Cover photo by Dave Tonge
A retrospective mix by Dj Mr. Thing
UK musicians have a reputation for innovation. From the rock and pop bands of the 1960s to the producers of drum n’ bass, dubstep and grime, British music makers have a long history of taking largely black, American music and not just reproducing it, but radically changing it to fit their own experience. After more than a quarter of a century making music and touring the world, much loved UK band The Herbaliser are a longstanding part of this tradition.
Formed in London during the early 1990s, the band’s core members Jake Wherry and Ollie Teeba were inspired by soul, funk and in particular the then current hip hop emerging from America. Unfortunately, at that time, they didn’t know any rappers. They made up for this missing element by adopting an extra ingredient to fill the absence; a widescreen cinematic feel born of vivid imagination.
The spy thrillers, westerns and detective shows of the duo’s 1970s youth would be plundered for inspiration and translated to vinyl by what would soon become their trademark, an explosive and extensive live band. But this template was set long before the convening of that large ensemble.
The Herbaliser were signed to Ninja Tune in the mid 90s, releasing their first EPs and the album ‘Remedies’, which collated them, in 1995. Ninja Tune, alongside compatriot label Mo Wax, would soon come to define a new British musical response to the American hip hop of the day. With an extremely keen eye on the visual design aspects of their releases, these labels explored an often chilled and downbeat style of instrumental hip hop (dubbed trip hop, by some) which proved to be of widespread appeal. With their distinct sounds and visual identities the labels quickly garnered huge audiences worldwide and as one of Ninja Tune’s leading lights
The Herbaliser would soon become one of the movement’s most visible artists.
By the time they came to record their second album, ‘Blow Your Headphones’ (1997), The Herbaliser had decided to approach things differently. Rather than a collection of disparate studio recordings, this would be an album proper and the group would be supplemented by extraordinary musicians, founding the basis for what would soon become their famous live band. And for the first time they enlisted the services of a long desired hip hop MC.
What What (latterly known as Jean Grae) would go on to appear on several albums by The Herbaliser and with their success extending with each album release, the band would extend the microphone to further guest vocalists such as Blade, Bahamadia, Roots Manuva, Seaming To, MF Doom and Phi-Life Cypher. Some of these would prove to be only studio based collaborations, but with others they were added to a live band format of The Herbaliser which made an instant impact on the club and festival circuit.
“Our first gig as The Herbaliser was at a pub in Brixton (the place just went bananas) and our third was at the Phoenix festival,” remembers Jake Wherry.
“It was June 1996,” says Ollie Teeba of their debut. “The next year we were doing the Jazz stage at Glastonbury. It sped along quite quickly as people’s awareness of Ninja Tune gained momentum and we gained a good reputation.”
The Herbaliser attained their status as festival favourites quite quickly, with the weighty, hip hop drums which were such a highlight of their recordings added to by a live drummer, keys, guitar, bass and a punchy horn section that would become known as the Easy Access Orchestra. With each subsequent album release ‘Very Mercenary’ (1999), ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ (2002), ‘Take London’ (2005), ‘Same As It Never Was’ (2008), ‘There Were Seven’ (2012) and ‘Bring Out The Sound’ (2018), the formulation of The Herbaliser sound would be one which relied less and less on samples and instead more on the musicians they surrounded themselves with. They eventually reached a stage where samples were eradicated from their recordings, although Teeba and Wherry’s could still be found manipulating their musicians in a way that was often indistinguishable from their earlier, sample based explorations.
In between recording five albums for Ninja Tune, one for K7, one for their own label and touring the globe (including repeat journeys to the USA and Canada, mainland Europe, Israel and Australia), The Herbaliser also managed to record a live album, a library music album project and several mix compilations. Of the latter, their efforts for Ninja Tune and Fabriclive’s series were singled out for high praise. Not bad for a hip hop group who couldn’t find a rapper!
British musical innovation is something that, in many cases, just seems to occur naturally. For The Herbaliser though, it happened partially out of necessity. The UK’s hip hop scene was hardly developed at the time they began, aside from a handful of trailblazers like London Posse. With the release of their 2018 album ‘Bring Out The Sound’ (their first for BBE Records), The Herbaliser finally link with UK hip hops roots in a way in which they weren’t able when starting out. Thanks to their reputation and renown, they have been able to call upon their sometime stage collaborator Rodney P (originally from London Posse) to feature, for the first time, as their guest studio vocalist.
With six years having passed since their last LP it seems time between albums is increasing for The Herbaliser, although any delay cannot solely be attributed to their existence within music. The trials and tribulations of wider life aside, The Herbaliser return again, as indefatigable as ever, with their unique, cinematic take on hip hop and their ever popular live spectaculars. It’s been a while in coming, but it’s once again time to Bring Out The Sound.