Listen to this: A trip-hop classic - Red Snapper - The Sleepless (1998)
A little unusual this one (though I’ve got another upcoming article in this series where the same guy does at least THREE studio recordings of the same song - I've been aware of two them for a long time, so discovering another one has thrown me for a loop and it's taking me a while to work out what I think of it; they're all pretty different).
The 90’s were an incredible time for hip-hop, breaks, drum and bass, electronica (a word invented by the American market as a catch-all for what was actually a whole bunch of weird new sub-genres coming out of the UK at the same time) but we'll use it as shorthand here no matter how distasteful I find it (The Prodigy and The Cinemamatic Orchestra the same genre - yeah, ok).
Anyway, what an incredible time for music. The above two bands; everything that came out of Warp Records was solid gold (Autechre, Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin) and had the market in unique electronic music pretty much sown up. Developing more old - school sounds and taking those genres completely new directions was Ninja Tune, home of The Herbaliser, Coldcut, DJ Vadim, Krush, Amon Tobin, Roots Manuva, Scruff. That's just a few names from two labels - to cover everything properly I'd have to write a book, and to take in the drum and bass scene of the time would make that book several times bigger than the bible (or Quran; choose your own very large religious tome).
Because I want you to be blown away by this tune I've put the later, to my mind, superior version here first. The original is below for comparison purposes.
With their primary sound deriving from trip-hop, jazz and breaks (described by some as belonging to the “acid jazz” movement) and live musicians playing traditional instruments Ninja Tune seems like it would have been a more natural home for Red Snapper, but they ended up at Warp where they were something of an oddity.
Now, previous to being signed to Warp, Red Snapper had put out a number of EP’s - one of which included the original instrumental version The Sleepless. These were then collected together by Warp and released as the compilation Reeled and Skinned (1995).
The later album Making Bones (1999) and the single which had come out the previous year contained a reworking of this track, this time with vocalist MC Det rapping his own lyrics over the top of the, otherwise, largely unchanged musical track.
It took a great tune and sent it into the stratosphere - the idea that this track could exist without the lyrics now laughable. It's menacing, yet funky, mesmeric and beautiful; unique. If you've not heard this tune before then I can confidently say you've never heard anything quite like it. The drums snapping along with that unstoppable, threatening, bass; punctuated by that tuneful trumpet that seems out of place and just serves to make the whole thing feel even more sinister.
Quite what influence it had on other artists in the few years after its release is hard to say - though I do wonder what the likes of Roots Manuva’s later album Run, Come Save Me would have sounded without it . His single Witness (a superb song in its own right), for instance, shares the same kind of vibe. Not that I'm suggesting it's his attempt to do something similar - but The Sleepless couldn't have helped but have some sort of effect on anyone who's heard it - audience or fellow musicians; it's that much of a powerful track; I'm just saying that if you're queuing up a late-night playlist you might want to place those two tunes together.
Not that the original doesn't have its own place - it's more downtempo, there are situations where the slightly funkier and less threatening version might be much more preferable.
It hasn't aged a bit and it won't. People will be discovering this tune and listening to it over and over again for years, trying to work out why and how it's such a powerful piece of music. They'll never quite figure it out - the sum of the parts become something indefinable and greater than the pieces that form it.
All rights Warp Records / Red Snapper