempo and electronic music movements, Boards of Canada added their own unique elements to their work.
Somewhat mournful and melancholic, their songs offer a different perspective on the genre. You’ll also hear a lot of psychedelic elements, ambient music, and even a genre referred to IDM, or “intelligent dance music.”
To explain it simply, their music instantly induces nostalgia, as if there’s some magic surrounding it. If you feel like going into downtempo, Boards of Canada are a good choice.
Alright, that’s all for now guys! If you think we missed anyone or have any comments, leave them below. Until next time!
About Jay Sandwich
Jay is an ex-shred guitar player and current modular synth noodler from a small town somewhere. Quote: “I’m a salty old sandwich with a perspective as fresh as bread.” No bull.