Part of the pioneers of the 90’s UK trip hop movement, alongside Portishead and Massive Attack, the Herbaliser return with a retrospective compilation titled "Herbal Tonic", highlighting some of their best work spanning the past two decades. Emerging in 1995, Jake Wherry and Ollie Teeba, both hip hop enthusiasts, made a name by blending elements of jazz, funk, and 60’s film soundtracks over hip hop beats. The resulting sound became synonymous with the label supporting them, Ninja Tune, while spawning countless offshoots and inspiring even more.
Starting off with an 80’s instrumental throwback called “Gadget Funk,” heavy with the classic synth sound and robotic vocal snippets from that era, the spy-sounding motif that helped define the Herbaliser makes its first appearance. The upbeat track almost sounds like it could be the opening sequence to a cop show, complete with horn build-ups and explosive phrasing.
Jean Grae, who worked with the Herbaliser on all five of their records, is featured on three tracks, the most memorable one being “Nah’ Mean Nah’m Sayin’.” It’s a funky jam with horns hollering back and forth over a simple but driving drumbeat. Grae’s flow isn’t anything too groundbreaking, but it fits well with the vibe of the song, complimenting the shuffling melody. She drops some really nice lines, such as: “Jean catches felonies on the melodies, hella killer/Do sh*t with my eyes closed, like Helen Keller.”
The most compelling track on Herbal Tonic is “A Song for Mary,” a well-composed track that starts off rather rigid and slow and mellow, but kicks into more funk at about two minutes in. The beat changes slightly as a few more layers are introduced, like vibraphone runs, scratches, and periodic light guitar strumming. Halfway in, the song crescendos into a brief exciting climax before slowly deconstructing itself as it nears the end of the track.
Another song that deserves attention is the previously unreleased “March of the Dead Things,” an odd mix of somewhat haunting Theremin tones and periodic vocal chants. The minor key melodies are juxtaposed well with an upbeat feel, intensifying the mysterious spy theme of Herbal Tonic.
Even though Jean Grae is the most frequent guest contributor, the Herbaliser hosts tracks with Roots Manuva, Seeming To, and a young sounding MF Doom. The appearance of Doom on “It Ain’t Nuttin’” can’t be missed, dropping his characteristically hilarious lines and twisting words within lines to rhyme. This is evident immediately in the first verse: “Gimme the Timbs Rumple Stiltskin brown/A metal face mask with a built in frown/A mic to tilt down, a hundred thousand pounds/And see how kilt sound like spilt milk clown.” The third verse gets even better: “The black mic is like a red violin/Ok, everybody back to the lab, try again/Bloody rap game like Leviathan/Leave a bad taste, killin’ my high like Niacin/Stop kiddin’ middlemen need Ritalin/Hit me with the full tin of gin and I’m a kid again.”
The musicianship of Wherry and Teeba is clearly strong, demonstrated by their skillful sequencing and layering of diverse elements, combined with a mysterious soundscape that could (sometimes should) be a backdrop for a spy flick. Fans of jazz, hip hop, or funk will all easily find something to latch on to with Herbal Tonic. Even though its complexity may be lost on some, this record is very accessible and possesses mass appeal. It’s a perfect introduction to a group that helped define a genre, and an essential album for serious music heads to have in their collection.
Written by Andy Giesen