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What Is Downtempo?
Downtempo is a broad genre of electronic music characterized by an atmospheric sound and a slow-paced beat. The genre has birthed many subgenres, including trip-hop (downtempo based heavily in Bristol-area sound), lo-fi (music that emphasizes recording-based imperfections), and chillhop (relaxing hip hop).
Downtempo music is often enjoyed on its own (often in relaxation clubs) or used as a warm-up or cool-down in a DJ set to ease listeners into or out of a dance music environment. This genre is closely related to ambient music or atmospheric music that deemphasizes beat.
A Brief History of Downtempo Music
Downtempo music is a relatively new phenomenon, dating back to the 1980s:
- Beginnings: In the late 1980s, Bristol-based artists Massive Attack, Tricky, and Portishead began experimenting with a fusion of hip hop and electronica (or electro music) that emphasized slowed-down beats and a psychedelic sound. The movement, later coined “trip-hop,” is often considered the first emergence of downtempo music.
- Hitting the mainstream: By the 1990s, ambient beat-driven music had spread from Bristol and was popularly consumed under the umbrella term “downtempo music,” especially in the UK, Austria, Ibiza, and the United States. Famous artists included the Austrian duo Kruder & Dorfmeister, Fila Brazillia (made up of Britons Steve Cobby and Dave McSherry), and Thievery Corporation (made up of Americans Eric Hilton and Rob Garza).
- Evolution: Downtempo music is now a wide genre encompassing several different atmospheric genres, including chillwave, lo-fi (especially lo-fi hip hop), glo-fi, chillout music, indie, downtempo electronic, psybient, psychill, deep house music, hypnagogic pop, and chillhop. Many artists will create downtempo remixes of popular songs or craft entire playlists that can be played in the background to set the mood.
3 Characteristics of Downtempo Music
Downtempo music is an umbrella term for many different subgenres—here are some of the unifying characteristics:
- Emphasis on atmosphere: While genres like pop or rock may emphasize catchy melodies or guitar riffs, downtempo music is focused primarily on atmosphere—using different layered sounds to create a particular mood or tone that is chill and slow-paced.
- Slow beat: “Downtempo” literally means “slow beat,” in music terminology, so all of the songs in the genre will incorporate a slow-paced beat (usually around 90 beats per minute, or BPM) rather than a fast, dance-oriented one. However, the presence of a beat is still important for downtempo songs—songs with little to no beat are usually classified as “ambient” rather than downtempo.
- Gentle melody: Downtempo music usually incorporates more melody into their songs than other ambient genres, making it slightly more recognizable and memorable than purely ambient music.
5 Popular Downtempo Musical Acts
Here are some popular downtempo artists throughout the years:
- Boards of Canada: Scottish downtempo band Boards of Canada, made up of musician duo Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin, employs vintage synthesizers and samples from old media (like 1970s public broadcasting) to create an analog sense of nostalgia in their work.
- Bonobo: Bonobo is a British musician who has explored many sounds, including trip-hop, jazz, and world music. In 2017, the acclaimed musician released Migration, his sixth album, which received multiple Grammy nominations. Bonobo composed the album while living in various locations around the world, which inspired the title.
- Nicolas Jaar: Chilean-American musician Nicolas Jaar is known for experimentation, developing many disparate works like film scores and improvisational concerts alongside his studio albums.
- Thievery Corporation: American group Thievery Corporation combines several sounds—from reggae to acid jazz—in their eclectic downtempo sound.
- Tycho: American musician and producer Tycho is known for incorporating ambient sounds into his downtempo music, including weather broadcasts, film dialogue, and breathing.
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